Why I built Asia’s first gender lens VC fund

Virginia Tan champions gender lens investing for emerging Asia as she believes empowering women economically is both an untapped commercial opportunity and a driver for positive social change. This #IWD, the founding partner of Teja Ventures, the first gender lens VC fund in emerging Asia and founder of Lean In China, one of China’s leading non-profit platforms for women, shares why the She Economy is the next big thing you should look out for.

By SGN | 19 March 2021

In 2008, fresh out of law school, I took a gap year to work in Peru’s urban slums on microfinance and women’s programs, where I met Ana, a 15-year-old teenager who was 8 months pregnant. 

Ana had been admitted to the slum clinic where I worked, after she collapsed at home from fatigue. Her mother, who was also heavily pregnant at the time with her seventh child, had forced her to clean their mud house. I was angry at this reality. 

Ana once told me that her dream was to one day have her own bed. Her entire family — which included her mother and soon-to-be- six siblings — slept on a makeshift mattress without a frame in a mud hut. It broke my heart. I knew that without intervention, in a few years Ana would become pregnant again, further disrupting her chance to complete her education and escape a life in the slums. She would be re-enacting the life of her mother. 

The gap between capital and women

Across the developing world, generations of women like Ana are mired in a vicious cycle of poverty. A lack of infrastructure for education, livelihoods and healthcare keeps them handcuffed inside slums and rural areas. They are part of what we refer to the untapped potential of 5 billion people who are to a large part, formally excluded from our global economy.

Though many organisations, such as the one I worked for in Peru, attempted to make the lives of women like Ana better, these efforts were often in vain, as grants and donations were always inadequate. As I continued similar field work in other countries, there would be similar stories of disempowerment. I realised that there would always be a funding gap, as these organizations were simply unable to finance these programs on a sustainable, long term basis. 

Mobilizing mainstream finance for social impact

The slums of Peru were a world away from my day job when I returned to London, embarking on my career as a corporate lawyer at one of the world’s largest law firms. My day job involved advising banks, multinationals, and countries on emerging market investments. 

A decade came and went, but what I witnessed in the slums of Peru never left me. I began to dedicate my time to learning how we could mobilise mainstream finance for impact in the developing world. I led an internal group of 300 lawyers to pioneer the creation of unique vehicles designed to increase the flow of financing towards microfinance, social investment and poverty alleviation, often working pro bono to support organisations across the developing world. Microfinance particularly intrigued me, as this mostly provided lending to women entrepreneurs. We also structured social impact bonds designed to reduce domestic violence, youth unemployment and homelessness and private equity funds for developing countries. Investors were rewarded based on certain successful social outcomes. 

These mainstream finance instruments harnessed the robustness of conventional financial structures but were adapted to facilitate and prioritise social outcomes. This often gave investors greater choice, as well as the financial security they needed, in order to invest significant amounts of capital.

What China taught me: technology as a gamechanger

I believe things happen for a reason. In 2013, my career in finance took me to Beijing, China, where I met a group of women who would change my life forever. Together inspired by the book “Lean In,” written by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, we founded a community of women in Beijing, committed to promoting women’s leadership, mentorship and mutual support.

Three years later, our nationwide community grew to over 100,000 women, and we communicated with them at the touch of a button on WeChat, China’s popular social messaging app. Encouraged by this success, I quit my full-time job to build what would become one of China’s best known non-profit platforms for women — Lean In China.

Those years in Beijing also coincided with the rise of the technology revolution and the explosion of social media in China. This was one of the reasons why our communities of women grew so rapidly — we were witnessing new types of consumer behaviour, driven by community, content and social networks, all made possible by technology-driven messaging apps. 

At the same time, we launched She Loves Tech in 2015 for women entrepreneurs. Fast forward to today, and it is the largest start-up competition in the world for women and technology, being held across 30 countries in 6 continents. Our finalist companies have gone on to raise more than USD150 million from top tier investors including Sequoia Capital, Vertex Ventures, Amazon, Tim Draper and more.

