With the glass ceiling finally cracking in typically male-dominated industries like tech, fintech and finance, several female entrepreneurs have made considerable names for themselves. We interviewed 3 Singaporean women who are currently leaders in the tech and fintech industries to learn about their achievements, their goals, and the advice they'd give to young women looking to break into these industries.
Meet the Leaders
- Ee Ling Lim is the founder of SmarterMe, which is an online-to-offline school that provides courses in 21st century skills including digital literacy, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. Inspired by her two daughters, Ee Ling started SmarterMe to both complement the current education system and to fill in the gaps.
- Elicia Lee is the founder of GameStart, the largest gaming convention in Asia. Growing up as a gamer and working for Electronic Arts in the past, Elicia recognised that something was missing in the gaming community in the region, which led her to create a gaming convention that everyone in the region could enjoy.
- Sin Ting So is the Chief Client Officer and a partner at Endowus, one of Singapore's best robo advisors. After working for large multinational banks, Sin Ting jumped to Endowus to help create a wealth management business that had the client's best interest at heart while also providing products at a low cost that makes wealth management accessible to more consumers.
On starting a business...
Ee Ling Lim: One of the most challenging parts for our business is understanding human behaviour. Success is not building a great product on a standalone basis, it’s about building products for people based on what they truly need, and connecting with these people. Regardless of all the focus groups and research you can do, it's still a mammoth task to get to the true core of what people want and need (data that shows what they do helps more than what they say!). Our customers are parents, which is possibly the most complex role that a human can have, and we are constantly trying to understand how best to support them.
The second is (nothing new) finding the right people to be part of your team. Understanding what each and every member is working towards and working for - understanding their personal purpose (the "Why") is something I try and get to, but it's an ongoing effort.
Elicia Lee: No longer getting a regular salary was painful, and I was trying to create something that most people in my industry were sure would be a failure. A lot of the industry was quite jaded and burnt from other bad events in the past, so a big challenge for me was meeting as many people as I could, and convincing them that this event and idea could work.
Finding good staff who are willing to tough it out in a startup was also a challenge, all the people whom I worked with when I started, were all passionate about games and the industry. I will forever be grateful to the ones who were willing to take the risk and support what I was trying to achieve at the time.
...and overcoming obstacles that are unique to women in tech
Ee Ling Lim: I came from investment banking, which also faces a diversity issue so this is a topic that's close to my heart. While I think that providing equal support and funding for female founders is an ongoing effort, I find it encouraging that increasingly, there are more and more events, networks and support targeted at female entrepreneurs and females in tech (i.e. Dell's Women Entrepreneurs Network, Google's Women Techmakers). If anything, I believe the main problem most working women face is still juggling between the family and career - we all have to find our own definition of balance and learn to be comfortable with the choices we make.
However, being in the education industry, I did find myself at the losing end for looking like a young woman. I often face instructors and parents commenting that I look like a fresh graduate - and it wasn't necessarily a compliment. It takes me extra effort to build trust and respect and to assure them that I do have a decade plus of real-world, professional working experience!
Elicia Lee: Gaming, especially 5-6 years ago, was a bit of a 'Boy's Club'. Majority of the audience was male, majority of the people in leadership positions were male. Being female and also looking younger than my age, there were times when older males in some companies were unwilling to work with me, or did not tend to take me seriously. I'm a practical person, so in these cases I'd send a male colleague to manage them instead. To be fair, these incidents were few and far between, and the majority of the industry that I've worked with have been great. Most people work on a professional level and focus on performance and achievements rather than gender, which is how it should be.
Sin Ting So: Tech is still a male-dominated industry—I've been to fintech networking events or business meetings where I'm one of the few women attending, and it can be unnerving. There are unfortunately still few female leaders in tech. It can be challenging to hire women in tech startups, and as a female leader I want to champion our efforts to consciously build a diverse team. I think it starts from the top in building a diverse and inclusive culture, and mentoring more junior women in the team. The variety of perspectives that come from having a diverse team will help us innovate and build better products.
But I believe we also have a lot of unique advantages to being a female leader. We lead with more empathy, which is crucial in building a consumer product that takes everyone into consideration. We need to be able to understand our client's fears, desires and anything that keeps them up at night. A focus on a culture of empathy in the team is also good for business - it improves productivity and talent retention.
Regarding the rewards of their jobs...
Ee Ling Lim: I often tell people that my purpose in life is to inspire the next generation and women to be more than they thought they could be. But in truth, I think my students inspire me more than I inspire them. I derive satisfaction from seeing students come through our Young Founders program, being challenged to identify problems they want to solve, to coming up with solutions and pitching it. The light that I see in their eyes when they realise they do have the power of solving problems, instead of commonly being told "No, that's a silly idea. Someone already did that"-- that's what drives me.
