Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Shelli Trung

Shelli Trung was the Corporate sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

Shelli Trung possesses a remarkable story, arriving in Australia as an infant refugee and ascending to her current position as Managing Partner, REACH ANZ & ASEAN via assorted pathways including neuroscience studies. She is an expert in corporate venture capital (VC) investing – developing and launching global startup and scaleup accelerator programs across multiple industries with specialisation in the proptech sector across the Asia Pacific. As a Vietnamese Australian, this achievement is all the more significant given that a 2018 report by Equal Ventures found that globally only seven percent of VC’s are women of colour with Asian women making up six percent.

In late October 2020, Shelli became the Corporate sector winner of the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards which addresses the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (under 40 years-old) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. Having lived abroad for several years, she utilises her global expertise and networks regarding corporate innovation and technology and possesses a steely commitment to championing women in leadership positions and diversity in the workplace. In a recent interview with Johnson Partners (JP) Shelli shared insights into how to stand out professionally, what she looks for in investment opportunities, and what sectors are ripe for investment in the coming years.

You’re currently the Managing Partner for REACH Australia – a scaleup program for the real estate industry created by Second Century Ventures (SCV). To put this in context for our readers, SCV is among the largest proptech funds globally with a portfolio of 100+ investments including DocuSign (IPO $6B+), Notarize ($130M+ Series D), HouseCanary ($63M+ Series C) and Updater ($1B+). Can you discuss three seminal career experiences that best prepared you for this role?

In my early career I worked in what was back then called process improvement and change management. I spent a lot of time reviewing, assessing and then deploying technology across a range of sectors including banking, transport and the medical industries. This really helped me understand the risks these businesses have to manage, how to build an internal business case, and ultimately how to successfully integrate new systems and processes. I learnt how to recognise the ‘human’ side of why something is be mass adopted or get shelved – no matter how cool technology might be!

The next significant turning point was moving to the US after the GFC to buy real estate. I had already been buying and renovating in Australia but saw a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this on a massive scale. I got to see the birth of the ‘proptech’ industry (i.e. the real estate sector started to actively engage technology to deliver more transparency and efficiency given it was in crisis). Innovation tends to happen during times of stress.

During my 5 years in the US, I also started my own media company profiling real estate entrepreneurs and proptechs. After 3 years I exited the company. It taught me a lot, although given I was bootstrapped (raised no external capital), the ROI wasn’t too bad! As a venture investor now, I certainly have a lot more empathy having walked in a founder’s shoes myself. Since then, I have led 50+ investment deals and three exits in my total of seven years angel investing and managing corporate investment funds.

In 2019, you led the APAC expansion of SCV and REACH Accelerator, securing SCV’s first expansion outside the US. This bought international capital, recognition and an experienced investor and tech network to Australia. Can you outline REACH Australia’s key accomplishments within the initial 12 months of this achievement and its benefits to the Australian and Southeast Asian market?

I think one of biggest achievements in our first few months was attracting the same amount of scaleup applications as the seven-year history of the US parent program. This was given that we were focused on scaleups and not ‘startups,’ (i.e. not a program I had launched before as most innovation programs focus on idea to seed stages). On top of that, the REACH and SCV brand did not have recognition across APAC, and then there was the ‘fun’ part of a limited budget – we had a lot of fun being creative!

Resulting from such an enthusiastic pipeline of applications, we made six investments. The collective portfolio market cap was valued at AU$100M+. We were able to attract some outstanding founders and companies including a serial entrepreneur who had already sold several companies prior, plus another that had raised $20M before joining the program. We also achieved the sector diversity of 33 percent Female Founded/C-suite which is reflective of the current gender disparity in proptech. Not too bad at all for the first year! We also signed up 80+ mentors, all of which were in C-suite positions as Heads of Innovation across a number of high profile real-estate groups and venture investors including Charter Hall, AMP Capital, CBRE etc. It’s been amazing to see the REACH program being embraced locally.

Leading investments into proptech across APAC for the US-based firm, you purposely ran a campaign in 2019 for your proptech startups/scaleups application funnel that attracted a diverse pool. The end result was 24 percent of the applicants were from Southeast Asia, India and China and overall, 30 percent were from female-led companies. The final six investments comprised 33 percent female-led companies and 50 percent had at least one C-suite representative from a diverse background. Can you outline other recent initiatives that demonstrate your commitment to championing women in leadership positions and diversity within the corporate workplace?

One of the other areas we are very active in is rounding out our mentor network. We are currently sitting at 20 percent female mentors. This really needs to sit at 30 percent to be reflective of the proptech sector. We have however reached 50 percent on program facilitators.

