It’s not uncommon for foodies to seek out reservations at Michelin-starred tables simply for bragging rights on the ‘Gram. Harmin Kaur, however, does not. She calls herself a lover of gastronomy, and for good reason.
“I love the joie de vivre of the whole experience,” says Harmin, who founded and chairs Women Venture Asia, a non-profit female-centric organisation focused on building an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem.
A lover of French gastronomy, she has dined at top spots in France, including Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris and Le Coquillage in Cancale, as well as Odette and La Dame De Pic in Singapore. “Rather than saying, ‘I’ve eaten at this place or that place’, it’s about the chefs’ entrepreneurial journeys,” she says. “They did not create a world-class restaurant overnight. Their restaurants became brand names or earned Michelin stars because of years of pushing the boundaries, and I love understanding that journey.”
The former executive director at Goldman Sachs’ Consumer and Wealth Management Division, where she covered high-net-worth individuals and families in South-east Asia, draws inspiration from this grit and tenacity at this point in her life.
As she reflects on her gourmet adventures, she says, “Running a restaurant is one of the hardest forms of entrepreneurship. It inspires me to see how restaurateurs and chefs keep pushing to succeed when the odds are against them.”
Addressing the gender gap in entrepreneurship
After 12 years at the bank, she stepped down from her role in June this year to pursue her passion for advocating for women’s economic empowerment — a cause she has always held close to the heart.
As part of her efforts to address the gender gap in entrepreneurship, she started Women Venture Asia in October. It provides access to new networks and connects female entrepreneurs with investors and business leaders. The organisation’s founding board includes Deborah Widjaja, deputy CEO at Bund Center Investment, and Dr Sandhya Sriram, group CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats.
Using statistics to support her argument, she says there is a clear need for this. Globally, there is a funding gap where women-led startups received just 2.3 per cent of venture capital funding in 2020. What’s more, only 12 per cent of decision makers at venture firms are women, and only 2.4 per cent of them are female founding partners. This could lead to pattern matching habits with fewer female entrepreneurs being picked.
“Funding aside, women entrepreneurs face a lack of access to robust networks and social capital, which is a problem. Without networks, you have less access to peer support, deal flow, and funding opportunities — and all of this is a vicious cycle,” she explains. “Not having access to social capital could result in a scaling gap in which you do not have the support to take you to the next level or to take more risk.”
It could also be one of the reasons why new ventures from Asian women tend to be smaller in terms of employees, revenue and profit.
Harmin observes that now is the time for change. “There is more accountability and awareness now as opposed to even five or 10 years ago. Rather than just raising awareness, many initiatives are focusing on accountability.
“I have also witnessed a change in capital markets in the last five years, where capital is used for good, whether it is for social impact, impact investing or ESG (environmental, social and governance). There is much more of an appetite to support women’s empowerment now.”
Additionally, investors, shareholders and consumers themselves are leading the change around the world. She says, “They expect companies and corporations to work the talk and that is driving more accountability in the system.”
A champion for women’s economic empowerment
As a result of her childhood experiences, championing women’s economic empowerment cuts close to her heart. When she was about 10 years old, her father suffered a financial setback and her mother had to work to support the family.
“Over the next two decades, my mother worked two shifts, seven days a week, to make ends meet. Seeing the effects of financial independence and economic empowerment on my family was formative for me,” Harmin recalls.
When she turned 16, she began working in part-time jobs, from giving tuition to being a receptionist to earn pocket money to support herself. “I could not wait to start working and become financially independent,” she says.
She once was told by a job agency that she had secured a job at a bank, only to show up and find that the job scope involved stapling papers and filling envelopes. “I was embarrassed because I was all dressed up for the part, but I kept going and finished it,” she recalls of her 18-year-old self. “It was motivating because I said I am going to come back to a bank one day, and I am going to change things.”
Since then, she has lived by this credo. During her tenure at Goldman Sachs, she led inclusion and diversity initiatives across the Asia-Pacific, pioneering programmes that strengthened the pipeline of women leaders and increased accountability at the top.
She also serves on the board of women’s groups in Singapore, including her current position as honorary treasurer at United Women Singapore, and is an active mentor with the National University of Singapore’s Women in Business group.
“After experiencing this firsthand, I feel that it is very important to pay it forward,” she says.
Finding purpose through starting Women Venture Asia
She cites this as one of the key factors that influenced her decision to leave banking. “Although I worked with very successful entrepreneurs, I sometimes felt like I was on the outside looking in, and I wanted to be a more active participant. I wanted to be on the other side of the equation, so that motivated me to take the next leap into starting my own venture,” she says.
Her overarching goal is to make a significant impact on women’s entrepreneurship. “That is the difference from all the other pivots I have made before,” adds Harmin, who previously founded an enrichment education start-up and worked with Aware, advocating for women’s rights and gender equality.
I have always looked for a purpose. This time around, however, it is about leveraging my whole experience in the service of both passion and purpose.
Providing more funding opportunities for women entrepreneurs
Women Venture Asia has plans to hold larger-scale conferences featuring thought leaders and successful entrepreneurs to offer the organisation’s network a greater platform to reach out to, as well as more intimate roundtables where women can network within the entire ecosystem and forge deeper connections.
The team, she elaborates, is also exploring “capacity building” in terms of mental resilience and well-being, in addition to transformative coaching to empower women with the tools to leverage the resources available to them.
“Women tend to start businesses at a good rate, but sometimes, they can stagnate because they are unwilling to take risks since they tend to be self-funded. I think it is important to address that,” she elaborates.
Within the next two years, Women Venture Asia’s goal is to become a “conduit” between investors and women entrepreneurs to provide more funding opportunities.
Taking a moment to reflect on what is to come, Harmin says, “It is ambitious and a tough road ahead, but we just have to keep going. It’s been 20 years and I am still at it. It is not as fast as we might want it to be, but I do see change.”
She sees parallels here with the trajectories of some of her favourite chefs, such as Guy Savoy, whom she interviewed for a magazine article earlier this year.
In her words, “He has kept three Michelin stars for 21 years, which is not easy because the stars are awarded every year, so he has to maintain the standard and keep reinventing. I saw how his team is young and vibrant, and how he is willing to keep things innovative and push the boundaries at this more mature stage of his career.”
Despite this, the secret to his success remains deceptively simple. “When you speak to him, he simply says it boils down to the passion for cooking. He’s in love with what he does.”