“Youth, and the energy and freedom that comes with it, is an enormously powerful weapon that can change the world,” says Chia Jeng Yang.
Of course, he himself is all of 27.
A venture capitalist, he leads a team at Saison Capital that in 2020 picked up 10 new investments across Southeast Asia, India and the US, ranging from digital lending firm Stashfin to online grocer Segari.
But Chia, as you’ll gather within minutes of meeting him, is no run-of-the-mill investor who parks money and waits. Beyond being hands-on — “it’s a great opportunity for someone as young as myself to get to build relationships and work alongside the co-founders” — his interests extend both to public policy and community building.
Last April, as half the world was in various forms of Covid-19 lockdown, he and two friends spearheaded community-led initiative SEAcosystem.com to help laid-off start-up employees find new jobs while connecting companies with top talent.
His other side projects include the newly launched Fintech Angel Operators, a network of up to 100 angel investors who bring their on-the-ground expertise to early-stage start-ups, and Shaper Impact Capital, an open-community platform that connects social impact start-ups with resources.
“Philosophically, I have always felt that people not being in the same room together at the same time was one of the worst reasons for stifling social progress,” says the University of Cambridge law grad and trustee of Cambridge-based think-tank The Wilberforce Society. Building frameworks that bring people together “makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” he explains.
Becoming a VC was not a deliberate career choice. A struggling science, then humanities, student, he “accidentally fell into law”, but halfway through law school he realised the profession just wasn’t for him.
“I knew I wanted to go into business and thought early-stage companies would be the fastest way to get responsibilities, get my hands dirty and learn the fastest, so I decided to go down the start-up route.”
Reaching out cold to CEOs on LinkedIn, Chia landed himself successive jobs at start-up incubator Rocket Internet in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, then at Antler, the early-stage VC where he went on to help launch their European offices, and finally Saison Capital.
Unafraid of “a lot of hustling”, he tells you: “Knowledge and skills grow and compound at an exponential rate, not a linear one, and the earlier and harder you start your sprint, the better and faster you end up.”
High on his agenda is “adding a few more soon-to-be unicorns to our portfolio” and the commendable task of “effectively doing good and learning how to do so”.
“From helping to scale think-tanks to helping build tech companies and now helping to invest in them — I see these experiences as being able to dive deeper into the three most effective levers of social change: regulations, technology and capital,” he says.
Art direction by Catherine Wong; photography by Darren Gabriel Leow; hair & makeup Angel Gwee using Davines & Shu Uemura