Singapore

She broke $300,000 bond to succeed abroad

S'pore engineer makes list of Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women

Ranked 100th in Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women list earlier this year, this Hokkien mee-loving girl from Toa Payoh has done pretty well for herself.

Now regarded as one of the most knowledgeable investors in the Chinese tech scene, Ms Jenny Lee, 44, was also the top woman in Forbes Global 100 VC Midas list of venture capitalists last year.

But her road to success started with many bumps in 2001, with the Sept 11 attacks and the dot.com bubble collapsing.

It was at this point that Ms Lee, walked into her boss's room at ST Technologies Aerospace to tender her resignation and break her 11-year bond after working in the company for five years.

She said: "I didn't actually break it. I asked to re-negotiate it so that I could pay a smaller sum to leave the company. He fell off his chair."

It was the first time anyone had gone to him to ask for a smaller penalty to leave while still under bond.

But Ms Lee was determined to go despite knowing that she was a rising star in the company, which had sent her to do her MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Ms Lee, who had been fixing and upgrading fighter jets in her five-year stint at the company, wanted to be more than just a top executive in one of the biggest engineering firms in the region.

The Hwa Chong girl wanted to see the world.

She had to borrow from her parents, husband and friends to pay off the $300,000 penalty for breaking her bond.

She said: "I figured that with the world in that state, the only way was up."

At the time, China was about the only place that was still growing strongly.

But she had not used the Chinese language for over a decade, not since she was 16.

Ms Lee said: "When you owe that much money, it is a huge motivation. Survival is a huge motivation. So you just have to learn the language and use it every day until you get good at it."

After getting a job at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, she joined Jafco Asia, where she learnt to invest in young tech start-ups in China, Taiwan and South Korea.

In 2005, venture capitalist firm GGV Capital offered her an opportunity to start operations in China.

She accepted.

Over the past decade or so, she has led several investments in Chinese tech start-ups, bringing them to big money listings on stock markets in the US, China and Hong Kong.

In 2004, she invested in software development outsource service Hisoft, which went public in 2012; and in 2010 she backed social platform YY, which also went public in 2012.

She led GGV's investment in Xiaomi, the Chinese mobile phone maker aiming to challenge Apple and Samsung.

Xiaomi, which counts Temasek Holdings as one of its investors, is now worth more than US$45 billion (S$64.4bn).

Named Young Achiever in the Business China Awards, Ms Lee believes her experiences have helped her succeed.

As an engineer, she understands the technical side of things when start-up CEOs speak to her about systems architecture.

As a former banker, she knows what it takes to prepare a company for an initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market.

She said that being a woman is an advantage.

"Basically whatever men can do, I can do. Whatever they can't, I can," she said.

Ms Lee believes the next wave of innovation will not be in software, but in hardware, or businesses that actually disrupt the real world.

And China will be the epicentre of the next wave, with the Chinese government looking to automate large chunks of its economy with robots, after realising that there is no more demographic dividend, she said.

Singapore, too, can play a big role in this next wave by being the global testbed for all kinds of technologies.

It has the infrastructure to bring these companies and talent here, which will in turn generate jobs for locals, she said.

Even though Ms Lee is largely based in China, she returns to Singapore regularly to visit her parents and friends and eat her favourite food.

"Hokkien mee, I can't not have it," she said with a big grin.

A version of this report was first published in The Business Times on Wednesday.

When you owe that much money, it is a huge motivation. Survival is a huge motivation.

- Ms Jenny Lee on paying off the $300,000 penalty for breaking her bond

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