How one tech company is shaking up all of Southeast Asia

by Jobbatical September 06, 2016

A conversation about taxis, teleportation, and everything in between


Grab is Southeast Asia’s leading mobile tech company. Its mission: to solve critical transportation challenges and make transport freedom a reality for over 620 million people across the region. What began in 2012 as a taxi-hailing app designed to make lives safer has turned into a serious game-changer in the Southeast Asian transport industry.

Now present in thirty cities across six countries — Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines — Grab has gone from just serving the taxi space to taking on private hire vehicles, bike taxis, social carpooling, as well as deliveries. But there’s a lot more to the story of this tech innovator that’s entirely unafraid to dream big and push the boundaries of what technology can achieve.

To learn more about this powerhouse that’s making huge strides in rearranging the Southeast Asian transport landscape, we grabbed co-founder Hooi Ling Tan for a chat about—among other things—teleportation, the real meaning of diversity, and what’s probably the secret to their success: a team with a serious sense of mission.

(And before you ask: Yes, they’re hiring!)

Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder. Photo courtesy of Grab

Breathing new life into a stale, “unsexy” industry

According to Ling, taxis in Malaysia used to be considered some of the worst by business professionals and tourists.

“If you were to search Google right now for the world’s worst taxis, probably 80–90% of the first page results are still referring to Kuala Lumpur,” says Ling. A quick Google search confirms her hypothesis—references to Malaysia’s capital are all over the first page. So what was it like for a passenger?

Notoriously, the risk of being raped or robbed in a taxi in Malaysia was very, very real. “As a female passenger, I felt completely unsafe,” says Ling. “My parents would never, ever allow me to get in a taxi until it got to the point where they realized they had to let me take it.”

Moreover, there was a distinct lack of transparency in the industry. “Passengers had no idea which drivers were good, which drivers were bad. The majority of them wanted to earn more money from you. They would give you a quote that was exorbitant, and they would refuse to take you if you did not want to go by their routes. At the same time, I had the personal pleasure of meeting some really amazing taxi drivers. Because the industry had quite a few bad apples, it had got such a bad reputation.”

And so the first order of business was to make transportation safe—Grab was the first transportation platform that allowed tracking, letting family members know where you were when you wanted them to. Now, 8 in 10 women in the developing countries of Southeast Asia feel safer in taxis when they use the Grab app.

Kuala Lumpur, Grab’s home city. Photo by Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

Having tackled safety for Malaysian taxis, Grab moved on to other problems that were stifling the growth of the transport industry in Southeast Asia. “We realized there were similar issues in the rest of Southeast Asia,” says Ling. “In the Philippines, safety was a big issue. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia — all of these countries have the same core developing country infrastructure and high safety issues, and that is what technology solves beautifully.” Along the way, Grab realized, for example, that bike taxis would be game-changers in highly congested cities like Manila or Ho Chi Minh City.

By increasing drivers’ earnings by up to 300% across the region and expanding GrabSchool, which works with drivers’ children to teach them entrepreneurship and open up alternative career paths, Grab has positively impacted their partners’ lives in unprecedented ways. Beyond that, Grab strives to make sure everyone in the region has access to safe transportation. Working with local governments, they help solve local issues that impact city-wide congestion and urban planning.

So it could be argued that Grab hasn’t just transformed an industry, but created a whole new one. When they started four years ago, convincing taxi drivers to use a smartphone to find customers was an uphill battle—now it’s the norm.

True diversity is not designed: How to build a team that can change the world

Behind the story of Grab’s success is a team of exceptionally passionate, accomplished, and diverse individuals. But diversity for the sake of diversity isn’t the name of the game, according to Ling. The trick is always to hire the best people for the job—when you do that, diversity simply ends up happening.

“It’s important to understand that we don’t build teams for diversity,” says Ling. “Southeast Asia is a very, very diverse region. Every country in itself has multiple religions, languages, subcultures. Even just in the six countries that we’re in, that becomes like thirty different dialects.” In addition to Southeast Asians, Grab employs people from all over the world.

Grab team grabbing a well-deserved snack. Photo courtesy of Grab

Furthermore, half of Grab’s management team is female. “And actually on average at Grab, about half of our employees are female; again, not by design. The only reason why I have the stats for you is because people keep asking me about it,” says Ling. The formula for building such a team is fairly simple:

“When you go in looking for the best people for the job, you end up with the best people for the job.”

The reason why these incredible people are joining Grab is pretty straightforward. “They all know how much impact we are bringing to the region, and how unusual this ability and scope of change is,” states Ling. For so many people across all of Southeast Asia (17 million mobile downloads and counting), Grab is an app they use daily. That makes work extremely rewarding for Grabbers, giving them the opportunity to directly shape the way cities in Southeast Asia develop.

But it’s not just about the growth of the company and transport in the region: Grab is the perfect place for personal growth, too. “The kinds of challenges that you as an individual get to deal with at Grab are so different,” enthuses Ling. “Your personal scope for doing exciting things, using new technologies, and learning is crazy.”

A huge factor in the success of a great team is the combined experience of its members. “Let me say that I completely understand why Jobbatical is trying to encourage people to get international experience,” says Ling. “Whether it’s international, in a different function, or with a different company, it’s always good to have a range of experiences, because that color makes us wiser.”

Shaping the future of transportation across Southeast Asia

In the really long term—she concedes it will probably not be in her lifetime—Ling hopes teleportation will become a reality. “I hope it actually happens one day, because if not, I just pity everyone who is constantly flying around and traveling like crazy,” she jokes. Before that glorious day, Grab’s got a lot of work to do. “You shouldn’t have to worry about ‘How do I get from A to B’. You should get transported from A to B with minimal hassle.”

The future of transport—the ideal world that Grab is working towards— is a world free of congestion, where everyone can move door-to-door without long waiting times, and with the smallest possible number of personal cars on the roads.

“What Grab is doing is trying to help us be more efficient. Making travel more efficient via data, via technology; reducing the amount of carbon emissions, reducing congestion—be it via technology or just bringing about a change in mindset—that’s what we do at Grab,” says Ling. “But that’s just an industry. Grab is gonna go way beyond transportation.”

How far beyond are we talking? “Before Grab, people never thought it was actually possible to have a big technology innovator in Southeast Asia,” says Ling. “But now, because we have the fortune of being where we are now, folks think of us. And because of that, every single industry pain point that other companies have been unable to solve, we now get first dibs at solving.”

An example of a big pain point Grab is seeing is the mobile payments space. The challenge of extending their in-app payment system beyond just transportation in a region that has massive growth potential is proving to be extremely exciting for the Grab team. For the first time in history, a home-grown tech company is poised to shape the future of the entire Southeast Asia region.

“We have the talent, we have the resources, we have the scope, the relationships, the partners,” says Ling. With that sort of firepower, it’s up to Grab what they’ll tackle next. “If you join Grab, that’s what you’re gonna be able to decide.”

It’s that fearlessness and trailblazing spirit that makes Grab stand out as a true innovator. “We started the company despite everybody telling us that it was unsexy, it wasn’t going to make any money,” says Ling. “They had no idea why we chose one of the most difficult industries to change, ever.” Yet the team—focused on having a real impact and shaping the future of Southeast Asia—has already made a huge difference. That desire to make an impact is how Grab started, says Ling. “And that’s how we’re going to continue to grow. It’s at the core.”

Singapore, home to one of Grab’s many offices. Photo by r.nagy via Shutterstock

Inspired? We sure are. If you’ve got skills and a whole lot of passion, Grab’s Singapore office has a spot for you. You could be moving mountains with an incredible team in no time!

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