As early as childhood, young girls are fed a rather peculiar idea by society. A world filled with fairytales involving damsels in distress saved by knights in shining armor, where “you hit like a girl”, is perceived as something negative and so it comes as no surprise that there is a whole lot more to do in narrowing the gender gap. It’s terrifying to think that this idea in some parts of the world is still very much alive, and continuously propagated. As a woman working in a rather patriarchal society, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been pushed to feel guilty and felt the need to apologize for my ambition and success. Feeling like an outsider, your heart sinks every time and there’s an odd bitter aftertaste in your mouth. It’s a battle that, I’m slowly learning how to fight even today. But as women are slowly starting to realize their own power, forging a path to no man’s land where they can stand on their own and prove how capable they can be, the time to steer the ship in a different direction is finally here. And as with all significant changes in life, this incredible shift we’re so lucky to be a part of, has at its forefront a few brave captains who are leading all women to a brighter and more hopeful future. One of them is our next cool face of Bastet Noir, Sarah Chen, Forbes 30Under30, Principal at FedTech and the co-founder of The Billion Dollar Fund for Women.
As someone born and raised in a more conservative Malaysia, Sarah is no stranger to this feeling either. Starting her career as a national TV host for an entertainment program that ran every Sunday morning in Malaysia when she was only 9 years old, Sarah persevered despite being told off for being “too ambitious” as a woman. Her competitive spirit led her to pioneer a corporate venture capital unit within $13Bn publicly traded Asian conglomerate, Sime Darby, investing in later-stage biotechnology companies. Since then, she has been at the forefront of multi-million cross border investments playing an integral part in structuring and executing commercialization plans for her portfolio companies, from project financing to market opportunities across Southeast Asia. But beyond an impressive career, her passion to challenge other women to do more and lift others are probably her most impressive qualities that define the woman who is paving the way for other women. Needless to say she’s an overachiever with a Bachelor of Laws, LL.B (Hons.) from King’s College London, who is now working hard to commercialize deep tech from across the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and more, which makes her one hell of a cool boss babe. Read on, to find more about her journey and advice for other ambitious women.
Who is Sarah Chen?
I am a wife, daughter and sister first and foremost; and I try to be the best I can by my family — to be present, supportive of their goals and to bring some fun in their lives!
As to my work, I am Currently Principal at FedTech, where I focus on bridging the gap between venture and deep tech, inspired to commercialize great innovation developed across DoD, NASA and other laboratories. Did you know that so many of the innovations we enjoy today from GPS, SIRI, infant formula came out of the DoD? The US federal government spends 150bn/year on R&D and my work involves working with top researchers, corporates, governments and investors to bring breakthrough technologies to commercial light.
On the mission to see more women on the frontline, I also co-founded The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, a global consortium of venture funds that have now pledged $1Bn towards women-founded companies, innovating across the board from AI, blockchain, cleantech, cybersecurity, fintech, and more. I also sit on multiple boards at the intersection of technology and women in leadership, the latest being 131 & Counting, supporting the growth of women in congress and in politics which is so important!
As someone who juggles so many things and is always on the move, mornings can get pretty hectic. Do you have a morning routine that you follow to sort of set the tempo of the day and keep you focused?
I try to start my day early and slip in a quick workout involving some yoga and/or cardio. When I’m home, I whip up my favorite breakfast staple, typical Asian soft boiled eggs, toast and coffee while tuning into the news to get updated on what’s happening around the world and then get to work. The first thing I do then, is to review my plan and key to-do items to achieve within the day (which I divide into blocks of time), with a quick reminder of the bigger picture of the week and the month. I use a physical planner that I have with me all the time which helps me stay on top of my tasks, and also jot down ideas from meetings or throughout the day.
Best part about your job?
The fact that I can work with some of the smartest, top-performing colleagues, peers and advisors and am challenged by them every day to make a tangible difference together.
Worst part about what you do?
The long hours and long travel times (From US- Asia, that’s typically 24 hours for me), being away from my family. And perhaps, the anxiety in managing a lot of moving parts which I still work on daily.
Your career is quite an impressive journey. You were recently named Forbes 30 Under 30, you moved to the US, and in less than a year became Principal at FedTech while serving as Co-founder and Managing Partner of The Billion Dollar Fund for Women. If you go back in time and pick one moment that defined you as the driven, passionate person you are today, what would that moment be and why?
I can’t pinpoint a single defining moment, but would say it is an amalgamation of a few things starting from my childhood.
I look back on my childhood very fondly — I grew up as a child of the multi-cultural city in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, rooted in traditional Asian values but with forward-thinking and supportive parents who worked hard to really give my brother and I the best of everything; and also developed us to be very principle and goal-driven from day one (we started setting goals from as young as six years old!).
I suppose what made my journey a little bit more unique was the fact that I started working at a very young age. At nine years old I was selected as a national TV host for an entertainment program that ran every Sunday morning — which meant that I was juggling between homework, friends and shoots. The investors behind the TV show, used the platform to educate young leaders — so whilst we were budding media personalities, part of the deal was that we were to keep our grades up and involve ourselves in society-building causes from working with UNICEF to speaking about the rights of children in media at a large global media conference in Rio de Janeiro– this meant that I learned the value of discipline early on, and developed a strong sense of community responsibility, which has really carried on to where I am today.
