Bedy Yang is what Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a “connector”. In 2011, TheNextWeb claimed she was the number one woman to watch on the South American startup circuit, a fact which makes her laugh. A Brazilian national from Chinese parents and now resident in San Francisco, Yang is enthusiastic and energetic when we talked by phone recently, talking rapidly perhaps because she has so much to get out there. She clearly loves her job.
Described on Crunchbase as a “Venture Partner and Samba Queen” at incubator and seed fund 500 Startups even if, sadly, she doesn’t actually dance the samba, Yang also founded Brazil Innovators in 2010, a global network connecting innovators and innovations with Silicon Valley.
If all this weren’t enough, she has just been instrumental in setting up 500 Women, an AngelList syndicate to help women entrepreneurs accelerate their startup businesses and she’s now looking forward to being a global scout for the Californian fund as it looks to extend its reach into new territories.
She is undoubtedly good at what she does but is she an anomaly as a successful Brazilian woman working in tech in a male-dominated sector? Or is there a new breed emerging from Brazil, a confident and entrepreneurial class of tech-savvy women ready to take on the world? In 2010, Brazil elected its first woman President in Dilma Rousseff who said, during her acceptance speech that she was on a mission to fight gender inequality – “I hope the fathers and mothers of little girls will look at them and say yes, women can,” she said. Has this been realised?“Having a women president is really important as a role model,” says Yang, whose plan to encourage women entrepreneurs dovetails neatly with Rousseff’s thinking.
It seems it’s too early to judge Rousseff but according to Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT), while the European Union ranks first overall in gender equality, Brazil took first place for women’s participation in science, technology and innovation due to progressive social policies that include state-funded tuition. (As a caveat to that, it also said there are not enough women at the design stage, shaping the technology and science industries and therefore, unsurprisingly, the ensuing development path tends to be male-dominated.)
But Yang bemoans the lack of women-led startups in Brazil.
“Right now the ratio of women founders is really low and I’m not sure it’s really improving,” she says. “I think there is an increased awareness from media attention and in some ways this is helping to put women into CEO positions so that the business gets publicity.”
Yang is pragmatic, a realist. She has a close-up view of what’s happening and what is not as she spends at least a week of her busy monthly schedule in Brazil, particularly with Brazil Innovators. I ask her what needs to happen for more Brazilian women to get involved in tech startups.
Yang believes that the country probably needs something special to happen: for a business founded by a woman to exit and then other women will look up to it and be inspired. At the moment, it lacks that reference point and her work with 500 Women is an opportunity to make that happen.
“We actively select up-and-coming entrepreneurs and we are actively investing in women founders. About 30% of companies have at least one female founder, and the percentage is growing,” says Yang. “The syndicate has 20 investors, about half are men and half are women. They can pledge anything from $5,000.”
The syndicate has already seen the launch in September of its first two investments, YouTube marketing firm Famebit and gift site Wanderable. Famebit actually raised $150,000 through the first investment round so it’s a good yardstick for the fund. If Famebit flourishes, the fund has its reference case and won’t look back.
It is this kind of scenario that seems to fuel Yang who personally manages a $2m fund for 500 Startups. She’s an investment partner and that means she is a scout and a connector, as well as an investor, driven largely by her relationship with startup communities.
“I’m seeing a lot of education startups,” she says. “There’s also a lot of private-equity around, with a lot of good deals happening.”
Yang attributes this to the growing middle class in Brazil.
“More people are buying financial services, healthcare and education, which, before, many of them would not have had access to,” she says.
Yang has also seen an increase in online commerce for vertical consumer products such as baby and parenting items, but perhaps the biggest change recently is in the types of business models that are emerging.
“There are definitely more subscription-based startup models,” she says. “It’s an increase in mixed offline and online businesses but it fits with traditional methods of paying for services, subscribing to a gym for example, so people are comfortable with it. The challenge then is to get the payment services and systems right. That’s a challenge facing most emerging economies.”
So is the Brazil market ripe for mobile commerce and should startups be looking to take advantage?
“In Brazil, mobile commerce is not taking off yet, not like in other emerging countries such as Kenya,” Yang says, adding that much of this is down to culture. Brazilians still operate a labour-intensive approach to payments involving invoicing and printing. The banking system is very efficient and so there is little immediate incentive to change, although that situation won’t last forever.
I ask whether this inertia is also affecting the whole notion of entrepreneurialism.
“Talent in Brazil is definitely strong,” Yang says. “What is missing is that, because the mindset is not around risk taking and collaboration, then there are a lot less opportunities because everyone is waiting for something to happen.”
The consensus in Brazil is that while this has been true over the past few years, heads are now being turned. In July, head of successful Brazilian online video platform Samba Tech, Gustavo Caetano said the start-up scene in Brazil is now “hot” because of a change in mindset. Yang, however, believes that pockets of startup growth do exist but that attitudes have not changed significantly to trigger a surge in startups and innovation. It’s important to remember here that Yang’s startup barometer is Silicon Valley and Yang wants Brazil to emulate northern California and much of her work is geared to bridging the gap between the two communities. But Yang has a positive outlook.
“In 10 or 20 years I want to see in Brazil a lot of successful founders with international businesses. Brazil is a really good market on its own but to really be successful, to grow big businesses you have to think globally and not enough people are doing that at the moment.”
Where next? There is talk of Yang pushing further afield as 500 Startups seeks to impose itself globally. Much of this is down to creating opportunities for partner investors, perhaps through a syndicated approach similar to that of 500 Women.
“We want to setup micro funds in other regions. We want to make sure that in Brazil, in Thailand and in China you have funds that are very active in early-stage investment and don’t wait for market traction. The more co-investors we have, the more we can be active in helping innovative startups get off the ground.”
It is this approach and awareness of opportunity that seems to define Yang but only because she is more than aware of the lack of opportunity that currently exists for many businesses in these developing regions. She calls it living in “a framework of scarcity” and she believes thoroughly “in a world of abundance”. At the moment at least there is a disconnect there, but for such a professional connector, it might not be long before Yang joins up the dots.