Conversations with Edward Yee

By Chu Tianqi and Kuo Pei Yu

About Edward Yee

Edward Yee is the co-founder of Givfunds ( www.givfunds.com), which lends low cost loans to social entrepreneurs. He started Givfunds while still a university student, after a life-changing time backpacking and travelling throughout South and Southeast Asia. During this time, he met many incredible social entrepreneurs and witnessed the amazing work of their social entreprises, growing in friendship with them too – with many opening up their hearts and homes to him. Their stories helped him find himself, and he fundamentally re-thought his motivation for entering a business course at university, which had initially been driven by financial considerations.

I’m Edward, the co-founder of Givfunds, which lends low cost loans to social entrepreneurs – in India primarily, though we are also looking at the South Asian market. It started a few years ago when I went to Bangladesh for the first time. It was then that I had the chance to meet many incredible social enterprises across the country. I backpacked in Southeast Asia and had a couple more trips thereafter – I stayed in slums, on top of trains and many more. Those journeys allowed me to find my purpose in life.

I travelled to meet social entrepreneurs, and I have also stayed with hundreds of them. Through this, I realised that many of them were doing amazing work. Their businesses were financially sustainable, profitable and are changing many lives. But it was painful to learn that they couldn’t grow their businesses, and even reached a point where they couldn’t get their capital.

I remembered that when I saw these businesses, I learnt of ideas that I never would have thought of. For example, I met this business that creates electricity-free air conditioning in slums, by cutting off the top of the 1.5 litres bottles, and arranging them side by side. This helps to tackle the problem of unbearable heat in makeshift factories.

Upon reflection, I thought that the best thing that I could do for these businesses would be to support them financially. In India, I met my co-founder on the third-class train there. Both of us saw the same need, thought that we had the skills set to solve the problem, and hence started Givfunds. Essentially the problem that we tackle is how we can provide capital to  thousands of social enterprises in South Asia.

Currently, we adopt an ecosystem approach, in which we partner with social enterprise aggregators, who are accelerators, incubators and market access providers. From this, we learnt that although many of the social enterprises in India are impactful and profitable, few people will invest in them because they are not sexy enough – they are not blockchain for refugees, for instance. Because of that, these impactful social enterprises get stuck at a certain size forever.

The most obvious obstacle is definitely legalities, especially when I work in different countries with different cultures. However, I feel that the biggest challenge is choosing to do the right thing over what is easy. This is because when we work in other countries, there are often easy paths that people can take, for instance when setting up an entity. Many times, it’s a “make it or break it” situation, in which you will have to clear the hurdle in order to progress. And this is when it is important for you to continue doing the right thing, even though it may be very difficult to do.

I think that I am very fortunate because I’ve met the right co-founder. He is very clear about creating impact as he has started a slum school and runs his own successful business that helps Indian SMEs access international loans. Being in the lending space, he understands it very well.

Not at all – I was there to make money! I was interested in fund management, and I moved a bit into entrepreneurship before I entered university. Before Givfunds, I was running my previous start-up. Although we were doing quite well sales and, growth-wise, I didn’t see myself doing that for the next 7 to 8 years of my life.

I started to travel and backpack to find myself, visiting social entrepreneurs on the ground. Through this, I think that I have learnt a lot of about empathy from people like them who are willing to open up their friendship and home to me for me to stay.

I have dropped a lot of my commitments over the years. Many of them are minor commitments or built upon what Givfunds currently has. For example, after working with a group of friends to start the alumni group at the Dyslexia Association Singapore, I have since reduced my role to that of an advisor. Net Impact, which I was previously very involved in, is a community of people who are interested in generating an impact, which then feeds into Givfunds and helps in that area. Hence, what I do now is very much focused on Givfunds.

I think when I first started Givfunds, especially in my early university years, I had a lot of other commitments. One of my mentors taught me to focus. I think that it was important for me to go through so many things, to skim the surface, and realise that Givfunds was what I wanted to go deeply into.  

Yes, we have started a prototype in Singapore, and are looking at Singapore as our innovation lab, a place where we try new financial products to eventually export to our operations throughout the region. Currently we are only operating in India and a trial in Singapore, though we intend to develop our holding non-profit in Singapore for the funds. We haven’t quite identified the exact expansion, but I have taken experiential field trips for a couple of months to Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia – and we will see how it goes from there. In any case, it usually takes a long time to enter those markets as we are working in a finance and lending space, so it is quite complicated in terms of regulations. However, we are looking forward to the expansion in Southeast Asia. Our trial in Singapore, involved partnering a market access provider for social enterprises, Green Collective Singapore – basically a retail store that acts as as sales channel for social enterprises. They use a cooperative model, so all the profits are shared.

I learnt it from my co-founder quite recently. Previously, I was adopting the “work hard, play hard” mindset, removing random and unnecessary stuff in your life. You can then find time for the meaningful and fun things in your life. Working 100 plus of hours per week is definitely not sustainable, which was what I did in my first year of university. After that I cut down my working hours to 70 to 80 hours a week, then I could find time to spend with my family and friends and to do things that I like to do. Prioritisation is important. My co-founder knows to say “no” to things that he disagrees with and I feel this is a skill that I should learn from him. He manages to identify things that are important to him and things that are not – that is why he finds time to bond with his family while running his companies. On the contrary, I always tend to attend every meeting possible. This is a point that I should learn from him – to learn why, how and when to say “no”.

At the start, not at all – they were very opposed against it. They started to accept it when I had my first success in the area that showed them that the business I had was growing quickly and is profitable. They were shocked to know that I was going to Bangladesh for social impact after they had just accepted me for my previous decision to enter entrepreneurship – however they supported me for whatever I was passion about and are incredibly supportive today.