Grab, the largest car sharing business in Asia, wants to be the region’s SuperApp

August 1, 2018

Hooi Ling Tan is co-founder of Grab, and recently ranked as one of Asia’s leading female entrepreneur by Forbes magazine.

A mechanical engineering graduate, she was previously a consultant at McKinsey & Company, advising global corporations in Southeast Asia, North America, Latin America and Australia. Hooi Ling met her co-founder Anthony Tan while pursuing their Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Harvard Business School in 2011. After finishing their studies, they headed home to start Grab – MyTeksi back then – in Kuala Lumpur before moving its headquarters to Singapore. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to this day and Grab has grown into an “everyday” business, providing services in the food delivery, grocery delivery and fintech sector. It has crossed 2 billion rides in July and is on its way to achieving $1 billion revenue by end of this year. And of course, Grab is one of the two most talked-about and valuable startup in Southeast Asia.

But the startup is not going to stop at just that, it aims to become the quotidian app of Southeast Asian lives. “With Grab Platform, we’re transitioning from a transport company to an everyday super app. This is reflective of our growth over the past six years. Because we are the go-to transportation service provider in Southeast Asia, we now have a strong user base and wide distribution network, and we’ve been able to heavily invest in future services like food, payments and logistics. Today, we’re bringing it all together onto the Grab Platform. We’re focused on becoming Southeast Asia’s everyday super app, providing the most important everyday needs for Southeast Asians – food, payments, logistics, groceries deliveries.”

So, how do the two co-founders split the workload – who does what? Hooi Ling says, she oversees people and operations at Grab, while Anthony typically handles the more “external facing part” of the business. “That said, we collaborate a lot and exchange portfolios from time to time.”

In 2017, Grab raised a $2.5-billion round led by Chinese ride-hailing major Didi Chuxing and Japan’s Softbank Group. Didi’s president and a vocal gender diversity advocate, Jean Liu had told this portal that diversity is indispensable to the startup’s core value.

Similarly, gender has never been an issue for Hooi Ling and the rest of the team, where more than 40 per cent of Grab employees or Grabbers including team leads, are women, she said. “While we’re very proud of the fact that Grab’s gender balance is relatively equitable, we don’t take that for granted and we know we could still be doing more. We have a mentorship programme called Women at Grab, which started with leaders like myself and our Head of People, Chin Yin Ong, as mentors. As the programme has grown, we now have former mentees now serving as mentors to newer and younger colleagues at Grab,” she said.

The women support by Grab extends beyond the Grabbers. As women tend to prioritise family obligations much more, the flexibility of being a Grab driver and agent helps women take control of their finances while juggling family time, said Hooi Ling. “In 2017, the number of women driving for Grab grew by more than 230% and the total distance driven by women drivers increased by 570%. In Indonesia, the number of women driving for Grab went up by almost 500%!”

Some of the other programmes by Grab include Grab Academy for Wives, which provides wives of our driver partners with livelihood skills training to help them start their own small businesses and add to the household income for their families. Hooi Ling added that the startup has also hosted a UX learning workshop for a small group of its Grab driver partners’ teenage daughters to help them grow a design thinking mindset, which is “such an important life skill to have in tech and beyond.” “I’m a big believer that giving young people exposure to these kinds of ideas and skills early on lets them know what’s possible. It also helps gives them something to strive towards as they continue to grow and mature in life,” she added. Driving diversity across the board The startup world is a male-dominated one, and this is not just a general assumption or sentiment but backed by facts.

While in the US, only 17 per cent of startups have a female founder, in Southeast Asia particularly in Singapore, merely 5 per cent of tech startups are headed by women, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014. The figure may have since increased slightly, but the 2017 report by WEC stated that globally, fields such as care economy and the emerging tech sector are the most affected sectors by gender bias, and are losing out on the benefits of diversity.

Hooi Ling says, “surrounding yourself with supporters, whether men or women, in your personal or professional life, is hugely important. We put great effort into creating that environment at Grab, where anybody can thrive regardless of gender, race, and nationality. At Grab, we don’t focus on your gender, we hire the best person for the job. We believe that if you are capable and you believe in our mission of driving Southeast Asia forward, you will be able to contribute to Grab.”

The Grab-Uber deal This year has been an extremely eventful one for Grab. Besides closing a $1-billion round from Toyota Motor Corp and launching its own venture arm, it also announced the acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asia operations, including ride-sharing and food delivery business, in March. The deal also saw Uber pick up a 27.5 per cent stake in Grab and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi join Grab’s board.

On the merger, Hooi Ling said: “The Uber partnership made a lot of sense because we had an explosive 2017 in terms of growth and after the acquisition, we were able to pivot quickly to O2O (online-to-offline) services.” “Post-acquisition we grew our GrabFood business to six countries from two countries.

Dara (Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO) is on our board, and working with Uber has been fantastic on many fronts. We are mutually learning from each other and our partnership is truly collaborative.” However, earlier in July, Singapore’s competition watchdog had since called out the merger, saying that it found evidence that the merger has substantially lessened competition and proposed to impose financial penalties on both Grab and Uber to restore market contestability. Grab has refuted the statement and denied that the merger has harmed competition.

Among the biggest challenge of running a regional business in the multicultural, multilingual Southeast Asia, is that the region is extremely fragmented. Hooi Ling said, Grab quickly recognised that a one-size-fits-all model is not going to work because each market is distinct in terms of users’ needs and transportation infrastructure.

“The constant challenge we face is tailoring models for specific markets, and ensuring that the technology supporting, what is essentially a unique experience tailored to each of the over 200 cities where we operate, remains scalable, reliable and safe. This is why we’ve been investing heavily in our engineering and R&D teams: we have six global R&D centres, located in Bangalore, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Seattle and Singapore supporting our rapid platform, something no other homegrown Southeast Asian ride-hailing company has,” she said.


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