Startup Woman in Singapore

Christina Teo, founder of Startup Asia Women (SAW). (Courtesy of Christina Teo)
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By Epoch Newsroom

People often think that men take precedence over women in the business world. However, some say the future of startup belongs to women. What is your opinion?

Undeniably, women still have a long way to go to surpass men in the startup scene, particularly in the tech arena. However, founder of Startup Asia Women (SAW), Christina Teo, thinks otherwise.

She feels that women have the resourcefulness that enables them to perform better most times by “thinking out of the box” in the areas of Marketing and Operations, which usually fall within the domain of women. Nonetheless, she admits women are still less tech-savvy.

“It is hard for both men and women, especially if you start solo,” says Teo, who was the first general manager of Yahoo! Singapore, and has taken corporate roles at international tech corporations such as Acer, IBM, DEC, 3COM, CSL, O2 and IDC.

At O2, she launched the first Windows smartphone in Asia Pacific, a feat she considers one of her most significant achievements.

Having spent most of her time overseas, she finally returned home last year.“When I returned to Singapore a year ago because of my ageing mother, I also needed a reason to stay in Singapore, having left the country for decades. (I had to) practically start anew,” she tells us.

She found her new direction after attending SLUSH, a leading entrepreneurship and tech event, where she was bowled over by the impressive vibrancy of the local startup ecosystem.

“Part of the event took us to the Ayer Rajah startup neighbourhood, which then reinforced that startups are real in Singapore. To know that the government puts vested interest in it, made me think that Singapore is not as small as I used to presume when I decided to leave the country for good,” she elaborates.

Henceforth, piqued by her interest in the startup world, Teo aspires to be a role model for corporate women, and wants to involve more women in startups and support their startup career endeavours.

On International Women’s Day, the valiant lady united over 80 enterprising women, most of them entrepreneurs, to play a part in #theSIScode, in which women could start conversations and become more supportive towards one another.

“We believe that because we are a women community with a clear focus on startups, women from all walks of life and all backgrounds will feel comfortable coming to our events to meet other like-minded women or write to us to ask questions,” she shared at the event.

As the founder of SAW, Teo has diligently curated various events for the community – including an event to share on managing a subscription marketplace, and another one about how angel investors can impact society alongside social enterprises – on the calendar.

And like many people, she used to think that the digital world was unsuited for a 53-year-old, especially in a sector dominated by men. However, her bumper 25-year corporate experience in tech, telcos and dotcom companies shows her ability to good advantage.

With this advantage, Teo, who believes in “putting things in motion” and “doing, walking the talk”, is set to launch her own startup – ‘The Hero’, which she describes as the ‘Airbnb of work’.

Epoch Times (ET): Hi Christina, I read that you are going to launch your own startup. Tell us more about it.

In a nutshell, it is the airbnb of work. It’s not a job.

It’s empowering individuals with specific skills and interests to promote themselves and offer their experiences, time and service.

The hero is the hiree rather than the hirer, which is what you see in all job portals.

As the founder of SAW, Teo has diligently curated various events for the community – including an event to share on managing a subscription marketplace, and another one about how angel investors can impact society alongside social enterprises – on the calendar. (Courtesy of Christina Teo)

ET: Having spent most of your corporate life abroad, what’s the startup scene like in Singapore and overseas?

This is a very broad question. I will point out a couple of aspects which is not all inclusive. The startup scene here is encouraging because there is a government push for it.

Government support is not the only factor, but it does stimulate younger people and people who do not want to pursue the corporate route, or people who just want to make this world a better place, to start a startup thinking there are funds and resources they can tap into.

It has also attracted more foreigners, making Singapore their base for starting or joining startups.

Having said that, the scale, level of sophistication and deployment of tech is still rather low relative to the States, for that matter, or maybe even China.

Market size, i.e. market demand, has often been one of the major challenges. Market demand can sometimes refer to appetite for new experiments as well.

You will find Americans generally more supportive of bigger causes and of new innovations. Just take a look at the Facebook pages of an American startup versus a Singapore startup – (there’s a) grave difference of fan base.

To add on, founder’s hustling is perhaps more aggressive in Silicon Valley, due to bigger causes and bigger projects. And there’s more diversity in tech talents (albeit they may come from all over the world).

Scaling beyond Singapore is also not easy for all kinds of startups here, particularly if there are logistics involved. A natural exploration is Indonesia due to market size and proximity, but this presents a steep learning curve to the startups.

