Alice Besomi on accommodating cultural differences and having a “speaking up” mentality in VC

Alice Besomi is Vice President (VP) of Investments at Jungle Ventures. She’s worked at Paris-based Venture Firm A Plus Finance where she helped digital French startups grow and expand in Europe. She served as a Board Advisor to the Board of various companies including, Weezevent (online ticketing, acquired by Vente Privée), Cheerz (photo app, acquired by CEWE), and AlephD (Adtech, acquired by AOL).

Alice Besomi, VP of Investments at Jungle Ventures

KrASIA (KR): What prompted you to make the decision to move from France and start a new life in Singapore?

Alice Besomi (AB): This decision was made together with my husband. I think I may not have made that decision if I had been alone and jumped into the unknown. For us, we always said that we wanted to have more international experience. We had studied abroad, spent a year in Canada, and he had spent nine months working in Spain. So we always wanted to go back and have more global exposure, speaking English, working with people from various countries and nationalities. We had some level of experience in our home country and at the same time, we had no kids, no mortgage. We felt very free, and we felt like this was the right moment to try it.

The plan was to just resign, leave our flat, pack a couple of suitcases, take a plane, and then start something new. It’s just the right time to do it—if we don’t do it now, we may not do it at all. We quickly realized that there was no chance we would have found a job [while still] based in France, especially because neither of us was working for a large multinational corporation (MNC) or anything, so there was no chance we could find something without taking the risk. So, we decided that the best way was to just go, be in the market, and start meeting people.

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KR: Why did you choose to come to Singapore?

AB: To be honest, Singapore chose us. We applied for a work holiday visa in Hong Kong because the age limit was 30 years old, while in Singapore, it was 25, so we were too old for Singapore. At the same time, we really loved Hong Kong. So we first landed in Hong Kong and started networking there. I worked for a startup in Hong Kong, helping them fundraise. At the same time, I was networking with people from the venture capital (VC) space. But that was six years ago and the VC community in Hong Kong was not really developed. The same goes for my husband. He’s an urban planner, and there was no job for him.

None of us spoke any Mandarin or Cantonese, so we quickly realized that Hong Kong was a great city, but not for us to find a job. At the same time, we were looking at Singapore while meeting people from Singapore, and then, I found a job there. After just two months in Hong Kong, we moved to Singapore, and we have been loving it. Looking back, it’s definitely a better outcome for us, because Singapore is really a great place to be in Southeast Asia for VC and startups, way more than Hong Kong, and even more nowadays with everything that’s happening in Hong Kong.  [People had told us] Hong Kong is more for when you’re in your 20s or early 30s. Singapore is more for families and long-term planning, and the quality of life in Singapore is better. I think both cities are really great, but I am happy to be in Singapore now.

KR: Did you have a cultural mindset shift when you moved from France to Asia? What were some of the harder things that you had to relearn or teach yourself to be more aware of?

AB: I had read a few books about Asian culture. But it’s obviously different when you experience it, especially in my job, [where] I meet with people from all of Southeast Asia, India, Australia, and New Zealand. It was new in so many different ways. I used to be in a very French or European environment, and then I was suddenly working with people from all over the world. It took me some time to adjust, especially since I did a lot of intro conversations with founders over phone calls and it is not the best way to understand 100% of what the other [person] is saying.

Apart from that, it’s the working style. Joining Jungle in the early days of the firm came with a different work environment and routines. All of that was new. Just learning about who are the players in Southeast Asia, who are the regional and local players, I’m talking about basic things like who are DBS, OCBC or PSA…, getting used to the acronyms. Just opening your eyes to look at things with no expectations, trying to understand how work is done here, what are the different habits, how to talk to people, how to behave with people, keeping an open mind. At first, I was sometimes a little surprised to see that some businesses felt weird to my French eyes, because of the consumer behavior, or the logistics, or the backbone of the country being different. Cash-on-delivery, logistics challenges—all of that was fairly new to me. I had to relearn a lot of things about business and consumer behavior in Southeast Asia, and for each country as well.

KR: What was the best way for you to learn how to navigate that? Was it by talking to people or just being on the ground?

