From Flea Markets to International Board Rooms, Malaysian American Epitomizes Immigrant Entrepreneurship

“My mom always encouraged me to be entrepreneurial,” says serial entrepreneur and angel investor Cheryl Yeoh. As a teenager in Malaysia, Yeoh would sell inventory from her mother’s catalogue company to local corporations and set up flea markets during school holidays. “I learned a lot about sales, negotiations, and how to convince people about the value of something,” she says. “That proved really valuable. As an entrepreneur, you sell to your employees, your investors, your clients, your customers — pretty much to everyone.”

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Yeoh received a full government scholarship to study engineering at Cornell University. “I was very lucky to have received a full ride for my university degree, especially here in the United States,” Yeoh says. Though she could have chosen to study in any number of countries, she was drawn to the entrepreneurial American spirit. “The U.S. upholds meritocracy regardless of your ethnicity and background,” she says.

Bringing the best talent from abroad to one of the most innovative, entrepreneurial countries in the world would give rise to more opportunities for new technology to be created.

After receiving a master’s degree from Cornell, Yeoh worked in management consulting in New York City before starting her first company, CityPockets, a digital wallet and secondary marketplace for daily deals, in 2010. And yet, despite Yeoh’s drive and ambition, it took her years to complete the time-consuming process of obtaining permanent residency. “There was a lot of paperwork involved, and the process was tedious,” she says. “It would really help if there was an easier way for the U.S. to enable foreign entrepreneurs with a valid business to start a company and obtain a startup visa.”

Investors are often reluctant to fund the startups of immigrants who don’t have permanent residency, since there’s no guarantee the prime driver of the business will be able to stay in the country. Yeoh finally did obtain permanent residency status and raised $920,000 in venture capital and angel investments. Responding to market changes, she re-launched her company in 2012 as Reclip.It, a personalized shopping list app that matches personal shopping lists with digital coupons and weekly specials from large retailers. This time Yeoh moved her entire team to Silicon Valley. Powerful backers such as 500 Startups got behind Reclip.It, as did various Bay Area angel investors. The company eventually employed nine people and was acquired by Walmart Labs in 2013.

A year later, Yeoh became the Founding CEO of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Center (MaGIC), an initiative launched by former President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister YAB Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak. Yeoh was appointed to the position to harness her Silicon Valley skills to help turn Malaysia into a startup hub for Southeast Asia — something that would increase and benefit ties between the United States and Southeast Asia. At MaGIC, Yeoh created the largest and most robust government-funded and equity-free accelerator in Asia, started an academy that teaches digital skills, and established a three-year partnership with Stanford University.

Yeoh’s two-year stint at MaGIC ended in early 2016, and now she’s back in the Bay Area considering what her next venture will be. In addition to being an angel investor herself, she mentors young business leaders through the nonprofit Lean Startup Machine and the Founder Institute. She also serves as an advisor at Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship, which awards $100,000 grants to young innovators. 

To Yeoh, immigration policy is important because so many of the entrepreneurs in the United States are originally from foreign countries. “More than 50 percent of companies in Silicon Valley were started by founders who were foreign-born,” she says. “Bringing the best talent from abroad to one of the most innovative, entrepreneurial countries in the world would give rise to more opportunities for new technology to be created. Immigration reform is important to give access to the smartest brains in the world to come to the Valley to create better products.”  

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…