Rina Neoh, co-founder of Ficus VC, a Syariah-compliant venture capital, defies all expectations. Growing up in low-cost flats in Penang, Malaysia, a serendipitous encounter in an airplane led to a successful career as a venture capitalist and investor. Now, she’s giving back by providing education for the underprivileged.
By Pauline Wong
When we meet Rina Neoh, co-founder of Ficus VC, she is dressed down in a denim jacket and a cotton sundress, greeting us warmly and with genuine openness. From the start, it’s clear to see how this smart and savvy former ‘techie’ has worked her way up from humble beginnings to being an angel investor, venture capitalist, and serial entrepreneur.
Her impressive resume includes being co-founder of Mercatus Capital Pte Ltd, a home-grown incubator and venture accelerator that seeded and incubated more than 60 start-ups in Asia, as well as board member for the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation. Most recently, she is master franchisee of homegrown preschool education provider, MindChamps, in the Philippines.
Yet her journey to where she is today was one that combined both serendipity and tenacity. A Computer Science graduate, Neoh was working at tech giant IBM when a trip to Chiang Mai set her on a different path.
“In 2004, I was studying part-time for an MBA. There was a man sitting next to me on the plane, who was reading an interesting book,” she recalls. The two struck up a conversation, and as it turns out, the man had a brother who had just invested in an IT company.
“He said, “[my brother] is looking for people, you studied IT, would you like to consider [working there]?”. About five months later, we met up and I joined the company.” In 2005, however, the company restructured due to a falling out between the founders and the chairman of the company.
“I remember telling the chairman, while board fights with founders are common, personally I feel what the founders did was rather ugly and uncalled-for. And I can choose who I want to work for. So I resigned,” she says. But fate had other plans, and Neoh went on to start Mercatus Capital with the former chairman of the tech start-up, whom she had found to be a good mentor.
From there, her network and experience as a venture capitalist grew by leaps and bounds. She also personally invests in several education start-ups and social enterprises, such as Ivy Cubs, an education programme that focuses on open-ended play and social-emotional learning through specially curated toys from around the world; and Social Light in the Philippines, a tech start-up that taps on to wifi advertising and marketing from large corporates to provide free internet access to the rural and underserved areas of the Philippines.
Her latest company, Ficus VC, is now the world’s first fully-syariah compliant venture capital fund and has to date secured investment commitments totalling RM25 million ($8.1 million). She has also opened five MindChamps schools in the Philippines.
More importantly, some of the profits from the MindChamps schools are being channeled towards aiding education in the underprivileged areas of the Philippines, such as providing school supplies for rural schools. This, to Neoh, is paramount and fundamental to how she hopes to give back to society.
“I was on the receiving end of a lot of kindness when I was growing up, and I want to pay it forward,” she says. This is because Neoh’s own journey was not an easy one. She grew up in the low-cost Rifle Range public housing, which had a reputation for crime and seedy activities in Penang back in the 1970’s.
Her first real job, she shares, was helping her mom at her home-based hairdressing ‘saloon’, sweeping the floor and selling shampoo samples for a small profit to earn some pocket money.
Neoh also had to grow up fast– her parents separated when she was just 11, and Neoh took on jobs like hairdressing, giving tuition and modelling to make ends meet. “We (her brother and herself) also studied hard because we know that education was the only way out of poverty,” she adds.
“My upbringing gave me a lot of experience, [this is why] I never take no for an answer, because if you want to do something, you will find a way to do it. If you don’t, you will find a million excuses,” she says.
For now, Neoh has plans to open five more MindChamps schools in the Philippines, in addition to growing Ficus VC. She also hopes to also continue to give back in whatever way she can because, as she puts it: “I think we will be so poor if all we have is money.”