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The girl from Toa Payoh who conquered Chinese tech

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 - 05:50

BT_20161123_XIAOMI_8_2608380.jpg
One of Ms Lee's (above) most notable triumphs was when she led GGV's investment in Xiaomi, which counts Temasek Holdings as its investors and is now worth more than US$45 billion today.

BT_20161123_XIAOMI_8_2608380.jpg
One of Ms Lee's most notable triumphs was when she led GGV's investment in Xiaomi, which counts Temasek Holdings as its investors and is now worth more than US$45 billion today.

IT was late 2001. The world was in a panic over the terror bombings on Sept 11 and the dot.com bubble had just burst.

It was at this point that Jenny Lee walked into her boss's room at ST Technologies Aerospace to tender her resignation and break her 11-year bond after working in the company for five years. "I didn't actually break it. I asked to re-negotiate it so that I could pay a smaller sum to leave the company. He fell off his chair," the 44 year-old says, with a glint in her eye.

It was the first time anyone had gone to him to ask for a smaller penalty to leave while still under bond, she tells The Business Times.

But Ms Lee was determined to go despite knowing that she was a rising star in the company, who had sent her to do her MBA at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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Ms Lee, who had been fixing and upgrading fighter jets in her five year stint at the company, wanted to be more than just a top executive in one of the biggest engineering firms in the region. The Hwa Chong girl from Toa Payoh wanted to see the world.

Never mind that the world was crashing around her and that she had to borrow from her parents, husband and friends to pay off the S$300,000 penalty for breaking her bond.

"I figured that with the world in the state, the only way was up," says Ms Lee, who wanted to be a venture capitalist after listening to one give a presentation during her MBA course.

China was about the only place during the time which was still growing strongly. The only problem? She had not used the Chinese language for over a decade since she was 16.

"When you owe that much money, it is a huge motivation. Survival is a huge motivation. So you just have to learn the language and use it, every day until you get good at it," she says.

After getting a job at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, she joined Jafco Asia, where she learnt to invest in young tech start-ups in China, Taiwan and South Korea. In 2005, venture capitalist firm GGV Capital offered her an opportunity to start operations in China. She grabbed the opportunity and has not looked back since.

Over the past decade or so, she has led several investments in Chinese tech start-ups, bringing them to big money listings on stock markets in the US, China and Hong Kong.

In 2004, she invested in software development outsource service Hisoft, which went public in 2012; and in 2010 she backed social platform YY, which also went public in 2012.

One of her most notable triumphs was when she led GGV's investment in Xiaomi, the Chinese mobile phone maker aiming to challenge Apple and Samsung. Xiaomi, which counts Temasek Holdings as its investors, is now worth more than US$45 billion today.

She is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable investors in the Chinese tech scene and was ranked 100th in Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful woman list earlier this year. Ms Lee was also the top woman in Forbes Global 100 VC Midas list of venture capitalists last year.

And the latest feather in her cap is the Young Achiever in the Business China Awards. She believes her secret to becoming a successful venture capitalist is being able to bring a bit of everything to the table. As an engineer, she understands the technical side of things when start-up CEOs speak to her about systems architecture. As a former banker, she knows what it takes to prepare a company for an initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market.

And when asked if she thought being a woman was a disadvantage in the male dominated venture capitalist industry, she says that she sees it as an advantage instead. For instance, when chief executives need someone to tell their wives why they are working so hard, she's there to lend a hand.

"Basically whatever men can do, I can do. Whatever they can't, I can," she says.

Looking out to the horizon, Ms Lee believes that the next wave of innovation will not be in software but in hardware, or businesses that actually disrupt the real world.

Think of the telephone, or more recently, the electric car.

And China will be the epicentre of the next wave, with the Chinese government looking to automate large chunks of their economy with robots, after realising that there is no more demographic dividend, says Ms Lee.

"In China, for every 10,000 workers, there are 26 robots. In South Korea and Germany, the number is 300 robots for every 10,000 workers," she says.

"That's how much China can grow the space. More than 10 times."

She has backed this belief up by recently investing in Chinese smart notebook start-up Xiaoniu and EHang, a drone maker that specialises in flight control software.

Singapore too can play a big role in this next wave by being the global testbed for all kinds of technologies. It has the infrastructure to bring these companies and talent here, which will in turn generate jobs for locals, she said. And even though Ms Lee is largely based in China, she still returns to Singapore regularly to visit her parents and friends.

What about her favourite food when she is back home?

"Hokkien mee, I can't not have it." she says with a big grin.

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