End of the iron rice bowl? Why more Asian bankers are quitting their jobs to start businesses

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Why more Asian bankers are quitting their jobs to start businesses

Used to be a banker

More young bankers in Hong Kong and Singapore are gearing up to start their own businesses this year as leaving a stable ‘iron rice bowl’ job in banking finally becomes more culturally acceptable.

“These days more bankers I know under 40 in Asia have accumulated enough wealth not to get stuck in the rat race for too much longer and don’t want to lose their sanity by staying on in a bank,” says Lyn Sia Rosmarin, who left a director-level sales jobs at Merrill Lynch in 2012 to found Singapore-based luxury swimwear business K.BLU.

While bankers in the West have been starting up new companies in droves since the financial crisis, entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and Singapore say the trend is only now picking up steam in their cities. “Over just the past year or so bankers in Asia have become more likely to talk about their desire for a better, more flexible lifestyle, which entrepreneurship can bring, even though you still work very hard,” says Rosmarin.

Banking is losing its edge as a provider of prestigious jobs and high salaries, says Cynthia Siantar, who worked in equity capital markets at HSBC before co-founding Singapore fintech firm Call Levels. And this is reducing traditional Asian parental and societal pressure to stay in banking, making it easier for young financial professionals to take a risk on becoming entrepreneurs. “What’s changed is that it’s becoming more culturally acceptable in Asia to leave banking,” says Siantar. “Banking is now seen as a sunset industry, not an iron rice bowl, not such a well-paid career.”

Rosmarin agrees: “Until recently banking was so well paid that no sector in Asia could compete with it – plus it was respected and instantly made you ‘somebody’ in Singaporean society. Now bonuses have shrunk and the stress is worse than ever, so it’s finally now becoming culturally acceptable to leave.”

While ex-bankers can now be found running new companies in a variety of sectors – from Singapore rock music schools to Hong Kong domestic help websites – it's the growth of fintech start-ups over the past year in Singapore and Hong Kong that has helped fuel this cultural shift. “Ex-finance people joining or starting their own fintech start-ups has become a more common story,” explains Siantar. “We’ve seen a lot of examples of senior bankers doing this and I think this is now inspiring younger bankers.”

Markus Gnirck, co-founder of fintech accelerator Startupbootcamp in Singapore, also expects a surge in the number of bankers setting up fintech firms this year. “As safety nets such as incubators and sufficient early-stage funding become more established in Asia, more banking professional will take the jump," he said. "And the more success stories there are, the more others will be motivated to start their own new ventures.”

However, as ex-Credit Suisse banker Dominic Gamble, now founder of website findawealthmanager.com in Singapore, told us in December, running a start-up comes with a whole new set of stresses. Gnirck agrees: “Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a job, and your entire family has to shift their priorities. It’s almost impossible to sustain your banking compensation while starting a company and your family has to be fully supportive of that.”

“Start-ups will stretch you in a way that few people experience,” adds Janos Barberis, founder of the SuperCharger fintech accelerator in Hong Kong. “But the skills you learnt while in the banking – project management, slick presentations, clear articulation of ideas, and compliance – will all be assets.”

Siantar from Call Levels warns against starting a business just because it seems like a “cool thing to do right now in Asia”. “Make sure you've identified a real problem that your potential users are facing and do enough research to understand how deep the problem is," she said. "Plus, never take regulations too lightly.”

Jupiterimages, Stockbyte, Thinkstock

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