With its forward-thinking work culture and supportive business community, Singapore is now a place where women entrepreneurs can thrive, say three founders.
Ms Ayesha Khanna remembers the exact moment she came up with the idea for her latest startup, because she was so overwhelmed with both excitement and nervousness. "I thought it was crazy—how will I pull it off? Where will I find these people? But I knew I was on to something and I had a vision for it," she recalls. "Many, many entrepreneurs feel like that—it's always a big leap."
But Ms Khanna's instincts—honed from over a decade’s work on Wall Street advising clients on technology and information analytics systems—were on point. She went on to co-found ADDO AI, a Singapore-based artificial intelligence (AI) advisory firm that launched in early 2017. It gained quick traction—within a year, Forbes named it as one of four companies in Asia using AI “to transform the world.”
Ms Khanna moderating the Trends in AI and Automation event last year
Today, ADDO AI has clients in at least eight countries worldwide, including the Philippines, Pakistan, Germany and the US. It’s involved in projects ranging from smart transportation to crime management, but all involve helping companies implement AI and machine learning techniques to analyse and maximise their data.
Ms Khanna, who relocated to Singapore in 2012, is now one of a group of entrepreneurial high-flyers leading the charge in the city-state’s burgeoning startup scene.
Singapore, it seems, is a particularly desirable place for female founders. In 2017, Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Cities Index ranked it the most attractive city in Asia, and eighth worldwide, for “high-potential women entrepreneurs”. The report evaluated the culture, technology, access to capital, markets and talent of 50 cities, and listed them according to their ability to attract and support talented female entrepreneurs. SGInnovate helps foster that environment.
There’s a zeitgeist, a momentum, where women are able to and are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.AYESHA KHANNA
Entrepreneurship beyond gender
"Singapore is one of those cultures that is more forward-thinking... I almost do not feel discriminated against [as a woman] here," agrees fellow entrepreneur Ms Grace Sai, CEO and co-founder of The Hub Singapore. Founded in 2012, The Hub is now Singapore’s largest co-working community, and focuses on fostering startups and early-stage tech ventures.
She contrasts this with the culture in Silicon Valley. “Over there, the discrimination and biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are much more prevalent. Singapore, I feel, is actually leading in support for conditions for female founders,” she says.
Ms Sai speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) last year
In fact, Ms Sai hates when people make a fuss about her gender.
All entrepreneurs are cut out of the same fabric. And that’s a fabric not defined by gender, but by a certain dose of idealism, a huge dose of risk-taking, and a lot more resilience and persistence.GRACE SAI
Although women often bear the brunt of gender discrimination, some investors do in fact see female founders as a huge asset. “When I first came up with my startup, I went to a couple of pitches,” says Ms Rosaline Chow Koo, founder and CEO of ConneXionsAsia (CXA), the first private insurance and workplace wellness marketplace in Asia, now worth more than US$100 million.
A Silicon Valley investor told me that when he listens to male entrepreneurs, he would typically divide his estimate of how successful they’ll be by ten. For females, he would multiply it by ten.ROSALINE KOO
Women typically underestimate their own worth, Ms Koo adds. "Men always seem to ask for promotions they’re not ready for, while women don't ask for anything until they know they can do the job," she says. "But it’s okay to go out of your comfort zone... because the only way you’re going to grow is if you stretch."
Ms Koo says that women typically underestimate their own worth
ADDO AI’s Ms Khanna says some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding female entrepreneurs come from women who unwittingly question themselves. She cites the notion that women should be more sensitive than men and, as a result of this belief, that they can’t be assertive or direct in their critiques. "When I first came to Singapore from Wall Street, a colleague commented that I was very direct... and it wasn’t very ladylike of me,” she recalls. "I was thrown off by that comment.” “But I would say who cares about what other people’s misconceptions are," Ms Khanna continues.
The most important thing is to believe in yourself… and to stand your ground in what you believe in. You know you have a vision and you must carry it through.AYESHA KHANNA
Seeking out pillars of support
Banishing self-doubt is good advice, but admittedly something that’s not always easy to put into practice. When she “gets thrown off,” Ms Khanna says she reaches out to her fellow female entrepreneurs.
“And they are very supportive—I cannot emphasise this enough. I have been at the receiving end and the giving end, and I have never experienced this myth of catty politics [among women],” she says.
That there’s a close-knit fellowship among female entrepreneurs in Singapore’s startup scene is a sentiment echoed by Ms Sai. This community of support is important, she says, because it can get very lonely at the top. She would know, having suffered two burnouts within the first two years of founding The Hub. “There are definitely things that keep you awake at night that you cannot share with your team members all the time,” she says.
This is especially the case for founders, because they are often pulled in two different directions, says Ms Sai: imagining the future, which requires creative vision, and actually building it, which requires patience and practicality. This balancing act of being “patiently impatient”, as she puts it, is often hard for others to understand.
Elevating entrepreneurs to the next level
Unique challenges such as this are precisely why Ms Sai and her team at The Hub launched Elevate, a mentorship programme for entrepreneurs. Now accepting its second round of applicants, Elevate aims to provide new founders with a support network comprising both mentors and peers. Groups meet monthly, allowing a time and space for entrepreneurs to seek advice and encouragement.
"You learn how to support one another and to be supported as well," says Ms Sai. "Because right now, the focus is on the entrepreneur – there’s a lot of talk about risk-taking, failures, and successes, and who invested in whom. But on a more individual level, where do you go to talk about your fears and your hopes? Elevate will hopefully make it less intimidating for people, especially women, to become entrepreneurs," she adds.
Another suggestion to attract more people into the field is to start planting the seeds of tech and entrepreneurship early. Ms Koo’s two children, now in their early twenties, both interned at her company before going on to read computer science at university. Ms Khanna’s daughter started to learn how to code last year, when she was just seven.
Ms Khanna suggests to start planting the seeds of tech and entrepreneurship early
"We need to start them early, especially in the polytechnics, Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) and colleges... before they think of becoming entrepreneurs, so that they know what choices they have," says Ms Khanna.
"That said, it’s never too late to pick up new skills or to switch fields and do something enterprising according to one’s interests," she adds. In particular, Ms Khanna praises SkillsFuture, Singapore’s national drive to promote lifelong learning.
"It’s a way to nudge people towards tech without sacrificing their passions, and I think that’s important," she says. "Ultimately, in Singapore, we need people to be passionate about what they love."
At SGInnovate, we are committed to support women in their roles to drive innovation in tech. We believe gender diversity is the key to an inclusive and diverse workplace.
SGInnovate partnered with Women In Tech Singapore and the U.S. Embassy in organising the first installment of Women in Tech Evening, which features outstanding female leaders in STEM. Click here to join us for future Women in Tech events.
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