The director of family office Rumah Group describes how she is carving her own path in the social impact and marine conservation sectors
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
As an ambassador for Project Aware, a non-profit organisation promoting change in the areas of shark conservation and marine litter, Kathlyn Tan makes regular dive trips to collect marine debris. But she vividly recalls one particular dive in the waters off Tioman Island in October 2019, when she was desperately trying to avoid getting entangled with a long rope in front of her.
“It’s been my most memorable dive, but it was also the most frightened I’ve ever been,” said the certified Padi divemaster and freediver, who also co-founded Coastal Natives, a community of like-minded ocean lovers and conservationists.
When she isn’t exploring the depths of the oceans, Tan works closely with her father Stanley Tan and husband Thomas Riber Knudsen on furthering the social impact goals of her family’s investment company, Rumah Group. She expands on her father’s efforts to balance business projects with humanitarian work and new environmental and sustainability initiatives, as well as impact investments.
Most recently, she oversaw investments in Big Idea Ventures’ US$50 million New Protein Fund, which supports plant-based and alternative protein startups, as well as in a yet-to-be-launched fund by Circulate Capital focused on advancing technological innovation in managing and preventing plastic waste from polluting the oceans.
Here, Tan describes her work in her own words.
I’ve always been inspired by how my father manages to balance both profit and non-profit work. When I was still working outside of the family business, there were moments that made me aware that commercial operations driven purely by profit were not for me. I later decided that it would be a shame to give up the opportunity to follow in his footsteps, so I joined the Rumah Group.
The time I’ve spent in and around the ocean has opened my eyes to the human impact on a world that not many of us get to see. From once-thriving reefs now overfished with hardly a fish to see, to reefs turned to rubble after being blown up by dynamite, it’s difficult to see places that you love being destroyed. I believe it is in each of our powers to act for a world we want to see.
After a near-drowning experience as a child, my parents sent me to swim school where it quickly became something I enjoyed. The comfort I get being in the water has allowed me to enjoy some wonderful experiences underwater. I had my first taste of scuba diving in Australia at the Great Barrier Reef more than 10 years ago, and since then have been very lucky to have encountered spectacular wildlife, from sharks to dolphins to rays. It’s also motivated me to learn to freedive as well.
I was a vegetarian off and on as a teenager. It wasn’t until my early 20s, when I watched the American documentary Earthlings and read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, that I started to see the realities and economics of factory farming and industrial fishing. Needless to say, I’ve been a vegetarian since.
Creating positive change often requires doing things differently. You need to step up, take risks and put yourself out there, which can be uncomfortable but also very rewarding.
The most rewarding part about working with family has got to be the trust that we have in one another. No matter the uncertainty in a situation, we can always be radically transparent without judgement and know that we have each other’s backs because family always comes first.