During the school holidays, Grace Sai’s father would create a friendly competition between her and her five siblings. The one who sold the most tickets to their home-made carnival attraction would win a trip to KFC.
“Each of us took one room in the house to create our concept and we sold the tickets, which cost 50 cents each, to our neighbours and friends,” she reminisces.
Sai always chose the bathroom on the ground floor. She would close the door, fill the room with water — “not environmentally friendly, I know!” — and invite people to jump from outside through the topmost window into the pool below. The weather was always scorching hot, so many bought tickets to plunge into this inviting body of water. Sai’s attraction always generated the most revenue.
This childhood memory solidified her unwavering belief that anything is possible as long as you set your mind to it and create something out of nothing. “When people tell me I can’t do this or that, I refuse to believe it,” says Sai, now 38.
Many Roads to Success
She also credits her parents, both of whom were educators, for building an environment that nurtured her insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her childhood home in Ipoh was littered with books, and a young Sai was constantly immersed in one. Even today, Sai builds a bookshelf that extends from the ceiling to the ground in every new house she moves into.
While most guardians would encourage their charges to study, Sai’s dad had to entice her to get away from the table and experience the world.
“I remember him telling me that studying is not the most important thing in the world,” Sai recalls. “That really stuck with me and showed me that success is not one-dimensional. I should be good in other areas of my life, too.”
Reasonable people conform to existing power structures and rules. They will never do anything different… The remaining five percent must be the ones to change things. It is through the will of unreasonable people that change happens.Grace Sai, CEO and co-founder of Unravel Carbon, on being unreasonable
Sai wasn’t just good; she was exceptional. As a 16-year-old, she received an ASEAN scholarship and came to Singapore to take her A Levels. She was a member of the choir at university and represented her country in competitions. She would earn an MBA from Oxford and a Master’s in Change from INSEAD. Oh, and she speaks six languages as well.
Is there anything she cannot do? “I’m really, really terrible at sports. In another life, I wish I could have been an Olympian,” she laughs.
Sai knew she wanted to change the world regardless of her non-athletic ability. In 2012, she co-founded Impact Hub Singapore, which was her first vehicle for doing so. It was Singapore’s first co-working space and a stomping ground for entrepreneurs and creatives.
Impact Hub Singapore, which was rebranded into Found in 2018 and merged with Collision8
in 2019, was Sai’s love letter to the vibrancy, diversity, and chaos of Silicon Valley.
“I was there in 2010. I could smell and feel the ecosystem. I met an entire generation of unreasonable people who did not want to follow a single definition of success and wanted to change the world,” says Sai. “The co-working space was my way of redefining what success meant for the young change-makers in Asia. If you wanted to be successful, you no longer had to be a doctor, lawyer or banker.”
Building a Better World
Little did she know it, but Sai was ahead of the curve. Over the past decade, the usually stolid city-state has seen a new breed of entrepreneurs wanting to upend the status quo. In 2016, about 130 venture capital (VC) firms set up shop in Singapore. Last year, there were 180. Collectively, tech startups in the country raised a whopping $11.2 billion in the first nine months of 2021 — more than double the amount raised ($5.5 billion) in 2020.
Sai strived to be, as she calls it, unreasonable. “Reasonable people conform to existing power structures and rules. They will never do anything different. They are good and obedient people, and they probably make up 95 percent of the population,” says Sai. “The remaining five percent must be the ones to change things. It is through the will of unreasonable people that change happens.”
Sai names a number of global movements — universal suffrage, LGBTQ advocates, and the first wave of environmentalists — that began with a few brave people holding up picket signs or tying themselves to a tree.
Age has blunted her aggression, but in a good way. “I used to be impatient and direct. I’ve learned to communicate better and enlist more people to join me. You might go slower this way, but you last longer and move together,” she says.The third time around, Sai wants to drive change through Unravel Carbon, an enterprise software platform that uses artificial intelligence to help companies reduce their carbon emissions.
The only difference this time is that she has a passenger along for the ride — her three-year-old daughter Lea.
“When a global consulting company started the process of acquiring my second company, Ravel Innovation, at the beginning of last year, I asked myself, ‘Now that I’m a mother, do I have one more startup in me? Do I want to torture myself again and potentially create my final impact?’” says Sai.
She talked to the 20 smartest people she knew and asked them to point her in the direction of a problem worth solving with her experience, capital, and network. Their answers were unanimous: climate change and non-financial reporting.
She also stumbled across and downloaded a few carbon reporting apps around this time. “I found them interesting, but on a personal level, there’s really only maybe 10 things you can do to reduce your carbon output — drink oat milk, drive an electric vehicle, rent clothes, put solar panels on your roof, and more,” says Sai.
Then she thought: could she expand these carbon reports to enterprises as well? And so she did. The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) protocol, for example, accepted spend-based methodologies for enterprise carbon calculations.
Sai knew she had the makings of a high-impact startup. Unravel Carbon was born in January this year.
Business and Environmental Sensibilities
The company’s secret sauce is its carefully calculated algorithm that transforms accounting data into full supply chain carbon data before suggesting climate solutions within seconds. It used to take months.
From there, it can spot the highest carbon emitters in its client’s infrastructure and recommend solutions to achieve net-zero emissions. “Our team spends several hours a month with each client to help them make sense of their results and connect them to suppliers or vendors that can help them with their decarbonisation efforts,” says Sai.
The net-zero effort simply makes business sense. The 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact saw over 140 countries agreeing to net-zero emissions within a certain time frame. In Singapore, the government is escalating carbon tax levels, starting from 2023. The more carbon a company emits, the more tax it will have to pay, up to potentially $50 to $80/tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) by 2030.
Sai is ready to strike. In six months, her company has grown rapidly. Her team now numbers 30. It has an additional seven experts advising it on the rules of engagement for carbon reporting as part of its sustainability climate team. Recently, Sai and her co-founder Marc Allen closed a $10 million oversubscribed seed round with investors such as Sequoia India, Alpha JWC Ventures, Rebel Fund, and Bradley Horowitz, to name a few. The raise is the largest ever in Asia for a climate technology solution.
The hefty war chest has emboldened Sai to move forward rapidly. Climate change has once again come into sharp focus with the recent heatwave in Singapore and the wet-bulb temperature phenomenon sweeping the world.
Covid-19 has shown that when there is a confluence of urgency, a common enemy, and people dying, the world can come together to bend the curve. Sai hopes the same will happen with climate change. “You know, the next generation will feel the true effects of global warming. Not us. Therefore, we must act now. It’s already hitting closer and closer to home,” she says.
Heal the World
Sai sometimes wishes she had started this journey sooner. For a long time, she believed governments and decision makers would resolve the problem. However, she underestimated the severity of the situation and the power ordinary people possessed to solve it.
Now she has an even bigger reason to save the planet: Lea. “I’ve realised that I’ve only now learned what true happiness is through her. I never knew that such unconditional love existed, and that I could feel so much joy from loving someone,” says Sai.
She knows she can make a difference again. Although Sai has built pioneering ecosystems, lived in different countries, and won academic and business accolades by the dozen, she is still that same kid, creating a swimming pool attraction in her family home’s bathroom — and selling enough tickets to win a fried chicken meal.
Photography: Joel Low
Videography: Belle Chew
Styling: Chia Wei Choong
Hair and Makeup: Manisa Tan using Shu Uemura and Keune
Photography assistant: Eddie Teo