Keeping Doors Open
Entrepreneur Mr Darius Cheung (Engineering ’04) has always wanted to make a difference — whether in the tech space or when it comes to fighting discrimination in the housing market. And he has done just that.
WHO HE IS
Mr Darius Cheung is one of the local business scene’s most famous faces and is the man behind successful ventures like property portal 99.co and mobile security company tenCube. His business acumen and social impact have won him a slew of awards, among them the Singapore Youth Award (2011) and the Entrepreneur of the Year title at the 2015 IT Leader Awards. He was also listed as one of Asia’s best entrepreneurs by BusinessWeek.
The lead-up to the birth of one’s first child should be a joyous time but for Mr Darius Cheung and his wife, it was anything but. “My wife was heavily pregnant and we were moving into our new rental apartment closer to the office. Everything was fine till the landlord found out that Roshni (his wife) was Indian,” recalls Mr Cheung, 39. “At that moment, his attitude changed completely and he told us that he could not rent the apartment to us. It was a mad scramble to find another place and fortunately, we did.”
Although this regrettable series of events took place some five years ago, the injustice stings, says Mr Cheung. “We realised at that moment that this is not the world we want our daughter to live in. So we decided to try and make a difference in whatever way we could.” He knew that his entrepreneurial endeavours could be one way to make that difference — after all, the job combines his two loves: creating solutions and making an impact. “Plus, being an entrepreneur in the tech space means that your impact is very scalable.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of my naïve notions that I can change everything in this world. There are problems that can’t be solved in just one day.
DRIVING EVOLUTION THROUGH ENTERPRISEMr Cheung’s interest in tech started during his pre-university days, when he first used the AltaVista and Yahoo search engines to connect with the then-nascent Internet. “It opened my eyes to a whole new universe and I wanted Singapore to be a part of that success.” Looking back, it is easy to see that he has succeeded: while still at NUS, he partnered two other schoolmates to start tenCube, a mobile security firm. Just five years later, it was acquired by software giant McAfee for a whopping $25 million.
Mr Cheung’s next venture, 99.co, a property portal which he started in 2014, received global attention and attracted funds from the likes of Brazilian angel investor and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. When he started it, he realised that the process of finding a place to live was — back then, at least — far more tedious than it should have been. “Most property portals at that point were not user-centric at all and their user experience was quite painful,” he observes. “Agents were also quite frustrated because there was a lack of trust in the property market. Over the years, the industry had been plagued by bad actors and a lack of transparency. I wanted to resolve that with 99.co.”
By working closely with agents and users, 99.co has since managed to set itself apart as a modern way of buying, selling and renting property. Informative articles help first-time buyers and sellers make sense of the sometimes protracted process, and nifty features like a home-to-work distance calculator have won over millennials. This ready embrace of technology has come in handy amid COVID-19, as 99.co was among the first to offer video viewings. And as Mr Cheung has realised, technology could also help the portal fight discrimination in the rental market.
AN IMPASSIONED PLEA
An excerpt from Mr Cheung’s 2016 blog post, “Your wife is Indian, landlord won’t rent to you”.
In the end, my wife and I paid a good 15 per cent more than what we should have because we could only settle on one place we liked that welcomed us (in addition to the fact that we had little negotiation power at that point). “Should we drop my last name from Shan’s (our daughter’s) IC? It might just be easier for her in the future,” Roshni asked me one night, with a hint of defeat and injury that she was trying to hide; my heart broke into a thousand pieces. We wanted our daughter to keep both our last names and to be proud of her heritage, equally. That night, I decided I could not let my daughter grow up in a society where she has to hide her identity just because “it will be easier”. Not here, as a citizen, in the country of her birth.
Read the full post here: www.99.co/blog/singapore/99co-stop-rental-racial-discrimination/
REGARDLESS OF RACEIn 2016, 99.co’s quest to champion diversity and equality began. Energised by his bad experience when trying to rent a property, Mr Cheung launched the Regardless of Race campaign to curb ethnic exclusion in the local rental market. The first thing he did was recount his harrowing experience in a blog post titled “Your wife is Indian, landlord won’t rent to you”. Its no-holds-barred description of their ordeal was a hit
online and quickly went viral.
But translating digital attention into concrete change proved trickier. For that, Mr Cheung decided to tap on technology: he created a “Diversity Friendly” listing option on 99.co, giving landlords who did not discriminate against tenants based on their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, a leg-up on the portal. “They are ranked better and we have also taken the step to blacklist all listings that have discriminatory leanings,” he shares. However, he understands that there is no silver bullet for solving a complex societal issue. “There are those who clamour for more change but they don’t realise that discrimination is not often explicit. It happens only after the potential tenant makes the first move.”
Some may wonder why Mr Cheung does not just let the authorities step in to curb such practices. To this, he says that he hopes they will — and soon. But in the meantime, people should try to make a difference in whatever way they can. “I believe in doing good while doing well. And it has worked to some extent, as we have improved our overall user experience. Yes, the diversity tag only affects some five per cent of our user base, but they are an important and underserved base that we are helping — and they have responded very positively.”
However, he admits that there are landlords who remain discriminatory and have no desire to change. Is he disheartened by this? “No, no. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of my naïve notions that I can change everything in this world. There are problems that can’t be solved in just one day.” Still, he is confident that he is building a better world for the next generation and believes that change will come. “You can see it for yourself — antiquated ways of thinking about race and identity will gradually give way over time. So there is hope.”