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UpHonest’s Ellen Ma on Investing in Immigrant Startup Excellence

The Crunchbase “Investor Spotlight Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from investors making a difference in the venture capital ecosystem.

Ellen Ma, managing director at UpHonest Capital, leverages her startup and investment expertise to fund the next generation of high-impact Chinese and Chinese-American founders. She was recently listed on Forbes30 Under 30 for Venture Capital

Ma’s trajectory continues to soar with UpHonest, a global fund identifying and investing in the next wave of commerce and early-stage fintech with a focus on international enterprises. 

In this Q&A, Ma dives into the root of her passion for VC and the pillars of UpHonest’s approach to investing. She also breaks down the values that drive her work and how community is integral to fortifying investment relationships. 

Q: Who are you and how did you wind up in venture capital? 

I’m originally from China but I moved to the U.S. for educational purposes. During my university years, it was actually my parents who got into the venture world. They built a nonprofit that aimed to bridge information gaps between immigrant founders and the U.S. tech ecosystem. I quickly became involved, thus marking the start of my current career in venture. 

After I graduated, I got together with friends from my family’s network to build our own venture fund, UpHonest. We started in 2016 with roughly $2 million. Our first major investment was with Honey. You could say we got lucky in that sense, to kick off with a pretty big hit. I actually met its co-founder George Ruan through a Chinese-American venture community that’s continued to pave the way for our future investments, including Altar and Next Tracking. 


Q: What are your criteria for founders and investments?

I typically look for three main factors when searching for great founders and investments. I call them the three “core capabilities.” 

  1. First, I look at one’s personal attributes. I ask myself: Does this person have an aptitude for learning? How quickly can they retain and absorb information? Do they have charisma? Are they determined and good at attracting other great talent? 
  1. Second, I consider founder-market fit. I’ll look at their network and performance history. It’s important for me to see this person within a community that’s committed to supporting them and offering guidance, while still being able to lead in team dynamics. 
  1. Finally, I look at market trends, weighing how the product meets the market’s needs and whether it’s a good time for this company to exist. You can usually tell through the venture community: What products are circulating or causing a buzz with their potential for capital success? 

Q: How have you matured over the years as an investor? 

My decision-making entails a lot more depth today than it used to. At first, I would make my investments solely based on founder meetings. I now consider myself to be a lot more systemic and constructive. For instance, after a few years in the venture space, our team decided to shift our strategy and build an in-house knowledge team in China to help us with market-level research. We break these observations into categories to better analyze the whole market picture. This addition has helped us make far more calculated long-term decisions. 


Q: What was the original investing thesis behind UpHonest? 

Our original thesis was to invest at a much larger scale. We had hundreds of companies in our portfolio with smaller investment allocations. With our latest fund, we chose to shift our approach. I like to give credit where credit is due. 

That shift wouldn’t have happened without the learned experiences from our previous two funds. We grew internally as a team and as a company. It fortified our relationships with founders and introduced us to new co-investment networks. 

In other words: Our latest fund is a product of that historic progress. With our newest project, we can remain selective, focusing on writing bigger checks while investing in fewer companies. For example, we recently invested in MoeGo, a fintech company for offline pet services. We’ll be sitting on the board for the first time, offering visibility on information overflow, and dedicating our selective attention to the company. 


Q: Why did you choose to focus UpHonest on immigrant founders? 

I believe many immigrant founders have limited access to capital in the early stages due to facets such as not being well networked or simply having to contend with a language barrier. My personal and professional goal is to help founders find their footing in this business realm by bridging that gap and supporting capable, talented founders early on—before they appear attractive to the mainstream capital market. 


Q: In 5–10 years, where do you see UpHonest as a generational fund?

We have a cross-border team with some members in the U.S. and some in China. We source deals from both countries. Our teammates in China source deals, mainly from founders who studied business or entrepreneurship in the United States and then returned to China. Our U.S. teammates source local deals, particularly with immigrant founders. In next few years , I hope UpHonest will have expanded our global boundaries, focusing our progression not only on our specific demographic, but for immigrant founders at large.

  • Originally published July 6, 2022