Wharton freshman Ying Cong Seah was 13 years old when he was ordained as a monk for the first time.
He traveled from Singapore, where he grew up, to a Buddhist monastery deep in the forests of his native Malaysia, where his head and brow were shaved. Stripping down, he donned a traditional monk’s robe, and for days at a time, he meditated and lived independently of earthly possessions. Once a day, he traveled barefoot to a nearby city to collect food from those willing to donate, all before taking the SAT.
On his last night at the monastery, Seah went to a Chinese cemetery where he sat on a grave, the decomposed body of a dead Chinese Malaysian below him. After chanting prayers to rid himself of evil spirits lurking among the deceased, he meditated, facing his fears of death and evil.
Seah has come a long way since.
A two-time former monk and former elite third sergeant in the Singaporean military who was detained by the Singaporean intelligence services for a time, Seah was a Wharton freshman living in Kings Court English House until this December. He took a leave of absence to work full-time on Glints, a recruitment startup he cofounded with two other students who have also taken leave, that has since received $380,000 in an oversubscribed round of seed funding.
Now, Seah is Singapore’s hottest young entrepreneur. Since taking his leave, he has been featured in the Business Times, Singapore Business Review and Tech in Asia and received funding from high-profile investors, led by East Ventures, for a 30 percent stake in the business. Seah’s partner, former University of California, Berkeley freshman Oswald Yeo Hexiang, said that Glints received so much interest that it had to turn down over $250,000 in seed funding.
“People know about him. People know that I know him so they always ask me about what he’s doing right now,” Wharton freshman Nicholas Tan, who is a childhood friend of Seah’s, said. “He’s appeared in the papers quite a lot, on a pretty regular basis.”
Still, Seah sometimes misses the peaceful life of the monastery. Sometimes he even thinks of going back.
“I never felt so calm and serene. The only way you can rid yourself of suffering is to control the very thing that is between your ears, which is your mind — but most people have no control over their mind; it just runs like an operating system subconsciously,” Seah, who also studied computer science during his one semester at Penn, said. “Meditation teaches you how to hack that operating system by becoming aware of it in the first place and then writing a program for it.”
He may sound like a hippie, maybe even a little like Steve Jobs, who went to India at the age of 18 in pursuit of enlightenment. But unlike Jobs, who returned to the United States with long hair and an admitted tendency to smoke marijuana, disappointed by what he had found in India, Seah returned from Malaysia to Singapore invigorated. Today, he wears his ash-black hair short, does not believe in sex, drugs or alcohol and is more modest than bohemian.
Just a few months ago, he walked alongside thousands of Penn students on Locust Walk, studied rigorously for midterm exams in Huntsman Hall and Skyped with Indonesian investors by night, all while flying under the radar, unnoticed by the Wharton students and faculty typically eager to network with tomorrow’s leaders.
From NSO to Singapore
While some freshmen were drinking at fraternity parties, bonding with their roommates and nervously calling home, Seah was already contemplating leaving Penn.
He decided to go to college after serving in the Singaporean military, despite investor interest in his start-up, so that he could decide whether or not “he needed Penn,” Wharton freshman Elaine Chao, who lived near Seah, said. In the back of his mind, however, he realized that investors would only take him seriously if he worked on his startup full time.
Twenty-one years old when he arrived at Penn, Seah was old enough to buy alcohol but was wholly unused to the party culture of American colleges.
“He went to one frat party and was like ‘WTF, what is this’ and never went back,” Wharton junior Connie Chen, one of Seah’s closest friends at Penn, said. “He thought [NSO] was kind of crazy, there was too much stuff to do all the time and it was really overwhelming.”
Seah had other problems with NSO as well. “I saw how much money Penn was spending on NSO and all I could think was ‘I could be doing so much more with that money’,” he said.
Despite his aversion to Greek life, Seah made friends in other ways. He bonded with fellow techies in Kings Court’s Science and Technology Wing, where he lived, in his classes and as a member of Penn’s tight-knit Singaporean community.
“He’s always been there for me. He is a really brotherly figure and gives me advice about things I would freak out about,” Chao said. “I always feel secure, put together and safe around him. He’s a really great guy, and he’s really well-loved too.”
