In the MHV Podcast, we speak with leading founders, VCs and operators on their journey in Southeast Asia. In this first episode, Jeremy Au, MHV Head of Strategic Projects and host sits down with Susli Lie, founder, entrepreneur and now MHV Venture Partner.
Prefer reading? Read the transcript below:
Hey, Susli. Good to have you.
Well, we've been working together for the past year, so now people get to see what our working dynamic is like.
Susli, we're here just to chat about your life. You've had quite an interesting life for sure. We'd love for you to take us all the way back to the beginning, because you've shared some great stories about your time growing up in Indonesia, and so I'd love to hear what's it like growing up.
Wow, we could spend a lot of time talking about that. Just a little bit of history, I guess, I was born and raised in Jakarta. Both my parents were actually from the island of Sumatra. They moved to Jakarta in early adulthood, got married and had me. I have three other siblings afterwards, so I'm one of four.
Born and raised in a relatively average family. Both my parents... Well, actually, I guess it depends on how you define average. My parents are really different people from one another. My mother is incredibly studious, skipped grades, really, really smart. My dad actually dropped out of school. I grew up in a family where I think both my parents maybe didn't have all the opportunities that they could have had. They finished high school and never went much further, and my dad ended up becoming an entrepreneur shortly thereafter, which he still does today. We grew up in a suburb in the north of Jakarta, went to a national school, nothing particularly noteworthy.
I have tons of cousins and second cousins. There's that big family mentality, but resources were always scarce for them, their generation. Our generation was the first one where they were like, "Oh, all these opportunities to make sure they go to good schools. Make sure they do all these extracurriculars after school," the typical stuff. That's how I grew up.
I was the one they were strictest with. I've got two other sisters after me. Then the youngest is my brother, who's 10 years younger than me, so a huge age gap.
All four of us are quite different people. My sister who's a year younger than me, we grew up because we're so close in age and doing a lot of things together. We even started our first job together, but she's now a doctor. She's doing something completely different. I have always been incredibly position oriented. She did mathematics in university, so she's the quad sciencey, precise person. Then my other sibling is an entrepreneur. She runs her... She co-founded a company, and then my brother also is an entrepreneur, but a creative. He runs a digital marketing agency.
Wow, that's a whole family of entrepreneurs including your dad.
Which was never intended, but somehow I think there's maybe some subconscious influence there.
Jeremy Au (04:10):
Because of your dad being an entrepreneur?
I think so, but also generally, I think, within the Indonesian culture, if you will, the business culture anyway. There's always the expectation that the best outcome is if you work for yourself. We're talking about less of a tech founding mentality but more of your Mom and Pop micro entrepreneurship culture, which I think is prevalent, actually, not just in Indonesia, but also across most of Asia, I would say. There's always that implicit expectation that at some point in your life, maybe you'll work for yourself. Maybe it's a small scale business, but it's something you built. There's a lot of pride. I know my father felt a lot of pride in what he's built.
Jeremy Au (04:53):
Did he involve you in helping out, or did he encouraged or discouraged you to be entrepreneurial, or he was like, "No. No. Study in school?"
It's funny. Actually, in my early schooling years, we were all very studious, all four of us. My dad was a little more of a maverick. He runs a trading business. He trades marine equipment. This is a very relationship-driven business. It's very much about importing, exporting. I think he's always had very low expectations that any of us would really follow in his footsteps. The extent to which... We did get involved, because we used to go visit him. I used to go ride with my dad in his car, and then go visit him, and then just look at... I mean, this is really boring stuff. This is huge ropes of different sizes.
This is tons and tons of anchor use and bolts. We're not talking small bolts, right? These are for large, large ships. We always play with the binoculars. That's the stuff that we like to play with. That's the impression I had growing up that my dad is very involved with. It's very physical, right? These days, we think about businesses as being very computer focused, tech, on cloud, but it was nice to grow up around physical assets, and learning about business, because you move things around. That was always very fun.
Jeremy Au (06:14):
Do you think he was ever supportive for you to be entrepreneurial, this attitude, or was he more like, "Study is the best because I didn't get to study?"
I think my mother had that outlook more so than my father. My father was... He's what I consider to be a true entrepreneur. This is a person who has always had so many different ideas he wanted to pursue. It's so much in his blood. He couldn't work for anyone if he wanted to. I mean, he's not that kind of person. He's always had ideas that he wanted to realize, whereas my mother was very much stability, make sure that you take advantage of all the opportunities that you have, make sure you get educated, because that's the way to get access to more opportunities. There was always that little bit of a tension between the two, because again, they are two very different people.
