The qualities that will be required by future humanity, that robots and machines cannot offer: empathy, creativity, collaboration — are the qualities that female professionals are pretty strong at!
Gina Heng, Co-Founder of Marvelstone Group. Interviewed by Evita Lune and Joanne Chng.
Marvelstone Group is a private investment group that develops and invests in growing businesses. It was founded by Joe Seunghyun Cho and Gina Heng and joined by managing partner, Joel Ko. One of the projects is LATTICE80 — the Global FinTech Hub kickstarted from Singapore and now expanding its network in many other cities. Gina is very passionate about women and financial empowerment, and is currently developing misskaya.com as a lifestyle and financial platform specially for the modern women.
First of all, I wanted to ask a personal question: how did you come up with becoming an entrepreneur in a tech space? Was it initially planned or did life bring you to this? Can you share a little bit about your personal motivation?
Gina: I wanted to become an entrepreneur since young, having been exposed to my father’s business I grew up learning about business, seeing and observing, understanding how it works. After I graduated from the university, I wanted to do something of my own and that’s how it kick-started and led along the way.
I embarked on first job as an asset management research analyst. I was covering the Asia-pacific markets in terms of understanding what’s happening with the mutual funds and institutional funds markets and was privileged to be able to gain access to the CEOs and top management to explore the landscape in Asia, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and China. I learnt from the top guys and understood in terms how to develop new business in new markets, formulating their business strategies, and managing various regulatory landscapes.
In my second job I went in-house to work at a top Japanese bank based in Singapore, and that’s where I understood the difference between the working culture at the US based consulting firm and a Japanese bank with a tight structure. It was a fruitful experience as I learnt more in terms of the fundamentals of different business segments and financial needs in Asia, for example, in terms of commodities, telco, and infrastructure development.
After my work experiences in the asset management and banking sectors, I joined my then-boyfriend who’s now my husband in setting up our own hedge fund business.
We were just two young people trying to see how we can do own fund, own business. We didn’t plan too far, we just said: let’s try and move along. We did all the applications for licences, we tried to do our own marketing, tried to do our own outreach, so we learned things the hard way, at a high cost.
We evolved and adapted over time. From our first hedge fund, we expanded to offer other investment options such as private investments or property related opportunities to reach new audiences and of course we gained more experience over time on how to deal with various types of investors in Asia and elsewhere.
Since we are entrepreneurs, we also understood the pain-points that the Start-ups might be facing. We tried to work on new ventures like co-working space, and incubating in new start-ups We also broadened our experience with regards to the venture capital market as we helped an Israeli VC to develop in Korea.
Over time, it came in naturally that we understood “hey, the trends are changing!” and the new wave of FinTech startups is coming. Perhaps due to our experience in quantitative trading, we knew that algorithms, using robots, AI, that sort of things, would be more widely adopted. So, we wanted to create a platform that could actually assist all the different new players to come to the table.
With LATTICE80 as one of the projects, we curated it as a FinTech and Blockchain specific platform. We knew that content to our community are very important in terms of creating a good eco system — this really is not just about space or real estate business — but actually creating the community to bring the right brains to the table, to actually collaborate and add more value to the whole growth.
It has been a great market development platform where we are able to observe many opportunities and trends being developed within just a short span of time. We knew we made a good decision to kickstart it as an independent project, when it created more impact globally than we have expected. When we take on a new idea, it is always with a long term vision in mind. It’s only been almost 2 years now, and we’re taking it overseas. We moved our headquarters to London and we are reaching beyond Asia such as in European markets at the same time to bring all the different stakeholders such as start-ups, regulators, corporates, and we also try to engage the public to understand what is FinTech, or how it’s actually impacting in their day-to-day life, what sort of business opportunities these are, applying different innovations within the financial space.
Being able to adapt and to be flexible to changes is important to us and I think that’s a part of being entrepreneur not just in a tech space but in general. This is what we’ve been doing for past several years.
We saw how different technologies that have been developed such as AI, and how they intersect with the developments in FinTech. So, I would say that lot of technology innovations are blurring the lines with regards to how tech are applied to the different business segments.
We don’t try to think within the box, we want to be innovative, we are not afraid to try new things, for us it’s really about being nimble.
We keep it very lean and light — it’s just myself, my husband, and we have another Korean partner. We try to work very independently at the same time and we come together to see how can we make use of each other’s networks or experience to extend the business. And we’re very open to collaboration to various parties and partners, whether they are corporates or start-ups because we know that in this time and age it’s really not about pure competition but actually growing the whole ecosystem bigger and stronger.
And how would you classify yourself? Would you consider yourself now finance expert, or technology expert?
