Melisa Irene’s path to partnering with one of the most respected venture capital firms in Southeast Asia is unconventional.
“I always consider myself pretty lucky,” said Irene, who was promoted to partner at East Ventures in January 2019. At 25, she was the first partner in the Jakarta-based investment firm.
During TechCrunch Disrupt’s first online conference, I spoke to Irene about what she humbly referred to as a “happy” career, her experience as a young investor, the rush of American and Chinese VC funds to Southeast Asia, and the COVID-19 pandemic means to us East Ventures . A video recording of the conversation can be found at the end of the article.
Partner at 25
Irene admitted that timing was a huge part of her rise into the VC world. The development of Indonesia̵
Back then, “I didn’t compete with many investment bankers,” said Irene, who graduated from university with an accounting degree and started as an intern at East Ventures. “The skill they were looking for was how quickly you can immerse yourself in the ecosystem.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Southeast Asian investment ecosystem is “quite friendly” towards women. “People are happy about the promotion of female specialists in this branch. It is not uncommon for women to become deputy director or principle in Southeast Asia, ”said the investor.
The support goes beyond just ticking the box for gender diversity and reflects a real demand for more empathetic investors in the tech industry.
“Sometimes people like to talk as business partners and sometimes as friends. [Empathy] is something that can be seen as natural by women, ”she added.
However, the investor warned that “the number of [female] Decision-makers definitely need to be improved “, while foreseeing the local ecosystem,” supports this “.
SEA gold rush
In recent years, tech giants from the US and China have been looking to Southeast Asia, a region of around 670 million people and a fledgling internet market. They often start out by funding local upstart who through the investment provide directional advice to their overseas corporate investors.
Indeed, the household names have all bet on the region’s rising stars. Alibaba invested in Tokopedia and its JD.com-supported travel portal Traveloka, which is also part of the East Ventures portfolio. Tencent, Google, Facebook, and Paypal are all investors in Gojek, the Indonesian titan who goes hand in hand with SoftBank-funded Grab.
When startups are offered big checks, they need to stay calm and consider what’s best for them, advised Irene. “The thing is, everyone has money. Companies have to decide which side they are on, which companies they want on board and which companies they can advise strategically on. “
It’s not uncommon for investors and founders to argue about priorities. Some investors want a quick exit while the entrepreneurial mentality is to build a business long term. “That’s why alignment is important,” said the investor.
The future of technology in SEA
As unicorns and “super apps” like Grab and Gojek emerge in Southeast Asia, concerns that incumbents could kill competition are mounting. East Ventures has a unique insight into the region’s competitive dynamics as an early stage investor where some of its startups like Tokopedia and Traveloa have grown into giants.
Irene believed that as the Internet ecosystem of Southeast Asia matures, there are many opportunities for startups in “emerging sectors”.
“If you look at the unicorns, you see a lot of younger and smaller companies supporting them,” she said. The point is that giants can’t do it all on their own, and some of the niche features are best approached by smaller players with special focuses.
On the other hand, the investor believed that consolidation is possible and should take place in areas that can benefit from economies of scale and network effects.
“People see Indonesia as one country. We are not. We are the largest archipelago, which means that there are very different infrastructures in different provinces. For example, it is expensive to set up a bank branch on a small island. This means that many things have to be brought together in a joint effort and a large ecosystem in order to offer consumers different types of offerings. “
Finally, there is the inevitable question of COVID-19. Like many investors, Irene saw a silver lining in the dark ages.
“Before COVID, it was very difficult to assess the quality of companies. They all had a lot of money and the infrastructure was really good … Now suddenly we can see who makes good decisions, who makes them with what speed and what the result of those decisions is. The way entrepreneurs respond to COVID can tell us a lot about their businesses. “