life-at-dbsLife at DBS
Koh Soo Boon started her career in DBS and went on to be the first Singaporean woman to break into Silicon Valley
By DBS, 29 Mar 2023
In light of International Women’s Day, we met Koh Soo Boon, a former DBS employee who founded Singapore’s first female-led venture capital firm. She attributed her experiences in the bank with having shaped her path to becoming the first Singaporean woman to break into the boys’ club that is Silicon Valley.
Koh Soo Boon joined the bank in 1974 without any banking experience and was one of the few women to be a money markets dealer. During her 12 years in the bank, she rotated through various departments and kept learning new skills. Here’s her story:
"I was seated in front of five senior leaders in the Development Bank of Singapore – Messrs S Dhanabalan, Michael Wee, Patrick Yeoh, Lim Ho Kee and Tong Chi Lian. Fresh out of university with a degree in mathematics and zero knowledge in banking, I fielded questions about new projects the bank was undertaking.
It was my interview for a role in the bank, and I felt energised and challenged. I knew then, I wanted to be in DBS and be part of its development of Singapore.
The bank gave me an offer, and I was appointed to be a trader in the dealing room. Back then, it was very unusual for a woman to be in the dealing room, but I was hardworking and a fast learner. After the first year, I was given the opportunity to move into various other departments within the bank. I started as a project analyst and was promoted to various positions over the years.
I worked on projects across several sectors, including shipbuilding, electronics, transportation, financial services and real estate. I felt really fortunate, because I was learning from all the departmental heads and colleagues the intricacies of global industry trends and dealing with joint venture partners from foreign countries. This was exceptional learning exposure for a young employee. DBS was very much a learning environment. But, we had to learn fast. Sink or swim. One unexpected skill I picked up - writing logically! We had to write in proper English, which became a good discipline. We meticulously documented every aspect of a project, which made knowledge transfer simple.
DBS was very much a learning environment. But, we had to learn fast. Sink or swim. One unexpected skill I picked up - writing logically! We had to write in proper English, which became a good discipline. We meticulously documented every aspect of a project, which made knowledge transfer simple.
I was on two special projects. In the first project, I was a junior member of the working committee (DBS Land and DBS Real Estate Department) involved in the early discussion to build Raffles City under the then DBS Chairman Howe Yoon Chong and later Mr JYM Pillay. It was a multi-million-dollar project, far from what the Credit Department (Real Estate) would usually undertake.
The second project was a secret project then – the creation of Singapore Bus Service Ltd. (SBS). I got to work with Mr Wong Hung Kim, then CEO of SBS, and Mr Sim Kee Boon, then Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Communications and Mr Pillay, then Permanent Secretary of Finance. I wouldn’t be able to work with these top-level government civil servants if my bosses in the bank had not selected me to work on this project.
I developed the ability to handle new projects without fear. At a relatively young age, I led the international credit department, managing eight overseas branches, and was head of international loan syndication. I was amazed to be given the opportunity to take on such huge responsibilities. Thankfully, under my watch, there were no loan defaults or frauds!
Still, in 1985, there was a famous Abalone King fraud case in the Domestic Department (Trade Finance). With the approval of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), I led the bank’s investigation in this department. All the Chinese towkays were very cooperative – perhaps because they found women to be less intimidating. The good news was that after my 18-month stint in this department, I found no further frauds.
In 1986, I took one year no pay leave to accompany my husband, Koh Kuek Chiang for his US posting and moved to San Francisco with my family. Kuek Chiang, also a DBS alumni, worked for the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) as the first head of the special investment division since its inception in 1981.
In October 1987, Mr Philip Yeo, then executive chairman of Singapore Technology (ST) Group, offered me a job as the chief representative of ST Group in San Francisco, at the recommendation of Mr Howe.
This job move from DBS to ST Group changed my career path from banking to venture capital.
I set up Vertex Management Inc. a year later, a corporate venture capital fund for ST Group investing in fabless semiconductor, smart card and consumer electronics startups.
Creative Technology, the first homegrown tech company listed on NASDAQ, was one of the companies Vertex invested in. Others included Gemplus, a French smart card company that also had DBS as a business partner its early days, Lattice Semiconductor, Quick Logic and PIE/ Quickturn.
The world of technology investing continued to capture my curiosity in science and technology advancements. Aided by many years of experience with risk assessment and loan syndication, I realised all my work experience at DBS had prepared me for Silicon Valley.
If I had to sum up some key lessons over the years, they’d be these:
- Pursue your passion and give your best.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help.
- Show your generosity by sharing your knowledge.
- Ultimately, no one can make your dreams come true but yourself.
Koh Soo Boon was the former head of international credit. She was in DBS from 1974 to 1986. In 1999, she set up Singapore's first female-founded venture capital firm, iGlobe Partners at the Great American Parkway, Santa Clara in Silicon Valley. She was inducted as an honouree into Singapore's Women Hall of Fame on 8 March 2022. She spends part of her time mentoring youths while serving as Honorary Council Member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) and as advisor to SCCCI Career Women's Group.