I think that in the early days, all of us went down that known path of getting a career, of studying and doing well, or getting a job, working for other people, going up the corporate ladder. All four of us did some version of that. It was only later on in life that we were like, "Oh, maybe there are opportunities to do something else. Maybe we want to try something different."
Jeremy Au (07:26):
There you are, like you said, contrasting your mom versus your dad, right? You're also doing that and a study dynamic that was going on. What was that like?
I mean, I think we were quite lucky that all four of us did relatively well in school, and had opportunities that perhaps our peers didn't have. Back when I was growing up in Jakarta, you could not attend international schools unless you have a non-Indonesian passport, and so we went through the local system, the local education system, which was in Bahasa, although later on, we went to a national plus school in secondary school, where you get a little bit more exposure to English, but everything primarily is in Bahasa. You follow the national examination system, and then you do English maybe a few hours a week thing.
All four of us did relatively well. To my mom's credit, I mean, she puts through a lot of extra tuition, et cetera, and we ended up all going to really good schools. My sister and I... The sister closest in age with me, two of us went to Yale. It was so funny when we heard about that, because my parents didn't know what Yale was. They were like, "Oh, is it the lock brand? Do you remember... Do you know the Yale lock brand?
Jeremy Au (08:47):
Like, "What are those?" There was very little expectation, I think, thankfully, set by my parents while we were growing up to necessarily achieve certain... There were no expectations beyond just doing well in school. I think we were quite lucky to have been accepted. I think that actually... I like to tell this story, because I think that set me on a different path in life, the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school, which was, frankly, unheard of. Even today, the Yale community is tiny in Indonesia, so I consider ourselves to be incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity.
Jeremy Au (09:25):
How did you even discovered that Yale exists, and that you should apply to it? I think that's a big gap. It's not even just applying for it, but it's just even knowing that you can apply for it.
I got to rewind a little bit. I grew up in Jakarta until I was about 18 years old, and right around the time of the Asian financial crisis. 1998 was the time when I turned 18 around that time. My parents were like many parents legitimately worried, and thought about sending me abroad, me and my sister abroad for schooling. We ended up very abruptly right around the time of the Asian financial crisis in a boarding school in Australia, and ended up doing the international baccalaureate program, which was not really known in Indonesia unless you went to an international school. We ended up doing that.
I think off the back of that, because it's an internationally accredited program, and because we were in Australia, we got exposed to maybe higher education options that we wouldn't otherwise even have heard of. That was the time when we considered, "Oh, maybe we should just try it out, and put in some applications. That's how we ended up applying to American universities.
Jeremy Au (10:49):
What was it like? Do you remember what was it like to receive the offer?
To be honest, again, very low expectations. We were just like, "Oh, let's just try it out," because at that point, once you've sent out one application, you might as well send out multiple applications, right?
I still remember my student counselor in my boarding school like, "Are you sure this is what you really want to do?" Because at that time, we had been encouraged to apply to Australian universities that offered a full scholarship. We were like, "Well, let's just try it out." The only thing you had to do... Well, actually, it was a lot of heavy lifting. You have to do SAT, and then you have to fill out all these application forms. You have to write a bunch of college essays, but we were nerdy kids, so it's not like we had anything else to do, and so my sister and I both decided to do it.
When we found out, we were ecstatic. I think we were quite lucky that we were able to go partly on scholarship, because these things tend to get very expensive, and also partly because our parents wanted to support us. My sister and I actually got accepted at the same time.
Jeremy Au (11:54):
It was two kids going at the same time. My parents were like, "Wow, okay, I guess you guys should go." They're quite happy for us. I remember actually, funnily enough, our hometown had this hometown newspaper that wrote an article about us, about the two of us.
Jeremy Au (12:11):
I can imagine that.
I think my mother still had the clipping of it somewhere.
Jeremy Au (12:14):
I would love to see that clipping actually. That'd be so fun to see.
Oh my God, I remember wearing something super nerdy. One day, I'll dig it out. She was... They were both incredibly proud, especially my mother because she had always felt that she would have wanted to continue her studies if there had been an opportunity. It just wasn't available for her.
Jeremy Au (12:32):
It's a dream come true for her.
Both of us, my sister and I, felt like we owe it to where to live vicariously, and realize her dream for her.
Jeremy Au (12:42):
Just really being the first people in the family, first generation college students or university.
That's right, first.
Jeremy Au (12:52):
And also going to Yale. I mean, because there's also law of change, because now you're in Indonesia, and then you suddenly go to Australia. Now, you're in the States. Yale is quite different from... I mean, the U.S. is east coast. It's quite different Indonesia.
It is. It is. I mean, it helps that we had been in boarding school for about a year a half for that, but I remember going to Yale. I mean, it was in hindsight. I remember it very fondly. It was a fantastic four years. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. When we first started, it helped that I had my sister with me.
