Women at work

  • Smebiz
  • Monday, 06 May 2019

Learning from others: Getting the right exposure helps equip female tech entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge to drive growth.

FOR sure, some sectors are more male-dominated than others. These include industries such as logistics, banking, mining and construction.

In recent years, the rise of tech startups has also drawn more male entrepreneurs.

While Soh Yien Yee, co-founder and chief marketing officer of social commerce solution provider Avana, notes that the gender gap in the local tech industry is not as severe as in some traditional sectors, female founders do face certain prejudices.

“I go out and service clients and bring their problems back to our technical team. The technical team will tell you that it’s a technical problem, and they stop at that. So, what’s the technical problem? They don’t bother explaining to you because they think you won’t understand anyway. Well, try me.

“We’ve had arguments about that in the earlier days. So I would do the platform testing and I had to force my way into the tech team. I had to tell them to work with me instead of against me,” she recalls.

Her experience is similar to that of on-demand workforce platform GoGet co-founder and chief executive officer Francesca Chia.

“I think there’s a gender bias, particularly in the tech developers talent pool. It is harder to find female developers. It is only recently, that I have one out of six of our developers who is a female.

“When you have a purely technical team, you need to over-compensate to ensure that the human touch is still covered. So we need to ensure some female representation somewhere, to provide perspective and ensure the product is more inclusive and holistic,” Chia shares.

Over the years, female entrepreneurs have also come forward to build strong tech companies.

Team player: Chia says every stakeholder needs to improve to make the digital economy a success.
Team player: Chia says every stakeholder needs to improve to make the digital economy a success.

Industry observers have stated that the tech world needs the perspective of more women founders to tackle some of the biggest challenges impacting the world today.

Locally, the likes of Soh, Chia and Dropee chief executive officer Lennise Ng are looking to change the conversations surrounding female entrepreneurs.

Facing expectations

One of the preconceptions that female tech entrepreneurs have had to deal with is the expectation that C-level management or those at the founder or co-founder level would be male.

“We deal with a lot of traditional suppliers. And a lot of them will say: Don’t need to work so hard. They think we should take it easy as girls. They don’t mean harm. But I like working and creating an impact. That’s not the experience I will get if, say, I was in accounting,” says Lennise.

Dropee is a business-to-business (B2B) e-procurement marketplace. It deals with players along the supply chain such as wholesalers, logistics providers and financiers.

Lennise adds that fundraising exercise can be a bother sometimes.

“I think it’s always challenging to be an entrepreneur. But as a woman entrepreneur, we have had a challenging experience with investors whereby the first three questions that we received were ‘Are you single?’, ‘When do you plan to get married?’ and ‘Do you have kids?’, which immediately turns a startup pitching session onto a personal and family interview session,” echoes Ng Yi Ying, founder of e-commerce fulfilment solutions provider AllSome.

Not only men can: Lennise notes that traditional suppliers often expect to deal with men.
Not only men can: Lennise notes that traditional suppliers often expect to deal with men.  

Reports on the US-based tech industry have found that female-founded startups there have raised just 2.2% of venture capital (VC) investment in 2018. The percentage was the same as the previous year.

According to data, the first ten months of 2018 saw female-founded startups closing 391 deals worth US$2.3bil (RM9.5bil), up from US$2bil in 2017. Meanwhile, mixed-gender teams have raised US$13.2bil across 1,346 deals, an increase from US$12.7bil last year.

For context, US startups raised a total of US$96.7bil in the same period.

Currently, less than 10% of decision-makers at VC firms are women and 74% of US VC firms have zero female investors.

Interestingly, reports note that tech companies led by women have a 35% return on investment.

Chia says tech ventures should be judged by how fast it moves and how well it solves problems.

“There’s no 10-years’ experience in this industry. And there’s no old-boys club, because this club is evolving every day,” she says.

“To stand out in the industry, I think it requires a great product that can solve the users’ pain points. Industry wise, we’re glad that it’s still a rather fair play. We didn’t find any difficulty in establishing partnerships with our service providers, including multinational companies. And, our customers love us,” notes Yi Ying.

