Harvard Pedigrees Opened the Door to World’s Biggest SPAC Deal

A few years after launching Grab Holdings Inc. in 2012, Anthony Tan got a piece of advice from Jack Ma. The co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. told the entrepreneur that life is a tsunami. When you’re up on the wave, get ready for the crash, he said.

In 2020, that all came to pass. The coronavirus sent cities across Southeast Asia into lockdown. Demand for ride-hailing, a key business, plunged. Then around December, its big plan to merge with arch rival Gojek collapsed.

Tan wasn’t ready to give up on going public. Early this year, a connection introduced him to the Silicon Valley investor Brad Gerstner, the founder of Altimeter Capital Management. The two men, though from opposite sides of the world, had a lot in common. Both were Harvard Business School alumni, and both had eschewed easier paths in life to set up their own firms.

Within about three months, the pair had announced the world’s biggest SPAC deal, which will see Grab list in the U.S. at a valuation of almost $40 billion.

“A year ago, the world looked like it was going to end,” Tan, 39, said. “As an entrepreneur, you go through these crazy lows and crazy highs.”

In an interview over Zoom, Tan recalls that after the initial introduction was made, Gerstner called some common friends to check him out. They included Rich Barton, the entrepreneur who leads Zillow Group Inc., and Uber Technologies Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi, a Grab board member. Tan passed the test.

The Grab-Altimeter special purpose acquisition company merger underscores the importance that’s placed on connections at the top of the technology world, and how graduating from universities like Harvard still helps to open doors.