Cover Story

Rise Like The Sun

At 28, Pocket Sun is already the face of 21st century venture capitalism, and she’s unapologetic about redefining the status quo.

Rise Like The Sun

Pocket Sun says she cried so hard during the No Mans Land scene in Wonder Woman where the Themysciran warrior braves a savage hail of gunfire — a singular memory of a woman standing up to the patriarchy without flinching, without the assistance of any man, and winning. “I watched it twice and cried twice.”

Yes, it was a cinematic moment, but in every way, that sequence perfectly captures the world view of the 28-year-old — first, as a 21st-century woman, and second, as a venture capitalist with both a mission and a conscience. Specifically, as the co-founder of SoGal Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in direct-to-consumer brands and businesses run by women and minorities, alongside a non- profit foundation that aims to redefine the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs, women and investors.

To date, the foundation has 40 city chapters in five continents, while SoGal has raised US$12.5m ($17.1m) of a target US$15m. Half her investors are US-based (retail giant Macy’s is the largest partner) and the other half are Asia-based (including the co-founder of Gojek).

“We’re nearly there,” she says of her fundraising targets, but it soon becomes clear that her goals are so much larger and more universal than ROIs, not least the ongoing battle to liberate consumers from a global mindset she views as traditionally male-led and data-driven.

The battle, as she sees it, must begin in school, at the very least, where she never liked history “because women’s stories were never told”. Hence, her conviction that we need to break the traditional syllabus mould to include lessons on love, relationships, sexual harassment and, especially, toxic masculinity. The world needs more female leaders and feminine energy. Vulnerability, intuition and compassion need to be seen as strengths, not weaknesses.

For Sun, a mindshift of this nature is necessary because it cannot be business as usual. Literally.

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She reels off examples where choices made by female consumers are dictated by a male-dominated business world. Pharmaceuticals are created for male body types and metabolism. Dyson, she dryly points out, has an all-male board that oversees a product that is sold almost exclusively to women. Mainstream jewellers also come in for a hit. “Diamond rings are not just for straight couples. Also, more and more women are not getting married and are buying jewellery for themselves.”

Her broad-brush vision is to get into media, hotels, wellness, insurance and banking. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement is also an investment opportunity, especially as some start-ups are harnessing technology to protect women. “I’ve never been sexually harassed, but that places even more of a responsibility on me to stand up for those who have,” says Sun, who landed on the cover of Forbes magazine when she was just 24.

If it’s not already clear, Sun — born in China’s Shandong province and educated at College of William and Mary in Virginia, and the University of Southern California — is completely unapologetic in her view that the status quo needs to be upended and that now is as good a time as any. And more than anything else, she walks the talk.

On the day of our interview at the Raffles Singapore’s The Great Room (founded and run by women), she is dressed head-to-toe in clothes, shoes and accessories designed by women. She’s currently planning her wedding with an all-female list of vendors at the Rosewood in Phuket (whose CEO is Sonia Cheng). Her conversation freewheels through sexual politics, history and the championing of good old-fashioned girl power. “We need more female role models like Vivienne Hu and Misha Nonoo who can take brands global.”

But she is careful that her message never comes across as male-bashing, for that approach will be no different from the chains of the confining patriarchy she wishes to break. Instead, the future she is advocating is “more grey scale, more fluid and more confusing, but in a great way. We don’t need to set a hard line and define ourselves permanently. As a venture capitalist, there will not be a singular thing that defines me. I have to be multi-dimensional.”

Just like Wonder Woman, in other words.

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With the world economies in such upheaval, does it seem a bit brave to be an investor, much less a venture capitalist?

This is actually a great time to be investing because there are so many white spots in the market. Women make up 80 percent of consumer decision-making, but they are not targeted meaningfully. Too many marketing campaigns are not designed for nor do they serve the modern multifaceted woman. A lot of male investors do not see the potential of female-led ventures.

And why’s that?

So much of the world’s infrastructure, politics and finance are grounded by the straight, white male psyche. This applies even in Asia because we are still so heavily influenced by Western culture. And business schools still use case studies written predominantly by men for men, so they encode a certain way of thinking.

All of which makes investing in women such a “no-brainer”.

It’s the biggest opportunity of the century. Women make up 50 percent of the population. We are on the rise and there’s no stopping us. The momentum has only happened in the past 20 or 30 years as women started to work in significant numbers and run Fortune 500 companies. And yet, this 21st-century demographic is overlooked and underserved. There is a vast opportunity to redesign services, society, education and the workplace, especially. And the thing is, for investors, there’s actually a huge financial payoff beyond altruism.

But there is still a clear lag. Is the problem also one of self-confidence?

