Two women, one business, and a whole lot of gender stereotypes – but Singaporean entrepreneurs Melissa Lou and Jacqueline Ye are unfazed.
As women in leadership roles, the entrepreneurs have dealt with all sorts of discriminatory remarks – from not having a handle on emotions, to predictions they will eventually stop working once they start their own families.
Starting a business from scratch
Delegate is a free-to-use online platform aimed at providing users fuss-free event planning by allowing them to browse through, compare and book over a thousand event vendors which the team has collated on their site.
The idea was sparked by frustrating event planning experiences the duo faced while working for British concierge company Quintessentially Group – where Lou handled client relations and Ye did sales and marketing.
“I think us having been on the other side of the fence has given us insights into planning and imagining users pain points and journey,” Lou, 31, told Business Insider.
“When planning for events, there’s always a lack of transparency and efficiency which translates to hidden costs and fees. We felt that the events industry needed something disruptive,” she added.
Launching the brand in 2015, they’ve faced numerous challenges – from two years of being bootstrapped, to independently managing every single aspect of the business.
“When we first started up, we really did everything from the ground up,” Lou said.
At the start of the launch, with around S$50,000 of capital, they managed to secure 100 vendors, thanks to the connections they had formed in their previous jobs.
The business eventually took off and they expanded into Hong Kong in 2017. Now, it has a combined total of 1,700 vendors and 70,000 users on both platforms.
Speaking a man’s language
Like every start-up, a key driver for growth is acquiring investors. But it’s not easy to do so – especially if its founders are female, according to Lou and Ye.
As young women venturing out on their own, they had to put in extra effort to convince investors to gain their trust.
“We’ve been asked questions like what happens to your business when you get married, if you have babies,” Lou said. “In the world I’ve grown up in, given my age, I was surprised to still hear these things,” she added.
How they deal with these questions is to remain objective and reassuring – and a little bit of sarcasm and humour sometimes helps too.
Lou told Business Insider that she sometimes react by saying: “Oh, I have a guy on my team. I should definitely ask him what will happen (to his career) when he has kids.”
Explaining that they had to learn to speak the “same language” as investors in a “very male-dominated” corporate world, Lou said: “I once said that I would sign a contract that disallows me to have babies for X number of years as a joke.”
Ye added: “I’ve said something along the lines of ‘Oh, I have to find a very good husband who doesn’t mind staying at home’.”
“When you tell people these things, it makes them think: ‘Hey, I did sound kind of ridiculous’,” Lou said.
And kudos to the women for standing their ground. Just last month, Delegate announced completion of a US$1 million (S$1,349,279) pre-series A funding round led by a Singapore-based family office Zopim.
Building good company culture
It’s not just external growth that the company is seeing. The team now includes 10 employees. And although only one person on the team is male, Lou and Ye clarifies that they are not gender-biased in any way.
“We gave all males a chance too, we would love to have more diversity,” Ye, 32, said. The reason the company has an overwhelming female majority is because these employees were the most suitable candidates who applied for the roles at the time, she said.
And although there is a stereotypical view of women being too in touch with their emotions, Lou and Ye say having women work for Delegate has helped them build a good company culture.
“Our company culture is a lot about building good, genuine relationships, taking care of each other, and having empathy. I think these are core values which some male founders might not see as important,” Lou said.
No cat-fights here
Those who don’t know better will assume that fights and gossiping are bound to happen when two women work together. But there’s none of that between Lou and Ye.
The key to having zero fights is to be communicative and introspective, they said.
“I don’t want to use marriage as an example but this makes the most sense,” Lou joked. “You’ve got to find someone willing to work at it with you,” she said.
As business partners, the decision-makers make sure to “always communicate, to put personal feelings aside, and to always have the business as the main objective in mind”.
And while there are power struggles in some companies, Lou and Ye say there’s no competition between them. And that’s mainly because they each have different roles to play in the company with their unique skill sets, they said.
Lou is “operational” and “detail-oriented”, Ye said, while she is “more of the creative, marketing and sales kind of person”.
“There are some things I feel naturally that she would do a better job than me, and I feel that she would make a better decision in that. I trust her in making that decision and try not to overstep,” Lou said.
“I guess we also have the rule where we never go to bed angry… We’ll never end it on a bad (note) even though we have different (views). We respect each other’s opinions and don’t invalidate them,” she added.
The entrepreneurs have drawn very clear divisions between work and personal life, and they make sure their emotions don’t get in the way when doing business together.
“The stereotype is that women don’t have a handle on their emotions. That doesn’t seem to apply… We’ve always kept in mind that both of us will always serve the business first and we keep that as an objective,” Ye said.
Dragon ladies? No, just keeping it real
Successful female entrepreneurs and leaders are sometimes tagged as dragon ladies – a term used to dub strong, domineering women. But Lou doesn’t agree that is true.
She said: “I think women in the boardroom are forced to overcompensate because people think they are less reliable and more emotional.
“So basically, them showing strength and empowerment in these serious settings is just a way to gain respect from their peers – as opposed to them innately being dragon ladies.”
But Lou and Ye are not interested in such terms. Instead, they believe that women don’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not to earn respect.
“Women shouldn’t have to be a certain way to be respected in the market and in the corporate world. They don’t have to mould themselves to be something they’re not. We’re firm believers in being authentic and being yourself,” Lou said.
With exciting days ahead for the business, Lou and Ye’s relentless journey is inspiring to all women start-up founders who seek to carve a name for themselves.
And hopefully one day, “what happens to your business after you get married?” will not be a question that’s directed at women anymore.
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