Carmen Yuen On How She Broke Into The Male-Dominated Venture Capital World

Carmen YUEN | 18 Oct 2023

*This column was first published on *Her World Magazine.

Looking to break into the venture capital industry? Carmen Yuen, general partner at Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India, tells us how she made it

DealStreetAsia reveal that only 17.4% of decision-makers at venture investors headquartered in Southeast Asia are women. As one of the five general partners at Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, I feel extremely privileged to be one of the few women in venture capital (VC). Beyond the boardroom, I’m proud to share that I’m also a wife and a mother to four young adults.

The Unexpected Turn

I never imagined that I would become a VC investor. To be honest, it became “sexy” only after 2010; prior to that, investment banking was the “in-thing” for my generation. By an unexpected twist in circumstances, opportunities, and divine intervention, I found myself here. In fact, joining Vertex Ventures was quite serendipitous too. I was on sabbatical and one day I received an email from Vertex Ventures’ managing partner asking for a coffee meet up. That was in 2013. As a result of this coffee, and my previous experience in government-backed venture capital positions in Singapore, I found myself fitting a new role at Vertex.

Breaking the ‘Boys’ Club’ Barrier

Even in today’s modern era, venture capital is still a domain dominated by men. The exclusive “boys’ club’’” still exists and the challenges it presents, especially for women trying to make a mark, are real.

But I’m glad to see that things are changing: VC funds are becoming increasingly aware of the advantages a diverse team brings to the table. There are sure but encouraging signs, marking a change in the tide.

I must say Vertex Ventures is very progressive. I was one of two women in the team when I joined the firm back in 2013.

To navigate the male dominated world, I observed my peers in the boardroom tended to act ‘masculine’ and exert themselves, but I found leaning into authenticity worked best for me. I consistently focused on fostering sincere relationships and diving deep into conversations, perhaps over a cup of coffee.

In fact, there were always women on the team, though there were few of us. However, fast forward to today, we proudly boast a team where eight out of 23 members are women, constituting 35%. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion isn’t just in our team composition; it extends to our investments as well. In fact, over 35% of the companies in our Fund IV portfolio are led by women founders.

Related: Watch or listen to Hard Truths by Vertex Podcast S2E1- Unlocking the Trillion dollar SEA Startup Ecosystem - the Singapore's context with Carmen Yuen

To navigate the male dominated world, I observed my peers in the boardroom tended to act ‘masculine’ and exert themselves, but I found leaning into authenticity worked best for me. I consistently focused on fostering sincere relationships and diving deep into conversations, perhaps over a cup of coffee. But ultimately, being good at what you do, which is investing into performing companies in this case, is what garners respect and recognition in the long run.

The Climb: From Executive Director to General Partner

I’m not going to lie, being in a VC is no walk in the park. Looking back, my journey of rising from Executive Director to a General Partner was like running on a treadmill, but with a gradient of 3 and speed of 13 km/h!

Each promotion would also mean more responsibilities, markets and challenges. I am on a constant 24/7 look out for startups that can deliver returns while making a meaningful impact. It is hard to draw a line where work ends and life starts. From aligning visions with founders to weathering unpredictable market forces, the challenges are ceaseless.

Each round of funding raised by my portfolio only signals the next phase: adapt, strategise, and raise more capital. With the recent closing of Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India’s 5th fund, I’m looking out for the next generation of trailblazing startups.

The DNA of a VC

So, what produces a good venture capitalist? Simply put, it’s a blend of humility, curiosity, relationships and teamwork. In our fund, we believe we are the supporting actors to the founders. Our role is to guide, to ask the right questions, and to respect the giants of the business world, understanding that disruption doesn’t necessarily mean replacement.

Entry Points

I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing and International Business from Simon Fraser University, Canada. Even so, I needed to pick up some finance skills on my job as a venture capitalist, as part of the work inevitably involves performing financial modelling and projections.

Other essential skills are research and due diligence skills, which I believe most can hone on the job. You will need to do market sizing and determine if the company has the potential to become a unicorn. Due diligence is about finding out more about the technology, the finances and the founder – whether he or she is telling the truth about their capabilities, their background and the customers they have brought onboard.

Many would think and I will agree that having a technical or science background can offer a deeper connection with emerging technologies, the essentials for venture capital are largely transferable. You will also need discernment, an understanding of finances, and most crucially, effective communication.

Navigating Two Worlds

Juggling motherhood with a demanding VC career could easily be overwhelming. My advice sounds generic but the only way I have gotten by is to “prioritise”. And for me, my children always come first.

As work tended to be busy, I tried to cherish the little moments I have with my children. Whether it’s sharing a meal at the dinner table or taking a quick stroll in the park with my children (when they were younger), I try to be present. I would not check my phone during these moments, creating space for genuine, meaningful conversations.

This commitment to cherishing family moments has been a driving force in my career choices. Over the years, I’ve had to make certain compromises, particularly during the formative years of my children’s lives where I had to limit my work-related travel to be present for them.

I have also empowered our household helper to ensure a smooth balance between my career and family life. Personally, I’ve never felt the infamous “mom guilt” for pursuing a career. This is largely because I share a strong alignment with my husband and our helper. We’ve established clear roles and responsibilities, ensuring that when my husband and I are away at work, our helper would seamlessly step in as a caregiver, maintaining the harmony of our family life. It is my duty to create a stable home front and oftentimes, and, when you take care of that, it rewards you with stability at work.

Interestingly, the approach grounds me and no matter what the challenges that are thrown my way. Additionally, my VC experiences have molded me into a more empathetic listener, a quality that spills over nicely into nurturing strong personal relationships.

Advice for Aspirants

For those eager to dive into the venture capital realm, I feel the need to share that while VC might seem alluring now, perhaps consider emerging fields such as Artificial Intelligence or Longevity, that might be even more exciting.

Ultimately, to succeed in life, it is about knowing oneself and applying your strengths and passions to a relevant role. If you believe that investing is what makes you tick, I would encourage you that, at its core, VC is all about connections. It’s not about gender but about the merit of ideas and their execution. We mustn’t limit ourselves with preconceived notions of gender roles. Both men and women can excel across industries. It’s the passion, dedication, and drive that truly counts.

This is first drafted by Melia Ho.

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