By Jolie Fong and Maeve Koh
Ee Ling Lim is the Head of APAC (Asia-Pacific) Business Development at 500 Startups’ ecosystems team, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Smarter Me, an educational technology startup. In this article, she shares the lessons she’s learnt from being in the Venture Capital industry and starting her own business,
I am the Head of APAC (Asia-Pacific) Business Development at 500 Startups’ ecosystems team. At 500 Startups, we are the world’s most active VC (Venture Capital) fund and one of the world’s leading accelerator programs for startups, training firms in over 60 countries. I lead the development of relationships with corporate and government agencies looking to innovate with or without startups. I am also the co-founder and CEO of Smarter Me, an EduTech startup that aims to provide kids with the skillset, the mindset and the heartset to find their own happiness and meaning of success in the future.
As a young impressionable teenager, I took my father’s advice to study Commerce and Finance in university.
Within finance, there are also a few different pathways I could have taken. A lot of my friends were doing internships in either consulting firms or audit firms. While I knew that I did not like accounting, it was only in my 3rd year of university that I decided it was going to be IB. That decision was inspired by two investment bankers from J.P. Morgan who came into my class and shared what they did in the corporate finance department. Hearing what they did on a day-to-day basis was really intriguing. It sounded fun and exciting, and that is what sparked me to start applying to IBs.
In IB, there were a lot of ups and downs in winning and closing deals. It was all fun and very exciting, but almost ten years in later, I felt it lacked something that was important to me – impact. When I was in IB, I was not creating impact that made sense or had meaning to me; I was helping large, listed companies close billion-dollar acquisitions and raise billions of dollars of funding. That was great, but whose life am I changing? No one’s. That was when I felt I wanted something more, to leave and create impact.
It was never a goal of mine to run my own business one day. I kind of fell into it, driven by the desire to create change and leave a positive impact – on someone.
Going into education was really inspired by my two kids who were going through school and my experience of parenting. As a parent, I understood what parents are going through, the concerns and the worries they have for their kids: wanting them to have the best chances possible in life, and at the same time, making sure they are happy and have a voice in the choices they are making. As my kids were going through school, I had realised that, in terms of curriculum and what they were learning, the learning did not actually differ that much from my time at school. So there I was at this intersection, where I had been seeing innovation occur with tech founders coming up with solutions that were changing the world and disrupting businesses. On the other hand, I saw education as still remaining stagnant.
There was also a third stakeholder, my peers. I see a lot of my peers being at a place where they are stuck and uncertain of their way forward, asking themselves questions like: “What is the meaning in life?” and “What is my passion and purpose?” It all boils down to a lack of self-awareness and understanding, things that are absent in our education system. These reasons, all put together, made me feel really strongly that if I wanted to make an impact, education was the place.
Smarter Me’s focus is on entrepreneurship [similar to 500 Startups]. We do a lot of entrepreneurship and innovation programs, pairing students with mentors to give them opportunities to learn from and come up with ideas. 500 Startups is a leading global accelerator program, with experience in running training programs in over 60 countries. My vision for Young Founders Summit, which is a program we run under Smarter Me, is that a student entrepreneur does not develop in-silo. They need to live and thrive within an ecosystem of mentors, coaches and corporates. That is a lot of what we do at 500 Startups; we run programs, work with mentors and corporates in innovation. So both organisations share an underlying common fabric, just different age groups that they deal with, and I saw potential synergies. On Smarter Me’s side, I had felt that it was at a stage where I have a fixed curriculum and trained instructors that I had time to do something else.
The hours I spend on either role are not fixed on a day-to-day basis. There are days during the peak period of running the Young Founders Summit that I would dedicate more time to Smarter Me, and then pick up for everything else from 500 Startups. For the rest of the year, I could be focusing more of my time on 500 Startups.
I believe in managing energy, not managing time. Whenever I need to focus and strategise for either part of my work, I make sure that I have enough energy to direct to both. If you ask me, “Do you have work life balance? How do you balance kids, household time, personal time and all that?”, I would say that it is all integrated. I do not have very clear delineations [for my time], but more importantly, I am happy not having it. It comes down to individual preference – some might feel that I need very clear boundaries. I personally do not and I am happy with it as long as I know how to manage my energy.
My typical workday consists of a lot of meetings and calls. Generally, my mornings start from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. with calls with my teammates in the US, for us to sync on live projects and proposals. I also have meetings and calls with prospective clients, and almost on a weekly basis, I would have at least one webinar that I will host or speak at or a competition I judge for
A practice I have is to block out dedicated time for “deep work” on my calendar. . These are the times when I do not schedule any meetings or calls and focus on the strategy or proposals I need to work on.
At night and during the weekends is when I work on Smarter Me. Currently, we are having an incubation boot camp for the finalists of Young Founders Summit 2020, so at the end of the day is when I share articles, put out posts for the participants and liaise with mentors.
In every single role, your day-to-day work will reach a point where it becomes boring to you, even if it sounds exciting to someone else. A mantra that I go by is to remember your ‘Why’: why am I spending my time doing this? Taking a step back and reflecting on how it brings you closer to your vision and goal – that is what is needed to keep you going.
For me, it is really about changing mindsets and helping people see possibilities and opportunities.