Chao described Seah as one of Penn’s most eligible bachelors.
“The girls I know all think he’s pretty cute,” Chao said. “I’m not saying I had a crush on him, but I wouldn’t mind going out with a guy like that ... He’s a gentleman, he’s smart, he treats girls really well, he’s one of the few chivalrous guys and he’s really mature.”
The most common word his friends used to describe him, however, wasn’t sweet or cute, but humble.
Seah did not mention his full-ride scholarship, fame in Singapore or success in the army when first interviewed by The Daily Pennsylvanian — his friends filled in these blanks. While his Facebook wall is filled with friends’ congratulatory posts, he never publicizes his accomplishments. And he is rarely, if ever, quoted in articles about his company.
Seah is also modest in his lifestyle. Rather than placing value in money or material goods, his ambition is driven by a desire to make an impact through technological innovation. At Penn, he owned very few clothes and “could fit a bed in his closet,” Chen said. To this end, Seah spent most of his time at Penn working and managed to earn a 4.0 GPA while taking 5.5 credits and running Glints on the side.
“He was kind of a workaholic,” Chen said, laughing. This was a common theme among Seah’s friends. Seah coded throughout his New York Thanksgiving dinner and, as a result, fell asleep while Black Friday shopping, Tan said. Whenever Chao knocked on his door, Seah was usually working, she said.
But he made time for friends and even squeezed in time for a girlfriend during his freshman fall here.
“He’s a very organized guy. He keeps his work life and social life very separate. I remember if I wanted to have dinner with him or hang out with him, I would always have to pre-plan it,” Chao said. “He focuses a lot on his work, but he also doesn’t forget his friends either.”
Seah’s organization manifested itself in strict work schedules and daily routines. He went to sleep by midnight on nights when he didn’t have investor calls scheduled, despite his workload. This discipline, Chen says, is a result of his time in the Singaporean army.
Singapore’s Elite Third Sergeant
Seah’s platoon had been trekking for days under the hot, blazing sun. On his back, he carried 30 kilograms of pots, pans and ammunition.
“Sedi-A!,” his officer shouted. Stand at Attention. Lock elbows. Stare forward. Chin up. No movement. Seah took out a shovel and began to dig. His arms and back ached. “Too slow, too slow,” his officers shouted. The sun fell. His one-man trench, called a shell scrape, took form. And then it began to rain. All night, he lay awake cold, wet and pushed beyond his limits.
Seah joined the Singaporean military at the age of 19 and learned to lead a life of discipline. When a fellow soldier violated army policy at the end of a five-day mission, Seah’s whole platoon had to do pushups for hours and trek an extra 15 kilometers as punishment.
Basic training was difficult, but Seah excelled and was invited along with the top 10 percent of recruits to Officer Cadet School as a result of his high IQ and leadership potential. Even among the creme de la creme of the Singaporean military, Seah made a name for himself.
“He was the top of his wing. Each year we have 300 to 400 cadets coming in and we split up into three or four wings,” Tan said. “Of his wing, he was the top cadet all the way until one day we were doing an obstacle course and he jumped off a wall and tore his ACL. And that’s when he started out the whole business thing.”
His military discipline is still with him today. At Penn, Seah woke up at 6:30 a.m. every day for two weeks to run before his 9 a.m. classes with Tan, until the weather became too cold. “That was our military minds working again,” Tan said. Seah’s dorm room walls were blank, save for a list of goals. His days, dates and meals were scheduled down to the hour, his friends said.
But tearing his ACL would have a much bigger impact on his life than achieving the rank of Third Sergeant. After his injury, Seah used his downtime to experiment with entrepreneurial endeavors and eventually to launch Glints, the business that launched him to the top of Singapore’s start-up scene.
This downtime, however, got him into a bit of trouble at first.
Detained and Interrogated
Seah was still practically a teenager when he was detained and interrogated by the intelligence arm of Singapore’s army for the first time. His crime: launching an unsuccessful business while serving in the military.