Even though our parents didn’t even come to visit until a few years later, because it's so far away. We'd always had each other, but there was a very small community of Indonesians actually. I remember our year, it was just the two of us, and then during the whole four years, there may have been two or three other Indonesians. It was a very small community. We gotten used to really making friends with people from everywhere. I remember that my... I remember meeting people that are just so interesting. My first roommate was a five feet nine lady called Elizabeth, who rose, so she's part of the crew team from the south.
It's just like somebody that I... I'm just not a very physical person. I'm not an athlete by any means, and so it was really interesting to look at her and how disciplined she is, her family upbringing, which is actually really conservative and really, really lovely parents who are very welcoming to us, and just getting exposure to all these people from everywhere. The representation of international students at the time was about 11%, so not huge, but sizable, and then just tons of very welcoming American friends that I still keep in touch with today.
Jeremy Au (14:50):
Any fond memories of undergrad?
Oh my god. Where do we begin? I'll tell you this. I was... Maybe this is more nerdy than anything else. I went really heavy into singing.
Jeremy Au (15:09):
I was in the acapella group, which Yale is very well known for. There's a million of them. This is the equivalent of... fraternity and sororities.
Jeremy Au (15:23):
The acapella that... That's is very Yale. That's a very a huge scene.
Very huge. I did that. I was in the Glee club. I was in the repertory chorus.
Oh my God, I just did so many... In hindsight, I probably should have branched out and do other things, but I ended up going just really headlong into that. In my senior year, I ended up directing or art directing a musical. I was just... I mean, Yale was fantastic for that, right?
The drama school is right there. There are tons of great opportunities all the time, student productions. I took advantage of that. I really enjoyed it.
Jeremy Au (15:55):
I got to ask: are the Glee movies realistic?
The West Wing stuff is true. This is now a long time ago for those of you who remember the West Wing. Yale has a premier male acapella group called the Whiffenpoofs. It's been around for apparently 100 years or whatever, something ridiculous like that. They would always... The actual group would perform on West Wing every now and then. That's real. The glee club... I'm sorry, the glee staff is partially real. I mean, that's more high schoolsey than it is college. Where we do get featured... What's that TV show called? Gilmore Girls.
There's a little bit of that happening as well. No, I remember Yale incredibly fondly. I had to miss our 15-year reunion due to COVID, but I went for our 10 year, and it was... I mean, it's just... Every chance I get, I love going back.
Jeremy Au (16:57):
Do you sing today?
Not in the least... I try to throughout my early career. In fact, I joined... I conducted actually our acapella group as well. I'm divulging way too much now. I used to sing for a group. This was all 10 what years ago now. We do less acapella, although it is a non-instrument, but less like the small knit group, but a larger group. I just haven't had time to do it anymore.
Jeremy Au (17:35):
What a shame. Well, I'm sure you sing as a hobby.
I do. I do. I do. People hate taking me to karaoke because they're like, "No, you're supposed to be silly." I'm like, "No, I take it very seriously."
Jeremy Au (17:46):
Well, there is a startup unless you have a karaoke at home. I got one of those at home.
There you are. You're doing glee and acapella, and then you become a management consultant just like me. I got to ask: how did that happen?
In university, I double majored in economics, because I didn't know what else to do, and in Chinese literature, because I always had an interest. I mean, I didn't think I would make a living out of it, but it was just something that had always interested me. Coming out of university, to be honest, I went down management consulting, because, to be honest, I just didn't know what else to do. Tons of people just did it because it's a nice place to sharpen your toolkit for two years, and use it as a platform to figure out what else you want to do.
When I got an offer to do management consulting in New York, I was like, "Why not?" Great, you're exposed to a bunch of really smart people. You get tons of training, get really good at strategic thinking, all these different things, and you get to live in New York. What else could you want? That's how I stumbled upon management consulting.
Jeremy Au (19:34):
What was it like? Do you remember your first day on the job?
Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I remember it was October 3rd, 2005. I started a New York office, and my first project was in Toronto, Canada in the winter.
I have never been to Toronto, Canada, and it is seriously cold. I mean, you think that the East Coast is cold. You go a few latitudes up north, and you're in Toronto in a winter, and it's just unbelievable. Unbelievable. I mean, they've set up... I mean, I really like Toronto, but going there in the winter is really quite a challenge. They've set up this labyrinth of underground passages, because people just don't want to go up. They don't want to be walking down the street. I remember that. That was my first project.
I remember my first team. I mean, none of them are in consulting anymore, although all of them are still in financial services. It was three other guys and me. Actually, four other guys and me. One was a Yale college friend.
