Lee Kuan Yew — One of the World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs
Today, I interviewed someone for a job opening at Love With Food. The first thing he did was to offer his condolences for the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I choked and held back my tears. I had to pause for a moment to regain my composure. Normally, the phone interview was an hour long but today it was only thirty minutes. After the interview, I broke down.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew is the Founding Father of Singapore. He led the country from a third world to first in less than forty years. Back in the 60s. Singapore was a tiny tropical island that’s only 600 square kilometers (231 square miles) with no natural resources, no water, no military to protect herself, no economy, no stock exchange, nothing. Life was hard. And yet, under Mr Lee’s iron fist leadership, he increased GDP per person from $500 (USD) to more than $50,000 (USD), surpassing the U.S.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve never read The Art of War by Sun Tzu but I’ve read every book about Lee Kuan Yew. When I was growing up in Singapore, there were times I didn’t agree or understand Mr Lee’s policies. As I get older and have more responsibilities, I began to see his point of view and understand the “why” behind every decision he had made.
I’ve always admired Mr Lee as a great leader and statesman, but what I admired the most about him was his entrepreneurial vision and finesse. Singapore, after all was a startup back in the 60s. No funding, no branding, no marketplace and as the founder, Mr Lee had to build credibility from the ground up. To him, building Singapore was entrepreneurship at its best.
Being a startup founder is hard, and I find myself going back to his books to find strength and inspiration. At times when I had to make hard decisions, I always asked myself, “What would Mr Lee do?”. He has definitely shaped the way I lead and build Love With Food.
Beating the Odds
When I left Accenture (formerly known as Anderson Consulting) to join a much smaller consulting firm, the interviewing Manager asked, “Why do you want to join a small company?” and my response was “bigger doesn’t mean it’s better”. I said that because I’m from a very small country that beat all odds and size didn’t matter.
Growing up in Singapore from the 70s to the 90s, I’ve seen first hand how Singapore struggled and how Singapore prospered. To turn mud flats into a wealthy metropolitan city sounded impossible but Mr Lee turned the impossible possible.
When I decided to launch Love With Food, all I heard was the word “impossible”, my most hated word. I’m an immigrant. I wasn’t educated in the US, hence I didn’t have a network here. I’m a solo-founder. I have a weird name. I’m a woman. I’m not in my 20s. I’m not a typical white male in a hoodie (duh) who gets funded. Seriously?!? To me, these ridiculous reasons were just nonsense and I completely ignored them and went on to raise $2MM (USD) for Love With Food.
If a visionary and dedicated leader can lead a country out of poverty in four decades, who am I to give up just because someone told me I’m not a typical “fundable” founder? Seeing how Mr Lee transformed Singapore has given me a lot of strength running my startup and honestly, because of him, I don’t know how to give up.
Diversity, Meritocracy and Respect
Mr Lee was the product of the times. He lived through the British occupation, the Japanese occupation and then the brief governance by the Malaysian government when Singapore was part of Malaysia. During the three occupations by three different countries, Singapore was always a minority and treated unfairly. When Mr Lee took over the reigns, he had zero tolerance towards any forms of discrimination. Regardless of race, language, religion or gender, everyone was treated equally and great measures were taken to ensure racial harmony. Mr Lee once said “social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job were the basic principles that have helped Singapore progress.”
Growing up in a multiracial country where the core values emphasized meritocracy and respect, I was taught I can achieve anything I want as long as I work hard. I work hard, I hustle harder. Life is not fair, that’s something I can’t control but I can control how hard I work. As I build the company culture, I also instill the values of hard work, respect and fairness in the company because these are the key ingredients to create progress.
Use Your Weakness As Your Strength
To Mr Lee, small countries are usually weak and vulnerable, “not masters of their own destiny”. Hence, small countries have to be better organized, alert and nimble to counter or evade threats and seize opportunities (source: Lee Kuan Yew’s Strategic Thought).
Small countries are just like any startups, we are small and insignificant. As a CEO, my key job is to make sure the company is organized and stay organized as we grow. I’m probably known to be OCD in my company but in situations where I needed to decide if we could spend another $20,000 — $40,000 on marketing and had only 5 minutes to make that decision, being organized helps me get to a quick yes or no.
As my country mourns the loss of a great leader and father, the world’s leaders have also lost a great friend (The world will miss Mr Lee Kuan Yew by Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state from 1973 to 1977).
I’m a product of his life’s work and will forever be grateful to Mr Lee Kuan Yew for he has proven there’s no such thing as impossible.