Though women make outsized contributions in Southeast Asia’s tech scene, they’re still a distinct minority in the region’s tech companies.
Various initiatives around the world are attempting to change the fact that tech companies are dominated by men, including She Loves Tech, which was founded in 2015 to develop a network for entrepreneurs, companies, and investors to promote technology for and made by women. She Loves Tech hosts the world’s largest tech startup competition that focuses on businesses led by women.
KrASIA spoke with Leanne Robers, one of the co-founders of She Loves Tech, to find out more about the initiative, as well as how women-led businesses are leaving their mark.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Before you became an entrepreneur, you worked for Siemens Automation in the United Kingdom. What were some of your takeaways from this experience?
I was only 25 years old when I was promoted to become a manager for Siemens UK. The team that I was assigned to manage, was a group of white, male engineers with over 10-20 years more experience than me. My first takeaway to succeed, you need to have the right people supporting you. I didn’t feel like I deserved the position and was constantly questioning myself, “Who was I to lead them? Will they know that I’m not capable? What if i’m not good enough?” Thankfully, I had a fantastic manager and mentor, and he guided and helped me isolate areas of inadequacy and worked alongside me to build up my technical knowledge before I spoke with the senior engineers. This gave me a sense of empowerment and confidence to lead the team.
My second takeaway is that whatever experience you have is the right experience for your role. My manager helped me realize that being so different from a team full of white male engineers with decades of experience was my advantage, as I was uniquely able to contribute some much-needed fresh perspective.
My third takeaway is that confidence is often a product of experience and practice. That means you should push yourself to take chances, try new things and get as much experience as possible, but it also means that you’re always going to be selling yourself short if you compare yourself to people who have more experience. The more productive approach is to highlight your unique strengths while acknowledging your gaps and seeking to learn from others.
You have started companies in diverse sectors, including fintech, hotel management, and even contemporary art. Could you share some of the challenges that you have faced?
Starting a business is a long, tough, and lonely journey. Every entrepreneur will have his or her own set of challenges that they face. My greatest challenges were financial difficulties, having co-founders leave, my own decision to give up a business because of personal and medical reasons, and burn-out resulting in a lack of motivation.
One common thread in almost every article about great entrepreneurs is the resiliency of strong founders. When we read this, most of us take it lightly, dismiss it, or overestimate our own tenacity and resilience. But when this hits, many aren’t prepared and decide to give up.
What moved you to start She Loves Tech, and how has that journey evolved?
In 2015, my co-founder, Virginia Tan, started She Loves Tech as she had also co-founded Lean In China. As Lean In grew, she realized that there were many women building tech companies that needed a platform that would showcase them and their products, as well as connect them with mentors and the global network. Concurrently, we noticed that a lot of startup tech competitions were lacking in women participants; so many investors and organizers of startup competitions told us that it’s a pipeline issue, that there are not enough women in technology. However, we’ve found this to be untrue—there are way more women startup founders than are represented in startup competitions, and we wanted to create a competition that focused on these women. That’s how She Loves Tech started and now we’ve grown into over 20 markets globally!
What have been some of the most rewarding episodes for you as a co-founder of She Loves Tech?
Watching businesses that have gone through She Loves Tech grow and do so well makes She Loves Tech the most fulfilling project I’ve helped to build! For example, last year, our Pakistan finalist Aurat Raaj won the 2018 BAFTA award in the “AI: empowering the future” category for their chatbot. Our 2017 winner, VoiceItt has received numerous awards and funding, most notably the USD 1.5 million grand prize at VentureClash. They also received the “AI for Good” prize, USD 500,000 investment and USD 500,000 in Azure credits from M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures), and was selected to be part of the 2018 Global Good Fund Fellowship Program.
Now that She Loves Tech is present in 20 markets globally, what is its next step?
There are so many exciting products and services that we are building with great partners. We can’t reveal them yet as they have not been finalized, but please follow my Instagram (@leannerobers) and She Loves Tech on both Facebook and Instagram to be among the first to hear about them when we launch.
What is one thing that you’d like to pass on to young women who are working toward starting a tech business?
Entrepreneurship is hard, but that’s also what makes it so fulfilling. It will push your boundaries and teach you about yourself – you’ll realize you have much more resilience and strength than you could have ever imagined.
That said, the promise of self-actualization and awareness doesn’t pay the bills and is of little comfort on those long, difficult days that are part of every entrepreneurial journey. To help guide you through the tough days and celebrate the good days, I recommend speaking widely to people who have gone through a similar journey, attend talks and sessions like FUN (Fuckup Nights). It will help you realize that other people have been where you are and have overcome similar challenges.
There is a lot of joy in being an entrepreneur, but you can only appreciate those days when you go through this journey with open eyes about the challenges you’ll face. If you can maintain that perspective, the knowledge that you’re not alone in this journey, the right attitude, and a bit of grit will take you far.
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.