REACH Global has also started adding environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) and diversity metrics now in its application process which we like to think we played some part in given we were the first in its seven year history to collect and then report on our post campaign metrics.

Lastly, driving this agenda home although more accidentally than purposefully, we happen to be an all-female venture and accelerator team which is basically unheard of. I could be mistaken, but I’m also pretty sure I am the only accelerator or VC fund in APAC with a black female team member and she’s a complete rock star – we’re very lucky!

“This goes back to my suggestion of individuals taking up and valuing their unique experiences. Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech that “the dots don’t make much sense in forward motion, they only make sense when looking back.” I’ve considered myself a bit of a ‘dot collector’ ever since!”

Looking at statistics, as quoted by All Raise (2020), only 13 percent of women are involved in venture investment decision making. As someone who is passionate about female entrepreneurship, what advice do you have for young females particularly in Australia upon completion of university studies and wishing to enter the VC sector? Any key tips to ensure a fully visible professional presence?

I’m actually working on something to focus on this specific need. Hopefully this gets off the ground next year so watch this space! But generally, I think it’s important to recognise that yes, the world needs to change and we should all do our part.

In their interim, there are some things that individuals can do to stand out. The first is to recognise their own uniqueness and transferability in skills. There is no straight-line career path into VC. In fact, those who have had a very extensive finance background do not always make the best VC’s as scaling a company is more about people than process. There-in lies the fun of it!

Statistics have shown that women will not apply for a role if they don’t feel like they tick all the boxes in a job advert whereas men will apply if they have half! So, one of the obvious lessons is learning how to value yourself and then communicate that value. Some people call it selling, others pitching, which might conjure up very masculine images of not listening and over speaking. I’ve found genuineness and active listening more important in forming partnerships that work for the VC industry.

Stepping back to childhood experiences, your parents are Chinese Vietnamese and you were born in a Hong Kong refugee detention centre (arriving in Melbourne at the age of two with your parents). How did your childhood shape not just your career path, but the lengthy period of time spent abroad? And what brought you back to its shores?

I think I would summarise my early life and career as a random experiment that I have made work. My biggest idol is Forrest Gump and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise he was a fictional character until I was 18 – I was 14 when the movie was released so that’s my excuse!

I had just assumed everyone can be a soldier, ping-pong champion, marathon runner and Apple investor while also overcoming mobility issues and speech difficulty. I was fortunate enough that I had very open-minded parents who asked us what we wanted to do with our lives at an early age, letting us decide for ourselves. In hindsight, I think they were just too busy working all the time!

This goes back to my suggestion of individuals taking up and valuing their unique experiences. Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech that “the dots don’t make much sense in forward motion, they only make sense when looking back.” I’ve considered myself a bit of a ‘dot collector’ ever since, and those dots such as studying neuroscience, working in corporate innovation, buying real estate in the US, starting and selling my media company all now help me to understand the world’s needs in a unique way. I moved back to Australia because that lens told me that this region is about to really explode in innovation with its combination of talent, resources and community spirit – I was up for a new challenge!

What common mistakes do you see company founders making when attempting to raise money?

A common one is an unclear growth story and not knowing their business’ numbers. Investors like numbers and think in numbers. Some basic understanding of this innate personality driver is important when talking to investors if you can’t pull out metrics off the top of your head. We need to see the story of an investment return – this is after all the job of an investor! Founders need to be able to tell that story to us and convince us it is based on some sort of logic.

Lastly, do you have left-of-field flashbulb moments about potential niche sectors to invest in that may be triggered by recreational or other non-work related endeavours? Can you share any that have led to fantastic investment opportunities?

I’m not one to set new year resolutions, but this year I thought I would do my best to go zero waste and as much as I can, pursue a vegan lifestyle. I saw a quote that said “The world does not need a small number of people doing zero waste perfectly, it needs millions of us doing it imperfectly.”

While I understand that only a handful of companies are responsible for the majority of pollution on the planet, we are still the ones demanding these products and services. So, in summary, given that women make most consumer spending decisions and now also make 40 percent of enterprise spending decisions (yay!), I think any impact sectors that focus on closed-loop and full-cycle recycling will be big.

On another note, apparently 50 percent of Aussie homes have a pet. This also increased during the pandemic. Did you also know that vets have one of the highest industry suicide rates as a profession? This entire sector is really ready for an overhaul and could gain a lot from innovation leading to better outcomes for everyone. Besides pet food, there really are very few premium products. I find myself constantly questioning the lack of sustainability and safety surrounding pet products, and don’t get me started on how ugly some look! If anyone wants to pitch a new pet-focused startup, get in touch!

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