The venture capital (VC) landscape in Singapore and the region is often likened to a frat group or a boys’ club, where hypermasculinity holds sway in the upper ranks. After all, 67 per cent of Southeast Asia’s venture investors still do not have a female investment decision-maker, according to Women in SE Asia’s VC Ecosystem 2023.
The number is equally dismal for women holding board and executive directorships in VC firms — nine and 17 per cent, respectively, as reported in a 2020 study by Singapore’s Diversity Action Committee. Unsurprisingly, ripples were created when Huiting Koh started early-stage consumer-first VC fund Blueprint Ventures a year ago in January 2023.
Koh acknowledges the situation but asserts, “We’re definitely seeing a lot more females”, highlighting the surge in female representation across various roles. “There was a time when you didn’t even see any female partners.”
Blueprint Ventures stands out as a participant in the growing trend of increased female representation in VC with a team consisting of 75 per cent females. “That (proportion) was not by design,” she emphasises. “It was just based on who I felt would be a good person for that role, getting along and working well together.”
An unconscious bias
However, Koh raises a critical point: the need for more women in decision-making roles. Despite the progress made, “we are still the minority” and she challenges the industry to bridge the gender gap further, contending that women “shouldn’t (always) be the ones talking about DEI”.
The former Unilever brand manager and Altara Ventures partner and chief marketing officer explains that the more vocal a woman becomes, the less likely she is to garner attention in a male-dominated space. And that’s why, she reiterates, “you really cannot have the females championing DEI if you truly want to change things”.
Her incisive commentary not only calls out prevailing norms but also questions the conventional role of women often positioned at the forefront of DEI discussions — a reminder to transcend gendered expectations and foster collective efforts. The goal is to create a genuine environment for diverse perspectives, allowing anyone to affect transformative change across a broader spectrum of society.
Koh herself has experienced unconscious, or implicit, bias. “I’ve had a founder automatically assume that my male intern was the one in charge. And we went through a whole hour’s pitch with him never making eye contact with me,” she relates with candour.
The anecdote sheds light on the pervasive biases faced by women that persist in venture capital.
Changing the status quo
In her unapologetically forthright manner, she emphasises the importance of leaders — male or female — to be introspective and mindful of the unconscious bias that already exists even within our own mental constructs. She outlines the ongoing efforts needed to drive meaningful transformation within the start-up ecosystem. “Approaching every issue, situation or company requires a nuanced perspective, considering the specific needs at the given moment.
“Can you get better outcomes from different perspectives? Yes. Can we also say that you can get better perspectives if you have gender diversity? Yes. But there is no correlation between the two statements. DEI is not a blanket solution for anything,” Koh explains, underlining the importance of context.
A strategic approach
With her own company, Koh says, “I don’t think about DEI at all.” Catching the potential provocation of her revelation, she clarifies that she views them through the lens of assembling the best team, reiterating her earlier disclosure about the team being predominantly women.
She recognises that an optimal team’s essence lies in its diversity of perspectives, stating that “the easiest way to get a different outlook is to involve someone from a different gender in examining the same problem”. This approach enhances the team’s ability to better pinpoint the consumer and consumer tech businesses that Blueprint Ventures aims to endorse.
Ultimately, she says: “We’re here to invest in good businesses and to secure the best people for our team. And it should never be about gender — it’s about being self-aware during the hiring process, recruiting individuals who contribute to making us the VC fund we aspire to be.”