“In Cantonese, we have this saying: yi sek ju hang (衣食住行). It conveys what’s most important in life – what you wear, what you eat, where you live, and how you commute,” says Caecilia Chu.
This saying was taught to the entrepreneur by her mother, and has always resonated deeply with the Her World Young Woman Achiever 2023.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Caecilia moved to Singapore in 2017. The Singapore Permanent Resident shares that her humble beginnings meant that she realised the importance of money early in life. “My dad was a postman and my mum was a kindergarten teacher, and having grown up without much, my life goals have always revolved around satisfying the essential needs of yi sek ju hang (衣食住行).”
The 40-year-old elaborates: “I told myself that if I could do a really good job in my career when it comes to banking, finance, and payments, then I can address the fundamental needs that would really impact the lives of others.”
Today, as the CEO and co-founder of Youtrip, Singapore’s first multi-currency mobile wallet, Caecilia is indeed making an impact when it comes to people’s finances, especially in the space of cross- border payments.
In 2018, she launched Youtrip, a fintech platform that allows individuals to use a prepaid Mastercard card to pay in more than 150 currencies – whether they’re travelling or shopping online – without incurring extra currency conversion fees or markups. Effectively disrupting the once opaque foreign exchange payments scene, Youtrip has transformed the way people transact when they travel. Being among the first worldwide to roll out its wallet feature, it’s also the first home-grown multi-currency mobile player in the market.
The world’s most successful entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington, are no strangers to failure. Caecilia’s story does not deviate far from their experiences. She had always worked hard in school, as her parents had taught her that being hard-working would eventually lead to success.
At 19, she secured a scholarship to The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the best business schools in the world, with an alumni list that includes billionaire Warren Buffett and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
She returned to Hong Kong upon her graduation in 2005, and worked at Citi Group’s growth capital investing division, before moving on to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she advised financial institutions on product and growth strategies. At McKinsey, she received another scholarship, this time to the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts for her Masters of Business Administration (MBA). The two-year MBA programme ended in 2011, and she moved back to Hong Kong soon after.
In 2012, Caecilia decided it was time to strike out on her own. She started an e-commerce business. “It was a simple trading platform that procured goods such as shoes, clothing, and baby products from different brands overseas and retailed them online through a website,” she explains. “Up until that point, I had been a top scholar, consistently achieving good grades. I had worked in prestigious institutions and studied at two top Business Schools. Naturally, I assumed I understood business. However, when I embarked on my own venture, I realised that I actually didn’t know much,” she shares.
Eventually, she was forced to shutter the business after two years. The saturated market was a huge factor, she says, noting that she was “perhaps 20 years too late in starting an e-commerce business”. She also found that being a start-up owner meant that her Harvard and Wharton background held little weight, as compared to when she worked at McKinsey.
“This shift was incredibly humbling, and brought about a significant realisation,” she notes. “If I wanted to succeed independently, I needed to understand the value I personally brought [to the table] without relying on affiliations.”
If I wanted to succeed independently, I needed to understand the value I personally brought [to the table] without relying on affiliations.Caecilia Chu
The phoenix effect
The entrepreneurial setback led her to do some “soul-searching”. She decided to leave Hong Kong for Palo Alto, otherwise known as the “birthplace of Silicon Valley”, to discover if the entrepreneurs based there were just inherently better. “I wanted to find out if there’s something about them that’s different. What am I missing? Why did I fail so miserably after investing so much effort?”
In Palo Alto, she worked in enterprise sales at a Series A start-up that had around 20 employees. There, she found the answers to her questions. “My conclusion at that point was this: No, there aren’t any superhumans. There isn’t some magic they’re working with. What differentiates [these entrepreneurs from myself ] is how they approach work and the view they hold of the world. They don’t ask, ‘What am I good at? What can I do?’ Rather, they’re always thinking, ‘What does my customer need? What do businesses require?’”