Jeremy Au (20:34):
It was nice. Then they were... What actually is funny... Well, our project manager is a Yale PhD, and then my two other consultant teammates are both from Harvard. It was an interesting dynamic.
Jeremy Au (20:49):
Sounds very Ivy league.
I know. That's not a normal composition, but that ended up being my first project.
Jeremy Au (20:56):
Will you sketch for us just like... Were you excited? Since that was your first job.
That was so long ago that it's hard to... I think because it was my first job, because it's really intense, I was in a financial services practice, which tends to be super quantitative, lots and lots of industry jargon to pick up on. It was a little bit stressful, but the way I think consulting is set up in the project, what different roles, covering different things, I felt like there was a lot of support, and so learned a whole lot in those early days, and actually really enjoyed it throughout.
I really enjoyed... I'm a structured person, so I enjoyed the project management aspect of it, the strategic thinking aspect of it, the fact that consulting tends to rely very heavily on certain heuristics that you've learned. I enjoyed those, although I was never sure that I wanted to do it for life, but it was a great experience.
Jeremy Au (22:02):
That's interesting, because when you're a management consultant, you're also like a chief of staff, and so you're servicing the Southeast Asia region as well. Why the transition between, say, a management consultant to a chief of staff?
I had started in New York, and then was asked to consider moving to Asia as the company was expanding, and so moved to Asia. I really enjoyed it, covered Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia at the time, but I had always had this nagging feeling that I wanted to try something else. I've always had a passion, if you will, for policy for doing something outside of just pure business. Even within business, after four years of consulting, I was like, "Well, I really want to see something from start to finish." It's nice to have exposure to really senior decision makers, and influence their thinking, but I want to get a taste of what it means to execute.
I actually had a very open, honest conversation with my manager at the time and the partners. They offered me basically an internal role that didn't exist before. They said, "Why don't you pioneer this? Why don't you go write your own job description? We need... Now that we are six offices across the region, we need somebody to actually manage that." I pioneered the Asia Pacific chief of staff role, which allowed me actually a really nice under the hood look at how a company's run, not just strategic decisions that needs to be made, but the nitty gritty.
How do you do fund transfer pricing from one country to the next stuff? How do you craft your HR compensation policy, stuff that you don't necessarily get involved with when you're just giving advice? I spent two years doing that, working very closely with the partnership group, and out of that got the bug of like, "Oh, I really enjoy being an operator." That set me off on a different path.
Jeremy Au (24:01):
Wow. This different path is where you start off your MBA program, which is quite interesting. Why did you choose to do MBA? Is that because you were like, "Oh, I want to be an operator”?
One of the things I enjoy doing is learning. Even today, every year, I try to learn something new, whether it's a new language, whether it's a new skill, whether... I picked up jazz piano one year. I like learning languages. I've always enjoyed inherently learning, so going to graduate school was, in some ways, a bit indulgent, because I missed being in that environment of learning, but it was also, I think, a way for me to almost force myself to reconsider where I wanted to go with my career. I initially wanted to do a master's in development, international relations, international development.
But actually, one of the partners at the consulting firm I was working with challenged me to think about also doing an MBA, because he said, "This will give you a little bit more versatility to pursue more career options." I stumbled across a very good joint degree program, and so I went to the Wharton for MBA, and then Johns Hopkins, which was in DC, that has a very good international relations program. That's what I did.
Jeremy Au (25:27):
It's interesting, because why did you want to choose, I mean, not just the MBA, which is for studying in business, but also the international development angle? Why international development?
I had, at one point in my career, really seriously considered going into public policy, so whether it's at the national level or at the international level. That's why I chose being in D.C. actually, because I wanted exposure to the different development financial institutions, so the IMF, the IFCE, the different development banks, because I felt that a lot of what I've done... Remember, up to this point, I'd been in financial services for about six years, and so I felt like financial services could be used in so many different ways to affect policy, to affect national level changes, to really tackle the big problems.
I wanted, as an experiment, to try out what it would be like to work for these larger organizations. That was part of the reason. I also love... Again, the nerdy side of me really enjoyed the courses when I was doing my international relations master. This is theory of international relations. This is learning about macroeconomics, theories, econometrics. I mean, I love all that stuff, public-private partnerships. Some of it was more from the intellectual angle, but also from the practicality of how do you influence the behaviors of large systems, and how does the principles of private sector?
Jeremy Au (26:57):
This is also interesting, because from what I recall is that you also started doing investments after this as well.
Jeremy Au (27:06):
There you are. You're testing these different hypotheses.
I am. I was. I was very much deliberate about that. When I went to grad school, I knew I had three years and two summers, so I had a lot of hypotheses I wanted to test for myself. One is from a functional point of view. I've been a consultant. I've tried a little bit at being an operator. Should I test out being an investor? To me, I wanted to... All of us, I think at some point, our career decisions are driven by a sense of wanting to feel like it's meaningful, that it fulfills you at some level. For me, I was like, "Okay, so what are the different ways for me to utilize what I can bring to the table, and make it meaningful?"