Gina: I don’t think I’m any (laughs). But I do have a better understanding of financial side than the tech side. It is very exciting to know what’s happening in the tech space and how different technologies and innovations can be applied in the financial world, because ultimately what we want as consumers is really convenience and ease of use.
How does it come that, for example, there are start-ups and different tech ventures, as a facilitator of venture capital, probably you assess people who are doing it more than their track record, and sometimes these discussions when it comes to AI and Blockchain become extremely technical. How do you manage this part?
Gina: The thing is that I wouldn’t say that I know everything so it’s always important to bring on people who understands that, like my partners, they are more tech trained. So, for me I’d consider myself still a student so I’m also learning from others at the same time. It’s really about keeping an open mind.
I’m very fortunate that my partners have backgrounds in computer science, and it comes in handy in terms of understanding concepts, so for me it’s really base in terms of the technical investments and understanding the whole framework, so for the technical part I still work with my partners who have more specialized background in it.
In terms of example of these entrepreneurs with whom you work, how would you characterize them, who are they — young graduates or somebody who is done with the corporate career and now wants to become an entrepreneur, how would you describe your audience?
Gina: There is a segment of fintech entrepreneurs who are ex bankers who left the banking careers to join the startup world, especially after the Financial crises. These ex-bankers were thinking of what they can do and lot of them came up to doing FinTech start-ups because they understood what’s happening, what’s challenging within the corporate space and how they can actually improve it and by doing their own start-ups they could resell their services back to the corporates or to be acquired by them. These are the guys we are seeing and they tend to be a bit more mature, they are specialists in their field, such as in payments or compliance. For the past few years and more recently because of developments in Blockchain, we also saw a lot more of young people that might not have any financial experience, come up with their own tech platforms or Blockchain related financial solutions.
In terms of growth aspiration and international network you mentioned earlier that you’re serious about going international in Asia as well as in Europe, so what would be the business model how you grow? Would you establish similar (hubs) like LATTICE80, or would that be another form of corporation? What the way to go international for you?
Gina: If we know that there are local partners we can work with and we would work with them and we try to fill the gap in the market, we don’t try to replicate the same things that are available in the market already, so for us we know that our specialty might be as a bridge to Asia so we will help them in that angle. If we know that there is no such ecosystem in the local market and if it is something that we can bring to the market, we will do so.
So we are very flexible in terms of how we’d position ourselves our model of business. It’s really not about just providing space, but actually providing contents of networks and flows. While LATTICE80 is more of a platform and community business, we are also developing our own fintech solutions too. Personally I’m also developing a woman’s focused financial platform that I hope will be more lifestyle-driven. I don’t want to make it too technical, something more communicative, more social, to empower women to understand financials and spending or how they could actually plan out their life plans. Basically we’re working on different projects at the same time, mostly they’re complimentary.
It’s very interesting that you described these different groups, like bankers that see opportunities of developing and unbundling the bank and then selling these services back to the bank, and then that you have these young people who want to totally disrupt the world and change how economy operates globally and how many other things operate. Really fascinating.
Gina: It is interesting and for us we realized that the young people who are building start-ups might be really good with regard to technology but they don’t know how to communicate with corporates and that’s where we became the middlemen or platform to bring them together to make sure that they understand each other.
Because they may lack experience of how to do onboarding, to work with the bank, a lot of legal documents to sign up which they might not be used to. Maybe they have to deal with the regulators to actually get the relevant licenses to actually kick-start the business. So we want to be able to help them in various kind of painpoints they might have.
Typically they say that 95% of startups fail in year one, what is your experience in your environment?
Gina: When we opened the Fintech platform LATTICE80 a lot of them managed to survive. I would say that of our 300 startups that we are hosting, majority managed to continue and grew bigger. Startups in Singapore are still at the early stages. When Fintech startups first came about, the trend was mostly focused on payments and then we saw more fintech startups focusing on wealth management, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong. When the banks understood a bit more about how Fintech can play a part in optimizing or increasing their market share, they are focusing a lot more on compliance tech, because the costs are rising in this space so they are looking for new efficient solutions. There was a good demand from the market, so the startups managed to continue survive and grow.
Can you as well give us a little bit of financial dimension of your job — could you please give us a little perspective of how much money has gone through your hands over the years?
Gina: I know that we have been spending a lot of resources and now this year is about how to monetize our ventures. I think we have found a few models that will take us forward this year.
We consider ourselves still very young in this industry and sowe have spent more time to understand the markets. We took on a lean and patient approach given that we know we want to be in this line for the long haul.
We wanted to be prepared especially when it comes to FinTech and dealing with regulators, so there’s a need for market and brand positioning first. This year going forward we want to do more monetizing, at the same time we want to be innovative, focusing on developing of crypto utility token to faciliate services around LATTICE80. My partner, Joe Cho, will be leading this initiative.
