Singapore-based Women Tech Leaders Discuss #BeBoldForChange, Technology, and the Future
“I was told I was too bold, too aggressive and I shouldn’t expand so quickly. I feel like one of those talks a father gives to a daughter to ensure she tackles life with the utmost caution and make sure you double and triple check everything before you make a decision. Sometimes, gut instinct and intuition works. You have to take a chance and being in a startup, every day feels like a risky and roller coaster ride of a day.”
Anna Gong, CEO Perx
Women make up only a third of the employee population in global Tech Giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. The gender imbalance in technology is a widespread phenomenon, in which women make up 30% of tech-related fields in Singapore and around the world.
The under-representation of women in technology begins in universities, in which far less women pursue tech-related degrees. At the National University of Singapore, women make up only 32% of the School of Computing, despite accounting for half the university’s population.
The shortage of women in the tech- industry indicates a shortage of talent, as women make up half of the global workforce. The absence of women pursuing tech-related careers is a cause for concern as tech will inevitably revolutionize most industries in the coming years.
However, a sense of urgency exists. Serial tech-preneur Mark Cuban elaborates: “I think we’re going to go through the biggest technological revolution we’ve ever seen over the next 10 years.”
According to a 2016 study conducted by Google and Temasek, Southeast Asia alone has a digital market that will grow to over US$ 200 billion by 2025. Some women are taking advantage of this opportunity by establishing high-growth tech-startups that are disrupting traditional infrastructures, while simultaneously proving that women can be leaders in both entrepreneurship and technology in Asia.
Rosaline Chow Koo, is a notable tech-preneur who founded ConneXionsAsia, a Singapore-based HealthTech start-up that is currently transforming the health insurance industry. ConneXionsAsia (also known as CXA) provides employees with an app in which they can choose insurance packages that are best suited to their own personal health needs, while employers simultaneously obtain data to provide incentives for a healthier workplace. Consequently, health insurance is on the brink of a revolution as CXA disaggregates the existing insurance value chain and shifts the industry from a treatment-based model to a preventative one. CXA raised a $25M series B round of funding in January 2017, with a $US 100M valuation after launching 3 years ago with 2 rounds of VC funding totaling $33M and personally seeding startup and brokerage acquisition.
Another celebrated tech-preneur, Anna Gong, CEO of Perx, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool that enables customer rewards through a mobile app, and incentivizes customer loyalty to favored retail brands. On the other end, retailers can improve the longevity of customer loyalty, and through the accumulation of artificial intelligence (AI), obtain insights into trends and patterns that impact consumer behavior. In 2015, Perx successfully raised its first round of funding for an undisclosed amount.
Rosaline and Anna, while working in unrelated sectors, are similar as they have created unparalleled platforms that benefit both consumers and businesses like. In addition, their products collect vast amounts of data that will transform incumbent value chains and lead to more efficient industry decisions. Furthermore, both their startups have received funding from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Lastly, but most importantly, Rosaline and Anna share a socio-cultural feat: not only do the two women address the gender-gap in tech, but also the scarcity of female leadership in both technology and business.
The following Q&A showcases the learnings from these two tech-preneurs, and what each woman experienced to succeed in the cut-throat start-up realm.
How does your company contribute to Asia Tech?
CXA was built as a workplace ecosystem where we help firms aggregate and digitize all their data, vendors and payment flows between employers, employees, insurers, wellness/disease management and healthcare providers. We use healthcare data (bio-data, claims, sensor, lifestyle habits) to risk stratify and score employee populations and firms to predict future health trajectory and group insurance premiums. We’re working with the insurance and healthcare industries to build predictive models linking interventions to outcomes and premium cost reductions by attacking high cost claims with disease management and prevention.
We have hired a number of local and Southeast Asian talent on our team. The reason we focus in Asia is because we believe the high growth opportunities are here especially with smartphone adoptions on the rise and GDP growth is 5% p.a. with a 700M population.
What are some of the main gender-biases towards women in tech-related fields?
It’s not really about gender biases but in this region, it’s the social fabric and culture that is still quite conservative and risk adverse. Many, including males are taught to go to a safe, secure role that is predictable and comes with the least amount of risks. The female tech ratio is low due to that cultural and social foundation, i believe. however, there’s a big movement to promote women entrepreneurs and females in tech, starting from primary and secondary school. That shift in education and training will help the next generation Zs to be more involved in tech and take more chances away from the corporate jobs in banking, finance, and consulting roles.
How can more women participate in Asia’s tech revolution?
Even though women are 50% of university students, only 30% of STEM students are female. So we need to get many more girls into the sciences.
Women are already participating in the tech revolution but if you slice and dice the various tech entrepreneurs, they are mostly doing ecommerce, apps, and not deep tech innovation. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some women are doing great things in revolutionizing insurance, HealthTech, A.I., Mobile solutions, and IOT space. I believe the network effect of the eco-system is getting quite pervasive and supportive of females in tech and entrepreneurship. Women could learn from these first gen, serial entrepreneurs, and ones who are paving the wave for certain verticals. Women need role models in the tech sector and there are not many of them who were self starters and made it through adversity, challenges, and odds against them. Some even started very late in their career or took a risky path and left their well paid corporate roles to start something that is high risk and financially challenging. I would say seek mentors and network in your community to understand who’s in the field you wish to explore or even someone you admire and learn from them.
How can we encourage more women towards leadership positions in tech-related fields?
60% of CXA’s leadership team are women. I finally hired more men to add diversity to the leadership team. The engineering team is predominantly male as there are so few women developers to hire. We’re trying to be a role model to demonstrate that a female-led start-up can really succeed in the male-dominated fintech and healthtech industries against global incumbents.
Again, it goes back to the social and cultural fabric of where and how these women were brought up. I believe VCs, women led organizations, and tech events are all great ways to build awareness and network effect for the female community. As a female tech entrepreneur, it starts with your own organization. I have about 45% female ratio in my organization. I also try to mentor students as well as my own employees to encourage them to try new things. I enjoy speaking at a number of events to help and mentor the next generation.
What are some of the main challenges that have been exclusive to you, as a female tech-preneur?
After a startup pitch where I made it to final 4, I was told by Kauffman Foundation that I needed to be as aggressive as the men. He said that he typically divided men’s revenues by 10, whereas for women he multiplied by 10.
My situation is a bit different so I would say pivoting entirely from B2C to B2B model, re-founding the company, and churned over 100% of the company with legacy. Building a enterprise grade platform that’s A.I. driven with a limited team and funding from the beginning was a major challenge. We still had to find product/marketing fit selling into large banks, telcos, insurance, travel and hospitality. Also, turning around a company or re-founding a company is probably harder than starting from scratch. You have to influence people to un-learn what they’ve learned or rebuild the team from the ground up and rebuilding/recruiting talent who only knows you as the Perx B2C app and not a Perx Enterprise SaaS Platform.
The fast growing number of consumers in Asia enabled by the ongoing tech driven revolution represents a unique opportunity for women to play a leadership role in the economic transformation of Asia. Successful women entrepreneurs have demonstrated that existing hurdles can be overcome and are proven role models for future generations.
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2017, Galen Growth Asia is joining #BeBoldForChange