I tested out investments, and at the same time... That's on the functional side. At the same time, I was like, "Well." This is early 2010, the beginning of that decade. I was like, "Well, Southeast Asia sounds really promising right now." Indonesia, in particular, where I'm from, where I feel the most affinity to, had gone through a series of economic and political transformations if you will. I felt that there was a window of opportunity to do something. Combining those two, I end up spending my two summers working in investment in Indonesia in a very deliberate way, because I had questions I wanted to answer.
Is investment for me, and do I want to work? Really return to Indonesia and build roots there, having spent the first half of my career elsewhere.
Jeremy Au (28:42):
You proved out that you wanted to be back in Southeast Asia. Instead of going on, you decided to become a founder instead.
Yes. Yes. There's a bit of story there too, so much as I enjoyed the investment journey there, because it gave me exposure in just so many different projects and personalities and industries, et cetera. I ended up through the course of those two summers meeting entrepreneurs, and really sitting across the table from them, got excited about what they're doing, and realized that there are so many opportunities for building something, and that what's missing really isn't capital, per se, but it was really good companies to invest in. That got me thinking. That planted a seed in me.
Then over the next year and a half or so, I ended up becoming increasingly fixated with a particular problem, which launched my entrepreneurial journey. That problem is... Looking back now, that problem has always existed in my mind, but it just didn't materialized until that point in time, which was access to education. This has been such a theme in my own life. Even when I was at Yale, my reflection at the time has always been that Indonesia was incredibly underrepresented. I look at China. I look at India. I look at Brazil.
From a population standpoint, Indonesia is a fourth after China, India and the U.S., but nowhere near the same level of representation. This pattern is repeated when you go look at Indonesian in the international stage. I know that statistically, it's not possible that Indonesians are not as smart, for instance. There are other systemic reasons for why this is the case. Then I compare it to a country like Singapore, which is way smaller, but has always been punching above its weight in terms of representation. I'd always felt that, at some point in my life, I was going to look into this problem and try to see how I can do something about it.
In the early stages of my career, the thought was, "At some point in my life, I might maybe contribute to a scholarship or something like that," more as something I do on the side, rather than the focus of my career, but then at one point, I started thinking, "Well, if I care about this problem, if there's something that I can do, and spend my career trying to solve this problem," and that started me off thinking about, "How can I best help with the problem of access to higher education?" Because of my background in finance, there was very natural like, "Well, education financing, that's one of the barriers."
It's not the only barrier, but it's one of the many barriers for those in places like Indonesia for them to pursue higher education.
Jeremy Au (31:40):
What was that like, because you chose to be a founder in something that you cared about, which is access to education, and yet, there's also a very different way to approach the problem? You got to approach it from a public policy angle. You got to approach it from a financing and investment angle, and you chose to be more of a founder. So what was that decision process like?
You're right. It's a multifaceted problem. You can tackle it from an education delivery point of view quality of those who provide the education curriculum point of view, policy, and financing. For me, I landed on financing for two reasons. One is what I can actually do. I'm not qualified to tackle the delivery problem. Then secondly, also, because I was looking for a solution that is commercially viable, because I believe that ultimately, for something to have huge, massive impact and relevance, it has to be scalable. For it to be scalable, it has to have at the core a commercially viable model.
That brought me to the idea of creating an education financing company. Education financing, as a concept, has worked in many different parts of the world in many different forms with or without government involvement, et cetera. There are many ways to try and package it. The question is how do you customize and adapt it such that it works in the local context, whether it's Indonesia, the Philippines, whichever market it is, because the dynamics are different? You will see that across a lot of the emerging markets, which is still true today, there is no government program when it comes to affordably paying for education.
We can talk at length about that. That's probably a topic for a separate podcast, but I basically became convinced. Actually, I actually worked for the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank first to try and solve this problem. I spent on and off 18 months trying to do that with large organizations attacking it from a policy angle, but then ended up basically concluding that the easiest way to get started oftentimes is to do it yourself. Do it quickly, experiment and fail quickly. That's what I ended up doing.
Jeremy Au (33:52):
What was it like? When you've started that process, you're also very early on the Indonesia startup scene as well, so it was very much decent at the time. What was it like?
Yes. This was 2015, 2016… For those of you who are more clued in the FinTech world, at the time, there was no... The government didn't know what to do with it. There's a whole slew of FinTech companies coming on board. We were one of the first people to be part of that Indonesian regulatory sandbox for FinTech. Incredibly nascent, yet at the same time, it was bubbling up. You would recall that the Gojeks and Grabs of the world had started maybe a few years earlier, and that's really starting to gain a bit of traction.