As the largest minority group, women, by default, underestimate ourselves on a daily basis. We mistakenly think that everything has already been done, but the truth is, it wasn’t done by us. We’re tolerating sub-optimal products, services and infrastructure. The first step to live in your power is to respect yourself, and your unique life experiences. I did a TEDx talk called “Use your difference to make an impact” and I still stand by what I shared on stage: your difference matters. It can shine a light for others who are going through the same things. Put another way: Is a healthy, thin, straight person more worthy of being seen or having meaningful products made for her? Victoria’s Secret is eating the consequences of this mindset.

Lambskin boiler suit with silver-toned studs, from Hermès; Happy Hearts ring in rose gold with diamonds, Happy Hearts bangle in rose gold with mother-of-pearl and diamonds, both from Chopard.

And then there is Kylie Jenner.

She is definitely an inspiration for creating such a successful business. She is redefining the face of success. You’ll be surprised how many people don’t realise that Mark Zuckerberg is no longer the world’s youngest billionaire, and that she is. That’s due to the algorithm of news feeds.

And yet, there’s so much money to be made in the beauty business.
Absolutely. Sequoia Capital is one of the world’s largest venture capitalists, and it’s only recently invested in beauty. Beauty is not seen as a legitimate investment because traditional investors don’t understand it. They mostly want to stay in their own comfort zone. Which is crazy because beauty has super-high margins and repeat purchase rate, and fast growth.

The success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty makeup range of 50 different shades of foundation shows what can happen when you design for a demographic. The LGBTQ community and plus-sized fashion are also good examples. There’s actually a financial payoff beyond altruism.

So, the awareness gap is a gender issue?

Well, put it this way: 90 percent of venture caps are men, of which 40 percent went to Harvard. Only 2.2 percent of venture capital funding goes to women, while black women get less than 1 percent. I haven’t seen any good studies on Asian women, but I’m sure the numbers will be very similar.

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Women, classically, are talked over, ignored, sexually harassed and so on. Do you think these experiences temper them and make them more effective in the long run as leaders of their own companies?

A friend of mine went to a private banking event and all the men there talked to her husband and basically ignored her, even though she was the CTO of a big company. Women are generally made to feel inadequate and unqualified when really, it’s not their problem. It’s the larger overarching infrastructure that is failing them.

A large part of the conversations on our SoGal message platforms is about how to be a woman, how to be more independent and how to live our own truths. Because women understand what it’s like to be the underdog and second-class citizens. We understand the importance of respect, equal opportunity and compassion, for everyone to succeed. When we’re in power, we look after others by changing the status quo. For example, a Japanese female CEO banned after-hours drinking, which is classically a male activity.

Of course, your interests as a VC extend beyond women.

The LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, refugees, those with mental health issues… they all suffer from the same issue of being ignored by mainstream businesses. Consumers are really fed up with products and services created by someone who hasn’t authentically experienced their struggles.

Where’s a good place to start changing the conversation?

Children are going through the same education system which is designed to manage, rather than to optimise individual potential. And they’re instilled with different mindsets. Boys are encouraged to grow up and be rich. Girls are told they need to save and not overspend.

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You indicate that your investment criteria include being global-minded, design-focused and having a community spirit. How does this translate into sectors and financial returns?
We invest mostly in consumer tech, digital health and wellness, and the future of work. These are three main areas that affect the modern woman’s quality of life and we deeply understand this demographic. My mission is to provide women with power, access and capital, and to achieve this, I’m motivated to prove that investing in women creates superior financial returns. Even though we should invest in women and minorities just because! So far, our performance proves we can generate above-market return potential.

In the time you’ve been in Singapore, how has the community of female venture capitalists and investors grown?
I decided to come to Singapore in 2015 because it is the regional centre for tech entrepreneurship. At the time, there weren’t many female investors, especially at the partners level, and I wanted to help grow the ecosystem. As part of the SoGal global network, I started a SheVC network for women investors, and now we pretty much have every female VC in Singapore in the WhatsApp group. It pays off to serve the community!

Early-stage, small-scale venture capitalism is a high-risk business with many potential pitfalls. Why take on so much uncertainty?
We invest passionately in what we know best: Millennial and Gen-Z women. We asked ourselves countless times, “Why us?” But at the end of the day, what we’re doing — investing with conviction in women-focused, early-stage global businesses — has never been done before, especially not by people who look like us. So it’s either us, or no one. We figured that we could give it our best, and inspire others to do the same.

As your fund is small and cannot do all the due diligence or provide all the money, do you partner with other funds? We’re actually not that small considering some famous funds had tiny first funds to start with. For instance, Tim Draper started with US$3m; Chris Sacca with US$7-8m; First Round Capital, less than $10m. We do due diligence by ourselves because it’s important that we make independent investment decisions, instead of relying on other people’s judgment. Also, we’re small and nimble enough to partner with other bigger or later-stage funds, as well as other seed funds. We’ve co-invested with big names like Google Ventures, Bessemer and GGV Capital.

We’ve run out of time. Any last words?

Vote with your dollar.