For me it is really about trying to develop MissKaya.com with more curated contents.
I have another partner, Joel Ko, who is focused on AI , so each of us have our own positioning and specialty to develop new services or products.
I also want to develop on that. Your learnings that you mentioned at the beginning of our meeting: You learnt many things in a hard way when switching your corporate career to entrepreneurship. Could you please share what were the situations that you had to be outside your comfort zone, or face major challenges, something that really were an eye-opener for you?
Gina: I mean, the easiest thing that we can see is the difference in culture with regards to doing business in Asia as well posting to West: you know, when you want something you just say it straight and to the point while in Asia — like Mainland China, Taiwan or Korea — saying “yes” doesn’t mean that you get a “yes” confirming, affirmative answer from it, it actually takes a while: a lot of back and forth and things like that. Sometimes you might have to develop a little bit more patience in a way.
Being a woman and doing business is also another challenge because traditionally women in Asia tend to take on a supporting role so for me it’s really hard to make sure that people respect me as a business person and taking my word for it. When dealing with older people, they might think that you’re young and that’s why they might take you a bit lightly but in Start-up, FinTech, VC space we know that good ideas may come from the young people and we really have to have an open mind.
Regarding these cultural differences — saying “yes” and doing it — what about culture in Singapore itself?
Gina: Singapore is pretty good because it’s really a melting pot of different cultures. You get to work with people to understand what’s happening already and of course you still need to build a good local network because you still need to understand what is happening on the ground and deal with it.
I guess, being a woman-entrepreneur in Singapore is actually pretty good in general, still quite flexible and adaptable, but of course in doing business in new or bigger markets, it is important to understand the different legal frameworks and how things get done.
In some countries, it may just be a handshake, not on paper, purely on trust. But in working with corporates, sometimes you may want to put things down clearly on paper.
Many times, as an entrepreneur, it is important to learn from mistakes fast, and move on to new things.
And what about your own aspirations and motivations? Do you have a vision or mission you want to achieve personally?
Gina: Actually, the underlying vision why I am doing this business is because I want to be able to take care of people — me and family, friends or anybody. When I had my first internship long years ago with consulting company that focused on research on mutual plans and pension plans for the Singapore market, I was going through the database in terms of how people get invest for their retirement. It got me thinking that it is important to plan for the future very far ahead and is not easy because people tend to think the short-term more instead of gratification.
When I did my research on the pensions’ market across different markets, I realized that there is a significant gap there in terms of woman empowerment or financial empowerment especially in developing markets in Asia that is something that will become pretty significant and important in years to come.
For me it’s really about creating an nfrastructure to capture the underserved and unbanked audience. With distribution costs getting lower due to the growing accessibility of mobile technology and services in the new developing markets, it’s much easier for them to have those basic kind of services and if we build some financial services around it, it could improve the lives and add convenience.
Thank you Gina, really appreciate your time, maybe I can ask you what keeps you awake in the night? What is always in your mind as an entrepreneur?
Gina: I guess the idea of doing business is always problem-solving. You can’t complete everything 100%, there are always new things popping-up, how would you actually need to handle that and of course the excitement of doing new projects, or coming up with new ideas and things like that. One aspect is problem-solving that is never-ending; the other part is the new ideas and new projects you might be engaging on.
What would be those three points that you’d like to give as an advice to women who’d like to be entrepreneur themselves?
Gina: I always think, you should just go for it, just try it, you never know whether it work or not, and whatever experience you gain through that, is a plus because you always have a lesson to learn from it. Always have a growth mentality: always move forward and based on whatever success or failure you might have, you build upon it. Of course, you need to have a thick skin: be bold and courageous. You need to be living yourself — you can go through whatever ups and downs that you have in order to be successful for whatever dreams you might have. And think I have been great. Of course, being able to be a student in heart and always learn from others, I think it’s a lot of where you can gain your ideas and experience, or just build upon them.
Evita: I think, you are very smart at putting yourself in the right environment that allow you to be yourself and to achieve the most. If environment is wrong and you see no way to change it, you look for another environment.
Gina: But of course we understand that being a woman, we have our strengths in terms of being more nurturing, more empathetic, we have to play on those strengths in the same time, there’s no need to think like that “oh, because guys are aggressive in terms of how they do their business, we need to be that!”, we don’t need to think like that. We need to use our sort of special skills to get things done. I was reading an article by the LEGO foundation that going forward, the skill set that young people should have: creativity, collaboration, empathy and things like that, are the future skills of humanity that cannot be offered by machines and robots. So, this is something that we women have actually are pretty strong at and can be used as a major strength over time.