The common term used in startups is “pivot” and you can see many have pivoted and are still pivoting. Therefore, even if a founder has a lot of grit and stamina, it does not mean pivoting is a sure path to success.

Then, there is the part about investors.

For startups to continue to flourish, all parts of the ecosystem must work.

Investors too must find a compelling reason to invest in startups here, but with the aforementioned points, you do not find fat cheques written as easily here. There aren’t that many success stories to start with.

ET: In your opinion, in what ways can we attract more women to the startup scene?

I recently attended a luncheon talking about women inclusion in the workforce and a foreign resident woman spoke defiantly that if someone would take care of childbearing and childrearing for her, then we can talk about real inclusion.

I think there is enough affluence in Singapore for local female fresh grads as well as professional women to consider that [the corporate route] is not the only path to building one’s career and personal development.

The steep learning you will get from being involved in a startup (from working, starting or mentoring, and investing in one) way exceeds that at corporate jobs where you are assigned to a specific sub-segment of a function.

However, [startups are] still not for everyone. You must have a natural propensity to be curious, to multi-task, to persevere against all odds.

There is a huge demand for tech jobs and this includes product design, UX etc., so if women get more interested in learning tech at a young age, we have a higher chance of getting them to sign up for startups.

At the other end of the scale, it would be to engage corporate women in gradual steps to first start by investing and mentoring a startup, then subsequently starting one themselves.

One of our major aims of the community is to expose. Women could be more in the know. Once they know more, they can make informed choices.

ET: What are some of the major challenges for startups?

Team ranks very high on criteria for investors, so finding people who are willing to join your journey for very little tangible promise is a tall order, especially if you are starting young or without a lot of prior working experience.

Many startups start with an idea. They master pitching and get a first round of funds only to realise they run short on marketing strategy, sales manpower and operations planning.

ET: What are the strengths and weaknesses of a woman entrepreneur?

It is not easy to summarise as the gender differences are narrowing. Marketing and Operations tend to still fall within the domain of women.

I would like to call it resourcefulness and most times we probably do better with “thinking out of the box” in these areas. We are still less tech-savvy (with a small percentage of exceptions).

ET: As a working mum, one has to juggle work and family. How do you achieve work-life balance?

Throughout my entire career, I work seven days a week, giving myself one long vacation of two to three weeks. Work and life for me have always been integrated.

One big difference is, I value people and friends more now, therefore I will always find time to meet people in person and to stay in touch virtually since there is no excuse not to, given we have so many tools and platforms.

I have always enjoyed every work I do. I have never stayed for any other reason than love for the work I do, therefore, the question on balance does not even come up in my own psyche.

ET: Through your years of corporate experiences, what have you learned about leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring others?

A balanced view and fair-mindedness are important in leadership.

Getting your followers or your team to come up with more options by themselves, rather than having them depend on you, (is also important).

Inspiring with long-term vision, yet constantly demonstrating by example “out of the box” thinking, is important if you want your followers to keep following you.

Being willing to listen is very important in entrepreneurship – listen to mentors, listen to peers, listen to your audience, your customers and your partners.

When you mentor others, recognise their strengths and help them to develop their strengths. Mentees can get pretty emotional, particularly female mentees, so get them to re-frame and have the patience to do that.

With age and experience, I have always found that if you want to get creative in finding a solution, you will.

ET: Tell us about your motto in life. Which woman entrepreneur do you look up to?

Putting things in motion – I believe in doing, walking the talk. If you believe in something, it’s not enough to talk about it; even though

To be honest, even back at [my corporate job], there aren’t many women executives in place or women I looked up to. For that matter, I was the only woman country manager of many big multinationals I worked with, or the only woman in an executive team. I don’t know any intimately to say affirmatively I look up to them.

But I do admire women who have made it big overseas, such as Jenny Lee (Managing Partner, GGV Capital) who is #40 on Forbes Midas List. I admire smart women who think clearly and can articulate well.

ET: How can we join Startup Asia Women (SAW)?

Currently we are targeting any woman, including female students who are interested in startups, to start and work in one. So, we do not want to raise any barriers to entry. Anyone can follow our

In April, we launched SAW #Hoods, which then takes it to a deeper level, where we will qualify and shortlist startups who need a stronger support team. They will form groups (i.e. hoods) of common interests or goals to divide and conquer the work to be done, as well as being a mental support for each other.

Each cycle (batch) will last for three months, so we can achieve measurable goals. And we will get them access to subject matter experts, coaches and mentors, as well as feedback sessions from experts. The experts would be a mix of males and females. The same applies to the hoods formation too.

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