Behind the scenes with Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling

Grab COO Tan Hooi Ling. Photo: Grab

Compared to Anthony Tan, Tan Hooi Ling is the lesser known co-founder of Southeast Asian ride-hailing major Grab. Why is that?

“I’m introverted by nature and prefer to operate behind the scenes,” she told DEALSTREETASIA in an email interaction.

A mechanical engineering graduate, Hooi Ling was previously a consultant at McKinsey & Company, advising global corporations in Southeast Asia, North America, Latin America and Australia.

While some might think Hooi Ling and Anthony are related, but the truth is they’re not. Both met while pursuing their Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Harvard Business School in 2011. After finishing their studies, they headed home to start Grab – MyTeksi back then – in Kuala Lumpur before moving its headquarters to Singapore.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to this day and Grab has grown into an “everyday” business, providing services in the food delivery, grocery delivery and fintech sector. It has crossed 2 billion rides in July and is on its way to achieving $1 billion revenue by end of this year. And of course, Grab is one of the two most talked-about and valuable startup in Southeast Asia. But the startup is not going to stop at just that, it aims to become the quotidian app of Southeast Asian lives.

“With Grab Platform, we’re transitioning from a transport company to an everyday super app. This is reflective of our growth over the past six years. Because we are the go-to transportation service provider in Southeast Asia, we now have a strong user base and wide distribution network, and we’ve been able to heavily invest in future services like food, payments and logistics. Today, we’re bringing it all together onto the Grab Platform. We’re focused on becoming Southeast Asia’s everyday super app, providing the most important everyday needs for Southeast Asians – food, payments, logistics, groceries deliveries.”

So, how do the two co-founders split the workload – who does what?

Hooi Ling says, she oversees people and operations at Grab, while Anthony typically handles the more “external facing part” of the business. “That said, we collaborate a lot and exchange portfolios from time to time.”

Championing women support

In 2017, Grab raised a $2.5-billion round led by Chinese ride-hailing major Didi Chuxing and Japan’s Softbank Group. Didi’s president and a vocal gender diversity advocate, Jean Liu had told this portal that diversity is indispensable to the startup’s core value.

Similarly, gender has never been an issue for Hooi Ling and the rest of the team, where more than 40 per cent of Grab employees or Grabbers including team leads, are women, she said.

“While we’re very proud of the fact that Grab’s gender balance is relatively equitable, we don’t take that for granted and we know we could still be doing more. We have a mentorship programme called Women at Grab, which started with leaders like myself and our Head of People, Chin Yin Ong, as mentors. As the programme has grown, we now have former mentees now serving as mentors to newer and younger colleagues at Grab,” she said.

Also read: Diversity indispensable to DiDi’s core values, says president Jean Liu

The women support by Grab extends beyond the Grabbers. As women tend to prioritise family obligations much more, the flexibility of being a Grab driver and agent helps women take control of their finances while juggling family time, said Hooi Ling.

“In 2017, the number of women driving for Grab grew by more than 230% and the total distance driven by women drivers increased by 570%. In Indonesia, the number of women driving for Grab went up by almost 500%!”

Some of the other programmes by Grab include Grab Academy for Wives, which provides wives of our driver partners with livelihood skills training to help them start their own small businesses and add to the household income for their families.

Hooi Ling added that the startup has also hosted a UX learning workshop for a small group of its Grab driver partners’ teenage daughters to help them grow a design thinking mindset, which is “such an important life skill to have in tech and beyond.”

“I’m a big believer that giving young people exposure to these kinds of ideas and skills early on lets them know what’s possible. It also helps gives them something to strive towards as they continue to grow and mature in life,” she added.

Driving diversity across the board

The startup world is a male-dominated one, and this is not just a general assumption or sentiment but backed by facts. While in the US, only 17 per cent of startups have a female founder, in Southeast Asia particularly in Singapore, merely 5 per cent of tech startups are headed by women, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014.

The figure may have since increased slightly, but the 2017 report by WEC stated that globally, fields such as care economy and the emerging tech sector are the most affected sectors by gender bias, and are losing out on the benefits of diversity.

Hooi Ling says, “surrounding yourself with supporters, whether men or women, in your personal or professional life, is hugely important. We put great effort into creating that environment at Grab, where anybody can thrive regardless of gender, race, and nationality. At Grab, we don’t focus on your gender, we hire the best person for the job. We believe that if you are capable and you believe in our mission of driving Southeast Asia forward, you will be able to contribute to Grab.”

The Grab-Uber deal

This year has been an extremely eventful one for Grab. Besides closing a $1-billion round from Toyota Motor Corp and launching its own venture arm, it also announced the acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asia operations, including ride-sharing and food delivery business, in March.

The deal also saw Uber pick up a 27.5 per cent stake in Grab and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi join Grab’s board.

Commenting on the merger, Hooi Ling said: “The Uber partnership made a lot of sense because we had an explosive 2017 in terms of growth and after the acquisition, we were able to pivot quickly to O2O (online-to-offline) services.”

“Post-acquisition we grew our GrabFood business to six countries from two countries. Dara (Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO) is on our board, and working with Uber has been fantastic on many fronts. We are mutually learning from each other and our partnership is truly collaborative.”

However, earlier in July, Singapore’s competition watchdog had since called out the merger, saying that it found evidence that the merger has substantially lessened competition and proposed to impose financial penalties on both Grab and Uber to restore market contestability. Grab has refuted the statement and denied that the merger has harmed competition.

Among the biggest challenge of running a regional business in the multicultural, multilingual Southeast Asia, is that the region is extremely fragmented. Hooi Ling said, Grab quickly recognised that a one-size-fits-all model is not going to work because each market is distinct in terms of users’ needs and transportation infrastructure.

“The constant challenge we face is tailoring models for specific markets, and ensuring that the technology supporting, what is essentially a unique experience tailored to each of the over 200 cities where we operate, remains scalable, reliable and safe. This is why we’ve been investing heavily in our engineering and R&D teams: we have six global R&D centres, located in Bangalore, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Seattle and Singapore supporting our rapid platform, something no other homegrown Southeast Asian ride-hailing company has,” she said.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.