Taking a gap year after college to work for NGOs in the slums of South America and Peru may have been an admirable accomplishment for a 22-year-old, but Virginia Tan had a cushy plan for what came after that. Having already secured a job during her second year in law school, all she had to do was graduate, move to a big bank to leverage her specialisation in finance law, make piles of money and then join a multilateral to push for change to reconcile the first world guilt that crept in from said gap year.
But you know what they say about life and well-laid plans. Tan’s law career eventually brought her to China, where “being in the right place at the right time” led to her founding Lean In China in 2016, a non-profit platform to help and empower Chinese women to succeed and thrive.
Just a year later, she co-founded She Loves Tech. Held in 40 countries, it’s now the world’s largest start-up tech competition for tech and women.
These endeavours quickly unravelled Tan’s original vision when she realised that technology and capital were the actual drivers of change. So she became a founding partner of Teja Ventures in 2018, a venture capital fund that invests in technology- driven companies that leverage upon women as a demographic.
“I don’t talk about diversity that much despite running a gender lens fund,” she says. “I spend more time talking about opportunities. It’s not about deploying capital to women, but deploying capital through the eyes of women. It’s investing in companies that will benefit the She Economy, regardless of whether it’s a man or woman building it.” Tan says that over 30 per cent of the entrepreneurs Teja works with are men.
Despite her impressive achievements, she admits that she regularly endured doubt from those around her. “I come from an unconventional background, I’m a first-time fund manager and ours is a thesis few are familiar with. It’s a triple whammy but one of the biggest challenges was to overcome the noise surrounding me. My family is quite traditional. They don’t understand what I do or why I would give up a lucrative career to do it.” Tan knew she needed time and patience to build a track record, but the hardest part was getting comfortable with the uncertainty and insecurities. Once she conquered that with “crazy self-belief”, she became unstoppable.
“Sometimes I needed a good cry or a weekend retreat to just stop and not think of anything. But I never thought about giving up.” She’s motivated by the words of the industry’s current golden boy, Initialized Capital’s Garry Tan: the role of venture capitalists is to imagine the future before other people do. “It’s a great privilege to drive capital into things you believe the world needs, like fewer e-cigarettes and more refillable FMCG or plant-based food, for example,” she explains.
“To watch the world transform because of what you’re doing – now that’s beautiful.” Success in the venture capitalism space is easy to measure in dollars, but Tan doesn’t stay too attached to the material gains. “Even if these companies end up being worth a billion dollars, they still come and go. Personally, success is knowing that what you’re doing is a good use of your life.
The best thing about my job is that I get to meet people who are better than me but just need that little extra push or someone to take a chance on them.” Changing the world is a noble and weighty undertaking, but Tan’s thoughts on her legacy are far more modest: “I want to be remembered as a voice for women – and a darn good venture capitalist.”