Updated: Nov 11, 2021
By Jessica Bong, Everard Ong and Elise Tan 8 August, 2021 This Makan For Hope session that discusses empowerment of female founders in tech was hosted by Qing Ru Lim, a Singaporean female founder who co-founded Zopim (a live chat software that was acquired by Zendesk (NYSE:ZEN) in 2014). Setting the context In Southeast Asia, startup deals involving women-founders or co-founders accounted for a mere 17.1% of the total private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) activity tracked, according to the report Women in Startups: The SE Asia Edition by DealStreetAsia, published in March 2021. Share of funds raised by startups with female founders or co-founders stood at a mere 4.7% - in contrast, the US was higher at 11%, according to Crunchbase. On the other side of the table, only 2.4% of all VC partners globally are women. That is just mind-blowing, to say the least. Yet, in reality, female founders were found to actually deliver better returns. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that women-led startups, as opposed to male-founded startups, provided better financial returns to investors-- for every dollar of funding, women-led startups generated a return of 78 cents, while male-founded startups generated less than half that, at just 31 cents. On the other hand, having more women in funds has proved higher fund returns and more profitable exits. A Harvard Business Review study showed that VC firms which increased the number of female partners by 10% experienced a 1.5% increase in fund returns each year, plus 9.7% more profitable exits. Data from both sides of the table seem to suggest that women could outperform their male counterparts. Why now? So, why should we all care? In a 2017 study by Boston Consulting Group, Singapore is behind our peers, with only 29% of our undergraduates studying tech, compared to almost 50% in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. As Qing Ru shared, we are moving closer to a digital heavy, post-pandemic world and without deliberate intervention, women might be left behind, The COVID pandemic could push more women out of the workforce, in particular, working women. also could make it worse overall-- a September 2020 McKinsey report on women in the workplace found “as much as 30% of working mothers are considering leaving the workforce. This could throw equality for women back 10-20 years,” This paints a picture of both opportunity and urgency as the tech space becomes increasingly lucrative. Empowering female talent could also be part of the solution to continued economic growth for Singapore. To achieve that, Singapore has traditionally relied on foreign talent. This has been effective to some extent but empowering females to become tech entrepreneurs, which is 50% of the local population, could help create meaningful jobs and sustain economic growth.
From top left, in clockwise direction: Davis Ng (Helicap), Qing Ru Lim (Host), Everard Ong (MFH Team), Pin Duangdee (Goldman Sachs), Yiping Goh (Quest Ventures), Georgina Lee (RGS Alumnae), Yen-Lu Chow (Asia Institute of Mentoring), Edwina Yeo (SuperMomos), Grace Sai (Ravel Innovation), Aaliya Samuel (Student), Alice Ho Tan (Integrow), Doris Yee (SVCA), Shao Ning Huang (AngelCentral), Carmen Yuen (Vertex), Sarah Tan (MFH Team), Senior Minister Sim Ann, Elise Tan (MFH Team), Joshua Sng (MFH Team). At this Makan For Hope session led by Qing Ru Lim together with 10 high-profile startup founders, angel investors and venture capitalists, we dive a little deeper on the headwinds these women are facing and the possible steps we can take today to empower them in tech and pave the way for more women in the start-up scene and investment community in years to come. At Makan For Hope, we also believe in the power of banding together, hence we have taken the opportunity to also share initiatives that you can support, to help realise the vision of female founders as a new normal. Governments have been doing much, but more can be done to sustain the growing trend of females in tech: In Singapore, one of the initiatives led by the Ministry of Social and Family Development is the “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development” (go.gov.sg/sgwomen), which aim to shift societal mindsets for a more inclusive society for men and women. Women across different walks of life are invited to share their aspirations and ideas for women’s progress in Singapore. Since 2017, fathers of Singapore citizen children are statutorily entitled to 2 weeks of paternity leave, compared to just one week prior to that. Possible measures/ initiatives proposed at the MFH virtual roundtable:
Qing Ru Lim: To match funds for women-led startups by the Government, having a Perpetual fund for women-led startups (e.g. SheEO which offers 0% interest rate loan for 5 years, for companies with min 50K revenue), and tax incentive scheme for female-led VC funds, which is already implemented overseas.
Shao-Ning Huang: Seconded the tax incentive scheme because tax is only relevant for companies that are profitable, and this aligns with the interests of investors.
Carmen Yuen: To have team of “Organisational Development” specialists which help guide existing tech CEOs and founders through the journey of implementing female-friendly policies.
Yiping Goh: To support men in the ecosystem is also important too - for instance, the government could encourage husbands to support their wives in caregiving for their children.
