Cutting Edge forum

Curiosity a key asset, says venture capitalist

GGV Capital managing partner Jenny Lee sharing her experiences from the start-up world yesterday with moderator Vikram Khanna, ST associate editor, and the audience at a public interactive forum series called Cutting Edge, which showcases prominent t
GGV Capital managing partner Jenny Lee sharing her experiences from the start-up world yesterday with moderator Vikram Khanna, ST associate editor, and the audience at a public interactive forum series called Cutting Edge, which showcases prominent thought leaders from around the world.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Readiness to explore ideas, suspend disbelief and show empathy has served Jenny Lee well

Curiosity is the top trait that a venture investor must possess, said Ms Jenny Lee, managing partner at China-based GGV Capital, a global venture capital firm.

"Why can't The Jetsons be a reality?" she said, referring to the animation series set in the future where unmanned aerial vehicles are a part of life.

Today, GGV Capital is an angel investor in Ehang 184, whose flying taxis in China have transported more than 1,000 people in tests so far, she said.

Ms Lee, who was ranked 87th on the Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women list last year, was speaking yesterday at the second instalment of a four-part public interactive forum called Cutting Edge.

The forum, which showcases prominent thought leaders from around the world, was held at the Sofitel Singapore City Centre's Wallich ballroom and attended by more than 300 people.

"Suspend disbelief," said Ms Lee, when asked by moderator Vikram Khanna, associate editor at The Straits Times, about investing in companies whose ideas seem "totally crazy" at first.

She gave an example of Chinese social media company YY Inc, which her company has invested in.

In YY's virtual economy, users pay real money to buy virtual flowers for others to show their appreciation, and spend thousands of yuan on a virtual BMW car, for example.

"Most laymen don't understand this economy; who would pay (this amount online)? But in China, there is a huge, huge, huge market for gamers," said Ms Lee, 47, who added that no time or effort was spared to understand the market.

"We sat beside the CEO to watch him play the game, did due diligence calls at 2am, and visited Internet cafes to interview gamers," she said.

GGV Capital focuses on seed-to-growth investments across sectors ranging from consumer and digital to enterprise and frontier tech.

The firm manages US$6.2 billion (S$8.4 billion) in capital across 13 funds and has backed 52 "unicorns" - start-ups that have passed US$1 billion in valuation.

One of the best forms of advice Ms Lee said she received was from her professor at Cornell University, where she studied electrical engineering. "He said: 'If you want to be a good venture capitalist, you have to make yourself a partner to the entrepreneur." This means having empathy, she added, and one has to be in "the battle" to understand.

As a result, Ms Lee makes it a point to dig deep behind the scenes, and said she often takes business leaders by surprise when she asks them to draw out their entire back-end process.

However, she is herself no stranger to complicated processes.

After graduating, she spent five years in hangars working on fighter jets as an ST Aerospace employee.

"It was the best experience to see how products are tested, built and flown," said the Singaporean.

As a woman investor, and the only female managing partner at GGV Capital, she feels natural empathy gives her an edge.

She said: "Whether it requires me to be a psychologist, recruiter or cheerleader, I am there. We view ourselves as partners to entrepreneurs and want the business to be successful out of personal interest too."

Ms Lee's knack for spotting champions has earned her many accolades. The Forbes Global 100 VC Midas list ranked her the top woman in 2015 and 10th overall.

In 2016, The New York Times and CB Insights placed her among the top 100 venture capital investors worldwide.

Sponsored by real estate developer GuocoLand and organised by ST and The Business Times, the forum is held quarterly and videocast to a global audience.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Curiosity a key asset, says venture capitalist'. Print Edition | Subscribe