KUALA LUMPUR – As a child, Rachel Lau aspired to compete in the Olympic games. So set was her heart on becoming a pro athlete that she was training 4-8 hours a day for six days a week at a tender age. She did represent Malaysia as a gymnast on the international stage. She is still associated with the sport as the president of Malaysian Gymnastics Federation, of which she became the youngest president three years ago.
Daughter of real estate magnate and investment legend late Lau Boon Ann, Rachel had moved to Australia for her higher studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in finance and another degree in law. She then started working as an investment analyst with Dutch firm NN Investment Management in Hong Kong, and went on to become the Vice President at Heitman Investment Management for Hong Kong and Australia where she helped manage USD$4bn of global long-only and absolute return equity strategies, focused on the APAC region. Six years ago, she teamed up with fellow Malaysian heirs to form RHL Ventures where she is the managing partner today.
Only a couple of years into the formation of the firm, Rachel was named as 50 People who are Redefining the Way We Live by The Business Times, Singapore and was selected as Milken Institute Young Leaders Circle. A vocal proponent of gender parity at workplaces, she shares her experiences with gender inequality with Women Icons Network, and suggests ways to solve the problems arising out of it.
Being born into a famous family, life would have been easy for Rachel if she chose to make it so. However, she opted to be adventurous instead, moving to Australia for studies and then to other countries for work.
For her, it was a natural move to get a job after college. “It was fun, I was in the US and Hong Kong and it was a great cultural immersive experience to learn best work ethics. People loved their jobs and had pride in what they did,” she shares when asked about the experience.
Even as she became a jet setting globe trotter, she kept an eye at the happenings back home. She realised that South East Asia was emerging as a key growth region in the world stage. One of the lessons in investing that she got from her father at a young age was, “Look for disconnects in the market, be in the flow of information and understand market sentiments.” She did just that when she realised the growth potential. She says she wanted to be where the adventure was.
On returning home to Malaysia, Rachel met Hamzah Raja and Jo Jo Kong who are also second generation investors and had similar convictions about the region. And so the three decided to join hands to form RHL Ventures with the vision to make it the premier investment house in SEA, a home brand by South East Asians for South East Asia.
She is proud to say that the firm works in an environment that emphasises meritocracy. Its assessment methodology is very meticulous; there is a lot more focus on numbers without ever forgetting the human side of things. “After all, all businesses are people first,” she exclaims.
At the same time, she believes that diversity, not conformity, is what makes the world special. That is the reason RHL does not have quotas, but encourages diversity through the active hiring of people of different races, ages, genders, and backgrounds. Her only grouse with encouraging more women to join investing is that they generally fade into the background and aren’t keen to join as it is seen as a man’s world.
Women at the Workplace
Talking about gender representation at the workplace, Rachel believes that women have not been fairly represented or treated. “I have been told I’m too smart, too knowledgeable, too aggressive, too emotional, too unemotional, you care too much, you care too little. I get told I am too outspoken, too modern with my thoughts, then I turn around and someone calls me too aunty. I can only be so many things before I become schizophrenic,” she says exasperated by the slew of epithets she just rattled. She finds the idea that someone can be “too smart” for anything, especially an activity where the intellect is used, funny.
There are too many expectations from women in the corporate and startup worlds, she feels. For any company that wishes to respect its female employees, she has a simple formula: Do not attach labels, do not stereotype, and treat everyone with equality. “Tolerance and kindness to all is how we make the workplace better. Be mindful that everyone has struggles of their own that they’re dealing with,” she explains.
A lot of corporate workplace issues are caused not due to a lack of women, but rather the slow upward mobility of women, she believes. According to her, this is because of antiquated perceptions like married women aren’t able to juggle home and work or that an unmarried woman is too aggressive and too ambitious. Dealing with and erasing such stereotyping from the workplace should be an important mission for a gender neutral workplace, she adds.
While most of us think of the Western and more economically developed countries being more gender inclusive, Rachel’s experience has been the opposite. Having worked in different geographies, she shares that she found that Asia was where she saw the most gender equality. She thinks that this might have something to do with having help at home – either from family or from maids and nannies – has allowed women to focus on their careers.
She feels that the work from home norm in the post pandemic world has helped to level the playing field, allowing for more gender parity and meritocracy to prevail within organisations. “Moving forward, we definitely see tech and digital leading the way. Young, digitally-savvy people are now entering the workforce with bold innovative new ideas. Even now, we’re seeing it very much in new startups,” she shares. She feels that the entire ecosystem is now ready to be more gender neutral.
Personally, whenever she has faced discrimination at work, she has chosen to walk away as she believes that there is little way to reason with a fragile male ego. She tells girls to be as ambitious as they wish to be, without caring for the detractors. “As the Nike ad says, dream crazy, show them what crazy can do. Break barriers, don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Just do it,” she advises.