Lacking diversity: Founders say it is not easy to get female developers for startups.
Lacking diversity: Founders say it is not easy to get female developers for startups.  

Support network

Keeping the conversation going and raising awareness are key to ensuring a more inclusive industry.

“At this stage, there is still a lot more important conversations that need to be addressed, not only amongst women, but also how can we include men as part of this conversation to create a more inclusive society,” says Lennise.

Soh adds that there is a need for more networks that support the development and growth of female entrepreneurs.

“A lot of the things that are done are tailored towards how men would do it. I have been part of the startup scene for a number of years and most times, if you are at a programme or accelerator, you see only 20% of people in the room are females.

“I was part of an all-women accelerator recently and there were very interesting conversations. A lot of them were considering whether to prioritise being a startup founder or start a family. These kinds of questions are not often addressed,” says Soh.

Soh, along with Chia, Lennise and Yi Ying were also participants of the recent eFounders Fellowship programme jointly organised by Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

The programme was carried out over 12 days and provided participants with a first-hand exposure to Alibaba’s e-commerce growth and digital innovations. It was also aimed at educating tech founders to contribute back to the community through solutions.

Showing her ability : Soh has to prove herself to be part of the technical team.
Showing her ability : Soh has to prove herself to be part of the technical team.  

“I believe building up an open-minded community can definitely make a huge impact for female entrepreneurs. For instance, the eFounders Fellowship Initiative highly welcomed participation from women entrepreneurs.

“During my participation in the programme, we managed to learn the culture, strategies, management and organisation of large corporations like Alibaba. These opportunities are valuable and give us great insights of how data and technology can be utilised to come out with a scalable and substantial business,” says Yi Ying.

Getting the right exposure certainly helps with equipping female tech entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge to drive growth in their ventures.

“They were literally trying to show us how China developed. What better way to learn it from the nation that is currently the most advanced in the world. We literally stepped into the future and that opened up our eyes. We are only at baby steps in technology here. So we get to learn the technology and the potential of what we are building.

“The other opportunity we got was the exposure to senior management at Alibaba. And they are teaching you about values and how to run our business at the high level.

“We also learned that we need each other to grow. It’s about building an ecosystem. There is no one player that can do it all alone. If you are building e-commerce, you need logistics to be really good, and you need payment and data to be really good. Only then, can all of us thrive. So we need to look into how we bring up a healthy ecosystem here. Every stakeholder needs to improve. So don’t think of yourself as the only player. You need to do this with other players and industries,” says Chia.

Still going strong

Despite the challenges, there is still plenty of room for female entrepreneurs to thrive. Given that the industry is relatively new, there is potential to be tapped in most spaces.

Dropee is looking at different markets to expand into and is focused on strengthening its position across the supply chain.

“At the end of the day, my company is great at the ordering part and being able to streamline that ordering processes. But there are other elements that need to be in place like payments, financing and logistics. Those are the areas we will be working on this year,” says Lennise.

Early this year, Dropee closed its seed round of RM1.4mil led by Vynn Capital.

Avana, on the other hand, is looking at fundraising its Series A.

“We are currently in Indonesia, and we are looking to scale across the region.

“When we fundraise, we have a lot of offers to move our headquarters to Singapore. That is quite a prominent thing when you go regional. But we want to stay a Malaysian company. Whatever we have learned from here, we have developed a playbook that we can easily use to expand in other countries,” says Soh.

Chia says GoGet’s current priority is to expand services within its platform.

“We have seen expansion in the number of SMEs and corporates that are using GoGetters as their workforce. We focused on a few verticals in the early part which was to get despatch services right. But now we are looking at other services such as promoters on the ground, event crew, distributors, and packers.

“So we are building out all these work streams so that we can build better value for our users.

“So far, we’ve raised US$500,000 in 2015. Right now, we are open to discussions but we are breakeven operationally. We are a healthy business,” says Chia.

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