Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 2 December 2020

Money & Me: ‘It’s risky being an angel investor - you often don't get your money back'

Entrepreneur and angel investor Lucy Chow says she holds many roles, most of which are not immediately monetised

Lucy Chow, a director of Women’s Angel Investor Network in the UAE, believes in supporting and funding female entrepreneurs. Antonie Robertson / The National
Lucy Chow, a director of Women’s Angel Investor Network in the UAE, believes in supporting and funding female entrepreneurs. Antonie Robertson / The National

Lucy Chow is an entrepreneur and a director of the Women’s Angel Investor Network (Wain) in the UAE. Born in Canada, she started her expatriate career in China before moving to Hong Kong to work as a senior vice president for HSBC, spending over a decade there. She moved to Dubai with her husband, Ray Everett, president and senior partner at Aon McLagan, in 2007. Ms Chow, in her early fifties, wears many hats, including founder of events services company The Elements Group, limited partner with venture capital firm Mindshift Capital and UAE senator for the World Business Angel Forum — what she calls “the Davos of angel investing”. Wain has invested in nine companies with female founders, including Sarwa, Now Money, BulkWhiz and Little Thinking Minds. Ms Chow lives in a villa on Palm Jumeirah with her husband and 14-year-old son, Max.

I give away a lot of my time for free.

Lucy Chow, entrepreneur and angel investor

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I’m first generation, born in Canada and I come from a really humble background because my parents were immigrants. My great grandfather came from Guangzhou, China [close to Hong Kong] to Vancouver in the early 1900s and worked in a wood mill and then he brought my dad to Canada when he was 15 years old. My father was the eldest of five and the only son, so perhaps the motivation was to give him the opportunity. My mum was in her early 20s when she immigrated to Canada — it was an arranged marriage.

My dad held down multiple jobs to raise his family. It’s a cliché but he delivered Chinese food, he worked as a security guard and then the job he was employed with the longest was taking care of the maintenance team of a high-end shopping mall. My mum worked as a chamber maid for Hyatt for 20 years. So blue collar.

We were brought up with really not much and therefore a real view to savings. So that was always my natural inclination, which is to save every penny. As quickly as I could, I started working so I could earn my own money. You could only be employed at the age of 15 in Canada. But at the age of 14, I said I was 15 so I could work at McDonald’s. I worked all through university, sometimes holding two, even three jobs.

How much were you paid in your first full-time job?

It was a watershed moment when I graduated from university and my first job was at Drake Training [in Canada], selling training packages. My salary would have been slightly under C$20,000 (Dh52,294) a year and it was humbling that only then, when I told my dad, did I realise in my first job I was making more than he had ever made in a year in his life. So that really brought home how hard he worked.

Why did you leave Canada?

They say that you have seven careers in your lifetime — I have probably already had seven. I started my expatriate career in China as the trade representative for the province of British Columbia. I moved to Hong Kong to work for what was then the largest unit trust company in the world. I ended up with HSBC and stayed for almost 10 years, overseeing the regional marketing for global payments and cash management.

I met my husband in Hong Kong — he’s also Canadian. We moved to New York, where I worked for a high-yield, distressed debt securities company. After two years in New York, we missed our life in Hong Kong, so I went back to HSBC.

What brought you to Dubai?

[My husband] Ray is with Aon McLagan — they do compensation consulting for the financial services industry — and he was asked if he wanted to open up the Middle East office. [It was] literally four months after we had just visited Dubai on a holiday. So that was wonderful, because we had already seen it and even while we were here, I had said to him ‘could you see yourself living here?’ And he said, ‘yeah’. We’ve been here 13 years now.

Do you have any financial regrets?

Not being an expat earlier. I was in my late twenties when I had my first international posting. If you live and work in low-tax environments, you’re just saving that much more that you can invest. That’s purely from a financial viewpoint. But then there’s also all the wonderful things you get being an expat: the global view, the worldliness and the global work experience.

What are your current roles?

I wear many different hats that equate to perhaps more than a full-time job. I give away a lot of my time for free — almost all of it actually. A lot of the roles I have are not immediately monetised. So, for instance, being the director of the Women’s Angel Investors Network — we started that six years ago. But the way our angel network works is that the directors, the three of us, have a [stake] and we don’t see that until we exit a company. We have a portfolio of nine companies but we haven’t exited any them. They’re doing well on paper and growing our money, but until we have an exit, the directors don’t make any money.

Do you see yourself as a saver or a spender?

I think I still tend to be a saver — besides the investing, because that’s high risk. It’s the riskiest to be an angel, because you’re so early, the chances are nine in 10 that you’re not going to make your money back. That I have no problem with, because there’s just so much more I get out of being an angel and so much good I’m putting out into the world by supporting entrepreneurs and the innovation ecosystem.

What led you to leave the corporate world?

That was propelled because of our move here. I looked into what I would make if I stayed on with HSBC — they had offered me a job here — and at the time, the salaries were nowhere close to New York and Hong Kong salaries. I had just completed an executive MBA and decided I would like to try my hand at starting my own thing.

For the first few years, I did business development for companies based in Hong Kong. And then in 2010, I started my own company, The Elements Group, to put on bespoke events.

What led to your involvement in the Women’s Angel Investors Network?

It was [an idea from] Heather Henyon, who started off in microfinance and is a very astute investor. She herself was already an angel investor and was part of angel networks in the US. It was her, myself and Rebecca Hill as the three directors. And we were intentional in that we wanted two things: one was we wanted to teach women what it meant to be angels and therefore deploy more capital; and then we wanted to invest in companies that had at least one female founder.

It’s very well documented that in teams with at least one woman, the return on investment is greater than an all-male team. So why is it that, even with the facts right in front of them, they’re not investing in diverse teams? It’s because in a lot of the VCs [venture capital firms], the GPs [general partners] and the LPs [limited partners] are typically male, so there is an unconscious basis.

Although Wain has invested in nine companies since it was founded in 2014, Ms Chow and the other two directors will not make any money until they exit. Antonie Robertson / The National
Although Wain has invested in nine companies since it was founded in 2014, Ms Chow and the other two directors will not make any money until they exit. Antonie Robertson / The National

Why is it important to support women entrepreneurs?

When we talk about successful entrepreneurs, who comes to mind immediately? Elon Musk, Bill Gates. Especially in this region, we have so many awesome examples of female founders who have done so well. We need to start shouting out those names and not just focus on the men. If you have a choice between two companies and one company has a female founder, and it’s the same service and product, why not give your money to the company started by a female?

And it’s very opaque — the whole angel financing world. Even the jargon is intimidating — like valuation, scaling. But nobody teaches you that. This is why I started a video series Down to Business with Lucy Chow to say ‘don’t worry, just ask’ and shine a spotlight on successful female entrepreneurs.

Updated: February 27, 2020 12:14 PM

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