The art of leaving banking and joining Singapore's hottest tech unicorn

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Moving from banking to a small fintech startup has become a routine career change in Singapore recently – joining a local technology unicorn is far more unusual. Gary Wong took the latter route when he left OCBC in May this year to join Grab, the Singapore-headquartered tech company that started as a ride-hailing app and has more recently expanded into financial services. Grab is reportedly valued at close to $12bn and is backed by Microsoft, Toyota and SoftBank.

Wong, who spent about four years as OCBC’s head of strategic partnerships for lifestyle financing, is now the head of GrabPay, a mobile wallet app launched in Singapore in 2017. While most banking professionals with itchy feet spend countless hours fretting about whether to leave the sector, Wong says joining GrabPay simply “made sense”.

“What appealed to me the most is that I can have a positive impact on society here – you can’t always do that as quickly at a large bank. GrabPay wants to focus on financial inclusion as we expand our services across Southeast Asia,” says Wong. “Financial inclusion – giving people better access to affordable financial products – is a real challenge in this region, particularly outside of Singapore.”

But aren’t payment apps – from Alipay to Go-Pay and Liquid Pay – now dime a dozen in Asia? “The payments market and careers in the sector are actually becoming more diverse. For example, social payments is an exciting emerging area, in addition to peer-to-peer and direct payments,” says Wong. “For me, payments is a dynamic industry to work in, mainly because everything – from regulations to technology – changes so rapidly.”

To illustrate his point, Wong points to the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) decision in September to open up FAST, a real-time payment system, to non-banks. “In my team, new work can crop up very quickly. The decision on FAST is a welcome inclusion – it means we’re now pitching to MAS about how best to access FAST,” says Wong. “If you work in payments, it really helps to have a regulator who’s proactive about the sector. MAS along with the government’s Smart Nation strategy are supporting the payments industry, because our common enemy is cash.”

If you want to join Wong’s team the good news is that he is now hiring “across the board” to support the expansion of the GrabPay app, which is expected to be rolled out in other Southeast Asian markets. GrabPay, which is based in Singapore, has two main arms. Business development deals with partners such as financial institutions, shopping malls and MAS, while GrabPay’s operations unit includes settlements staff who monitor transactions and compliance professionals who make sure new products get the regulatory green light.

Technology jobs – architects and UX specialists, for example – are also on offer within the shared product team at Grab Financial, the wider group that GrabPay is a part of, which also includes fintech offerings such as lending, insurance and customer rewards. “And Grab as a company is hiring in technology globally. We’ve just set up an artificial intelligence lab in Singapore, and we have research and development centres from Bangalore to Seattle.”

Whether you’re applying for a role in tech, ops or sales, Wong says you must “fit into the culture” at Grab, which was only founded in 2012 and is now Southeast Asia’s largest tech unicorn. “For example, I’ve actually rejected candidates who were very good technically, but weren’t collaborative enough in their outlook to be successful here,” says Wong. “So if you’re interviewing at GrabPay, expect to meet a variety of people from other business units across Grab as a whole – being able to work collaboratively is important.”

Wong says his team has hired people from a range of employers, including regulators, credit card firms, transport companies, and tech-sector competitors. “And as my appointment shows, we’re also open to banking professionals. The payments sector is still new and innovative, so it’s important to have diversity.”

But Wong says bankers shouldn’t join a payments firm purely because of the hype currently surrounding the sector and fintech in Singapore more broadly. “Don’t rush into it. Look at your career over the long term and ask whether your experience is transferable and if you are leaving backing for the right reasons,” he adds. “But payments could be a good career choice if, for example, you’ve had experience in building partnerships while in banking, and you now want to make a positive impact on the Southeast Asian economy.”

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: smortlock@efinancialcareers.com

Image credit: afif c. kusuma, Getty

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