It was my privilege to be on a panel at Echelon Asia Summit 2019 recently discussing the importance of inclusion and diversity in tech – and specifically getting more women into what is still a male-dominated industry.
I was joined by Adriana Collini, Acceleration Program Manager at Seedstar, Gail Wong, Co-founder at Ladies Investment Club, and Ling Lin, Head of Asia Product at TransferWise Asia. It was a lively discussion that touched on so many areas, but today I want to focus on my three lessons from building a fintech startup that is 80 per cent women.
I started SingSaver four years ago with the mission to empower users in Singapore to lead healthy financial lives and the vision of being the number one personal finance comparison platform for credit cards, personal loans, and insurance in Singapore. It is a well known fact that the tech and finance industry are both heavily male-dominated and I took it upon myself as a challenge to hire a diverse team to help us execute our mission!
Four years later, and with a team that is 80 percent women, here’s three lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Keeping a healthy work-life balance
I’ll be the first to confess: I can be a workaholic. In my decade in banking, by the end of which I was leading Digital Banking at Citibank for Central and Eastern Europe and later at Siam Commercial Bank, it was easy to lose all sense of work-life balance.
I started SingSaver in March 2015, and in August the same year, my wife and I welcome my daughter Radha into our family. As much as the first year of running a startup can be both grueling and time-sapping, it became ever more important to me to start making time for my new and young family.
However, that took time and it didn’t happen overnight. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was not feeling guilty or stressed when I wasn’t working or when I wasn’t in the office – being able to disconnect and be in the moment with my family.
Despite everything, something wonderful happened as I continued to hire women to work at SingSaver and as I collaborated with the top women leaders in the banking and insurance industry. I saw the way they juggled being mothers and wives, with all that entails, and how they found a way to make it work, a way to create balance.
They became my coaches and I was, and still am, inspired by the unmatchable patience, tolerance, and acceptance by all these women I am fortunate to be associated with. There is a lesson in each of their lives, the common theme being that of a woman who leads a remarkable life, and who continues to retain and radiate compassion and generosity, both at home and at work.
I began to learn from them. It was women who taught me the importance of taking time out for the family, whether for a holiday or just an afternoon spent with the kids. The joy that has injected back into my life and the improvements to my productivity when I am at work never ceases to amaze me.
My wife and kids visit me in the office frequently for lunch and I encourage my entire team to bring their loved ones to office. Even a 30-minute break with your loved ones at the office can do you a world of good.
Lesson 2: Empathy is really important to business
The second lesson I learned from building a fintech startup that is 80 per cent women is that empathy really matters. Empathy is that vital ability to understand and share the feelings of others, it tells the person you are dealing with that your approach to life and business is not all about me, me, me.
I’ve found empathy is a quality women have in spades, and it’s something I’ve been able to exercise more myself through spending time in an office environment that is empathy rich.
Theodore Roosevelt said: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve found that to be as true in business as any other walk of life. In building quality, long-lasting business relationships, it is vital to make the people you’re dealing with feel they are more to you than just a transaction or signature of a term sheet.
This can usually be accomplished easily enough; knowing the names of your colleagues’ kids, taking an extra moment before or after a meeting to make someone feel comfortable or make them laugh, or simply showing interest in the things that matter to them: their hobbies, family, travel plans.
I know I wouldn’t have got this far as a founder without developing empathy for my own family and my work family — my colleagues, business partners and customers — on a daily basis, and I know it wouldn’t have come as naturally to me if it wasn’t for spending so much time with women who really are masters of this vital skill.
We have formally implemented a flexi-work plan and schedule for our team, especially our proud working mothers.
Being empathetic is also key for our business: nearly 50% of visitors to the SingSaver site are female. Women’s attitudes toward personal finance are rapidly changing.
For example, many are now the sole decision makers when it comes to choosing a financial product. They are now much savvier;’ when it comes to personal and family finances. They are also increasingly learning why it is so important to compare products that suit their own lifestyle and life stage. Understanding how they think and developing products and solutions with them in mind is key to growing our business.
Lesson 3: The importance of being a great listener
One of the greatest authors of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway, said: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” He was absolutely right. This brings me to my last lesson, which is the importance of being a good listener.
A philosophy that I learned from my own mother is to listen like you are wrong but speak like you are right.
Listening is important in any situation where our goal is to help someone or deliver a service – which means it’s a vital skill in business. Over the past four years, I’ve found that, in addition to being as competent as their male colleagues in all the core areas required to excel in a fintech company, women tend to be especially great listeners.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: these are all soft skills, why am I not highlighting hard skills like digital marketing, software development or accounting and finance skills.
That’s because often these softer skills are harder to train for later on in life. Hard skills can always be taught, and the workforce is having to be retrained more regularly these days anyway to remain relevant. When hiring, it’s soft skills and people skills – things I’ve been talking about, like being able to strike a great work-life balance, empathy, and listening — which count for so much.
If you’re a man (or woman) in a leadership position at a tech or finance company — or any other male-dominated industry — I hope the next time you make a hire, do not box candidates into stereotypes. Hire the right people for the right roles, whether they are male or female.
Do not, for example, think women perform better in marketing or public relations roles — women can also excel at product and engineering — and vice versa for men. Take a chance and you will be surprised at what a great hire they turn out to be.
I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the great Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda:
“There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.There is no hope for that family or country where there is no estimation of women, where they live in sadness. For this reason, they have to be raised first.”
What have your experiences been working with women on your team or hiring more women into your company? I’d love to hear your comments.