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Raised in a nasty Los Angeles ghetto, this founder now runs a fast growing tech startup

cxa rosaline kooIt’s an understatement to say “life is tough” when you grew up in the only Chinese family in a Los Angeles ghetto, with drug dealers, gang members, and criminals as neighbors. But it was reality for Rosaline Koo, the 52-year-old founder and CEO of ConneXionsAsia (CXA), a Singapore-based startup building an online employee benefits platform that it hopes will shake up the industry.

Koo’s father was an illegal immigrant who landed in Mexico from China and swam up the coast to California. Her mother escaped during the Communist Revolution in 1949, leaving behind her then-husband – who was later killed – and two children. Her land was seized by the government, and Koo’s grandmother was sent to a labor camp.

One of a few Chinese kids in an all-black neighborhood, Koo was bullied and beaten up, and retaliation often wasn’t an option due to her diminutive stature.

“I had to learn how to rapidly judge situations, to decide whether I should fight or flee for my life,” she says. Her circumstances didn’t improve when the family moved into a latino neighborhood where drive-by shootings were the norm.

This childhood experience helped Koo develop into a tough-as-nails personality who could blend in with people who are different from her. It gave her a certain immunity to fear, which would later define her life trajectory.

In UCLA, she took up a degree in cybernetics, and she was invited to sororities for blacks and latinos. Her Asian friends remarked that she was more like them than her own ethnicity.

At the age of 21, she worked at Proctor & Gamble where she was thrust into a toothpaste factory in Iowa to manage two production lines, staffed by older white men in their thirties.

Koo describes the experience as sobering, and she resolved to brush up on her leadership skills.

That pursuit has brought her around the globe. She rose through the ranks at an investment bank in New York City, starting out as a summer intern and then climbing all the way to vice-president in just about a decade.

Past the new millennium, she traveled half-way around the world to start a couple of technology companies in Malaysia during the Dot-com Bubble, raising tens of millions of funding in doing so. Her second startup, which she later sold, was co-founded with the former president of Dell Asia.

She took up a corporate gig next, becoming the senior partner at employee benefits broker Mercer’s Asian office. She grew the business from US$11 million over the previous 30 years to US$88 million in annual sales within eight years. Her Mercer job pointed her to an opportunity to shake up employee benefits.

“There’s a lot of waste in how employers are spending on staff benefits,” she says. “If you’re single, you typically don’t need that much insurance coverage, but working couples often get duplicated coverage, so why not use that for something that the employee values?”

With healthcare costs rising faster than salaries, companies are wasting money on insurance that their employees don’t understand or value. The solution, therefore, would be to repurpose some of that insurance money currently used for protection or treatment into wellness and disease prevention.

Employers can then allocate a fixed predictable budget for every employee instead of bearing the full burden of health inflation, while employees get to choose the benefits that are relevant for their needs. Not only does this help control the company’s spending, it could lead to healthier employees, better work productivity, and happiness overall.

Forced to bootstrap

CXA

The combined Pan and CXA team.

With decades of professional experience, fundraising for her startup was supposed to be a cinch.

She had a line of investors waiting to back CXA, and she was hoping to use the money to acquire Pan Group, the third-largest home-grown group insurance brokerage in Singapore which was founded in 1993. Koo had been trying to buy the firm for five years since she was at Mercer.

“[As] the founder used to be a private banker and MAS bank supervisor, Pan offered exceptional customer service and was very well-run. They had built a claims module, already integrated into the largest insurers, which allows company employees to electronically submit medical claims using a smartphone and get notified when it has been processed. That has never been done in insurance broking in Asia,” she says.

“And I could never take Pan’s clients away from them. That’s how I knew they’re good.”

Also, Pan’s insurance brokerage license would allow CXA to offer its services to clients without them needing to pay an extra cent. Like any broker, CXA would be able to offer insurance services to employers. The twist is that clients could also pick from a range of health and wellness perks instead of a standard one-size-fits-all package.

But MAS said no to the fundraising. Since the acquisition was ongoing, and since it was highly unusual for an individual to purchase an entire brokerage firm, the central bank requested that only one shareholder was allowed so that “fit and proper” due diligence could be done. Koo wasn’t able to start fundraising until after deal was done.

This meant that Koo had to take a leveraged buyout loan from the bank and put in over S$5 million (US$4 million) of family money – their entire savings in Asia.

“I called my daughter, who just started college in Boston, and told her that she needed to get a job,” says Koo.

