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Conversation with Elise Tan – Asia Startup Network

About Elise Tan: A Beacon of Innovation in the Startup Ecosystem

Elise Tan is one of the pioneers in building the Southeast Asia startup ecosystem. Currently at the helm of community and communications for Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, Elise crafts thought leadership strategy and events aimed at decentralizing VC knowledge, making it accessible to entrepreneurs across Southeast Asia. Elise’s initiative, the ‘Hard Truths by Vertex’ podcast, has emerged as a top 10 Apple podcast resource for entrepreneurship in Singapore, providing invaluable insights to the startup community.

Elise’s venture journey began in 2011 when she helped launch the Singapore chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (SLP), a global non-profit accelerator program. The program ‘co-leads’ successfully garnered support from VCs and seasoned entrepreneurs. SLP Fellows have launched over 2,000 successful startups, including ixigo, Innoz, Runkeeper, SideTour, Shareaholic, Ubersense, Savored, Sharechat, and many others, which have collectively raised more than $4.6 billion in funding, with many subsequently being acquired. The inaugural Singapore-based accelerator program welcomed 25 fellows, each contributing S$600. Following this, Elise joined NUS Enterprise as an investment manager, where she played a crucial role in securing the initial funding round for Shopback. She also orchestrated the first hackathon with SMRT at NUS and engaged in portfolio management, supporting several companies on their startup journey with business advisory and fundraising.

Her pursuit of an MBA at INSEAD marked a pivotal point in her career. As president of the INSEAD Entrepreneurship Club, Elise pioneered the startup summer internship program, a move that not only enriched the educational experience but also strengthened the bridge between academia and the entrepreneurial world. Her internship with True Global Ventures in Silicon Valley further expanded her network and deepened her understanding of global venture capital dynamics.

After INSEAD, Elise founded the fundraising team at Entrepreneur First, where she designed accelerator content and provided guidance to train entrepreneurs to raise their first institutional round. Her efforts helped secure an average seed round of $1.4 million for over 40 startups within 6 to 9 months from Demo Day. Her subsequent role as Vice President for fundraising at Longhash Ventures underscored her pivotal role in the blockchain startup space, as she established connections with the World’s top blockchain VCs such as a16z, Pantera and more.

A notable advocate for youth entrepreneurship, Elise serves as an advisor to NUS Angels Ventures, Southeast Asia’s first student-run angel investment network. Her dedication to nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs is evident in her varied roles and the strategic guidance she provides to burgeoning startups.

As a passion project, in 2020, she launched Mentor For Hope where 250 mentors such as VCs, corporates and subject experts banded together to mentor 300 founders and help them pivot during the COVID period. They clocked 525 of mentoring hours in a month and also raised $43,000 for charities in the process. In 2021, Elise and her team launched the Makan For Hope Festival, a groundbreaking series of 30 virtual roundtables that connected VC managing partners and founders with early-stage startups, drawing over 500 participants. These roundtables featured VC managing partners and founders from notable startups like PropertyGuru, Shopback, and Carousell, who shared insights and tips on everything from fundraising to market expansion to guide early-stage founders on their startup journey. This initiative, alongside her continuous effort to expand the community through various events, underscores her commitment to building meaningful connections and accessing vital resources within the startup ecosystem.

As an active connector, she has facilitated hundreds of introductions between investors (venture capitalists, family offices, and strategic angels) and over 200 startups across various sectors (Blockchain, Healthtech, AI, Fintech, Software, etc.).

Elise has guided hundreds of startups through her previous work at the NUS incubator, the Entrepreneur First program, and an internship at True Global Ventures. Many of these startups have gone on to secure additional funding and have been acquired.

Reflecting on Elise Tan’s Impact

Elise Tan’s journey is a powerful narrative of dedication, innovation, and leadership. Her contributions are not merely milestones but stepping stones that pave the way for future entrepreneurs. By bridging the gap between venture capital and startups, facilitating invaluable connections, and championing the cause of youth entrepreneurship, Elise has indelibly shaped the startup landscape in Southeast Asia and India.

