Meeting Rachel Lau and Jo Jo Kong together for the first time, one would think that they have been friends for a long time. There is no mistaking the sense of camaraderie even though they had only gotten acquainted a year ago when Kong became a new addition at RHL Ventures, a venture capital firm started by Lau and long-time friends Raja Hamzah Abidin, 30, and Lionel Leong, also 30.
Their banter is fast and furious – even a topic like who eats more turns into a showdown of sorts – and their energy level is high, although Kong is feeling jet-lagged having just flown back from the US. It is a chemistry that makes for the perfect partnership despite their different backgrounds.
Lau, 32, is an experienced investment analyst, having worked at NN Investment Management in Hong Kong. A casual conversation with childhood friend Hamzah led to a decision to start their own company.
“Hamzah relocated back to Malaysia in 2015 while I came back a year later. That was when we started gathering a team,” she recalls.
RHL is the collective acronym of the founders’ names and the partners invest their own funds in small and medium-sized local startups and global companies with links to ASEAN.
In August last year, Kong came on board as a venture partner. The daughter of Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong of bereavement care provider Nirvana Asia, Kong was roped in by Leong, a childhood friend.
An architecture graduate, she also currently oversees Nirvana’s regional expansion and operations. The dynamic young woman also holds the role of director of KHK Development, the property arm of her family business that has residential projects in Australia.
“At Nirvana, my work is focused on operations and marketing. When I started working in my family business, I was also looking to invest on a large scale. Then the opportunity at RHL came up. As a venture partner, I’m quite involved in the decision-making process about the companies we want to support. We’re also looking into growing our reach around Southeast Asia.”
Lau has nothing but praise for Kong. “She’s an extremely interesting person. Her background is quite opposite from mine. I was a law graduate and went straight into fund management, while she was trained as an architect. She is extremely brilliant and bright. She is quite pragmatic and looks at things more holistically when it comes to business operations. I tend to be rational and see things in black-and-white – no grey areas. Numbers usually dictate my final decision, because I believe that facts don’t lie.”
“(Lau) is the bullet and the rest of us are the cushion,” Kong quips. “But we work pretty well together because we’re both strong-willed and we enjoy taking calculated risks.”
Finding their focus
Kong, 26, reveals that she is excited to be part of the RHL team because she can see for herself what entrepreneurs and business owners have to go through when they work on growing their businesses.
“It resonates with me because my own father also built a successful business empire from scratch. It’s a different feeling from joining a well-established business. I love being part of the effort in growing these startups as it helps me to understand better the hardship that my dad went through. A lot of the time, the second generation clash with their enterprising fathers because they never went through what their fathers did.”
She admits that she now feels a little closer to her father. “The experience of growing startups creates a conversation and allows me to reflect on his decisions then. In that sense, it cultivates a different, maybe even better, mentality. I find that helping startups is a pretty fulfilling thing.”
For Lau, it is that sense of accomplishment she gets from helping companies that also contribute to the society as a whole. Among the criteria that the startups have to fulfil before RHL decides to invest in them are that they have been operating for at least one year and that they are making a revenue. She adds that the partners tend to gravitate to disruptors in their sectors, citing the example of GrabCar that shook up the ride-sharing landscape with its innovations.
“I like to look at businesses that better the lives of others. For example, we have just invested in Coffee Meet Bagel (CMB), a dating platform started by three Korean-American women in Silicon Valley that aims to revolutionise the dating scene,” Lau says. “Tinder has changed the way people meet new people – it has a faster turnaround time and more often than not, it is non-committal. With CMB, the founders instead want to build lasting personal relationships with modern tools.”
Other noteworthy investments include Game On, a Silicon Valley AI sports chatbot that has also attracted the likes of Microsoft and Skystars as investors and partners. Another one is Sidestep, a US-based startup that allows fans to pre-purchase live event merchandise and pick up their orders at the show’s venue. Sidestep has also worked with singing superstars Adele and Beyoncé, with the latter being an investor herself.
Closer to home, they supported a local gymnastics studio, assisting them in creating an app to streamline booking of classes and payments, and going as far as to analyse the data collected from the frequency of students attending the classes, which allows the gym to track and accelerate their progress.
Kong finds that working in two companies present her with completely different experiences but that does not mean she prioritises one over the other.
“Despite the fact that RHL has a much smaller team compared to Nirvana, the sense of responsibility is stronger. Every decision that we make in RHL will directly affect a lot of stakeholders, whether positively or negatively.”
“The challenges are the same with both,” she adds. “I have to be very careful with every decision that I make because they both mean a lot to me. RHL is like a child that is growing under our watch. Nirvana, on the other hand, is a legacy that I have to preserve,” she notes.
She reveals that her father’s support means a lot to her. “Knowing that my father is really supportive of what I’m doing at RHL is really important, and it’s what motivates me the most at the moment. The fact that he fully supports me even though what RHL does is relatively alien to him only pushes me to do better.”
Kong cherishes two pieces of advice from her father. “The first is to always put yourself in other people’s shoes in order to make things work in your favour, whether it is closing a deal or a sale. When you try to see from the other person’s perspective, you will find the key to unlock what it is that you want. The second advice is to treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Lau expresses that they want to make the same kind impact the way Kong’s father had with his own business. “We want to build our own legacies. At the moment, we focus on the present and on doing well. A lot of people complicate things by being too impatient and always asking what’s next. Strive for excellence and you will succeed,” she smiles.