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Venture capital maven found success in unusual path to China

Singapore

THE tech scene in China is awash with capital-hungry startups. But even in the world's most populous country, Jenny Lee, managing partner of GGV Capital, has an uncanny knack for spotting the next big disruptor.

Ms Lee, for instance, was an angel investor in Xiaomi in 2010, back when the smartphone maker was still in prototype stage. Xiaomi has since enjoyed phenomenal success, rising to become one of the world's top smartphone manufacturers and going public in Hong Kong.

Ms Lee similarly saw potential in the early days of Chinese social media startup YY Inc in 2009. The company later listed in 2012, and five years after that, GGV exited its investment at a whopping 15 times return.

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Ms Lee, a Singaporean who joined GGV in 2005, was in fact crucial to setting up the VC firm's operations in Shanghai, China. With her contributions, GGV is now lauded for its foresight on China's internet explosion.

GGV manages some US$6.2 billion in capital across its 13 funds. It focuses on US and China tech companies, with seed to growth investments in areas including new retail, enterprise and frontier tech. GGV has backed 52 unicorns, which are startups exceeding US$1 billion in valuation.

Speaking at the Cutting Edge forum on Monday, Ms Lee credits her success to her atypical route into the venture capital world.

With an ST Engineering scholarship, Ms Lee studied engineering at Cornell University, but also gained exposure to the business world. "I first learned about venture capital when I was 21, and that was when I opened up to the world of entrepreneurship," she recalled.

However, she also kept in mind some wise words from a professor: "If you want to be a good VC, you have to make yourself a partner to the entrepreneur … If you've never been in the battle, you'll never know what empathy is. If you've never seen how businesses are built, you won't understand. So go find any startup or big organisation and stick it out, stay, not just float around."

With her scholarship, Ms Lee easily abided this advice and spent five years as an engineer at ST Aerospace, constantly "out in the hangars" upgrading aircraft like fighter jets. "It was the best experience I've ever had as an investor. I got to see how products are designed, built, tested and flown."

Realising that she had technical expertise but lacked marketing know-how, Ms Lee then embarked on an MBA programme at The Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University in Illinois, the US.

After she graduated, the global economy was in chaos in 2001. But with her "high risk appetite", Ms Lee was drawn to the burgeoning business opportunities in China. "Without even having been to China before, I decided, I'm going to break my bond (with ST Engineering)," she said.

Pursuing her passion, Ms Lee then moved to Hong Kong to work at Morgan Stanley, and later ventured on to the VC world, starting off with JAFCO Asia and then at GGV. The rest is history, as she built a name for herself as among the industry's best.

Ms Lee's standing as a self-made woman has attracted plenty of accolades. She has appeared in the Forbes Global 100 VC Midas list, clinching the top spot among females and ranking 10th overall in 2015.

In 2016, Ms Lee was ranked 17th among the top 100 VC investors globally by The New York Times and CB Insights, being one of only two selected from mainland China. That year, Ms Lee also clinched the Business China Young Achiever Award for representing Singapore on the global VC stage.

The awards continue to roll in. Last year, she ranked 87th in Forbes' world's 100 most powerful women list.

Beyond her achievements, Ms Lee has also contributed back to the Singapore community of entrepreneurs by sharing her knowledge at various industry events. She is well-respected by and often quoted in both Singapore and Chinese media.

Not complacent with her success, Ms Lee continues to make bold bets. Her recent investments are in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and even flying cars.

Reflecting on her journey thus far, she concluded that the "best investment decision" she has ever made is not one of her startup bets, but in her own decision to venture out to China.

"I went to China alone, I had no relatives or friends in China. Back then, my Chinese was pretty bad ... But just that ability to see through the challenge step-by-step and break each barrier, I think having that persistence and resilience was also key ... It's a journey that I really love."

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