“I started a social enterprise so that I could write about it when I applied to Wharton,” Seah said. Although the business bombed, Seah pushed past the failure and, after tearing his ACL, partnered with Yeo and Stanford University freshman Qinen Looi, his current business partners, to run entrepreneurship workshops and try out new business ideas.
Their first project to gain traction was Art’N’Sew, which sold t-shirts with pictures of international aid items at the cost of those items and donated their profits to charity.
“We were featured on the newspaper, which is free. But because of that our Army immediately called us down and interrogated us because we’re not supposed to do anything outside of Army and it’s considered moonlighting,” Seah said. “The only way we got out of the situation was because we weren’t making any profits at the time ... We were that close to being arrest[ed].”
This wasn’t the first time Seah and his partners ran into trouble, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
It’s the end of the semester in Singapore in 2012. Most students are busy studying for final exams, but high school seniors Seah and Tan are not.
“Him, me and two other guys just went crazy and we didn’t care about our final exams and we just did the [Economic Development Board] business competition,” Tan said. “We didn’t win, but we got second. For him, it catalyzed his interest to start his own business from the ground up.”
This wasn’t the last time Seah sacrificed education for a business endeavor — then, Seah risked poor performance on his final exams for business success. Now, he risks much more by taking a leave of absence from Wharton.
“What YC is doing is taking a step away from the very basic norms that are the fundamentals of our society. When people hear what he is doing they are like ‘Wow, this guy is flipping mad,’” Tan said. “He has his scholarship, he’s in a very good place, and he’s giving all that up for something that might or might not work. He’s taking that risk, but he knows that his passion is there, so that’s what he is going for.”
By leaving Wharton, Seah is bucking tradition and doing something that Tan says virtually zero Singaporeans have done before. This is “the stuff of many Singapore parents’ nightmares,” The Straits Times, a Singaporean publication, wrote on Wednesday.
Seah’s risks are monetary as well. After getting a 2400 on his SAT and excelling academically, Seah was given a full-ride scholarship and guarantee of employment by the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, a governmental investment arm and sovereign wealth fund that typically recognizes Singapore’s top five high school graduates.
Of his two business partners, Yeo, the salesman, has also taken this risk and left Berkeley, while Looi, the developer, who is also on a government scholarship, intends to take a leave of absence from Stanford this March.
Today, Yeo and Seah live together with an artist on Singapore’s waterfront, their lives consumed by the ever-changing, ever-demanding needs of their business.
Business As Usual
Check the newspapers in Singapore and you might see Seah’s name. Just this month, he was ranked among the top fifteen entrepreneurs under twenty-five. Glints is a recruitment portal that connects interns with employers and provides hiring managers with performance analytics.
Seah and his partners launched Glints in fall 2014 after finishing their service in the army. They originally partnered with The HUB Singapore, a company that calls itself a “home for purpose-driven people who use entrepreneurial ideas to create sustainable impact.” In May, Glints was the youngest company invited to participate in a 100-day start-up program through JFDI.Asia, a well-known Singapore-based accelerator. This led to investor interest resulting in $380,000 in funding.
Seah is a role model for entrepreneurial Singaporeans. His company has worked with over 8,000 interns in Singapore and 700 companies including Puma and Adidas. Seah has been invited to talk at various conferences and institutions, including the Hwa Chong Institution where he jokingly described his team as a couple of pimps who connect interns with employers and run a mafia — a tight-knit group of brothers sharing a common purpose.
The future is bright for Seah.
He is following in the footsteps of this era’s greatest entrepreneurs in leaving college to pursue his passions in the technology business. He has funding, a team and, with a 4.0 GPA at Penn and a perfect SAT score, unparalleled raw intelligence.
When he took the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory — a personality test that evaluates whether or not you live in the past, present or future — his focus on the future was practically off the charts. So far, this has paid off.
Seah’s immediate goal is to build Glints into a successful enterprise and make his first $10 million in the next few years. Over the next six months, he plans to partner with IBM to develop an “intelligent career charting tool with the aid of Watson AI,” he said.
But his long term goals are far broader.
“[His] end goal is to maximize his impact and the amount of technological change in the world,” Chen said.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.