Sharon Sim wants to change the world with her new firm Purpose Venture Capital
Private investor Sharon Sim is looking to invest in tech companies that are doing good for the planet and society with Purpose Venture Capital.
Sharon Sim’s home is littered with photos – at least two dozen snaps and all are carefully framed and displayed on shelves, tables and desks. There’s one of her children grinning for the camera, a dash of fear in their smiles as they wait for what looks like a roller coaster to start trundling.
There’s also a candid black and white of her tall husband standing behind with his long arms wrapped around her. And there are many more of her kids on stage, receiving awards from important-looking men.
“I love to record moments. These memories are precious. A lot of the photos are of my children when they were younger and cuter!” Sim, 44, laughs. They have since grown into awkward teenagers and while she jokes that they no longer want her, they do share her passion for life.
“When she was younger, my 13-year-old daughter refused to eat vegetables. Recently, she told me she was going to go vegetarian two days a week because she feels like she has to do her part for the world – even though she still hates her greens,” Sim says with a hint of admiration in her voice.
A Better Way
A desire to change the world runs in the family. A few months ago, Sim and her partners Von Leong and Sertac Yeltekin started Purpose Venture Capital. The trio spotted a gap in the venture capital model and proposed a new idea: investing in early-stage companies with the potential to generate sizeable financial returns and outsized positive impact on people and the planet.
It’s not a novel idea; many banks and financial institutions in Singapore and the region have built sustainable or green financing programmes with both environmental and monetary targets. Where Purpose is different is in the nuts and bolts. “At the moment, we are using our own money to invest in these companies,” reveals Sim. “That means we are close to the ground and the founders. We work directly with them and leverage our backgrounds and connections to help them. The aim is to grow together.”
It’s still early days for Purpose Venture Capital, but Sim tells me they are already in talks with a few start-ups. She’s especially excited about two of them. One is an insurance technology company in Indonesia. In 2018, the insurance penetration rate in the country stood at a measly 2.88 per cent of the population. The start-up wants to increase that number by simplifying access to insurance products so more people, especially the lower- and middle-class, are protected during a crisis.
The other is a local food and agri-tech start-up with a novel scientific approach to contributing to Singapore’s 30 by 30 – the city-state aims to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030 – vision.
Rebel With A Cause
Thoughtfulness is a key mantra for Purpose. Instead of the spray and pray strategy many other venture capital firms like to employ, Sim and her partners are happy to complete only 10 to 15 deals a year, a far cry from the hundreds others do.
Typically, Sim has always approached the world from a different lens. Growing up, she knew she was different from the others, always marching to the beat of her own drum.
“I was left to my own devices a lot because my mum worked long hours. Usually, it was just my siblings and me. We would hang out at Parkway Parade, go watch a movie together and engage in other activities. As a kid, it was very liberating,” Sim reminisces.
Freedom was a good look on her and played a part in shaping her innate curiosity. When her St Hilda’s Primary School classmates chose traditional colours like brown or black when drawing their cats, Sim wanted purple. “I always hated being told what to do, and I remember getting frustrated a lot.”
Raffles Girls’ School was a culture shock because of the immense number of students and the varying personalities that populated the school. While everyone else vied to stand out, the introverted Sim was content to stand on the sidelines and look in. But she was such a mercurial individual, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, offered her a place when she turned 16. She declined, choosing to complete her A-Levels instead. Thereafter, she majored in international relations at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
After graduation, Sim thought about joining the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Then a chance meeting with a friend led her to an interview at Goldman Sachs at the height of the dotcom bubble in 1999. Naturally, she got in.
While the bursting of the bubble the following year didn’t hurt Sim, the global financial crisis in 2008 was a sobering wake-up call. She was then working in Lehman Brothers, which was at the epicentre of the meltdown. “It changed me and coloured my views on people. It also gave me the biggest lesson of my life: never tie your self-worth to a company. When people lost their jobs, they couldn’t pick themselves up or reinvent themselves because their identity was so closely associated with the bank,” says Sim.
Living Long and Large
She moved to the private banking sector. But the concept of identity and self-worth still gnawed at her, so when a client approached her in 2019 to think about setting up a multi-family office together, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Aries Investment Management caters to ultra high net worth individuals. We are particular about the families we want to work with, and we want to help them holistically instead of just selling them a financial product. We wanted to return to the relationship-based model that was prevalent in the 18th and 19th century.”
Is there a conflict of interest between Aries and Purpose, I asked? Sim ponders before replying, “It’s more of a confluence. The families we work with at Aries, especially those in the second and third generations, have strong views about sustainability and doing good. Purpose acts as a vehicle to explore that.”
Her drive to change the world is powered by an unusual reason. “I want to live until I’m 120,” she proclaims. It’s not so much because of selfishness as it is about a mindset change. Ask yourself this: what would you do differently if you knew you would live for more than a century? You would probably eat healthier, sleep more, exercise often and start investing earlier. But living longer also means that you’ll start taking better care of the planet.
“It changes how you look at the world. If you’re going to be around for the next 100 years, you’re going to make sure that it’s a good place for you to hang around in,” says Sim. The laissez-faire attitude that many baby boomers have towards global environmental and social diversity issues explains why it seems so difficult for the world to solve the ever-mounting
problems. Many of them feel that it’s no longer their battle to fight. Sim wants to change that and lead the charge.
The Journey of Reinvention
Unfortunately, while Sim is winning the battle to change the world, one she lost occurred in the F&B sector. The avid home chef co-founded Coterie Concepts in 2015 with her good friend and her sister. The business was the darling of Telok Ayer Street for its four concept bars: mod-sushi and highball bar Chi Kinjo, Shanghai-inspired bar and club Eliza, cocktail backroom Mona Lounge and its gem Sum Yi Tai, a Cantonese tapas bar that gained a cult following for its sumptuous comfort food and even better drinks.
While another group bought Eliza in 2019, the remaining three had to shutter their doors last year. Covid-19 may have cut them at their knees, but unreasonable landlords dealt the killing blow. They insisted on pre-pandemic rents despite the dining restrictions that limited revenue. With no love lost between them, Sim strongly believes that the current F&B business models in Singapore are unsustainable in the long run.
Instead, she’s fermenting another idea with her business partners. “Dining has shifted. Consumers now want an intimate, customised experience. They want to get to know the chef, the inspiration for the dishes, and a lot more. Opening a bar in Telok Ayer Street no longer excites me. You become a place people go to out of convenience as opposed to being a destination. We want to be more thoughtful about the next iteration of Coterie,” Sim shares.
Look into Sim’s mind and it’s a cacophony of ideas and thoughts. A lesser person would be overwhelmed by the sheer noise and the number of responsibilities – investing, private equity, F&B, family – that Sim deftly juggles. But the mother of two relishes the challenge. For her, the pleasures of life lie in attempting different things and embracing a path that meanders and weaves through different peaks and valleys instead of a boring, paved, straight road. While you’re reading this, Sim is somewhere out there now, scaling another peak with purpose. More importantly, she has a camera with her.