Dissertation: An ethnography of venture capitalists in Indonesia/Southeast Asia

As part of my Digital Anthropology programme at University College London (UCL), I’m working on a dissertation project about venture capitalists in Indonesia/Southeast Asia. I’m covering the questions you may have of the project here. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions, or if you’re keen to be part of the research.

  • Why am I interested in the topic?

I’ve been covering the startup scene in Indonesia/Southeast Asia for two years before I decided to pursue my Masters. A major part of the reason why I decided to do so and chose the programme that I did—Digital Anthropology at UCL*—was because I wanted to explore different ways of covering and writing about topics I’m interested in. I want to write more humane stories, especially those that lie in the intersection between business, technology and culture. I see my dissertation project as an opportunity to do that.

I’ve been interested in understanding the set of practices that facilitate the movement of capital for some time now. Anthropology allows me to explore the topic in a way that focuses on people and their human agency. Ethnographies on finance and startups I’ve read so far have been great at showcasing how people are still at the centre of the story of capital. At times when it matter the most, it’s human connection and not financial modelling that save us from crises (also what caused them).

I am inspired to focus on venture capitalists following a book written by Nicko Widjaja titled Chasing Unicorns. I stumbled on the book right before I left for my Masters and it planted a seed in my head, “What would an ethnography of venture capitalists in Indonesia or Southeast Asia look like?” I’ve decided to entertain that curiosity for my dissertation.

  • What is it that I’m studying? What’s my research question?

A one-word answer would be, “culture”. Anthropology is the study of culture. If I were to explain anthropology in one sentence, it would be the study of deciphering common sense (i.e. the taken for granted assumptions that govern the day-to-day). The goal of anthropology is immersion. Some version of it and its toolkits have been adopted in corporate settings as market research and user research. It is likely that you’re already familiar with the approach.

As an ethnographer, I am required to enter my field site with an open mind and an open heart; to be receptive to whatever emerges from the site. I’m coming into my research with a broad question and I intend on sharpening it along the way. For now, I’m interested to understand what it means to be a venture capitalist (What are the kinds of work that you do? The set of practices and values that govern the work that you do?) and how you come to understand the work that you do (What is the framework you lean on to draw meaning out of your profession, if any?).

  • Who am I looking to speak to?

Anyone working in venture capital as well as those who have relations or exposure to venture capital in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. That means, if you’re a founder and you want to talk to me about venture capital and venture capitalists, I’m happy to chat.

There is no set demographic for my research. I am looking to speak to people from different backgrounds, at different career stages, from different companies. Ideally, I’d like to find people who are open to letting me enter their world and experience what they experience. We can talk more about what this would look like. If you’re ever keen on having an ethnographer follows you around, please let me know! If not, our conversations would be in the form of interviews, either online, in-person or by email.

  • Where will I be based? How long is my fieldwork?

I will be based in Jakarta between 20 May to 20 June. I’m planning to visit Bali for a couple of days around that period as well. I am also open to traveling across the region if there’s any events to attend. My fieldwork will span between four to six weeks. (This is a relatively short period for an ethnographic research. A “proper” ethnography could take 18 months, if not longer.)

  • How will you be represented in my research?

I will not be using your real name in the research. You will be pseudonymised. Any identifiable attribute that may expose your identity will be removed but more general identification may remain (for example, I may describe that you’re based in South Jakarta). I am following my department’s ethics on this point of anonymity.

  • What is the output of my research?

A 15,000 word ethnography.

  • Will you get access to my research?

If you’re a participant to my research then yes! I’m happy to share my final submission for personal read.

  • How will my research benefit you?

It could be an opportunity for you to understand culture from someone who studies it. “Company culture” has become a lingo used so often in the world of work it becomes, arguably, almost meaningless. I’m hoping my research could not only represent the world you’re in but offer a new lens for you to understand culture as well. If not any of these, it could just be something you might want to read in your free time. And if not that, I’m open to explore other ways in which my research could benefit you.

  • What this research is not about

This is not an investigative report. I’m not here to “break” any stories. I’m putting my journalistic cap to the side for this project, and focus on practicing anthropology.

  • Who’s my sponsor?

I’m under the sponsorship of the Indonesia Education Endowment Fund. I’m drawing from my allowance to conduct the research.

*UCL Department of Anthropology ranks fourth for Anthropology worldwide in the QS World Rankings by subject. The Digital Anthropology programme at UCL is the first of its kind, established in 2009, and remains the only masters level programme in Digital Anthropology in the world. More about the programme here.