For us, for me and my co-founder, Naga, it was just more driven by... There was a window of opportunity. There was a real need for a solution, and why not us? We just went into it.
Jeremy Au (34:56):
That's amazing. What's interesting is there you are. You're building, and I remember you telling me about how you ended up becoming the first female founder from Indonesia in YC. Obviously, everybody loves the brand Y Combinator. What was it like?
Well, to be honest, we thought getting into Y Combinator would help us attract talent, but at the time, most people we spoke to didn't know about Y Combinator. That has really changed even just in the last three, four years, but at the time, we didn't get that much lift on YC as much as you thought we would. To put it in context, there hasn't been many Indonesian companies at all that have gone into YC, male or female. We were maybe the third company from Indonesia to have ever been. That's really more a function of how many international companies apply to YC to begin with, which is super accelerated in the last few years.
I think the latest batch, the current batch at YC right now have at least 17 companies coming from Southeast Asia. That's just grown immensely. I think for me, YC had always been something that, to be honest, at the time was a question mark for us whether or not we should do it, because my co-founder and I were building a non-U.S. business for a non-U.S. client base. We had asked ourselves, "Well, is this a relevant program to go through or not?" But at the same time, one of the earliest batches of YC founders were actually college classmates of mine. I felt like, "Maybe there's something here. Maybe there's something that can be learned here.
Maybe the rigor that YC would force us to go through for the three months in the program would actually make us a better company, I mean, because the truth is we didn't know what we were doing, right? We're first time founders, so we decided to take the opportunity, and spent three months in Mountain View, California back when you can still do these things, and had a really great time, because the orientation at YC is very much about the users. It is about building something that people want, and that user-centric discipline, I think, is just incredibly focusing, which is what we needed at the time.
Jeremy Au (37:20):
What was it like? I mean, obviously, being there, did you feel like it was fun? It was scary. What was it like? I know everyone's rushing towards the demo days, so everyone was hustling.
Yes, everyone's hustling for sure, but actually, it was incredibly... What's the best way to describe it? I mean, back then, our batch is a lot smaller than the current batches, but even then, it was still quite large. It was 120 something companies, and so plus or minus 200 to 300 founders. I wouldn't claim that I knew everybody, but the spirit of it was very... It almost brought me back to my college days. Everybody was trying to be helpful to each other. We didn't necessarily see each other as competition, right? People were freely sharing about things.
I think YC fosters that mentality, so it felt more fun than anything else. You were there to learn. You could ask stupid questions. These are people who are very pragmatic. You have access to unbelievable resources, people who have founded and exited companies, people who've seen a million iteration of whatever it is that we're building. We were building a student loan company, which has various iterations in the U.S. For us, it was both great for learning, incredibly fun, was great to see other founders and have really honest conversations with them. Some of the things that we tackled during the program was hard stuff like founder dynamics or having hard conversations with your early hires, with your early angels, whatever it is.
I super enjoyed it. People would always ask me, "Would you do it again?" I said, "Yeah, definitely. I would do it again."
Jeremy Au (38:58):
As the first Indonesian female founder, and, of course, there was very little Southeast Asian representation back then, so how do you feel like being the minority of minorities in YC?
I might have been the only female founder from Southeast Asia in my batch, I think. Just to contextualize, in my batch... This might be different from other batches. In my batch, there was about 27% women, and 14% female-founded businesses, where the founding team are all women.
I'm part of the 27, because my co-founder is a guy, but even then, that number is relatively low. However, that number's a lot higher than market. Market number is something a lot lower even today. If we look at VC money, and how much of that is going to female founders, that number is single digit, something crazy. At YC, they did a really great job of also pairing us with female founders. I remember one of the folks that actually interviewed us and then later on interacted with us was Adora Cheung from-
Jeremy Au (40:11):
I remember her.
Yeah. She was a founder of a company, also YC company, which then folded, but she was very open about her learnings, and really supportive. We got to meet a whole bunch of other female founders and also alumni that were based in San Francisco at the time. I felt like there was a strong community there. But to be honest, at the end of the day, we're all trying to build a company, and so whether or not you're a woman building it or a man building it, I mean, really, at the end of the day, for me, didn't really have that big of an impact. There's nothing that makes you more or less of a founder just because of your gender.
Jeremy Au (40:58):
Of course. What's interesting is that you're, at this point in time, bringing a lot of different experiences, as a consultant and as an investor and an operator. You're just really focused on founding and building and scaling the business. What was that like? Any tough moments you remember?