I’d say that my University years in King’s College London where I read law was also foundational. The truth is the moment you get into a good university — you would be among the crème a la crème, which means that to stand out and truly succeed, you needed to be focused in your endeavors. Whilst against a conservative Asian backdrop, I was often told off for being “too ambitious”, perhaps more so as a girl, my competitive fire was fueled in London. I found like-minded peers who were as ambitious as I was, and we worked together to build the Business Club in King’s which was an experience that I would say defined my university experience to a great extent. Here, while we were building a student society, the push for student entrepreneurship was strong and we seized multiple opportunities which gave me room to truly grow as a leader and nurture my passion for business. By the time I left the club in my Presidential year, we had almost 2000 members, had strong relationships with top multinational firms, VCs and industry leaders, we were named Best Society of the Year by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE) and we even initiated our first international “mission” to Dubai! That entire experience made me realize that if you care about something, and if you work hard on something, with the right team you can run far and fast.
Importantly on a personal level coming from a smaller country, I believed that I could compete at a global scale if I fought for it — and that the only limit to what I could do was myself.
You work in what’s unfortunately still a predominantly male dominated industry, but despite the odds, you are on the ascent to the top. However, the most impressive thing about you is not the success itself, but what you did after you’ve reached the peak. You decided to launch a global consortium of venture funds that will lend a helping hand to all women who strive to do the same. So, in your words what does being a co-founder of The Billion Dollar Fund mean to you personally and what are you aiming to achieve with it?
Why, thank you for that — in many ways, that is my principle in life. I often think it is not about the achievement, the titles, the wealth, but more so, what one might do with it. For me, The Billion Dollar Fund for Women represents a great time that the venture community has come together to realize the tremendous potential that women innovators have — and it is meaningful for me to be able to stimulate those important actions and conversations, to importantly put dollars behind smart, capable female founders that are solving compelling problems. There is a lot of talk about the gender pay gap, but not about the venture investment gap — where startup teams with at least one female founder globally only receive 17cents to a venture dollar! (Yes, that means the majority of venture funding in 2019 still goes to ALL- MALE teams)
This is despite the clear outperformance from years of data — First Round Capital in their 10-year project analyzed their portfolio companies and found that by having at least one female founder, teams outperformed by 63%.
Our goal with Phase 1 was met in under 8 months — to mobilize $1 billion dollars to be invested into women-founded companies by 2020; and we are so grateful for the support of over 70 partner funds in over 6 continents — with great names in our group which include government funds from Singapore (SG Innovate) to Canada (Grand Challenges Canada), to up and coming US-based funds such as Motley Fool Ventures, Astia Fund, and Fusion Fund. Our next goal is to forge deeper relationships in the community (the Limited Partners, and General Partners) to ensure the continued capacity to invest in women — stay tuned!
If you were given the chance to go back in time and advice your younger self what would you say to her?
To take it easy on yourself and trust that if you’re doing the right thing, all will turn out fine, and perhaps even better than you expected. Bad things happen, bad people do exist; but stay steadfast on your goal, shake it off and forge ahead. Good will always prevail, although you may not see it immediately. Sometimes, the dots connect backwards.
Biggest failure in life and what you’ve learnt from it?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but these days I refrain from framing them as one failure bigger than the other, as I think that can’t be healthy. Rather I see them as part of the journey, and realize that if I’m not making mistakes, I’m not trying either. Some of my most valuable lessons include the fact that people won’t remember what you say or do, they will remember how you made them feel — and importantly, as much as we love or hate it, our world is built off good relationships, and there’s no discounting that. Invest time into relationships.
Favorite female empowerment material?
Poetry by the legendary Maya Angelou — Phenomenal Woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Any word of advice for the young woman about to step out into the world?
To be brave and to live your own unique story. The world is certainly not a rosy place, but be optimistic and positive, because I certainly believe that when you do the right thing guided by principles and have the right attitude, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve what you want to.
And because you’re optimistic, when you’re disappointed, deal with it. Don’t ever give up. Don’t second-guess yourself. Remain hopeful, and live a life guided by your hopes and dreams, and not your fears.
What’s in your Bastet Noir cart?
The Michelle Dress that I am absolutely in love with (Can you tell?) And Hera Jumpsuit!
Oftentimes we underestimate our power as individuals, thinking that there’s not much we can do to make a real difference. What we don’t realize is the huge ripple effect our collective good deeds can have on society’s future. Because change, real change, the one that lifts a person up to affect an entire community has always been and will always be spearheaded by those who are brave enough to believe that they can change the world. Granted, it’s a gruesome and extremely long process, one which takes a lot of patience, but the results are always profoundly rewarding. And that ladies, is the pure brilliance behind Sarah’s existence and work. She simply makes the world better one step at a time.
We love strong, confident and self reliant women, so if you think you got what it takes, send us an email with your Instagram account and the story you’d like to share and you might just become Bastet Noir’s next cool face.
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