Cautious investor to optimist president: How Ming Maa sped up Grab’s journey to the top

Hopping over to Grab from SoftBank wasn’t Ming Maa’s first choice. In fact, he was even ready to start from the bottom.

“I was originally going to launch a startup with three of my friends…we had already started bootstrapping the business. And we were going out raising seed capital from investors. I was having a lot of fun with it,” said the now-president of the ride-hailing unicorn in a video interview to DealStreetAsia, chuckling as he recalled his short-lived time as a founder.

But in the end, what Grab stood for called out to him.

“I think the mission of empowering the bottom half of the population pyramid in Southeast Asia, it’s so powerful. And I think the truth of it really resonated with me in a very deep way,” Maa, who joined Grab in 2016, said. “You know instantly when companies talk about [their] mission, [whether] it’s more of a CSR tagline or ESG tagline. But at Grab, I knew this was not…it was really core to the ground.”

The company is arguably one of the most successful Southeast Asian startups to have emerged in the last decade. Originally a social enterprise named MyTeksi, based out of Malaysia, the startup was founded in 2012 to tackle the country’s problem of unlicensed cabbies who overcharge for their rides. Today, it has moved past its ride-hailing origins to become a super app, providing users across eight countries everything from grocery deliveries to insurance. Maa is part of the trio that leads the $12 billion company — or $40 billion, if its upcoming listing on the Nasdaq pulls through —together with its co-founders, Harvard graduates Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan.

As president, Maa spends most of his time supporting the corporate departments like finance, business development, legal, and public affairs. He is also in charge of the company’s fundraising efforts. Maa says this complements the other leaders. “Anthony is happiest when he’s on the ground speaking with customers, merchants, driver-partners … I’m very close to our investors and partners.”

“Expert in ride-hailing”

Those who work with Maa said he was the right choice for Grab, which was rapidly growing during the period he joined. Grab launched its food business in 2016, the year Maa joined, and was beginning to make its foray into fintech with the launch of its GrabPay wallet. It was also busy trying to fend off Uber, which had entered the region in 2013.

“He was an early expert in ride-hailing,” said David Thevenon, a former colleague of Maa’s when they were both partners at SoftBank. Thevenon sat on Grab’s board between 2015 and 2019 and is now a general partner at Balderton Capital. At SoftBank, Maa had led high-profile investments into other ride-hailing giants like Kuaidi Dache — it later merged with Didi Dache to form China’s top ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing — and India’s Ola. He also oversaw the Japanese firm’s investments into Grab in 2014 and September 2016, a month before he moved over.

Maa’s years of experience as an investor made him the right pick as well, those who worked with Maa said. Before joining SoftBank in 2014, he was part of asset manager Ancora Capital Management for two years. Prior to that, he was with Goldman Sachs since 2000.

“He has been on the investor side before he was a banker, so he understands the way investors look at the business. He was able to help present the business and the operations in a most concise way,” said Jixun Foo, a managing partner at GGV Capital. The venture capital firm was one of Grab’s earliest investors that led its Series B round in 2014.

“You don’t just meet [investors] and tell them you hit the numbers. You need to engage with them and tell that story,” said Thevenon. “He is smart, super inspiring, and gets people on board in some way. Because of his communication skills, storytelling, and ability with numbers, he was able to bring value to Grab.” Maa’s prowess had proven itself when he subsequently brought on heavyweights such as Microsoft, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, and Toyota Motor onto Grab’s cap table.

Maa was also crucial in Grab’s successful acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asia business in 2018. Thevenon remembers being in the same room with Maa and the Uber team as deliberations were being carried out. SoftBank and Didi Chuxing representatives were also present. 

Eventually, the discussion left Uber with a 23% stake in Grab, with the latter taking over Uber’s regional business. Both companies were later fined a combined S$13 million ($9.5 million) over the merger by Singapore’s anti-trust watchdog. 

“It was a tough transaction, very high-stakes and complicated,” Thevenon said. “In that environment, you have to be a very good negotiator. You have to make everybody feel that they are winning, which Ming did.” 

“Smart but humble”

Others have cited Maa’s unassuming nature as an enduring trait. “He came across as smart but humble,” said Chua Kee Lock, the chief executive officer of venture capital firm Vertex Ventures, the first VC to invest in Grab back in 2014 that has since divested most of its stake.

His colleague, Chua Joo Hock, Vertex’s chief investment officer who led the VC’s initial investment in Grab, said he appreciated Maa for instituting a quarterly investor update for the small shareholders. “That is helpful for engaging the smaller investors and we understand how the company is progressing, what the new initiatives are, and how we can help them as well,” Joo Hock said. 

Chin Yin Ong, Grab’s chief people officer, said that Maa was well-regarded by the Grab team from his time at SoftBank prior to joining Grab. “Everyone knew him as this brilliant executive, known for his sharpness and clarity of thought,” said Ong. 

After he joined Grab, Maa was involved in the creation of The Grab Way. In fact, he was one of the first few people to start using The Grab Way to guide the team’s decision-making. 

At the crossroads of certain big decisions they needed to make, he would ask this question: How would we make this decision if we referred back to The Grab Way? “This is something I’ve really appreciated over the years we’ve worked together,” added Ong. 

Another fellow Grabber, Demi Yu, regional head of GrabFood and GrabMart, recalled that Maa was mostly quiet and kept to himself the first time she met him at an Exco meeting in mid-2018. 

However, when the meeting started, he chimed in and every point he made was razor-sharp. “He grasped the most important numbers to focus on, cut through the noise, and got straight to the core,” she explained. 

Over the years, she has been in many budget and business planning discussions with Maa and was always impressed when he could hop off a 20+ hour flight from the US, go straight to the meeting and be fully engaged in sharing concrete, unconventional ideas, without a single trace of jet lag. 

“And I know he can do this with every single business line within Grab. He combines big thinking with unconventional ideas and I’ve definitely learned a lot from him,” she added. 

Early years

Born in Taiwan, Maa moved to the US with his family as a kid when his father wanted to pursue a PhD in marine engineering in Florida. His family subsequently relocated to “the most middle-income city in Virginia that you could ever imagine” where his father taught as a professor.

Growing up, Maa helped his father read and edit his research papers. His mum went back to school around the age of 45 to get her master’s degree, ending up working for one of NASA’s private contractors to study satellite data. “My dad studies the ocean, my mum studies the cloud. Opposites attract,” Maa said with a laugh. Like his parents, Maa went on to the same field — but then fell into tech investing by chance. He graduated with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2000, before joining Goldman’s merchant banking division the same year.

“I actually have a belief that a lot of what happens is serendipity and it’s the people that you meet,” he said of what inspired him to switch to banking. “The people I looked up to the most at school went to Goldman… there’s always the smartest and the most aggressive. And they’re always the doers.” 

Joining Grab marked another new experience — and life lesson — for him. “[As] an investor, you are perennially pessimistic. Like you’re always assessing the risk [or] ‘how does this thing fail’, he said. “But now at Grab, I realised that’s the last thing I want to be in my life — it’s just to have a very pessimistic pair of lenses. At Grab what you learn is you always have to be optimistic, because you are doing something that is completely brand new.  And so without that optimism [there is] no startup.”

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.