From finance to private jets to single-malt whiskies, Li Hua Tan has blazed her own path in male-dominated fields. Here she reflects on the milestones and philosophy behind her success
Li Hua Tan grew up in Penang, Malaysia, as the oldest of six siblings: four sisters and one brother, the youngest and a long time coming for her father. While he waited, she says he groomed her like a son. He took Tan out on weekends to explore local forests and teach her about his plywood manufacturing factory and managing money.
“I would hear my dad saying this or that about running a business and I ended up taking quite a bit of clues from him,” says Tan. “He always taught me—and this became my philosophy—not to have attachment to money. I’ve had to learn the value of money, for sure, but I try to see money not as something to hold on to but as a currency to achieve my goals in life.”
While she may have adopted her father’s philosophy, Tan has done things her way, defying expectations and excelling in one male-dominated field after another. She has tried and failed and learned what to look for in a business partner and how to make money while also making a social impact.
Tan’s first major goal was to attend the University of Southern California because of its undergraduate business programme and beach location, and she made it happen, unlike nearly all her classmates who opted for Australia. After graduation she joined Citigroup as a financial analyst, where she picked up skills in Excel and client relationship management. She soon felt the pull to join the family business, Asia Green Development, back in Penang, even though there was no fancy title waiting.
“I had to work my way up and go on rotation to different departments,” recalls Tan, who started in data entry in 2007 and earned a monthly salary of HK$20,000. After four years of increasing responsibility, she saw the business going in one direction and clashed with her father, who wanted to take it in another. “I got to a point where I felt like I could steer the ship but, of course, I wasn't the captain and that was really hard,” she says. “But it also gave me a lot of confidence and courage that I was ready to start my own thing.”
The conflict came to a head and Tan decided to make a break; she left for Hong Kong in 2011 to rediscover herself, and her father cut her off financially. Below, in her own words, Tan outlines her money milestones and perspective as a female business leader.
Hong Kong rental flat (2011) = paid HK$17,000 monthly
I found a 467-square-foot flat in Mid-Levels and used savings to get past the first three months in Hong Kong. By that time, I had reconnected with a university friend who started a company managing and selling private jets in China; they needed someone who spoke Mandarin and English. Becoming business development manager for Sino Jet gave me the relief of a base salary and commissions. But more importantly, I saw it as a valuable way to observe how other people run a business, get to know the China market and build a network of wealthy individuals.
Sometimes I would show up at first-time meetings and people would automatically underplay my role because of my gender. In those cases, I prefer to correct them with my actions rather than my words. But I’m very thankful as some of the people I met through this job have become my investors and friends for life.
I was working and travelling so much that I stayed in that tiny apartment for 10 years; it never really bothered me until Covid-19 hit, and then last year I decided it’s time to upgrade a little.
First entrepreneurial business (2011-2013) = netted HK$50,000 and put it into a second business idea
Even when I was working for Sino Jet, I never gave up the dream of being an entrepreneur. From 2011 to 2012, I had the brand Menelan selling bird nest from Malaysia to wealthy tai tais in China. My role was to get suppliers in Malaysia, and my partner’s role was to navigate the China side. We sold a decent batch, but then had to shut it down as importing into China was getting too complicated. I also realised that my partner’s heart wasn’t fully in it. The big lesson was that people are the majority of your business success and you need the right team.
We each walked away with HK$50,000, and I used that money to explore a second business idea, a platform that would connect buyers and sellers of luxury lifestyle goods so that they wouldn't have to pay crazy broker fees. Unfortunately, my partner who brought the tech knowledge had to back out for personal reasons and so it didn’t get off the ground.
First art investment (2012) = purchased for HK$60,000
I’m a Buddhist who grew up with Buddhist art and scripture around the house. So once I had my own apartment, I wanted my own Buddha painting. I looked in Thailand and the Philippines and eventually I went to an art fair in Hong Kong where a woman was selling Thai art. The colour of the paintings didn't vibe for me, though, and I was walking away when her young son said, ‘hold on, I think I know what you want and have a painting for you.’ He pulled out a calming Buddha with a maroon background and subtle matte gold leaves. Immediately I felt it was perfect and I positioned it to be the first thing I see when I walk into my home.
Since then, if I see something I like, I collect it, even if it does not fit easily, which is why I have art pieces sitting on my floor. I’m not after the big brand names; I want to support up-and-coming artists in Southeast Asia and hear their stories.