I'll say this, being a founder is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. I think every founder will say that, because it really is. People are motivated differently when they decided to go down this path. I was very clearly motivated by a problem. I wanted to solve a problem. Other people are motivated, because they are a creator. They just can't help themselves. They want to build something. They want to create something, and they want to see that through fruition. Other folks are motivated by maybe the financial opportunity, like wanting to become a unicorn, et cetera.
All of these are legitimate, but so much of it, because it goes to the core of who we are, so much of being a founder ends up being meshed with a lot of your personal practicalities of life, but also your ambition, your aspirations, how you view yourself, how you interact with other people. It's by far the hardest thing I've ever done, and the most I've learned about myself being a founder. I joke about how your relationship with your co-founder, for instance, is incredibly intense. I think, for most people who have that co-founding relationship would know. Through that, you learn so much about yourself.
You learn to be honest about who you are, what you want. What are the things you are optimizing for? What are the things you will not compromise on? These are things that you eventually have to acknowledge, right?
Jeremy Au (42:47):
Tough. I agree with you. I think being a founder is the toughest job I've ever done as well.
But it can be incredibly rewarding, right?
Jeremy Au (42:53):
Yes, very rewarding, but also the toughest for sure. What's interesting is that ErudiFi has gone from strength to strength. What's interesting is that you two, also, raised venture capital over the years. Tell us more about what's it like to be raising venture capital as a founder.
One thing I liked whenever I talk to founders these days, one question is that the forefront that I feel like every founder should ask is, "Do I want to build a venture bankable business?" I think taking VC money sets your company in a very different trajectory in terms of the expectations, the lifestyle, the pace, the goals and targets you set yourself. All of that have implications on almost every part of how you build your business and how you live your life. For us, it was a very conscious decision to take VC money, because, again, it goes back to the whole wanting to create something that's commercially viable and scalable.
We weren't interested. I wasn't interested to solve a small problem. I wanted to solve a big problem, and solve it for as many people as possible. One way to do that is to raise VC money, both not just for the capital, but also for the know-how's, for the expertise, for the discipline that investors bring to the table that I think is very useful. At YC, well, around demo day, we ended up raising our first institutional round, where we took money from other people. Up to that point, we bootstrapped very deliberately. In fact, the first few loans we make were to students at UI, Universitas Indonesia, which is a top state school in Indonesia, just out of our own money, because we just wanted to test it out.
There's no point in trying to use other people's money for this when you don't even know what you have is viable. The first set of loan books were just us using our own money, and experimenting. We raised our first round or seed round, and actually, the competition was 70% VC and 30% angels. Of the VCs that we raised, most of them were Southeast Asia based, because we felt like we were building a Southeast Asian business. We wanted local, regional know how, and all the folks that we closed from are people that we've had relationship. These are not people that we just met on demo day.
These are people we've had conversations throughout since inception, which hadn't been that long up until that point, but because of my background as well, some of them I'd already known even before, and so we raised a seed round, actually welcomed multiple ventures as an investor during that round. We raised also from a couple of others, Indonesia focus funds, Intudo Ventures as well as Convergence Ventures, which is today known as ACV, as well as Patamar Capital, which has more of an impact angle. Then we also onboarded a bunch of angels, who are either a tech Fintech specialist or very, very well established in the markets we're in.
We used that, and expanded both in country, in Indonesia, and into a new market. We went to the Philippines in 2019, and actually did really well there. Then off the back of it, raised a series A at the end of last year.
Jeremy Au (46:01):
Amazing. Of course, the question I've got to ask is during this time, you also made a transition to just change roles again and move from founder to venture capital. Talk us through how that process and thinking you went through.
Yes. Yes. This is very much cuts to the core of the personal stuff that I was talking about. I had been an investor before being a founder. In some ways, it's coming back full circle. I still remember the first day that I've thought about what became ErudiFi. It was during a personal retreat when I was sitting down and asking myself, "What do I want to do with my life? What problems am I obsessed with, and what do I want to dedicate the next, I don't know, three, five, seven, eight, 10 years to doing?" That was the beginning of what became a business plan for Dana Cita, which means aspiration funds in Bahasa, which is the Indonesian platform of ErudiFi, the parent company.
That was seven, eight years ago. I'd spent the better part of the last seven, eight years focusing on a particular problem, because no one else was. Right around the time, about six to 12 months ago, I began reevaluating my life as you should do every now and then, as I would encourage everybody to do every now and then. I looked at this problem and what I set out to achieve, and felt that to some extent, I had achieved it. Today, there is a thriving company, ErudiFi, which is solving this problem at scale in Indonesia and in the Philippines.
