Saturday, 2024 April 13

Fight the good fight: A tough childhood shaped Rosaline Koo’s startup journey

This article was originally published on Oasis.

No one gets to choose the environment they are born into, and every family has its own issues. A tough childhood can either kill one’s ambitions, or push one to thrive.

Rosaline Koo, the founder and CEO of CXA Group, is a case where her rough past gave her the motivation to reach for the top. Born and raised as a minority among minorities in the United States, and having experienced prejudice and chaos during the 1960s, Rosaline worked hard, remained resilient when she faced predicaments, and weathered disastrous turns with calm.

An American dream

Rosaline Koo’s father left China when he was 19 years old. He boarded a boat in 1919, headed for the United States, and ended up in San Francisco, where he kept a low profile in Chinatown for 40 years, taking on part-time jobs like fixing sewing machines.

When he turned 59, he decided that he wanted to have children, so he gave himself up for amnesty and became a US citizen. He went to Hong Kong to look for a wife and met the woman who eventually became Rosaline’s mother. She was separated from her two children in mainland China when the communists seized their property and sent her mother to a labor camp. Somehow, she made it to Hong Kong.

My family in front of house in Watts in LA with sisters from China, Rosaline Koo from CXA Group
Rosaline Koo (front, far left) and her family in front of their house in Watts, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Rosaline Koo.

After they got married, the couple moved to San Francisco. Rosaline was their firstborn, and two boys followed. It was only after all three children were born that Rosaline’s mother shared the story about her two daughters in China; Rosaline’s father sponsored them to relocate to the US. By that time, the family had moved to Los Angeles because they wanted to buy property. The only place they could afford was in Watts, a neighborhood in the southern part of the city.

At that time, 90% of the residents in Watts were black. “In any minority neighborhood, if you’re different, you’re picked on. We grew up, got bullied, and learned to run really fast because we didn’t want to fight,” said Rosaline. “It was easier to just run away.”

Rosaline’s sisters—her mother’s first two children—arrived when the Watts Uprising was taking place. There was large-scale civil unrest in the neighborhood that lasted for six days in August 1965. “I still remember my father outside with the police keeping the rioters away because we were a non-black family,” she recalled.

Soldiers on guard duty during the Watts Uprising in 1965. Photo courtesy of the National Guard Education Foundation.

Rosaline was determined to escape poverty by studying, getting good grades, and seizing new opportunities. “When I was young, I was babysitting for a family. This family was the first that I knew that had a two-story house with no graffiti [on their walls], away from the ghetto. I wanted to know what they did to escape poverty. I found out the father was an engineer.”

She acted on this knowledge and studied engineering in college. In 1979, she was accepted into UCLA and majored in cybernetics. “It just needed to get out of that neighborhood. I didn’t want to be bullied all the time; it [university] was an escape route,” she said.

Journey to Asia

After living as part of a marginalized family in the US, running a company was a different kind of hardship for Rosaline. “You have to be mentally strong to get through disastrous turns.”

After obtaining another degree in business management, and working in various roles in the banking sector, Rosaline moved to Singapore with her husband in 1996.

In 1999, at the onset of the first internet revolution, Rosaline invested in a friend’s startup. They ended up building the first regional outsourcing payroll system.

An opportunity introduced Rosaline to the insurance industry and eventually inspired her to found her own company. She started by taking a part-time job at an insurance startup, so she would still have time to care for her family. Eventually, Rosaline made it to the leadership team of Mercer & Marsh, an insurance broker.

Prince Charles-Rosaline Koo from CXA Group
Rosaline (right) met Prince Charles during his visit to Singapore in 2017. Photo courtesy of Rosaline Koo.

After five years of trying to convince the firm to invest in Asia, in 2013, Rosaline left Mercer & March. She decided to form her own company with USD 5 million from her own savings and borrowing another USD 5 million. Rosaline established ConneXionsAsia (CXA) group, a data intelligence platform for health, wealth, wellness, and insurance. Now, CXA has over 1 million users across 20 countries in Asia.

“Building a retirement plan, shifting the paradigm to customers instead of products, building a payroll company, and working in insurance made me discover that there’s nothing digital about how [existing practitioners in the industry] craft products, distribute, or connect with the supply chain. This realization allowed us to build something that connects it all,” she said.

“We feel like we’re on this journey of learning,” said Rosaline. Looking back, one thing she learned after surviving a tough neighborhood is that she shouldn’t be afraid of standing up to bullies. 

As Rosaline grew up, she learned how to overcome hardship and be tough by watching her parents. Her mother worked two jobs. She was a seamstress during the day and night, and took an hour-long bus ride to a Chinese restaurant, where she was a cook.

One of Rosaline’s memories illustrates the physical danger that her family had to contend with. “I still remember waking up one night and watching my mom take out a machete and show my dad, saying, ‘The next time he comes near me, he’s gonna get it,’” she recalled.

Rosaline’s early experience made her a fighter. She shared an anecdote about chasing down someone who mugged her friend when she was a postgraduate. “One day, in Manhattan, I was using a payphone to call my boyfriend at the time. I heard her scream behind me and saw a mugger running away with her purse. She was on the ground. I chased after the guy, from Broadway all the way down to Riverside. When I was running, I screamed at him. Twenty people followed me and chased this guy all the way down to the river. Luckily for us and for him, a police car passed by and saw our mob chasing him down.” The police eventually arrested him.

Now, sometimes, when Rosaline swims, she enters a meditative state and an old thought from her days in Watts surfaces. “I thought that I’d never make it out of there,” she said.

​​”If you make one decision, your life could end up completely different,” Rosaline said. “Could we have ended up with a different fate? Adversity, hardship, and being on the brink of bankruptcy are things that founders face all the time. You have to be mentally strong to get yourself through all of these disastrous turns.”

CXA team building event. Photo courtesy of Rosaline Koo.
CXA team building event. Photo courtesy of Rosaline Koo.

Oasis, the brainchild of KrASIA, aims to provide a haven for human-centered stories on Asia’s leaders. Click here to read similar stories. 

Taro Ishida
Taro Ishida
Taro is passionate about technology, innovation and startups around Asia. He manages ecosystem and partnerships from 36Kr Global's Singapore office.

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