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Women of our time - Katherine Yip

Published on Wednesday, 22 Oct 2014
Photos: David Wong, AP
Photos: David Wong, AP

Bold approach has resulted in a series of successful ventures.

Financial advisers always say you should diversify. Katherine Yip has been doing that with her career as one of Hong Kong's top investment professionals. Fearless but not reckless, Yip's innovative approach over 20-plus years has seen her manage and grow businesses, from educational toys and developing IT games and mobile apps, to marketing products for Formula One racing, Sanrio, Crocs and the Walt Disney Company. 

She has also taken risks as one of the first to explore direct investment in Vietnam. But the move paid off, as she now heads one of the largest foreign direct investment funds in emerging Southeast Asian markets such as Vietnam and Cambodia. 

She says the key to success for an entrepreneur is the ability to think out of the box and look beyond the obvious. "When I first started looking in Vietnam nearly 15 years ago, the country was just starting to open up. At that time, foreign investors were still not allowed to own land there. I had to be very careful about what I wanted and what I was prepared to lose. I also had to be very patient with the enormously complicated bureaucracy, which did not make it easy for foreign direct investors. 

"I decided to focus on real estate and got lucky, buying a building in Ho Chi Minh City that was later developed into a shopping centre. This purchase connected me with the future CEO of VinaCapital, Don Lam, and showed me the enormous potential of the market. It also gave me the strength and resolve to establish VinaCapital some four years later, in 2003."

Born in Shanghai, Yip and her family moved to Hong Kong when she was just three months old. Early on, she demonstrated an aptitude for absorbing knowledge when she learned to speak Russian at home with her mother. She went on to study at Harvard University, where she majored in business and marketing. To help pay her way through school, Yip worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Boston's famed Faneuil Hall.

While still in her 20s, she started a company called AMW Hong Kong in 1987. Initially it was a toy company but, under her management, it became a market leader specialising in licensing and distributing "edutainment" products. Among the global brands it handled are Mattel, Formula One and American Girl. 

Branching out in 1997, Yip founded the investment group Pacific Alliance Group (PAG). In 2003, she launched VinaCapital to begin investing in Vietnam. She was betting that the country was on the same road to development that China began years earlier. Yip was right, and now VinaCapital is the world's largest foreign direct investment fund in Vietnam.

Her other prominent business roles include partner and board member of Touchmedia; founding partner of Sanrio Digital, the global affiliate to Sanrio Japan, home of Hello Kitty; and partner in the tech start-up Outblaze. Today, she is chairwoman of KYG (Katherine Yip Group) International, a global investment and advisory firm based in Hong Kong. 

But it's not only success that defines Yip. Her humanitarian efforts are just as significant and demonstrate that she is someone who values doing good as much as doing well. 

She says her mother influenced her career and life the most. "She impressed on me the benefit of education and, more importantly, the appetite to learn from different experiences - through exposure to the arts, conversations with different people, travel to foreign countries, and even through eating different food. 

"My mother was an extraordinary influence on my life. She was an incredible figure skater, a pianist and a doctor, and the first language I learned from her as a child was Russian because we weren't allowed to learn English - she would read bedtime stories to me in Russian. My mother made me realise at a young age that the world is very large. She taught me to be curious, interested in different things and to participate in the global community.

"She also inspired me to help others experience that same thirst for learning by connecting entertainment with education and making it more accessible through technology. Entertainment, education and technology are all areas I'm heavily involved in today through the companies in which I invest, such as Outblaze and Sanrio Digital, and organisations such as BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] that I support through the Yip Foundation," Yip says.

To give back after her successful ventures in Vietnam, the Yip Foundation supports numerous philanthropic causes that have benefited 15,000 children in Vietnam and other developing countries. It pays for heart surgery and organ transplants for the needy in these countries. She has also built technology schools on the mainland and funded global youth education programmes, training schemes for healthcare professionals and elderly care projects. 

Going beyond donations, the foundation assists in further fund-raising from individuals and communities through dollar-for-dollar matching plans and puts all money raised towards the causes, taking no administrative fees.

Her latest charitable initiative is establishing a media scholarship for BAFTA across Asia. The scheme was personally vetted by Yip over a two-year period.

Her tip to young women thinking of a career in finance is to have an uncompromising, unwavering belief in the power of passion. 

"My own personal mantra is to be both a dreamer and a doer. This means embracing your fears to tackle the tasks you'd rather avoid, which is something I try to follow in both my personal and professional life. If you pursue your passion and go from dreaming to doing, success will come. 

"However, the goal is not to have it all. The goal is to pursue with persistence and passion the areas where you have true talent and capability."

AT  A  GLANCE


1987: Founded AMW Hong Kong, a vertically integrated sourcing, manufacturing and distribution company specialising in "edutainment" and the licensing and distribution of global brands including American Girl. 

1997: Founded Pacific Alliance Group, the largest Asia-focused alternative investment management fund.

2003: Founded VinaCapital, the world's largest foreign direct investment fund in Vietnam.

2014: Launches a charitable initiative establishing a media scholarship for BAFTA. 

Andrew Sun

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