We aren't the only people doing it, right? There are other companies now that are rising up as well to try and tackle the problem. To a large extent, I felt like I achieved what I set out to do. There was also a personal element. One of the things that I learned having been a founder is that my strength and my nature makes me a multiplier. I am best suited to grow a company, and so this is... I could do the zero to one, but I am best at the one to 100. In search of flow and having been a founder, and having realized that, actually, the founding journey is difficult, and it was difficult for me in many ways.
Part of it is life stage related and being a woman related. I wanted to now spend the next chapter of my career, a, focusing on something where I could really lean into flow, and then, b, contributing to a larger extent to building the ecosystem, having experienced what I experienced. I wanted to give female founders a voice, and I wanted to... All throughout my fundraising journey, I have never pitched to a female partner. Shockingly. Shocking, right? I also feel that there is something to be said there, not so much because, I think, there's something better or worse about a woman or a man.
I just think that it's good to have a diversity of opinion and perspective. I wanted to... That tipped it for me. I wanted to be able to give the support and voice that I felt was lacking in my own journey. That led me to switching over to becoming a VC.
Jeremy Au (49:27):
Wow. I mean, that's deep, because, I mean, obviously a part of it is your personal professional journey in terms of self-discovery about how much you care about this problem, and how much you solved it today. I also think you are also being a pioneer in, honestly, solving another problem you saw, which is they had no women in VC. That's a problem you saw.
It's changing though.
Jeremy Au (49:54):
I'm seeing good trends, but-
Jeremy Au (49:58):
Not at senior levels unfortunately. I'm glad that you're, in many ways, still being a founder and pioneering and being a representation.
Absolutely. I'll tell you... I'll share a story. When I had my son, we had just completed as a company a round of layoffs. This is something that happens quite often. Every founder expects that this would happen at some point, but when it happens, it's still difficult. It's a difficult decision that you have to make and execute, but ultimately is in the best interest of the company. I remember going into labor right after we'd done a round of layoffs, and then going into my maternity leave off the back of it. Then coming back to work, COVID hit. It was a series of unfortunate events one after the other, and around the same time with raising our next round.
That forced a lot of... There was a confluence of factors that led me to questioning a whole bunch of different things and looking for support. I remember thinking to myself, "Who can I talk to about how to navigate being an early stage VC-backed founder, who's also a new mom, who's also an older mom, whose husband is also an entrepreneur? How do I navigate all these different things?" I went looking around for people who may have gone through something similar just to get their thoughts, and it was shocking how few people there are that I could have this conversation with. I mean, shocking. I found one in the end, one woman.
Jeremy Au (51:38):
I've always been, I think, incredibly lucky in my own founding journey that I've never felt like it was a problem in any way for me being a woman. Fundraising, I've always felt that I could do it as well as any other person. Recruiting, managing the business, being taken seriously, all that stuff was never an issue, but there is something to be said about some of the things that you go through in life, and the ability to talk to somebody who has been through something similar, role models or people who you have affinity with, because you come from same culture. You come from same background. You come from same... Whatever it is, right?
I think there's just an under representation of that in the technical system at large. Part of it is a function of, I think, a lot of founders are very young in general. It's a nascent ecosystem in Southeast Asia in particular, but for me, it was difficult. It was hard, and I just want to pay it forward.
Jeremy Au (52:30):
Wow. Amazing. Pay forward, I think that's a good phrase to wrap things up here. I would love to summarize three big themes as any good management consultant would do.
Three bullet points.
Jeremy Au (52:48):
The first is sharing what's it like to grow up in Indonesia and as a kid of the oldest of four, the most responsible maybe.
Jeremy Au (53:00):
The most guilt tripped of the four, but also talking about your dad being entrepreneurial as well as your mom being studious, and how that all came together in terms of your educational journey. The second that I really like was sharing a lot about the big breaks, the discovery moments of going to Australia, discovering Yale, discovering your joy for acapella and glee, and discovering management consulting and discovering about coming back home to Southeast Asia, and discovering the exact roles and problems that you wanted to tackle. I think that's a very crisp way of just showing life is a squiggle, not a linear thing.
Jeremy Au (53:44):
I think not everybody is brave enough to talk about this and everyone is trying to simplify it by straightening out the squiggles and make it into this clear line. I think that's a very powerful set of descriptions.
The third is just the good conversation about obviously being a founder, the tough moments, the real moments, the problem discovery, going to YC as the first female Indonesian founder, and the pros, the cons, but also, you're discovering that there is a misrepresentation of women in Southeast Asia VC. All I can say is I'm glad that you saw this problem, and that you are here today to solve that problem.
Well, I don't know if I can solve it, per se. I don't even know if I can contribute to it, but hopefully. I'll do my part. I'll try to do my part.
Jeremy Au (54:38):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Susli, for coming today.
No, I really enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.