Harnessing the Data Revolution: Madhu Shalini Iyer on Investing with Data Science

Growing up in Singapore as a teenager, Madhu Shalini Iyer shares her journey from being the Chief Data Officer at Gojek to becoming an investment partner in the Bay Area at Rocketship.vc. We chat with Madhu to learn how she is leveraging data science and tech to uncover rising companies across diverse sectors and identifying the exciting growth markets to venture into.

10 December 2020 / By SGN

When Gojek was establishing its regional headquarter four years ago, Madhu Shalini Iyer jumped on the opportunity to assume the Chief Data Officer position in Singapore. For Madhu, Singapore is not just a nurturing location for emerging start-ups – it was the place that sparked her interest in data science. While born in India, Madhu and her family made the move to Singapore when she was just a teenager.

Singapore: A Nurturing Location for Talents and Start-Ups

“I consider myself lucky to have been in the first wave of many things, including data science,” Madhu shares. For one, Madhu headed Gojek and started the Singapore office, building and leading teams to formulate data science and strategy, across the start-up – which would later grow into a US$10 billion decacorn

Being in Singapore was also rewarding for the business. As part of Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB)’s endeavour to develop and grow the nation’s tech ecosystem, the start-up received generous support which was central to its regional success. EDB had many schemes to promote and reward entrepreneurship and as a result build the local tech ecosystem. 

She recalls her love and fiery passion for data science stemmed from mathematics and science lessons in school. “I am always impressed by how much the government has invested in the education system and how the country has invested in the digital start-up ecosystem,” she expresses. Her mother, a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic for 20 years, taught at the School of Engineering and was very proud of the fact that she could contribute to an institution “where the future happens.”

Madhu and her children celebrating Deepavali 2020

When asked about her advice for budding entrepreneurs looking to set up their own business in Singapore, Madhu’s advice would be to embrace data. She explains: “Every business is a data-driven business at some level; therefore, every business decision should be rooted in data. The more you can leverage data to inform business decisions, the better it will help entrepreneurs in the long run.”

Hybrid of Global Vision and Regional Insights

Being a global citizen can expose one to unique experiences that build character and pave a successful career. Living in different countries has enabled Madhu to understand the different problems and needs of various markets truly. “I’ve seen first-hand how different economies and tech innovation has developed in various socio-economic conditions,” she says. When she was a data science leader at Intuit based in Silicon Valley, she helped grow the QuickBooks Financing platform, connecting small business customers with lenders, to $300 million. She also holds two patents in the areas of user data augmented algorithms for financial inclusion.

As a partner at Rocketship.vc, possessing these global experiences has refined her keen eye for entrepreneurship and opportunities across markets. At the venture capital firm, Madhu and her team actively apply data science in their processes to better identify untapped opportunities across the globe. The goal, she says, is to democratise access to capital and globalise entrepreneurship. 

Madhu (in red dress) and the Rocketship.vc team

“Our algorithm tracks companies globally using a series of metrics to indicate the probability that a start-up will be successful. We have the largest database of start-up activity which helps us identify trends and benchmark companies through the data available to us,” Madhu explains. She shares that the Rocketship.vc team, which are made up of data scientists, has engineering meetings every week to discuss data and how they can improve their models. “The experience we have as an investing team and as entrepreneurs who have used data science makes us a much more valuable partner as founders look to build their own business and use data science to their advantage,” she says.

Accelerating Today’s Businesses with Data

Today, Madhu believes that data is “at the heart of everything right now” as it can be virtually tapped into from any location. The pandemic has accelerated and enabled entrepreneurship more global than ever and has also made being “in-touch” with respective markets more efficient. 

“I think in 5, 10 or 15 years, we will look back on 2020 as an inflexion point for many things – one of which will be the year entrepreneurship and venture capital became truly decentralised,” she says. Time spent on travel before the pandemic could now be used for a quick Zoom meeting with prospects or for analysing data – which allows the team to focus on more accurate information about market trends and developments. The use of data science has also enabled her firm to latch on unique cross-border opportunities and gain an edge in identifying deal flows ahead of the local market. 

Despite having been in the Bay Area since 2017, Madhu still monitors trends in Southeast Asia (SEA) and Singapore closely for both work and personal reasons.

From a venture capital standpoint, Madhu shares that data sets are pointing at SEA and India as exciting markets with “emerging talent, fast-growing economies and a consumer population with love for technology.” This, coupled with the limitations of travel in 2020, has convinced many entrepreneurs that they no longer have to move out of a country to get start-ups funded and launched. 

Madhu (in blue blouse) at a Stanford Center for Professional Development seminar discussing trends and outlook for entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia. Photo credit: Stanford Seminar

An increasingly digital nation will also generate more data for companies to capitalise on, and Madhu thinks this will significantly benefit the global insurtech and fintech sectors. SEA’s unique tech ecosystem and population needs will also likely bring about new innovations in sectors such as edtech, telemedicine (digital health), fintech, and cloud software. 

From her personal perspective, Madhu shares that she sees Singapore as a second home, and she misses the vibrancy that defines the country.  

About Madhu Shalini Iyer

She is a partner at Rocketship.vc, a Silicon Valley based fund investing globally. She was the Chief Data Officer of Gojek and helped grow the business into a $10 billion unicorn. In addition to being a board member, she started the Singapore office and played an active role in the strategy, new business development, and ‘data as a competitive advantage’. 

Prior to Gojek, Madhu was part of the founding team of Intuit’s Quickbooks Lending Platform. As the data science leader at Intuit, Madhu helped grow the platform to $300 million and holds 2 patents in the areas of user data augmented algorithms for financial inclusion. 

Madhu was also the Chief Data Officer for Ethoslending. There she built the underwriting platform and was responsible for all b2c revenue, resulting in $65 million gross market value per month. Madhu was further responsible for building and running the marketing team. Prior, Madhu was a partner at a $150m private equity fund, Stem Financial, in Hong Kong. She started her career as a senior data scientist with a leading think tank in Menlo Park, CA.

Connect with Madhu here

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