When I saw the start-ups which were pitching on the She Loves Tech stage, I was reminded of my days in Peru. Many of these start-ups were providing crucial, innovative solutions for global challenges including last mile commerce, improved education, finance for the unbanked, and accessible healthcare. We witnessed countless ideas — such as AI chatbots designed for women’s health and safety in Pakistan, telemedicine solutions for Bangladesh, mental health platforms in China, sensors for breast cancer from Israel, water quality systems from Canada, and fintech solutions for cashless aid distribution for Indonesia.

China taught me that technology was the missing link. Technology is the game changer to unlock women as the single largest arbitrage opportunity for our generationWomen are market makers: they are often first adopters of new consumption behaviour. 

However, technology is a gamechanger for women because:

(a) Digital platforms increasingly unlock mobile and flexible labor for women overcoming physical limitations at home. (b) Digital platforms enable women to save, borrow, and build assets transcending physical discrimination and bias. (c) Digital platforms are increasingly lowering the costs and increasing access to core services such as FMCG, healthcare, and education.

I wish I had known this when I met Ana in 2008.

Gender lens investing as an untapped commercial opportunity

The elephant in the room is that mainstream investors view investing in women as a limitation, not an opportunity. 

I built Teja Ventures because I wanted to change that.

The global She Economy is estimated by the Harvard Business Review to be worth USD18 trillion. Yet, despite their tremendous purchasing power, women consumers feel that they are massively underserved. Most current products and services offered by companies are not designed for women’s needs; they are poorly conceived, impractical, and outdated. Further, women are still underpaid and are valued less than men in the workplace. Our current global economy does not recognize adequately that women lack access to resources, capital, and other assets, while balancing responsibilities at work, at home, and with family — and that addressing this imbalance is an unrivalled economic opportunity to be unlocked in terms of accelerating global GDP and greater prosperity for all.  

Data shows us that women:

(a) as consumers control 80% of global discretionary spending. Women consumers are multiple markets in one, buying not only for themselves, but also for their households. This applies to everything, including groceries, beauty, education (preschool to university level), healthcare, financial products, eldercare, and even automobiles. When we put money into the hands of women, 90 percent of income goes into family nutrition, education and healthcare. 

(b) drive online traffic due to their social behaviours. Women are more active online than men and are more likely to purchase through social media and social circles. 55% of women purchase online versus 36% of men, with women spending 30% more time on social networks. 

(c) as a mobile workforce are benefited by a move towards flexible and contingent work, given their needs to balance work and care responsibilities. 870 million women will enter the global workforce in the next 10 years.  

As commerce and services increasingly move online, what I noticed from my time in China was that women were forming both demand and supply for many new internet models — and this was a huge economic opportunity most people were missing.

Take, for example, USD192B social commerce unicorn Pinduoduo, the greatest challenger to Alibaba’s e-commerce empire in China. Pinduoduo is a version of Groupon which encourages group buying through sharing in social networks and by providing bulk discounts. More than 70% of users of Pinduoduo were women from third and fourth tier cities in China, who were more price elastic and hence more incentivised to group buy and save. Pinduoduo is known as the fastest growing e-commerce startup in the history of China. Similarly, 55% of sellers and 70% of buyers on Alibaba are women. 

Digital platforms have enabled women to monetise social behaviours, unlocking economic opportunities they would not previously have had by leveraging women as a mobile workforce. This is particularly significant for women in emerging economies, where they are informally employed or face pressures to balance work and familial responsibilities. One example is India’s leading social commerce platform, Meesho. Meesho has 2 million resellers, with 90% being housewives. There is no capital required for them to start microbusinesses. These households can reshare links to products chosen from an inventory list on Meesho, through social media platforms like WhatsApp, with their circle of friends. In these so-called “WhatsApp boutiques,” these housewives earn their own independent income.

