It’s 2017 and women are stronger than ever in the workforce, but there are still big alarming gaps in almost every industry including tech, which is supposed to be at the forefront of change.
Krystal Choo, the Singaporean founder of chat app Wander, knows the struggles of female entrpreneurs all too well. She’s been there and done that, and it’s about time for change, she says.
Speaking to Business Insider from Wander’s office in Paya Lebar, the 29-year-old says it is simply “insane” how few women-led businesses there are in the tech world.
It’s especially difficult to be part of the game if the products being pitched by female-led startups are targetted at the female experience. And if women make up more than half the population in Singapore, isn’t it ridiculous to have great female-focused projects shut down and buried?
“The reason is a lot of them can’t get it off the ground, or (find it difficult) to pitch to an unfriendly room of aggressive males who will not see the point of the product even though every woman can understand it,” Choo tells us.
It doesn’t help that there aren’t enough women on the boards of venture capital (VC) firms.
“Because if a woman pitches a business, and if a man doesn’t experience what she is pitching, then her business does not get invested in,” Choo says.
The lack of female representation in tech and tech-enabled startups is also worrying for another reason – sexual harassment has the tendency to go unpunished.
“I can tell you this is a very real thing,” Choo says.
“I have not seen a single VC, or angel, or anyone here stand up and do something about it or say something about it. And I find that so disappointing.
“We are one of the most progressive industries, but when it comes to these things we are still scared,” she says.
According to the Female Founders Network’s Singapore Ecosystem report in 2015, only five per cent of tech-enabled startups in Singapore were founded by women entrepreneurs, compared to 10 per cent in Silicon Valley.
Overall, companies with women CEOs received only three per cent of VC dollars even though firms led by women entrepreneurs reported higher annual sales than men.
And worryingly, out of the 107 portfolio companies which received investments from top seven VCs in 2015, a total of 54 had female founders and a mere 11 were led by female CEOs.
This, despite the fact that Singapore is seen as one of the best cities in the world for female entrepreneurship.
It can be difficult to get some people in the industry to take female entrepreneurs seriously, Choo says.
Some potential investors she has met were “not serious (about) listening to my business idea (and) giving appropriate advice or investment”.
“Because a lot of the ‘guardians’ of the money and the experience are men so far, there is a high percentage of meetings that are a waste of my time because it serves an agenda that is… not overt,” she says.
But she admits that the challenge of taking on a boys-only club can also be empowering.
She says: “If I’m in a room of 20 other people, I would stand out just on that basis and more memorable somehow.”
Being an entrepreneur herself, Choo is aware of how her gender also brings great advantages, especially when it comes to building a team.
“Men build pacts around them and women build families,” she says.
For her, coming to work every day is a wonderful feeling because it feels like she’s going to see her family again.
Using technology to build purpose
And she is no less enthusiastic about innovation than male leaders are. At the moment, she is most excited about the possibility of utilising machine learning to expand Wander.
“We are just at the cusp of where the technology now is accessible outside of large research institutions to actually build practical uses for it. So what really excites me is where we can be in a year beyond the growth of the social part of the app,” she says.
Her hope is that machine learning can help transform data into useful insights, especially as Wander expands into more Southeast Asian markets in the near future. The company already has plans to launch in Thailand and Indonesia over the next few months
In fact, she hopes to see an overall growth of what she calls “purpose-driven” companies in the tech industry.
“The thing that I would like to see more of in technology is purpose and value-driven companies; and for VCs to understand that capitalism and purpose can co-exist and they should look out for both (when deciding to invest).
“You can both be purposeful and profit-driven. They are not mutually exclusive,” she says.