Elicia Lee: The most rewarding [aspect of the job] is when I see people enjoying themselves at our events, when people share how much they appreciate what we do, or even how we've impacted their lives or inspired them to do something. It makes all the hard work worthwhile. The work my team and I do involves long hours of work, often late into the night, and on weekends, so we give up a lot of our personal time with friends and family to achieve what we have.
Sin Ting So: The most rewarding aspect of my job is working in a team where everyone is talented and passionate about seeing our product come to life. We're all here because we want to build something of value, and it's an incredibly inspiring environment that really encourages innovation and creativity.
...and working through the challenges
Ee Ling Lim: Every so often we have students who will just state a problem matter-of-factly and say that nothing can be done because that's just the way the world is. Once, we used "School life" as a theme for students to kick-start the problem-solving and ideation process. We had students who weren't able to highlight any pain points relating to their school life, because they've never been exposed to thinking of problems as a variable that can be solved.
Elicia Lee: As gaming is now a 'hot topic', we've also seen many competitors come up, trying to grab a piece of the gaming/e-sports pie for themselves. As someone who is passionate about and loves the industry, it's very frustrating to see people who have no love for the community, but are just in it for commercial gain. Even worse when what they do, hurts the industry instead of helps it. It makes things harder for the ones who are trying to make progress. But we just do what we can, which is to do the best work we can be proud of, and support fellow companies and partners who have the same goal to grow and help the industry with us.
Sin Ting So: As a small company, we each wear many hats and I've had to learn new skills and take on tasks that I've felt completely unprepared for. The only constant is change, we've faced many roadblocks and it's been an extremely humbling journey. For example, we built our first platform and then made the painful decision of completely scrapping it a year later, because we knew that it would pay off in the long-term to build a more flexible platform that can support our growth ambitions.
Mentors and Their Advice
Ee Ling Lim: I do not have a mentor specifically in the education space, however I have been fortunate enough to receive advice from many entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, including the Co-Founder of Love, Bonito and the former Country Manager of Airbnb. There are so many gems, and as founders you are always learning and gleaning advices from all avenues, but the one that remains a daily mantra is "Always know your strengths - embrace who you are and who you are not" and "Find your Polaris - your North Star".
Elicia Lee: Besides my father, I have had three mentors who have helped me, not just from the gaming industry, but also from my previous job. They taught me the importance of building a strong team who trusts one another, how to empower other people and how crucial good communication is for the success of a project. I also learned to use my voice to speak out about my opinions, and enjoy healthy and constructive discussion. I used to be horribly shy and constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing. Now I encourage my staff to speak up and have confidence in their opinions.
Sin Ting So: I was very lucky to have a female mentor who helped me navigate the corporate ladder and advocated for my advancement at the bank. She was one of the few females in a senior leadership role, and I learnt from her never to feel limited in what I could achieve. I think it's really important for women to support and empower each other.
Advice to Future Leaders & Entrepreneurs
Ee Ling Lim: First, resilience and perseverance. We all grew up to the tune of adults telling us “Nothing comes easy in life”, but it’s tough when you actually live it. But in the journey of entrepreneurship, struggles, stress and rejection is expected. There’s really no other way to live through potential failure than to master the art of re-channelling every rejection and stress towards a positive outcome. Whether you learn to change your mindset, be more organized, read more books, or even through meditation, it’s essential for an entrepreneur to be able to get back on their feet and keep improving.
Second, open mindedness and the desire to listen and learn. It’s easy to think you’ve nailed it, you’ve gotten this far due to your superior intellect or knack for knowing things. But thinking that way is a sure path to failure. Listening enables us to learn from each other, from our predecessors, from the market. I know from personal experience that the hardest to listen to are those who tell you “I’ve been there and tried exactly what you’re trying to do. Doesn’t work”, but these are the people you should not just listen to, but ask them more questions and gain insights from their mistakes.
Third, know your strengths and build on it. Entrepreneurs often feel that they have to know it all and do it all. While there will be times when you do have to do it all, we all have something we’re the best at, and that’s where we should put our focus. So discover that strength early on, build on it, and actively hire help to do tasks that drain you. But also, keep in mind your cash balance - don't try and scale too fast!
Elicia Lee: Do your research and make sure you understand your audience as well as the long term feasibility of what you are planning to do. For instance, the gamer audience is extremely tech savvy and very passionate about the games they love, so it's very important to be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand what they like and dislike. Authenticity is key.
Sin Ting So: I think resilience and perseverance are key skills to becoming a successful entrepreneur. You'll face challenges at every point of your journey, but resilience is about rethinking the way you see setbacks and using them as opportunities to learn and push through to new heights.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and conciseness