The deal was worth it. Pan was already a profitable company and had strong relationships with clients. The merged entity, which has 70 staff, made S$6 million (US$4.75 million) in annual revenue from 800 clients.

That’s about six percent of the S$850 million (US$672 million) employee benefits brokerage market in Singapore. The industry ins Asia-Pacific is worth S$3.75 billion (US$2.96 billion).

Tech company through and through

CXA CXA

Barely over a year old, the company already has customers like Google Malaysia, American Express in Singapore, and the Seagate office in China. The search giant wants to bring CXA’s product to its China team, while Singapore state broadcaster MediaCorp is waiting to offer the platform to some of its employees.

Koo says that CXA has managed to increase the usage rate of employee benefits at American Express, up from 30 percent to 75 percent. Engagement at Google Malaysia was as high as 95 percent.

On the distribution side, it has already worked out a partnership with DBS, a major bank in Singapore, to market its product to some 65,000 enterprises.

It’s hard to describe succinctly what makes CXA’s product unique. But it’s essentially a platform where employees can choose from a buffet spread of health and wellness – and soon insurance – perks based on a benefits budget given by the employer, who can track how and which benefits are being utilized and adjust its policy accordingly.

Those familiar with the startup scene will know that CXA isn’t the only one trying to modernize employee benefits in Asia. AnyPerk, Rewardz and PerkPool are just some recent entrants that are offering discounted perks to enterprises using group bargaining power.

(See: The biggest lesson at YC for AnyPerk: “Build something you want”)

But CXA may have the upper hand. Unlike some competitors, it doesn’t charge employers a single cent to use its product. They’d simply need to re-allocate their existing perks budget onto CXA’s platform, while the startup would earn a referral fee from its merchant partners.

Also, its employer dashboard is probably second to none. Data has a big part to play in its offering: Employees are asked to fill up a survey which will get a handle on their health habits. The platform would then offer recommendations on which perk the employee should pick based on the data.

Next, CXA’s platform is tightly integrated on the backend with 50 of its partners such that employees are kept on the system as long as possible.

For example, the startup has partnered with healthcare practitioner directory DocDoc to integrate its catalogue into the platform. Users would be able to search for doctors on CXA itself and press a button to start a video chat with a medical professional right away.

It’s also worth noting that none of the other employee benefit platforms in Asia has offered insurance coverage yet – understandable given that it is a tightly regulated space.

Meanwhile, CXA has been laying the groundwork, sealing partnerships with insurance providers, getting approval from regulators, and testing out that piece of its platform. This extra grind could eventually set it apart from the rest.

Still a people business

CXA

It’s unusual for a stealth entity, which was initially working out of the living room of Koo’s home, to turn into fast-growing company that gobbled up an industry player after just over a year of existence. It is in the midst of raising a venture capital round, and at least one late stage investment firm has already finished due diligence.

While the technology and product is compelling, Koo believes it is the team that gives CXA an edge.

Koo is extremely cognizant of her age, bringing it up constantly during the interview. She is 52 but doesn’t look it, and CTO Richard HoSang – a former Citbank managing director – is 53, making them elder statesmen in a young and energetic startup ecosystem.

But their credibility, gained from years in the corporate world, has snagged them not only heavyweight customers but also a talented team.

There’s Rachael Tay, CXA’s chief of benefits strategy, who was a PhD at Imperial College UK and a Singapore Technologies scholar. Then there’s Waqas Awan, a PhD at Cambridge University who’s a bioinformatics scientist and is now developing CXA’s health and wellness platform.

Finally, the company also hired Dawn Soo, a medical physician who founded DoctorPage in 2012 but is now with CXA to formulate better ways of bringing wellbeing into the workplace.

Rosaline isn’t just motivated to build a profitable, innovative enterprise. While she could’ve chosen to do a startup out of Silicon Valley, she sees Singapore itself as a startup – a rising tech hub that’s trying to prove it’s in the top echelon of startup ecosystems.

She could’ve avoided the uncertainty of startup life by trying to implement changes at her old company. But Mercer wasn’t the right place to disrupt employee benefits.

“In all my different roles in the last 18 years living here and working for US MNCs, Asia’s treated like a little flea relative to the massive size of the US and Europe.”

“I begged US headquarters for years to convince them to invest in Asia. But in the end, I had to leave in order to finally fulfill my dream… I want to show the West that Asia can indeed be innovative enough to leapfrog the West.”

This time, it’s not about running away from giants, but facing them.

“I definitely have something to prove,” she says.

See more interviews in our Female Entrepreneurship series:

female entrepeneurship (Editing by Josh Horwitz)

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