Insights from Elise

Ryan: Can you share your experience and the key takeaways from your time obtaining an MBA from INSEAD and how it has impacted your professional journey?

Elise: Reflecting on my journey, leaving Proctor and Gamble and launching the Startup Leadership Program as a volunteer was a decision that significantly shaped my professional path. Before INSEAD, I was deeply immersed in the startup ecosystem for over a decade, co-founding the Asia Startup Network, the largest non-profit network of more than 2,700 startup founders, operators, investors, and partners in Southeast Asia. The inception of Asia Startup Network with the Mentor For Hope initiative in 2020 marked a significant effort in providing over 525 mentoring hours to 300 founders during the COVID crisis, bridging them with insights from 250 investors and experts.

In 2021, we initiated the Makan For Hope Festival without a budget, organizing 30 virtual roundtables that connected VCs, startup founders, and industry leaders. This initiative, drawing over 500 participants, and raised S$123,000 in donations (thanks to our hosts and participants!) was a testament to our dedication to building up the startup ecosystem. My role at Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, leading community and communications, further allowed me to demystify VC knowledge through thought leadership and the Hard Truths by Vertex podcast, a prime resource for entrepreneurs in Singapore.

My venture journey began in 2011 with the Singapore chapter of the Startup Leadership Program, known for accelerating over 2,000 successful startups globally. This experience, combined with my subsequent role at NUS Enterprise, laid a solid foundation for my INSEAD MBA pursuits, enriching my understanding of venture capital, entrepreneurship, and startup ecosystems.

INSEAD was transformative, enhancing my grasp of organizational behavior, team management, leadership, and communication skills. It was there that I truly appreciated the power of strategy, communication and community in entrepreneurship. My involvement in advising youth entrepreneurship initiatives, like the NUS Angels Ventures, further reflects my commitment to leveraging my INSEAD experience in fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Ryan: You’ve worked extensively in connecting VCs with founders. What are some of the most common challenges both sides face, and how do you help them navigate these challenges?

Elise: Navigating the complex landscape of venture capital (VC) funding involves addressing distinct challenges faced by both founders and VCs. Founders primarily grapple with identifying the specific interests, values and criteria of each VC, ensuring they align with those who can truly accelerate their company’s growth. This involves not only crafting and delivering a compelling pitch but also fostering a relationship that ultimately leads to investment. Moreover, maintaining open lines of communication with VCs and stakeholders is crucial for receiving timely advice and valuable introductions. Additionally, founders must continuously strive to enhance their leadership skills and effectiveness, all while managing the demanding tasks of their business.

On the other side, VCs encounter hurdles in thoroughly understanding the business models presented to them and distinguishing the ventures with the highest potential for success. The due diligence process poses its own set of challenges, requiring VCs to gather and assess sufficient information within a limited timeframe to make informed investment decisions. Once an investment is made, guiding entrepreneurs on the path to growth and connecting them with pivotal contacts at opportune moments become essential responsibilities.

To bridge these gaps, my role involves facilitating a deeper mutual understanding between founders and VCs. This includes helping founders articulate their vision and value proposition in a way that resonates with potential investors, while also advising VCs on conducting efficient and effective due diligence. Furthermore, I assist in establishing and nurturing relationships that are conducive to successful partnerships, ensuring both founders and VCs have the support and connections needed to thrive.

Ryan: Gender neutrality and supporting female-founded startups seem to be important to you and Vertex Ventures. Can you discuss why this is a focus area and how you believe it influences the startup ecosystem?

Elise: At Vertex Ventures, championing gender neutrality and particularly supporting female-founded startups is a deliberate and strategic focus. Our track record illustrates a clear commitment to elevating women in the startup ecosystem: from allocating 35% to women led companies in our fourth fund. Moreover, with our fifth fund, we’ve set aside a dedicated $50 million envelope fund specifically for female-founded startups that align with our main fund’s investment criteria of $491 million. This escalation in commitment underscores our dedication to discovering and investing in outstanding female entrepreneurs.

