From start-up to unicorn: Grab co-founder Anthony Tan on what keeps him accountable

Via Faith Driven Entrepreneur Asia

by Tan Huey Ying // September 7, 2022, 4:53 pm


Grab co-founder and CEO, Anthony Tan (right) meeting a Thai GrabMart merchant earlier this year. Photo from Anthony Tan on Twitter.

It started as a ride-hailing platform to solve safety issues. Then there was food delivery and a payment platform, followed by a public listing on the NASDAQ. Last week, Grab launched Singapore’s first digital bank in partnership with Singtel.

The company is one of Asia’s first unicorn companies*, valued at over $14 billion in September.

Still, the motivation behind the constant innovation and expansion remains unchanged for Grab CEO and co-founder, Anthony Tan.

Anthony shared his faith journey on the Faith Driven Entrepreneur Asia podcast, which revealed sharp insights on cause and community.

The plan for a problem

The beginnings of Grab evolved from a business plan based on the principle of a “double bottom line” where a business helps society and can be economically profitable, Anthony shared. He was first exposed to the concept at Harvard Business School. 

Unlike Uber, which grew from the idea of cutting the cost of on-demand limousine services, Anthony and co-founder Tan Hooi Ling started Grab because of the safety issues people, especially women, faced taking taxis in Malaysia. 

Anthony Tan (right) with co-founder Tan Hooi Ling (left). Grab was started out of a desire to improve the safety of taxi passengers. Photo via Grab.

“Hooi Ling and I said we didn’t know if it would do very well economically, but we said we found a business model that could work,” said the 40-year-old entrepreneur. “Most importantly, we can solve real safety problems for women.”

In 2012, the initial taxi bookings from Grab, first known as MyTeksi which later became GrabTaxi, were made in Malaysia. Within a year, Anthony had expanded to Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

The Model to follow

Ten years on amidst exponential growth, the principle that Anthony draws most heavily from in his own journey as a leader comes from Matthew 25:40 where Jesus taught that whatever His disciples did for “one of the least of these, you did for Me”.

“Jesus was, bar none, the most incredible leader of all time,” Anthony said. “He could kneel down, take his waist cloth and clean the feet of his disciples. If He can do that – and He is God – who are we?”

Anthony Tan (bottom) speaking to Henry Kaestner (top), the podcast host of Faith Driven Entrepreneur Asia and founder of Sovereign’s Capital, an early investor in Grab. Photo courtesy of Faith Driven Entrepreneur Asia.

That model of servant leadership is so powerful, added Anthony. Imagine God kneeling and washing the feet of His disciples?

“Who am I as a CEO? How do I serve our Grabbers? How do I serve our customers? How do I serve our governments? How do I serve society?” he mused. 

“Every day I pray: Jesus, I just want to be more like You.

Saving livelihoods through innovation

When Covid hit in 2020 and economies came to a standstill, the poverty in the region meant that lockdowns had an extremely uneven impact on society.

With close to 90% of South East Asian economies dependent on informal work, there was “no safety net” and governments were stuck in the impossible situation of having to choose between saving economic livelihoods or actual lives.

Ridership plummeted as transport came to a near standstill.

When Anthony heard how frontline healthcare workers like nurses were being ostracised, he and his team came up with GrabCare.

Anthony even heard stories of jeepney drivers (a local mode of transport in the Philippines) becoming beggars in Manila city.

“This is where our focus has really doubled down on how can we help those most impacted by the crisis,” he said.

In Indonesia, Grab lobbied the government to allow both car drivers and bike riders to continue working. In Singapore and across the region, Grab started to help small businesses go digital and quickly scaled up food and grocery deliveries. 

“Stores were closed at the front end, but kitchens were open,” Anthony said.

“Clearly, we couldn’t solve all the problems, for sure. But we tried to help out what we call our micro-entrepreneurs ­­– our drivers and guys like that.”

When Anthony came to hear of how frontline healthcare workers like nurses were being ostracised, he and his team came up with GrabCare, a dedicated transport service for healthcare workers in Singapore.

Grab also facilitated the delivery of Covid test kits and medicine by drivers in Indonesia.  

Staying the course

The response and adaptation to the pandemic bears testament of how Anthony has stayed true to Grab’s original intentions of serving others.

“There are times I am tempted to make non-Christ centred decisions. So I surround myself with Christ-centred accountability partners.”

However, it is also the result of having built a Christ-centred leadership team that includes Grab’s CFO, and several heads and board members.

“There are times – I’ll be honest – I am tempted to make the non-Christ centred decisions. So I surround myself with Christ-centred leaders as accountability partners,” Anthony shared. “But we have that trust where we can respectfully call each other out.”

They are also people whom he turns to for counsel in forming company policies.

Anthony cited the example of Grab’s Love All, Serve All day which is an additional day of paid leave throughout the year to support any chosen cause. It was a balanced solution by that had come up after Anthony had discussed the issue of the need to be inclusive while retaining the Christ-centred values of the company with one of his leaders.

In fact, it was another Christian who had helped to streamline Grab’s company values into what is now known as the Four H’s: Hunger, Heart, Honour and Humility.

“God places very special people along your journey. You’ve got to embrace it and hold onto it, because it helps you both grow.”

The hunger to fight for what you believe in, the heart to serve society, the honouring of commitments and, finally, the humility to take feedback regardless of level. 

“I always say, hey guys, are we willing to go on our knees, and just truly serve society?” Anthony said, noting that it forms the “DNA of Grabbers”.

It is not just lip-service either – the Four H’s play a part in promotion decisions.

“God places very special people along your journey,” said Anthony, of the many people who have and are still journeying with him as mentors and accountability partners. “You’ve got to embrace it and hold onto it, because it helps you both grow.”

At the end of the podcast, Anthony acknowledged the hard times that many are going through and quoted a verse that he holds closely: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

“I live by that, and I think that’s something I have to just keep doing.”


* A unicorn company is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion.

Catch the full interview of Anthony Tan and other entrepreneurs on the Faith Driven Entrepreneur Asia podcast here


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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".