Gina Romero of Connected Women on returning career freedom to Filipinas: Women in Tech

This startup works with Facebook and the Philippine Government’s Department of ICT.

Photo provided by Gina Romero

Many women, at some point in their lives, get thrown the age-old question: career or family? There is a belief that you can’t have it all, but this may not true.

One Filipino-based startup, Connected Women was founded with the belief that technology can help women who had given up their careers to spend more time with their families by providing them with remote work opportunities.

Started in 2013, Connected Women is not an average job-matching platform that helps companies meet their immediate hiring or outsourcing needs. It is a social impact startup that focuses on bringing professional Filipinas back into the workforce by matching them with long-term opportunities.

The startup was one of the 12 finalists at the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) Asia Regional Celebration. Most recently, it was crowned the champion at the World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) Forum held at Place des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

KrASIA spoke with Gina Romero, CEO and co-founder of Connected Women to understand how her startup helps women take control of their careers and improve the economic participation of women in the Philippines.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you briefly take us through your background? 

Gina Romero (GR): I have a very unusual background! I grew up in the UK, then my family moved back to the Philippines when I was 14. My parents set up a business in my mum’s home town, so my first job was working on our family-owned pig farm.

I moved back to the UK when I was 19 and worked in a currency exchange, I then joined British Airways as a long haul cabin crew. I’ve run an IT company with my husband and became the Operations Director for The Athena Network United Kingdom.

We moved to Singapore with my family in 2010 and after my youngest son was born, I founded The Athena Network Singapore and Asia Pacific in 2011 and Connected Women in 2013.

Kr: You seem to be doing a lot of work around women empowerment. Would you say you are driven by feminism ideology? 

GR: I think feminism is complicated and misunderstood for the most part. In its simplest form, feminism is about equal rights and human rights, so yes, I’m definitely a feminist!

But the work I do with women didn’t really stem from that ideology. Most of the female-centered initiatives I’ve been involved in started as very practical on-the-ground solutions to issues happening in the communities where I live and work.

Kr: What then inspired you to start working with women and for women? 

GR: I started working closely with women around the time when I joined a women’s business community in 2005 in the UK when I was running an IT company with my husband. I began to understand the specific challenges women faced in their businesses and careers.

When I moved to Singapore, I made it a point to be active in the local community, not just the expat community because I really love being immersed in local cultures and I also like to understand problems that vary in different countries and those that are common universally.

Through my interactions, I found out that a lot of the women who were part of my community in Singapore (both expats and locals) had similar challenges to the women I’d worked with in the UK and I started seeing a lot of interesting trends as well as some potential solutions for these common problems.

A Singaporean non-governmental organization, Aidah actually inspired some of the work I’m doing here in the Philippines now–to create a platform for women to find work opportunities while staying close to home.

Aidha, which is Sanskrit for ‘that to which we aspire’, helps Foreign Domestic Workers and lower-income Singaporean women learn financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

Kr: What is the background story of Connected Women? 

GR: Connected Women started in Singapore in 2013 after I co-organized the first women’s edition of Startup Weekend in Asia. A friend had reached out from the UK to ask if I would be interested in running the women’s edition of the event with her in Singapore because women’s participation in Startup Weekend was universally low.

This piqued my curiosity as to why this was so, and it turned out that the low adoption of technology was one of the reasons. We ran a two-year focus group to understand why women from the community were not scaling up their businesses, and to understand how we could support them.

We created the Connected Women magazine in 2014 as a way for the community to share their expertise and experiences. From there, Connected Women slowly evolved into what it is today.

Although it was started in Singapore, Connected Women is now considered a Filipino startup as it targets Filipino women only and I’ve been based in the Philippines since 2016.

Kr: Can you share some of the findings from the focus group discussions? 

GR: We found out through the focus group sessions that the rapid pace of change in technology, lack of training and support for learning how to use new technology, and low confidence in their ability to implement and manage technology in their business were some reasons why women were not scaling up their businesses.

Another insight we got was that many women felt held back in their careers when they perceived their business or job to be ‘location-dependent’.

A lot of women were worried that they would build something successful only to have to give it up if and when the time came for them to focus on family commitments (for example when husbands moved work locations or children left the country to go to university).

So around 2016, a whole new idea around matching women to location-independent businesses and remote teams was formed, which led my husband and I back to the Philippines. It was also when Connected Women became what it is more commonly known as today.

Kr: How does Connected Women differ from a normal job-matching platform? 

GR: Unlike traditional freelancing platforms that lack stability and often treat remote workers like outsourced contractors, Connected Women aims to establish a long-term, meaningful match.

Our main focus is matching highly skilled professional women who have dropped out of the workforce because they did not have access to quality career opportunities close to home.

Through our platform, we aim to maximize the career potential of these women while helping businesses get access to a highly skilled and affordable talent pool.

Kr: How does your platform work? 

GR: Our platform takes into account factors like skills, preferences, aspirations, flexibility and training requirements instead of just the traditional educational attainment, skills, and work experience. We also look at personality and cultural fit.

We use intelligent match scoring which is partly automated and partly powered by human recruiters, so you have the peace of mind that our experts are still in the loop. Currently, we are looking into how we can incorporate artificial intelligence with human intelligence in a way that we do not lose the personal touch as we scale up.

As for repetitive tasks like scheduling interviews, we do employ AI tools to increase efficiency.

Our goal is to provide as few shortlists as possible to achieve a successful match the first time so we are studying what factors make a successful match so we can increase automation in matching. Right now, we can successfully match with just one or two shortlists 98% of the time. We need to test this at scale, so we are fundraising for the next phase.

Kr: What kind of jobs are popular and in-demand on your platform? 

GR: Our most in-demand skills are business management, operations, and project management—these are normally coupled with high level Executive Assistant roles.

We also see quite a lot of demand for marketing, business development, and content management.

These are the roles we focus on because most of our applicants come with experience in these types of backgrounds.

If clients are looking for multiple freelance type roles, we would normally recommend they hire a business or operations EA from us, and assign that person to get the projects underway.

Kr: What stage is Connected Women in right now? 

GR: We’re currently angel-funded and beta testing with 2000 plus talented applicants searchable in our database.

Our current focus is on perfecting the matching algorithm.

In the coming future, we plan to have other revenue streams such as payment processing and other add-ons including tools to help clients manage their remote teams more effectively.

Kr: What is the biggest challenge for Connected Women? 

GR: The biggest challenge for us right now is building the technology to scale while focusing on maintaining our high match success rate.

We’re also juggling a fast-growing community with almost 45,000 members with other startup activities such as fundraising and user acquisition. Fortunately, we have an experienced team with a passion for impact and we are committed to making Connected Women a success.

Kr: Last question, what else is Connected Women doing besides matching skilled Filipino women to entrepreneurs? 

GR: We have a training program called Elevate that helps qualified ex-corporate women move into roles as high level Executive Virtual Assistants. The training covers the best practices and tools for being an effective remote worker.

At the same time, we also don’t want to turn any women away so we have active partnerships with Facebook and the Philippine Government’s Department of ICT under an initiative called Women’s Empowerment ICT.

Through WE-ICT, we aim to nudge policymakers in the education and ICT sectors to push for better access to technology skills development for women. So far, with our partners, we’ve trained over 1,400 women in digital marketing skills at physical workshops all over the Philippines.

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast Asia’s tech startups.