It’s important to clarify that our focus on female founders does not dilute our investment philosophy. Vertex Ventures is not exclusively a diversity-focused fund; our core objective remains to uncover and invest in the best-in-class opportunities, irrespective of the founder’s gender. This approach ensures that we actively engage with a broad spectrum of entrepreneurs, including women who might not have previously engaged with us, thus diversifying our investment portfolio. By actively seeking out and supporting female entrepreneurs, particularly those who might not be as visible, we contribute to creating a more inclusive and dynamic startup ecosystem.

Our efforts extend beyond financial investment. The presence of female investment professionals in our team across Southeast Asia and India not only reflects our commitment to diversity within our own ranks but also serves to attract female founders to Vertex Ventures. As these female entrepreneurs we support go on to achieve success, they become luminaries and role models within the ecosystem, encouraging more women to pursue entrepreneurship and seek investment. This virtuous cycle not only enriches the startup landscape but also fosters a more balanced and equitable industry.

Ryan: Having mentored social enterprises and worked with NUS Angel Ventures, what are some of the key lessons you’ve learned about social entrepreneurship and its impact?

Elise: Through my experiences mentoring social enterprises and collaborating with NUS Angel Ventures, I’ve gained profound insights into the unique challenges and impacts of social entrepreneurship. One of the most striking observations is the level of commitment and personal sacrifice displayed by founders of social enterprises. Often, these individuals choose paths less traveled, prioritizing societal benefits over personal financial gain. Their contributions—whether through promoting slow fashion, providing employment opportunities to indigenous communities, or supporting youth, parents, and working adults with curated educational content—significantly augment the social welfare efforts made by governments.

However, a critical lesson learned is the importance of not underestimating the value social enterprises bring to the table. There’s a tangible need for these organizations to recognize and fully leverage the societal and economic impact of their work. Achieving this doesn’t necessarily mean shifting focus towards profit maximization but rather, adopting sustainable business models that ensure their viability and longevity. This approach allows them to continue making substantial contributions to society while also securing a fair compensation for their efforts, establishing a balance between fulfilling their social mission and maintaining financial health.

Ryan: As someone who actively supports startups through panels, meet-ups, and mentoring programs, what advice do you often find yourself repeating to new entrepreneurs?

Elise: In my role supporting startups through various platforms such as panels, meet-ups, and mentoring programs, I often emphasize the importance of self-awareness as a foundational step for entrepreneurs. The common misconception is that we fully understand ourselves from the get-go. However, it typically takes years, often reaching into our mid-thirties or after a series of missteps, to truly grasp our core strengths, values, and passions. I advise entrepreneurs to engage in introspection, perhaps through personality assessments, and to seek insights from family and friends. This process is crucial for identifying one’s unique gifts, values, and the activities that energize versus those that deplete. 

Understanding oneself deeply allows an entrepreneur to ideate and develop a startup that not only aligns with their innate strengths and interests but also meets a genuine need in the world. The Ikigai model serves as an excellent framework for this, guiding individuals to find the intersection between what they love, what they are good at, what the world needs, and what they can be paid for.

My personal experience with ASN, where I’ve been engaged for nearly four years—which I often joke that it is the longest tenure in my professional journey—underscores this advice. The sustainability and fulfillment I’ve found in this role stem from a deep alignment between my capabilities, my interests, and the value our work brings to the community. This harmony is what I encourage every new entrepreneur to strive for: a venture that not only promises success but also personal satisfaction and societal contribution.

Ryan: What has been one of the most rewarding experiences in your career so far, and why?

Elise: One of the highlights of my career took place during my tenure at Entrepreneur First, starting in 2018, where I had the opportunity to establish and lead the fundraising team. Over a span of two years, I dedicated myself to mentoring more than 60 entrepreneurs, equipping them with the skills needed to effectively pitch to investors and navigate funding conversations successfully. It was incredibly fulfilling to see my guidance come to fruition, as I was able to assist 40 founders in securing their initial US$1 million in funding within just six months. This experience stands out as particularly rewarding because it not only allowed me to directly contribute to the growth and success of these startups but also affirmed the impact of my work in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Ryan: How do you balance the strategic aspect of your work, such as investor relations and partnership development, with the community-building side, like running the Asia Startup network?

