Grab's quiet co-founder Tan Hooi Ling: 7 things you may not know

·5-min read
Grab's CEO Anthony Tan (right) and co-founder Tan Hooi Ling attend the Grab Bell Ringing Ceremony, at a hotel in Singapore, 2 December 2021. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Caroline Chia)
Grab's CEO Anthony Tan (right) and co-founder Tan Hooi Ling attend the Grab Bell Ringing Ceremony, at a hotel in Singapore, 2 December 2021. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Caroline Chia)

By Harold Yap

SINGAPORE — Celebrating its 10th anniversary and officially launching its Singapore HQ on Thursday (11 August), Southeast Asia's pioneer unicorn, Grab, has certainly weathered its share of turbulence over the COVID pandemic.

The superapp reported a loss of US$435 million in 1Q FY2022. Following its US$40 billion SPAC listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange in December 2021, its shares plummeted by 37 per cent this March. These developments come in the shadow of an earlier downsizing in 2020 whereby the company laid off about 360 people.

Throughout it all, Grab's CEO Anthony Tan is seen as its sanguine figurehead, maintaining that the company has stayed resilient as a result of its diversification strategy.

His co-founder Tan Hooi Ling (not related to Anthony Tan) however is comparatively low-key. While the 38-year-old may not be as outspoken as her counterpart, she's no wallflower either, having addressed an audience as keynote speaker at Hong Kong's RISE technology conference, and co-chaired the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in 2018.

Here's what you may not know about Grab's under-the-radar Tan.

1. She's a Malaysian transplant, like her co-founder

Both of Grab's co-founders hail from Malaysia. The female Tan grew up in a middle-class household in Kuala Lumpur's Petaling Jaya, where she lived with her family in a semi-detached house. Her father is a civil engineer and her mother a remisier. She attended state schools, and played the piano and violin growing up.

2. She met Anthony Tan at Harvard Business School

From right, Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab; Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong; and Anthony Tan, co-founder and Group CEO of Grab at Grab HQ @ Singapore on 11 August. (PHOTO: Grab)
From right, Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab; Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong; and Anthony Tan, co-founder and Group CEO of Grab at Grab HQ @ Singapore on 11 August. (PHOTO: Grab)

Though she studied mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in the UK, Tan later changed tack when she joined management consultancy McKinsey & Company in Malaysia after graduating. This spawned a scholarship to attend Harvard Business School (HBS), where she met her co-founder who was part of the same cohort undertaking their Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

3. Grab is the product of her own safety concerns

Tan endured transportation woes while working in Malaysia, a country whose taxi industry has a chequered history of publicised robberies and rapes allegedly perpetrated by drivers. Speaking with Digital News Asia, she said: “I felt constrained and I could never really go where I wanted to because I was afraid of taxi drivers – I really was, and even when I wasn’t, my parents were [for me].” She elaborated that her mother's fears over her safety on late night journeys home from work prompted her to update her with taxis' licence plate numbers and her distance from home. This was before the proliferation of GPS-enabled smartphones. Tan and her eventual co-founder seeded the idea for Grab's forerunner, MyTeksi, during a business plan competition at HBS.

Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab, attends Day 1 of the RISE Conference 2018 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on 10 July 2018 in Hong Kong. (PHOTO: S3studio/Getty Images)
Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab, attends Day 1 of the RISE Conference 2018 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on 10 July 2018 in Hong Kong. (PHOTO: S3studio/Getty Images)

4. She was based in San Francisco, but left her heart with Grab

In a 2015 interview, Tan shared that after breaking her bond with McKinsey, she was financially indebted to the company and compelled to find a job that would enable her to quickly repay them. This led to a role at American cloud-based software company Salesforce, whereby she was posted in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though she did not assume official responsibilities at Grab, then in its nascent stage, she admitted that she would moonlight at Grab. “There was actually a period of time when I was taking vacations from Salesforce to come back [to GrabTaxi] and work harder than I ever was at Salesforce. Take two weeks off, fly back, go on a crazy five- to six-country sprint, then fly back to San Francisco and work again,” she said.

5. She was once a state shuttler

Despite suffering from asthma as a child, Tan has always been athletic, participating in physical activities such as swimming and badminton and later on, swing dancing. In fact, she made it to the state badminton team as a teenager.

6. She doesn't own a car

Tan may have a driver's licence, but she does not own a car – at least not in 2017, when she gave an interview to the Straits Times. She once said that she chose not to drive out of convenience, and claimed to travel using Grab at least twice a day – though she apparently does not enjoy priority privileges. She sees these rides as opportunities to gather feedback from drivers and inform the team on how to improve the service's user experience.

7. She's all for female empowerment

As a female leader in a tech industry that's dominated by males, Tan is adamant about not having faced discrimination. She does, however acknowledge the prevalence of a gender imbalance in her sector. Fortunately, according to a Deloitte Global report, large technology firms will reach a nearly 33 per cent overall female workforce representation in 2022. Tan has stated that she believes in "normalising women in tech" and to that end, Grab in May announced that it will raise the proportion of women in leadership positions to 40 per cent by 2030 — up from 34 per cent. It also committed to ensuring equal pay.

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