This was a significant takeaway, as it was counter-intuitive to her upbringing, she says. “In many Asian countries, we’re always told to focus on our strengths. My parents, too, brought me up this way. I was good at math, and so I pursued that.” It was a light-bulb moment for her when she realised that she had to shake up her perspective.
Caecilia worked in Silicon Valley for six months, before deciding to seize another opportunity that came her way. In 2016, her childhood friend and UPenn classmate invited her to join him at his company in Zhongguancun, Beijing, otherwise known as China’s Silicon Valley. Intrigued, she decided to take up the job offer. She describes the experience at QFPay – one of China’s fintech pioneers – as rewarding, although she left after a few months as she could not endure the air pollution in Beijing.
Thereafter, she moved to Shanghai to work at Lufax, a leading personal financial services platform backed by the Ping An Insurance Group, which is led by Jessica Tan, Her World’s Woman of the Year in 2021. These experiences germinated the idea of a mobile e-wallet.
In China, individuals, merchants and businesses rely on their mobile phones for financial management, including making payments and purchasing insurance. This might seem like the norm now, but six to seven years ago, it was considered revolutionary. “The pivotal factor [that led me to develop Youtrip] was my first-hand experience of such an environment. I found it deeply fascinating.”
It struck her that this is the way the future of finance should be for everyone. At the same time, she was reunited with a former acquaintance, Arthur Mak, who would end up being Youtrip’s co-founder and current chief product officer. She had first met Arthur in Boston: Caecilia was pursuing her MBA in Harvard, and Arthur was doing his master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The two friends clicked over their shared upbringing in Hong Kong. Coincidentally, during her tenure in Lufax, he was also working in Tencent as a product lead for superapp Wechat in Guangzhou’s product centre.
Together, they decided to build a multi-currency mobile app targeted at travellers. As avid travellers themselves, they understood the hassle of grappling with multiple currencies and managing a physical travel wallet.
The duo chose to target South-east Asia for two reasons: One, Caecilia had learnt from her first entrepreneurial setback and knew that she didn’t want to set up the fintech company in a saturated market, and two, there were plenty of opportunities in the region as it was made up of different currencies, unlike the US or China.
After a year of research and development, Youtrip was launched with a team of 20. They managed to secure a partnership with EZ- Link, and decided to launch in Singapore. In the early stages of building the product, Caecilia and Arthur had pitched the product to Nicholas Lee, CEO of EZ-Link – they won him over with their idea of an EZ-Link card that doubles as a debit card, allowing travellers to use it outside of Singapore.
Dealing with challenges
Being an entrepreneur and founder of a start-up is acutely different from the role of a CEO leading a well-established and mature business. While Youtrip is in the midst of substantial growth, there are also the inevitable growing pains, notes Caecilia.
One of the biggest challenges for the company was navigating the pandemic, as Covid-19 restrictions had grounded the travel industry. “During that period, we realised the importance of being an all-weather company. We made the choice to diversify and leverage our expertise, licences, and infrastructure outside of travel-related services. While we remain committed to travel, we aim to do more outside of it,” she explains.
One of the initial business pivots was e-commerce. Bored consumers, who were cooped up at home due to Covid restrictions, were making more purchases online – hence, there was a demand for currency exchange perks and services. To address this, Youtrip collaborated with major platforms like Amazon, Shopee, Lazada, and iHerb, offering cashback for consumers when they used the Youtrip card.
They also launched Youbiz in 2022, a programme targeted at local small medium enterprises that offers a multi-currency expense management platform with a corporate card that allows businesses to earn unlimited cashback on spending such as procurement, while saving on foreign exchange fees on cross-border payments.
“It’s been about a year, and despite not spending a lot on billboard marketing, we’ve seen [substantial growth]. More than 3,000 companies have joined the Youbiz platform in this one-year span, and I’d say that the platform is truly growing, especially now with the reopened borders,” she shares.