Elise: Balancing the strategic and community-building aspects of my work involves a deeply integrated approach to both my professional and personal life. I dedicate six days a week to my work, taking a day of rest in observance of my faith as a Christian. This commitment extends beyond traditional work hours; I often find myself contemplating solutions for entrepreneurs or pondering over workplace challenges even during meals.

My passion for seeing entrepreneurs succeed fuels me, providing both energy and joy.

This approach mirrors a lesson I learned from my basketball coach at Raffles Girls’ school, who instilled in us the belief that to truly excel in something, you must immerse yourself fully in it. This philosophy has guided my professional journey, where I’ve observed that the key to success often lies in living and breathing one’s passion.

I attribute my ability to balance various aspects of my work to my three strengths. First, I have is having a good memory (thanks to Singapore education that focuses on memorizing) and connecting the dots. I remember most things that people tell me.

My other strength is seeing patterns. Trained as an engineer, I have a habit of taking notes and sieving the patterns. This helps me scale what I do, be it organizing a 150 people event or managing a team of 100 people. This helps me to quickly identify and emphasize key takeaways from a speaker’s sharing to my event attendees and community to help their learning. 

Last is connecting the dots. An investor could be interested in a startup but also to elevate his brand among entrepreneurs. A cloud partner may be interested to sell their product to Vertex’s portfolio but also interested to organise events with Asia Startup Network to impart useful knowledge and acquire new leads. How do I work with the same people but do different things and strengthen our bonds over time? It’s hard juggling a few balls at the same time and it’s hard at first but as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. 

The art of juggling these diverse responsibilities has become more manageable with practice, underscoring the adage that practice makes perfect. At the core of my strategy is building and maintaining trust. My personal brand is built on accountability, reliability, and effective execution. The longstanding relationships I’ve nurtured with partners and friends over a decade stand as a testament to the trust they’ve placed in me and the investments they’ve made in our shared vision. This foundational trust is crucial in effectively balancing the strategic and community-focused facets of my work.

Ryan: Looking ahead, what trends or areas within technology and startups are you most excited about, and how is Vertex Ventures positioning itself to be part of these trends?

Elise: Many hold the misconception that Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India primarily focuses on late-stage funding. However, our core strategy involves early-stage, Series A investments spanning a diverse range of sectors.

At Vertex Ventures, we are guided by a foundational thesis rather than the pursuit of fleeting trends. This thesis centers on supporting businesses that cater to the rapidly expanding needs of the burgeoning middle class in Southeast Asia and India. Our investment focus is structured around six key pillars: enterprise, consumer, healthcare, fintech, sustainability, and mobility.

This strategic orientation allows us to not only participate in but also contribute to the dynamic growth across these critical areas, positioning Vertex Ventures at the heart of significant developments shaping the future of technology and startups in these vibrant regions.

Ryan: Lastly, on a more personal note, how do you find balance and inspiration outside of work, and how do these interests influence your professional outlook?

Elise: I am grateful to have become a Christian in 2021 and it changed my life in many dramatic ways. Reading the bible, learning to be more like Jesus, having fellowship with my Christian entrepreneur friends and cell group mates have been a great source of wisdom as well as respite and inspiration. Being a believer is about using our gifts and talents to serve the community and that has influenced my professional outlook and helped me make difficult decisions a lot. My faith is my North star. 

This core belief in service and giving back is also a driving force behind the Asia Startup Network’s commitment to supporting the disadvantaged, vulnerable, and fatherless. My personal experiences and faith deeply influence our mission and approach, reinforcing the value of contributing positively to society through our professional endeavors.

How to reach out to Elise

Email her at elise@asiastartupnetwork.com

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