Meet Tan Hooi Ling, the quiet co-founder of Grab who seeded the million-dollar business idea

Meet Tan Hooi Ling, the quiet co-founder of Grab who seeded the million-dollar business idea

Grab, the Southeast Asian ride-hailing and delivery giant, has revolutionised the region’s mobility and logistics landscape. With a presence in eight countries and over 400 cities, Grab has become an indispensable superapp for over 180 million users in Southeast Asia (SEA).

At the heart of Grab’s success story is its co-founder, Tan Hooi Ling.

Hooi Ling, as she is commonly known, was born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, in a family of engineers. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics and science, which led her to pursue a degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

During her undergraduate years, Hooi Ling also participated in various extracurricular activities, such as the university’s canoeing team and the student council, which helped honed her leadership skills.

After graduating from NUS, she joined McKinsey & Company as a management consultant, where she worked on projects in the telecom and banking sectors. She later pursued a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School, where she met her fellow co-founder, Anthony Tan.

At Harvard, the duo worked on a business plan for a ride-hailing company in SEA as part of a school competition, which eventually became Grab, the household name it is today.

Propelling Grab’s rapid rise

Grab was founded in 2012, with Hooi Ling initially serving as the company’s Chief Operating Officer (COO).

The company was also known as GrabTaxi then, starting out as a mobile app that connected passengers with licensed taxis in Malaysia.

This was a product that was borne out of her own safety concerns — she had felt unsafe because the taxi industry in Malaysia has a notorious history of publicised incidents such as robberies and rapes that were allegedly committed by taxi drivers.

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].

– Tan Hooi Ling, Grab co-founder in an interview with Digital News Asia

She added that she would make it a habit to update her mother with the taxi’s licence plate number and her distance from home during late night rides — this was before the proliferation of GPS-enabled smartphones.

This presented them opportunity to solve a real problem faced by millions of people, and to provide a safer and more reliable transport option with ride-hailing services.

GrabTaxi soon expanded to other countries in the region, such as Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, where the taxi market was highly fragmented and unregulated.

Hooi Ling played a crucial role in establishing Grab’s operations in these countries, leveraging her consulting background to navigate complex regulatory and logistical challenges.

The company later rebranded to Grab in 2016 to reflect its expansion beyond just ride-hailing to a super app platform that also offers food delivery, digital payments, and other services.

Hooi Ling has played a pivotal role in growing Grab over the years, spearheading the company’s efforts to diversify its services and expand its user base.

For instance, she led the development of Grab’s payments platform, GrabPay, which has become a key revenue generator for the company.

She also oversaw Grab’s fundraising rounds, which raised billions of dollars from investors such as Softbank, Tencent, and Microsoft, making Grab one of the most valuable startups in SEA today.

Grab under Hooi Ling’s leadership

Hooi Ling’s leadership style is characterised by her passion for solving complex problems and her focus on collaboration and innovation. She believes in working closely with her team, empowering them to take ownership of their work, and ensuring that everyone’s voices are heard.

I believe that you can only be as successful as the team around you, and that success comes from empowering and trusting your team members.

– Tan Hooi Ling, Grab co-founder in an interview with Peter Fisk

Under Hooi Ling’s leadership, Grab has been at the forefront of several social impact initiatives, such as promoting financial inclusion and supporting female entrepreneurs.

In 2019, Grab launched the Grab for Good program, which aims to leverage technology to address social and environmental challenges in SEA. The program has invested in initiatives such as reducing plastic waste, empowering micro-entrepreneurs, and providing accessible transportation for persons with disabilities.

Hooi Ling has also been known to shy away from the spotlight, preferring to let her work speak for itself. However, her impact on Grab’s success has not gone unnoticed — she was listed on Forbes’ 40 Under 40 in 2018, and was named one of Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen in 2019.

A female founder in a male-dominated industry

In a male-dominated industry, Hooi Ling has not only broken barriers but also emerged as a role model for young women entrepreneurs in SEA. However, her success as a female tech entrepreneur has not been without its challenges.

In a 2018 interview with the Business Times, she spoke about the difficulties of being a female founder in a male-dominated industry. “It’s very important to have a strong support system,” she said. “And I think it’s important to also not be too afraid to speak up and voice your opinions.”

In a separate 2019 interview with the South China Morning Post, she said, “I have to work twice as hard, and prove myself twice as much.”

Hooi Ling has also been vocal about the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. She said that “we need to normalise women in tech” and wants to see more women in leadership positions.

I think it’s important to have diversity of thought and diversity of perspectives. And I think that women can bring a lot to the table in terms of different ways of thinking, different experiences, and different approaches to problem-solving.

– Tan Hooi Ling, Grab co-founder

As a huge advocate for gender diversity in the tech industry, Hooi Ling has spoken openly about her experiences of working in a male-dominated industry. She has encouraged other women to pursue careers in tech, and also urged companies to create more opportunities for women to advance into leadership positions.

Within Grab itself, she has worked to promote gender diversity. Last year, the company announced plans to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions from 34 per cent to 40 per cent by 2030, while ensuring equal pay goals are met.

Today, Grab has a workforce that is made up of more than 8,000 employees, representing over 50 nationalities, and almost 40 per cent of its leadership positions are held by women.

Her dedication to empowering women in the tech industry is also evident in her involvement in the She Loves Tech initiative, which supports women entrepreneurs and aims to bridge the gender gap in the tech industry.

She has also been involved in various mentorship programs, inspiring and guiding the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

Paving the path forward for Grab

Hooi Ling’s vision for Grab is to become a superapp that not only offers convenience and affordability to users, but also creates meaningful social impact in the communities it serves.

She envisions Grab as a platform that can empower millions of people in Southeast Asia to access new opportunities, whether through entrepreneurship, education, or financial inclusion.

We want to be the go-to app for everything in your daily life, whether it’s getting a ride, ordering food, or shopping for groceries. We believe that we can make a real difference in the lives of people in Southeast Asia by providing them with the services they need to live their lives to the fullest.

– Tan Hooi Ling, Grab co-founder in an interview with the Financial Times

Her journey as a co-founder of Grab is a testament to her resilience, vision, and leadership. She has played a pivotal role in shaping Grab’s growth and success, guiding the company through challenges and opportunities alike.

Her dedication to social impact and innovation has made Grab not only a formidable player in SEA’s tech landscape, but also a force for positive change.

As SEA continues to undergo rapid transformation and development, Grab’s role in shaping the region’s mobility and logistics ecosystem will be more crucial than ever. With Hooi Ling’s continued leadership and expertise, Grab is well-positioned to drive innovation and impact in the region for years to come.

Featured Image Credit: Roslan Rahman via AFP

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