Grab, the Malaysian-born ride-hailing app, was recently dubbed Southeast Asia’s first ‘decacorn’—the rare marvel of a start-up worth over $10 billion.
In the six years since it launched in 2012, Grab has expanded into 168 cities in eight countries. Having bought out Uber’s regional operations, it currently occupies a 97% market share in Southeast Asia.
In the last two years, the app has grown rapidly, doubling its number of users, with daily rides increasing from two and a half million to six million.
Grab’s achievement is part of a wider Southeast Asian tech revolution. Since 2015, over 90 million new internet users have come online, a number that is increasing exponentially and at unheard-of speed.
Frontier-minded MBA students need little encouragement to relocate to Southeast Asia. At its epicenter is Kuala Lumpur, where Asia School of Business (ASB) is offering students the lucrative opportunity to access the fastest growing tech market in the world.
Using tech to solve problems
One student who took the leap into Southeast Asia’s tech market is Jack Farrell.
From selling lemonade to buy baseball cards, to reselling second-hand college textbooks at Duke University, Jack has always been entrepreneurial in his attitude.
“I look for problems that I can build businesses around,” Jack says.
Applying to ASB was an easy decision for Jack. Southeast Asia’s rapid growth, ASB’s link to MIT Sloan, and a long-term desire to earn an MBA made the opportunity attractive to him.
With experience in tech startups in the US, including co-founding pet services platform PawedIn, Jack benefitted most from the immersion in Asian industry as part of the school’s Action Learning curriculum. Throughout the program, students undertake five extended consultancy projects with leading organizations in up to five countries, working closely with their employees to deliver impactful change.
“It was a chance to go into different countries and see how different they are—their stages of development, their habits, the ways people buy,” Jack recalls.
At Hotel Equatorial, a hospitality group, Jack created a digital marketing strategy to increase on-site conversion for bookings. At Ananda Development, Thailand’s largest condominium developer, he advised on how to increase the price per square foot by developing internal and external technology.
While the problems were different, both projects played to Jack’s interest and skill in using technology and entrepreneurship as problem-solving tools.
Jack, a self-proclaimed ‘Southeast Asia Evangelist’, has used his time at Asia School of Business to produce his own video series—‘Jack SEAs Tech’—on regional digital trends and innovations.
After graduation, Jack is deciding between the equally enticing opportunities of venture capital and starting his own enterprise—perhaps to be a part of the next decacorn like Grab. Either way, his gaze is firmly fixed on Southeast Asia.
“Everywhere I look, there is so much opportunity to build business, because of how quickly everything is growing,” Jack enthuses.
“Everyone wants to enhance digitally”
Saloni Saraogi’s (pictured) path to Southeast Asia’s tech revolution was slightly different—born in India, and raised in the Middle East, a bachelor’s in finance and accounting at the University of Nottingham paved the way for a career in finance.
Choosing to earn an MBA was a way of advancing her own business competency, at the time based at BNP Paribas in Mumbai. “As I started to get more leadership roles in the bank, I started to think, ‘I need to expand my toolkit.’”
The Action Learning program at ASB, as Saloni remembers, gave her the opportunity to get actively involved in industry, and to get her hands dirty.
It also exposed her to developments in the finance industry—in particular, the growing role that fintech plays in modern financial institutions, even in long-standing establishments such as Bangkok Bank. Last year, she completed an Action Learning project with the firm that involved leveraging existing technology platforms to help it attract more customers.
“[In finance], there is an understanding that everyone wants to enhance digitally,” Saloni remembers.
As someone with digital literacy, Saloni found Southeast Asia to have abundant opportunities to work in technological developments.
A summer placement at the consultancy Frost & Sullivan found her working alongside the APAC head of fintech, building an index that measured the digital readiness of insurance companies in Malaysia.
In the meantime, Saloni produces her own newsletter, ‘Exploring Digital’, which details digital and technological trends and thought-pieces. It is currently distributed to all ASB students monthly.
The transformative power of tech
While the digital boom is good news for tech companies, Jack and Saloni both recognize the transformative implications for the region.
Jack believes that initial public offerings (IPOs) for successful start-ups like Grab could start in the next few years, using that wealth generation to reinvest in and grow the Southeast Asia tech economy.
Saloni, meanwhile, sees the ability of technology as a development tool, closing the vast gap between countries like Malaysia and developing countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, where around 90% of the region’s impoverished population is based.
It is worth considering that, while only 27% of Southeast Asia’s population has bank accounts, there are roughly 1.4 mobile phones per person.
“Tech can be used to promote financial inclusion,” Saloni notes, an ambition which is driving her own career, and which she plans to explore further through a research project with the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), which she landed through Asia School of Business.
For frontier-minded students with an interest in tech, Southeast Asia’s rapidly growing market offers lucrative and life-changing opportunities to tap into an industry that is evolving constantly.
The revolution, it seems, will not be televised—it will be digital.