The other big opportunity of the She Economy is when you empower women as market makers, you also empower them as conduits to social change

When I started Teja Ventures, I hadn’t envisaged this social lens — where digital platforms leveraging women meant that women simultaneously become a force for social good through their social behaviours as caregivers, economic drivers, and first adopters of consumption behaviour. For example, women constitute the majority of healthcare workers and teachers in the world. As such, women are crucial conduits of educational opportunities and healthcare access, especially in developing economies, that will reduce poverty and drive financial productivity in terms of employability and earning power. VIPKid is one of the world’s fastest growing EdTech platforms focused on teaching English to children in China between the ages of 4 and 12, currently valued at USD6 billion. More than 90% of their 90,000 teachers are women. When the pandemic first broke out, VIPKid was crucial to ensuring that children would still receive a quality education online by offering 1.5 million free subscriptions for children to access its online live streaming teaching platform and technologies. Furthermore, in verticals such as sustainable consumption, healthy eating, telemedicine, and mental health, we have noted that women are not only the majority of users, but are also first adopters, so they are essentially channels to promote these social outcomes of sustainability and mental and physical wellbeing for themselves and their communities.

In the words of Melinda Gates, “when money flows into the hands of women, everything changes.“

Our mission at Teja Ventures
In order to fully unleash the potential of women’s economics, I felt that it was time to build a new type of venture capital fund. So that is how Teja Ventures was conceived in 2018, exactly 10 years after I set foot in Peru.

Teja Ventures is the first gender lens venture capital fund for emerging Asia, investing in technology-driven companies that leverage upon women as a demographic: as consumers, as online traffic, and as a mobile workforce. We believe in investing in game changing entrepreneurs and companies providing: (a) better consumer options to cater to women’s changing consumption patterns, (b) business models driving more income and greater access to economic opportunities for women, and (c) the mobilization of women as a workforce and distribution channels.

Data shows us that women are both disproportionate drivers and beneficiaries of new business models in the internet economy

We believe this creates a win-win situation — and companies who understand and leverage upon the She Economy have a strategic advantage over their competitors. 

At Teja Ventures, we look at the unique strengths of the entrepreneur and innovative, commercially sustainable and scalable technology and business models which are able to address the core needs revolving around the life cycle of a woman. 

Teja Ventures is proud to now be the leader in terms of the number of gender lens deals in South East Asia

We believe this creates a win-win situation — and companies who understand and leverage upon the She Economy have a strategic advantage over their competitors. 

At Teja Ventures, we look at the unique strengths of the entrepreneur and innovative, commercially sustainable and scalable technology and business models which are able to address the core needs revolving around the life cycle of a woman. 

Since our launch in December 2018, we have focused on the core verticals of health and wellness, digital distribution, and financial inclusion. Teja has invested in portfolio companies like Frontier Markets, a last mile online — offline distribution platform for consumer goods for rural India, with over 10,000+ rural women entrepreneurs. In Indonesia, we have also invested in Duithape, a fintech platform for aid and payments distribution to the unbanked that grew 50X during COVID-19, and Siklus, a first mover refillable FMCG distribution platform for the mass market. Our other portfolio companies also include Burgreens, Indonesia’s leading plant-based food chain, and Summer, a fast-growing, influencer-driven beauty and lifestyle brand that creates and curates trending beauty, health, and lifestyle products for micro-influencers and social commerce distributors to sell to their audiences and communities online. 

On this International Women’s Day, we look forward to championing gender lens investing for emerging Asia — at the forefront of leveraging technology for women’s economic empowerment. Together, let’s change the game for women.

Join us and meet others like Virginia.

Be a part of our network and gain access to networking events, jobs, and opportunities to meet other like-minded professional from all corners of the world.

About Virginia Tan

Virginia Tan is the founding partner of Teja Ventures, the first gender lens VC fund for emerging Asia. As a pioneering thought leader for gender and technology in Asia, she founded She Loves Tech, the world’s largest start-up competition for women and technology. Virginia Tan is also the founder and former president of Lean In China, one of China’s leading non-profit platforms for women which supports the goals and aspirations of Chinese women. You can connect with Virginia on LinkedIn here.

Hello, Welcome to Singapore Global Network

Already a member?
Sign up with us as a
member today