Co-founded world’s first whisky private equity fund (2014-2016) = raised HK$23,546,355
I met Rickesh Kishnani in 2012 when he was running Platinum Wines, and we became drinking buddies; when he invited me to lunch, I joked it was the first time we’d see each other in daylight. He proposed a fund investing in vintage and rare single-malt whisky, with him bringing the industry expertise and me bringing the network.
No one had come to me with a business idea before, and it sounded great. I had watched my dad as a solo entrepreneur and found it lonely, in my opinion. Plus, growing up in a big family, I love having people around to go through the ups and downs together.
I saw how excited Rickesh was about the idea and that he’s very family oriented and I felt he was a person I could still be friends with even if things didn’t work out. There were many green lights for him as the right partner.
I negotiated, and he agreed to give me shares if I reached certain milestones; I ultimately raised US$3 million (HK$23,546,355)—a quarter of our total raise—and sold more than 75 per cent of the portfolio. It was not as easy as I thought it would be to pitch whisky as an alternative asset class, but it worked out and we got private investors and family offices to subscribe. The bigger challenge came next: to make money so that we could exit the fund in year seven and meet a gross internal rate of investment in the mid-teens.
Launched Audacy Ventures (2017) = invested HK$784,878
I want to live an impactful life and in considering what to do with US$100,000 (HK$784,878) I had from the whisky fund, I decided to use it to support sustainable investment projects. That’s how Audacy started, and I enlisted business partners from top global banks and private equity firms specialised in infrastructure and energy. We invest in and support companies with technologies that are ready to commercialise and decarbonise the world at scale, thus creating the desired impact. You can still make money while doing some good for the world.
We have deployed capital on various hydrogen use cases—companies like H3 Dynamics (air mobility) and GenH2 (storage and liquefaction) as well as solar assets in Japan. Before hydrogen became a hot topic, we started exploring alternative clean energy and we invested in Hyzon Motors (long distance commercial transportation) in its Series A funding and the company went IPO through a SPAC in 2021.
Joined the Next Generation NGO (2018) = donates at least HK$15,700 annually
I had the privilege to be introduced to Dee Dee Chan and become part of her NGO in Hong Kong in 2018. She invites the next gen of family businesses to pool our resources so that we can make a bigger impact. We have donated to non-profit organisations supporting marginalised minority communities and through this group, my philanthropy has also evolved, balancing being an impulse giver and a strategic donor.
In the NGO, we have many powerful female movers and shakers, business owners and leaders, and philanthropists, including Kristine Li. It’s an empowering environment for women to be part of and makes us stronger together. Each year we pick a topic of focus and then vet related organisations; for 2022 it is domestic workers in Hong Kong.
New Zealand adventure with siblings (2019) = about HK$62,790
My siblings and I like to gift each other memories, and I treated them to a skydiving trip in Queenstown, New Zealand for about US$8,000 (HK$62,790). Some of my sisters are afraid of heights, and the fact that we all jumped together was a bonding experience that is now engraved in our hearts and memories forever.
I also like to reward myself with an annual solo trip to a city or country where I have never been and will budget between US$5,000 (HK$39,244) to US$10,000 (HK$78,488) depending on the destination. I spend a portion of time exploring the local history and culture and use the rest to self reflect.
My last solo trip was to Portugal in July 2019; the Amazon Rainforest is at the top of my bucket list as is Argentina, as I fell in love with tango, and then Egypt and Israel. Those places will have to wait, though, because in 2023 I will be getting married with intimate ceremonies in Malaysia and Italy.
Exited the whisky fund and co-launched Rare Whisky Holdings (2021) = invested “a substantial amount”
In 2021, we secured the final buyer for the whisky fund and completed our successful exit. To get the selling done, I made a lot of trips over a few years to meet with potential buyers in mainland China. It was less drinking than you might think and more Excel spreadsheets, market price comparisons and persuasion.
As a result of our success, Rickesh and I set up Rare Whisky Holdings and have raised millions for investments, including ownership of Glenor Cask Company, which holds over 1,000 casks of maturing Scotch whisky, and stakes in Whisky Hammer, an online auction house, and Still Spirits, an e-commerce platform. Our goal is to grow all these businesses.
Reflecting on my experiences, I have been blessed to be surrounded by men who respect and support women in business. My partners have appreciated my strength and contributions a team player, and my clients have recognised my professionalism over the years. In the business world, we need to stay authentic, keep our promises, be committed to self-improvement and remain humble regardless of your gender.
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