AB: A little bit of both. I was lucky that Jungle Ventures was in between Fund One and Fund Two [when I joined]. I spent the first year talking to a lot of startups, going to a lot of events, but there was no pressure to actually invest, because we were still fundraising. I had the luxury of having a few months to just do my homework and get up to speed. [Afterwards], when we started investing, I was able to actually understand what was the right business model for Indonesia or Singapore. And definitely talking to people, going to events, talking to founders. I probably had five or six conversations every day. Just talking to foreigners who had been in Singapore for a longer period of time, talking to founders and entrepreneurs, other VCs.

For advice to younger women breaking into VC, Besomi says, “Learn everything from the ground. Do a lot of deals. Get as much exposure as you can. Build your track record and then, from there, you can progress.”

KR: How do you make yourself into someone who can get along with everyone and also accommodate cultural differences?

AB: Sometimes it’s easier to go in with a VC hat, so they would be interested in talking to you. It’s always easier to network when you already have a business card, because people are just more open-minded talking to you. They don’t feel threatened that you might be asking for a job. Especially six years back, when there were not as many VC funds in the region. Everyone was very open-minded and available. The coffee casual talk culture in Singapore is way more developed than in Paris. In Paris, I was more used to having proper meetings. Here, it’s more like, let’s just take 30 minutes, grab a coffee, and talk about what you are up to. Obviously, the networking that was more for leisure, I put my VC hat off, and it was more about meeting new people who were in the same situation, a bit far from home, or had been there for a bit longer, but could share some knowledge with us.

KR: Looking back, compared to when you first arrived from France, how do you feel now? What worked for you and what didn’t?

AB: When I moved here, my intention was to get a job, ideally in the VC space or a startup. But I told myself, it’s okay if you don’t land your dream job, because it can always be a stepping stone for something else. You just build your network, learn about the country, the region, and then you can move on. When I look back, I’ve been with Jungle for six years. I’m really glad, out of all the VCs that were up and running back then, Jungle happened to be hiring for an analyst. Six years later, I’m now a VP at Jungle. Obviously you have to work hard, but there is also a “speak up and ask for something” mentality that you need to have. If you really want something, just go get it. You have to work. But you also have to tell people, this is what I want to do. This is who I want to be in the next two years.

This is how I see my progression within your firm. I’m a true believer that there is a lot of merit in sticking with a job, because you have to learn by doing deals. Not just investing, but also disvesting, like selling a company, and that takes time. When I enter a VC firm, I’m always looking at staying there for a good number of years because of the experience I want to get, and the number of deals I want to get exposure to, and hopefully, build my track record of deals and acquisitions. Jungle has been great for that. It’s a great place to learn. When I joined, we [had] five [people], maybe. Now we’re about 20. We raised fund three last year. I’m really glad that they trusted me, and I took the time to work my network, do some deals, and then progress. But, obviously, you have to speak up.

KR: What advice would you give to women who are trying to break into VC?

AB: If you’ve been in the business environment, or you’ve been in a startup and you want to get into VC, once you have 10, 15, 20 years of experience, it’s very different. But if you are right from school, or with one or two years of experience, you have to be flexible. You want to have a clear vision of where you want to be. But I think it’s okay to start as an analyst or associate. Learn everything from the ground. Do a lot of deals. Get as much exposure as you can. Build your track record and then, from there, you can progress.

KR: What investing philosophies around risk do you currently bring into your personal life? What risk do you take now that you’re growing your family?

AB: There are definitely varying levels of risk assessments in your personal or professional life. If it’s someone else’s money or your own money. I need to surround myself with people and have very open-hearted conversations. I like to write things down. I like to look at various scenarios. I also do a lot of to-do lists. I like to look at the big picture and then talk to people. I think it’s okay to ask for help if you’re stuck, or if you don’t know what to do. But at the end of the day, there is a lot of gut feeling as well. Just looking at all the options available, doing a lot of research, and then going where you think where your gut is telling you to go.

Having kids now, I would have a very different approach towards jumping into a new country without a job. But that’s also how startups look at taking risks, right? There are moments in your journey where you have the luxury to take a risk, and there are moments where you have to keep quiet and consolidate, for you to expand in the next cycle.


Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can recommend them here.

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