How This British 'Talent Investor' is Helping Startups in Asia Turn into Global Businesses

Asia has some of the best technical talent and universities in the world, matched by the biggest potential for growth, says Entrepreneur First's co-founder Alice Bentinck

You're reading Entrepreneur Asia Pacific, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Company handout
Alice Bentinck

While working as a business analyst at McKinsey for a little over two years in London, Alice Bentinck realized it wasn't the right career path. So, she quit her job and joined hands with Matt Clifford, also an ex-McKinsey employee by then, to start Entrepreneur First, a one of its kind startup builder with the aim of "backing the world's most talented and ambitious individuals to be founders, before they had a team or an idea".

Over the past eight years, Entrepreneur First has graduated over 1,200 founders who have established more than 200 companies, collectively worth $1.5 billion on paper.

In February, it announced raising of $115 million for the first close of a new deep tech-focused global fund, which was led by investors like Taavet Hinrikus, founder of TransferWise; Alex Chesterman, founder of Zoopla; and Entrepreneur First alumnus Rob Bishop, who co-founded Magic Pony Technology (it was bought by Twitter in 2016). The aim behind the fund is to invest in over 2,200 individuals across the globe, who are joining cohorts in Bengaluru, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Paris.

The Journey Begins

The beginning for Entrepreneur First wasn't exactly smooth though. "We were told that it was crazy to work with individuals at such an early stage of building a startup, but we could see there was a real demand for it," says Bentinck.

Today, Entrepreneur First is billed as a "talent investor". According to Bentinck, who was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2016 Birthday Honours for her services to business, talent is what sets you apart from your peers. "I look out for people who have achieved exceptional things compared to their peers and who have challenged the status quo. And entrepreneurship requires dedication. I look for people who define themselves by their work and want to dedicate their lives to it," she says, giving the example of Rohit Jha, the chief executive officer of Transcelestial Technologies.

At the age of 12, Jha taught himself to code in India, studied electrical engineering in Singapore before becoming an FX trader at RBS. "Lots of people would've been content with that, but he felt he could have a much bigger impact if he started his own company, so he joined EFSG1. Now he's raised millions of dollars for using earth-to-space lasers to provide ultra-fast connections around the world," says Bentinck.

What's important for these talented individuals, she adds, is "to identify their edge—a secret weapon in the form of technical skill or area of expertise, typically derived from their academic or corporate career. Once that edge is defined, we find that founders are better positioned to understand what problems they are best suited to solve."

Besides Entrepreneur First, Clifford and Bentinck have also founded Code First to encourage female talent. "There was, and still is, a real lack of female technical talent. We set up Code First: Girls (CFG) with the goal of teaching 20,000 women to code for free by 2020. It is a free eight-week evening course for young women to learn the basics of Web development. We started our first cohort in 2013 with just 28 young women and have come a long way since then. We've just hit our halfway mark—over 10,000 women have already learnt how to code," she says.

Cultural Diversity

In its eight-year journey, Entrepreneur First has expanded in Paris and Berlin in Europe and, in Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Bengaluru. Each city has its own unique culture, pushing the platform to navigate through those differences almost daily.

"There are differences in culture and startup ecosystems, but there are many more commonalities than differences among our global founder base," says Bentinck. "When you walk into an EF office around the world, it's remarkable how similar they feel. The individuals we work with are often quite unusual—we call them outliers. They often aren't like other people in their culture and EF gives them the opportunity to be surrounded by other people like them. We are on a mission to uncover this global community of outliers."

Location Matters

But why Asia after Europe?

"Asia has some of the best technical talent and universities in the world, matched by the biggest potential for growth. When you look at the sheer size of the opportunity and the fact that it's comparatively untapped – especially at the level we operate at, we're only scratching the surface. As pioneers of the talent-first model, we are committed to supporting the region's most talented and ambitious people by bringing EF to Asia," she explains.

Future plans? At the moment, Entrepreneur First is focused on helping the founders in the six cities build globally important companies. "We have some really fast-growing superstars in our portfolio making millions in revenue and working on bleeding edge technology," she says.