Today, Youtrip has 150 employees. The company has amassed a total of 1.5 million downloads as of 2022, and has processed over 10 million transactions since its launch. Over the last eight months, the number of new sign-ups has increased by almost 10 times compared to the same period in 2021. They currently have two outposts in Hong Kong and Thailand, and aim to expand regionally in the coming years, starting with a new office in Malaysia. “Next year, our aim is to launch into two or three additional markets, all within South-east Asia,” says Caecilia. “It’s in our DNA to be a regional business; that’s been our vision since day one.”
A balancing act
Caecilia comes across as frank and open. She speaks confidently in a fast-paced manner, and is well-prepared, coming into the interview with talking points.
And yet, when asked about how she deals with the stresses of the job, she hesitates. “I was hoping to avoid this question. I wonder if you can sense the stress coming from me?” she jokes. This is a surprise, as one would usually expect leaders to promptly address this question by rattling off tools such as meditation, reading, or exercising.
Not Caecilia, though. “When I first started [my entrepreneurial journey], there were moments when stress overwhelmed me,” she shares. “I tend to be somewhat of a perfectionist, striving for excellence in every situation. Wanting positive outcomes and setting high standards for myself probably contributed to that overwhelming sense of stress. “However, these days, I find that stress is more manageable primarily because of the roller-coaster experience of navigating through the various ups and downs, which taught me that business always involves volatility. And when you understand that there will always be cycles of ups and downs in whatever endeavour you’re pursuing, your role then becomes a matter of persisting and navigating [the company] through both good and bad times – staying level headed is essential.”
What little free time she has is spent at her other full-time job – being a mother of two to a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year- old girl, Dana. Her family is a solid and unwavering foundation of support that keeps her grounded, she says. “Being a mother has reshaped a lot of my perspectives about myself, my life, and my world.”
Parenthood has introduced her to the concept of unconditional giving, she explains. It reveals the bounds of your capacity for giving, and the extent to which you’re willing to go for another person. “My parents have given me a lot, and I’m the beneficiary of everything that they sacrificed for me. They were the best gifts for me, and I hope to [be the best gift] for my children as well.”
When you understand that there will always be cycles of ups and downs in whatever endeavour you’re pursuing, your role then becomes a matter of persisting and navigating [the company] through both good and bad times.Caecilia Chu
A path of purpose
Caecilia’s notable achievements have also led her to be appointed as chair of the Singapore Fintech Association Payments Group Committee, which is made up of other finance giants in Singapore, including Nets, Google Pay, Grab and Visa.
During her two-year term, which will end in 2024, she leads the other committee members to share feedback about developments on the local fintech industry, and work with regulators and policy makers on frameworks. “The committee is an interesting mix of start-ups, which includes our partners and competitors,” she shares. “The most important part of being on this committee is actually the deliberation on matters that are about the greater good of the entire community and industry. The common platform it provides for companies to work together in a non-competitive way is truly fascinating.”
Amid the accolades and accomplishments, what would she consider her most rewarding achievement thus far?
This is another question she was hoping to avoid, she shares with a laugh. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. What are my most rewarding moments? Look, I have nothing written here,” she says, gesturing to her notes for the interview. “It sounds cliche, but I wake up every day feeling excited,” she says. “I feel like I’m doing what I wanted to do from a young age, and so every day is a rewarding one. And this is not a hasty conclusion. I have worked for both large corporations and small companies. I’ve launched my own company and faced setbacks. And I’ve worked in the US, China, and currently in South-east Asia. This has [reinforced] my sense of belonging [in entrepreneurship]. This is where I truly want to be.”
She takes another contemplative pause before concluding: “In general, my motto is to make everyday count, and for me right now, every day does count.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Shawn Paul Tan
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay & Adeline Eng
FASHION DIRECTION Lena Kamarudin
STYLING Neo Lirong, assisted by Sabrina Kong
MAKEUP Lasalle Lee, using Cle De Peau Beaute
HAIR Aung Apichai, using Kevin Murphy