At 500 Startups, we work with founders, governments, and corporates to uplift people through entrepreneurship and innovation. It is exciting when we are trying out new things, forming and growing partnerships. When a founder goes through a program and gains a new perspective, we know that we are inspiring them and helping them change the world through technology.
At Smarter Me, it is how we are helping kids see possibilities. When they join our program, our kids get to learn things that they do not learn in school, adopt a growth mindset towards problems, ideate solutions and work on them. They get to speak to adult mentors, founders and entrepreneurs that they may not have access to without our programs. I hear feedback from parents that their child came back from camp and she was talking about setting up a business, talking about assets and liabilities, all this awesome stuff. I have parents telling us that their kids were so excited, they were looking for stuff at home to bring for their games store tomorrow. Those are things that really drive me and keep me going because I know that I am helping kids see possibilities and alternative future pathways.
I think a lot of people like the idea of running their own business, because they always hear about the more successful ventures in Silicon Valley and whatnot. However, we sweep failures under the rug.
One key misconception of being part of a startup would be that it is very easy to make money and exit from the venture, which is untrue; you need to know how to find and place bets. A lot of time, in our pursuit of passion and purpose, we might be too quick to dismiss that success takes time. We are so used to instant gratification that we might expect the same from work as well. When launching a startup, you might compare yourself to others in the news and wonder why they are more successful than you. We expect a consistent level of progression within a fixed timeframe but in actual fact, a lot of the success stories today took way longer to grow and become what they are now. It is all about persistence and resilience, and remembering that it takes time.
For investment banking, the hours are indeed long compared to other industries or jobs. It is true that the remuneration and luxuries you get on the job are better, but that comes at the expense of your time and health. Despite that, the job teaches you to be detail-orientated and to work with, deal with and communicate with all types of clients and see from their perspectives. It might not be for everybody – you need to put in the hours – but there are a lot of benefits you can reap from it too.
What goes a long way in investment banking would be good research or analytical skills, an eye for detail and the ability to build good slides and models.
In terms of being a founder or working in VC, I would say that everyone is expected to have problem-solving and critical thinking skills first and foremost. You need to come up with solutions to your problems, and be receptive and adaptable to feedback.
At 500 Startups, we do a lot of demo days, which have always been done in person. We were the first VC in the world to do a virtual demo day in March 2020 – the team had to brainstorm how we could preserve the same level of interaction that you would have at a regular demo day. The easier way out would have been to postpone it, but we chose not to. On the other end, choosing to do all our demo days virtually would be forgetting the purpose of the event entirely. This adaptation all happens daily in our lives.
The last skill would be understanding customer needs. Bringing a customer-driven idea or solution up to your superiors or colleagues makes your idea a little less debatable, because you are always thinking from the perspective of your customer.
To me, who I am and what kind of life I am leading in 5 years is more important than where I will be tangibly. What exact title I may be holding does not really matter, but I see myself being surrounded by an ecosystem of teenage entrepreneurs who are collaborating with one another to create impact-based startups around the world. I see myself being surrounded by self-accepting and confident women and children whose lives I know I was able to touch and whom I encouraged to find their own purpose.
I would say two things. First: do not compare yourself to others, only compare yourself to the person you were yesterday. Who I am now is more important than where I am now. The second thing is to spend more time investing in and knowing yourself. One of my favourite quotes is “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you found out why.” (Mark Twain). Self-awareness will help you overcome questions in your head about who you are or who you should be, independent of societal norms.
Last year, I came to terms with what was within my control and what was not. Do the best that you can for things that you can control so you can still try to achieve the outcomes you want, but do not be frustrated at what you cannot control, as long as you know you have done your best. I am the kind of person who would not leave things up to fate, so the need to have control was hard to let go of, and when that happens, it is easy to get frustrated and find yourself in a rut. Being able to separate the two and figure out how to make the best of things was a big learning point for me last year.
I also learnt to be more conscious about how I act and what I do or think. It was a rough year for everyone – not being able to travel or see family was not easy, but ultimately, accepting the situation and reacting strategically is the best way to move forward.
When the pandemic hit, Smarter Me had to cancel a lot of in-person programs, and I was trying to figure out what to do moving forward. I chose to take a step back and thought about what I was trying to achieve. It hit me that in a year like this, what I wanted was for more people to learn something new. If I wanted more and more people to be exposed to entrepreneurial thinking, I could make some parts of the course available online and for free. Because of this, people from other countries like India and Japan started joining the course, and I managed to see new students and identify new potential. Being mindful and deliberate about reacting was how I managed to open up these new avenues.
On a personal level, I took the chance to upskill on how to engage audiences online, be it through webinars or podcasts. I wanted to learn how to make sure everyone comes on and takes away something tangible.
If you are building something, from a business perspective, always make sure you are always speaking to users and customers to validate the problem and understand what they need before you become fixated on your solution. You need to find out these things before you start a business. I think people are fundamentally a bit afraid of being rejected, and that is why we hesitate to ask questions to people we do not know, but not doing so (interviewing the market) is a sure way to fail.
As a founder, you need to understand your ‘Why’s. Why do you want to start a business or help others start a business? Why is this the problem you want to help others solve? Why are you the best person to solve this problem? These questions provide an anchor for you to remember when the entrepreneurship journey gets tough. If you do not have the answers early on, it will be hard to get through.