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Grace Chng
Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014

Business

Looking for Singapore's technopreneur poster girl

The Straits Times | Grace Chng | Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014

The poster boy of Singapore high-tech entrepreneurship has long been Mr Sim Wong Hoo, co-founder of Creative Technology. He put Singapore on the world map with the SoundBlaster sound card and became a billionaire when his company listed on the American stock exchange, Nasdaq.

But who is the poster girl?

No name comes to mind right away.

After seeking suggestions from the start-up community, The Sunday Times identified 21 women who are considered trailblazers - 16 entrepreneurs and five venture capitalists.

They include Ms Lim Qing Ru, co-founder of seven-year-old live chat website Zopim. The 30-year- old is now a multi-millionaire after her start-up was acquired by US-based customer support start-up Zendesk.

Ms Roshni Mahtani, 31, founder of five-year-old online publishing house Tickled Media, reaches more than a million mothers through her three parenting sites. She is also the founder of the Female Founder Network which counts more than 300 women as members.

Then there is Ms Alexis Horowitz-Burdick, 31, an American who came to Singapore to work for a start-up but ended up launching her own online cosmetics firm, Luxola. Last year, she raised US$10 million (S$12.4 million) - a hefty sum in local start-up circles - for Asian expansion from a Japanese corporate investment firm called Transcosmos.

The woman who helped Mr Sim list Creative on Nasdaq, Ms Koh Soo Boon, is a pioneer in the Singapore venture capital industry and is now founder and managing partner of iGlobe Partners, a venture capital company with offices here as well as in Auckland, Shanghai and San Francisco. Most of the others are Singaporeans, with some from the United States and Indonesia.

The tech businesses they run involve everything from matchmaking and chappati-making to producing tiny lenses for smartphones. 

No organisation tracks the number of women entrepreneurs. Not even Spring Singapore or other agencies that fund or support tech start-ups, like the National Research Foundation, Infocomm Development Authority and Media Development Authority, keep count.

The anecdotal evidence is that at start-up industry networking events, conferences and pitching sessions, male geeks outnumber women 10 to one.

None of the women interviewed by The Sunday Times mentioned a thing about the tech start-up community being sexist or discriminatory. In fact, all agreed that there is no glass ceiling for women entrepreneurs.

Assistant chief executive Chew Mok Lee of Spring Singapore says: "We promote entrepreneurship for men and women. We're gender-neutral." The small number of women entrepreneurs is not unique to Singapore. That is also the case in the Silicon Valley, the global centre of the tech start-up industry. The most highly ranked woman in a founding team is Ms Marissa Mayer who was employee number 20 at search giant Google before she decamped for Web portal Yahoo as its chief executive officer.

Companies are beginning to realise the importance of having women as entrepreneurs or as part of the founding teams. In the last few months, Google and Facebook both put out diversity reports and said they will aim to do better than having roughly only three women for every 10 employees.

In 2012, computer company Dell initiated a global Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network to roll out programmes worldwide to help more women become entrepreneurs.

Dell vice-president Angela Fox tells The Sunday Times that women are growing businesses faster than the general population and women's buying power and earning power are rising. So there is economic reason to get women entrepreneurs to understand the behaviour and buying patterns.

While there is increasing awareness and interest surrounding the role and contribution of women in business and in driving world economies, there is little information available on how to drive change and harness this potential, adds Ms Fox, who looks after Dell's infrastructure and cloud computing services in the Asia-Pacific.

Socially and culturally in Asia, women keen to pursue tech start-up dreams have had to battle traditional deep-seated views of their roles as wives, mothers and homemakers.

Ms Pranoti Nagarkar Israni, founder of Zimplistic, took a leaf from Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer's book. Ms Mayer built a creche for her son in her office, and Ms Israni did the same when she had a baby.

JobsCentral co-founder Huang Shao Ning, 39, who recently had her fourth child, makes sure to balance demands at work and at home.

"It is tough having to go to the office when my children need me, but careful time management can solve this problem," she says.

Parents still condition girls and boys to aim for different things in life, she adds, recounting an online conversation she had with a man.

He wanted his daughter to get good grades so that she would get into a good school, and go on to meet a nice man who would have a nice job and look after her.

Ms Huang scoffs: "But if she gets into a good school, she should be able to get a good job and provide for herself. Why go this roundabout way via a man?"

She thinks girls should be taught to "be independent, to take risks and definitely dare to live their dreams and not fear failure".

Ms Mahtani of Tickled Media agrees, adding that in Asia, most women are not pushed to excel in business and instead, girls from a young age are pushed to be good homemakers.

She recalls how she invited a close relative to her office in Telok Ayer last year.

"After the visit, he asked if I was the employer of everyone working in the three-storey shophouse. When I said yes, he said, 'Oh, you're really running a business.' Up to that point, for four years, he thought that my business was not real - it was more akin to playing. When he saw for himself, he believed," she says.

But there may be other more deep-seated reasons for the small number of women tech entrepreneurs.

Men outnumber women enrolling in computer science, engineering and related courses at the university level.

Few women are found in the information and communication technology (ICT) industry. Between 2011 and last year, women made up only 27 per cent of the more than 145,000 ICT professionals. Women researchers, scientists and technicians make up only about a third of the 45,000 people in R&D in both the public and private sectors.

According to Professor Wong Poh Kam, director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre which promotes entrepreneurship at the university, few women graduates consider entrepreneurship as a career.

Prof Wong, who has been helping and mentoring National University of Singapore students and graduates to launch their own start-ups for the last 10 years, conducted the Singapore segment of an international survey on tertiary students' attitudes to entrepreneurship. Of the 6,455 Singapore students surveyed last year, far fewer girls aspired to be entrepreneurs than boys, says Prof Wong, who is also an angel investor. The findings remained broadly the same as in the previous survey in 2011.

In Singapore, the issue of women entrepreneurship is important for a few reasons.

Spring executive director Edwin Chow says: "In population-scarce Singapore, both men and women entrepreneurs are needed to grow the economy." Dr Alex Lin, who heads the investment arm of the Infocomm Development Authority, says women make up half of all consumers so understanding their buying behaviours and patterns would be useful to any start-up.

"In order to develop Singapore's position as a tech start-up hub, we need to nurture and encourage more women to take up innovation in the new generation of start-ups," says Dr Lin, who founded and listed his tech company in the US before becoming a mentor to start-ups here. A diversity of views will help entrepreneurs better empathise with the needs of both male and female customers. Tech entrepreneurship, he says, is unique because it identifies worthy problems to solve, some of which have never been thought of before.

"Only by having vastly different perspectives can we help entrepreneurs find more worthy problems to solve, leading to potentially more successful enterprises," he adds.

The 21 women interviewed by The Sunday Times are all groundbreakers in their own ways.

Will one of them become as well known as Sim Wong Hoo one day?

Maybe. Or they may well inspire other women entrepreneurs and produce Singapore's tech poster girl.

chngkeg@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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