Investors could pave the way to empower more female founders. A recent study conducted by TechCrunch has found that male-led startups ended up raising 5-times more even though the quality and capital needs were comparable as they were often met with promotion-oriented questions as opposed to prevention-oriented questions. Raising capital is no easy feat. However, women who venture into entrepreneurship are not poised to get a fair deal. Additional headwinds of blinds spots and cognitive bias which makes funding even harder than it already is. And shockingly, research from TechCrunch has shown that female investors typically exhibit the same gender bias demonstrated by their male counterparts. For most of them, they may not even be aware of it. Possible measures/ initiatives:
Shao-Ning Huang: To intentionally hire more female leaders at investment firms would be particularly helpful, given that they would empathise, understand and communicate more effectively with female founders.
Qing Ru Lim: Request for gender diversity as a mandatory ESG component in Annual Reports of the funds they invest in. The same goes for investors — it will be game-changing for them to ask their portfolio companies to include how they have embraced gender diversity in their investor reporting.
Elise Tan: To investment professionals to recognise their biases better, such as showing a video like this one by the National Library Board titled “Hidden Bias”. The invited speakers, Sher-Li Torrey, Eunice Olsen, Kristian Marc Paul and Assoc Prof Chng Huang Hoon who discussed the invisible discrimination that women face and what society can do to level the playing field.
To see sustained change, it also needs to start with changing one’s self mindset and behaviour. Possible measures/ initiatives:
Senior Minister of State Sim Ann: To create space for women in tech startups to revisit their own experiences and highlight the obstacles that they have faced or what held them back. Champion the Change they want to see.
Doris Yee, Executive Director of Singapore Venture Capital & Private Equity Association: to drive change, women may need to start with changing their mindsets. Leadership training for women leaders may be apt in changing the tendency to hold themselves back.
Edwina Yeo, co-founder and CEO of Supermomos: Testified to the reality of gender-related subconscious bias, but also the reality that women may voluntarily decide to take a back seat, due to other priorities. In that case, the question we had to ask was how we could ensure these women remained successful while managing these different priorities, such as through flexible work arrangements.
Yen-Lu Chow, Co-founder & Executive Chairman, WholeTree Foundation and Over-The-Rainbow: Shared that he has seen on many occasions, when women are given the opportunity to lead, they always demonstrate their best and make a difference to the lives of people they lead. He urges women to say yes to leadership opportunities-- show up, stand up, speak up and be counted.
Shao-Ning Huang: The need for female founders to be self-aware of the hero's mindset and victim's mindset that they tend to adopt. The hero’s mindset refers to the prosocial, altruistic actions that involve an element of personal risk or sacrifice, but women need to recognize that they cannot do everything by themselves and should enlist help from others; whereas the victim’s mindset refers to constantly blaming other people or situations for the events in their lives. Both mindsets are unproductive and obstacles to building good startups. Women need to also be open to enlist help from others, use them and unitedly create a vicious cycle of female empowerment. A single chopstick may be easy to break, but a bunch of them creates a robust and unbreakable infrastructure.
Banding Together is how we can realise the vision of having female founders as the new normal. Here’s how you can lead change— by supporting these ground up initiatives: Mentoring/Support for Female Founders:
Singapore Female Founders - Women’s only circle to reach out and support each other (73 members)
She1K: Corporate executive women offering mentorship startups (SG comprise only 10% of female directors, NY/HK/SG)
5th Edition: Female Founders Mentoring | Cocoon Capital (120 female founders, 46 mentors, 38 funds)
The SCCCI Career Women’s Group (CWG) (network of over 160 trade associations and some 5,000 corporate entities)
She Loves Data
Supporting/Inspiring more women to join Tech:
She1K: Corporate executive women meet early-stage startups and invest in them with minimum $10,000
SEAF Women’s Opportunity Fund: Impact/CSR (SEA)
AVPN (Naina Suberwal Batra): Impact/CSR (Asia Pacific)
SG 100 WIT 2021: Honour 100 role models who contributed significantly to SG’s tech landscape (included two new categories: young talents who are still in school + pwds)
VWS Pathfinder Women Founder Summit + Pitch Competition (Only global virtual competition for women founders, Oct 29-30 2021)
She Loves Tech 2021: The World's Largest Startup Competition for Women and Technology
WomenChangemakers (by She1K): 1 Day event hosted on International Women’s Day
Annual IWD event by SCCI
Fempreneur Secrets (Huda Hamid): Offer paid courses to help women build businesses online + Academy
Read more information on the above initiatives here.
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