Being a Female CEO of a Tech Startup in Southeast Asia (Part 1)

Women at tech conferences

My name is Andrea Loubier.

Hi. My name is Andrea Loubier and in the coming weeks I’ll be sharing my experiences of being a female CEO in a series of articles with hopes of engaging and encouraging more women to take a leap and start their own business in Southeast Asia.

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I never thought that one day I’d be the CEO of a global email company scratching my way up to world domination, poking at the bigger email companies, selling myself as a strong, smart, talented and resourceful entrepreneur who is hungry for nothing short of success. Even though it seems glamorous and cool from the outside, to some, it is painstakingly tough. Ask any entrepreneur and they would probably have the same answer.

However, what bothers me more than anything is the lack of female entrepreneurs in this largely male dominated tech world. On one side it keeps me highly motivated to know that I’m contributing to the increasing number of female CEO’s in the tech startup world. On the other side it also means I have a small group to look up to. Below is the distribution of women in S & P 500 companies (U.S. only) at different levels.

Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies. New York: Catalyst, April 3, 2015

Even though this distribution is only for the US region, the pattern is similar around the world.

Women at Tech Conferences

When I attended my first tech conference as a newbie entrepreneur, I found myself swimming in a sea of gentlemen. The gender ratio was something like 90/10, the women being on the lower end. I had no problem with this but found it interesting as men seemed to dominate the tech industry. If anything, I wished the gender gap was something that would go unnoticed, but it’s kind of in your face. Rather than feeling subsequent, it was quite the opposite. The few women I did see were typically scantily clad ladies dressed up to attract the majority of tech conference spectators. This made it feel like Asia was so far behind. Among many other things, cultural influence is probably the biggest factor on how women are positioned in society in many Asian countries.

Startup Asia Jakarta with Norman Sasono (Senior Technical Evangelist at Microsoft)
Startup Asia Jakarta with Norman Sasono (Senior Technical Evangelist at Microsoft)

Being one of the few women attending the conference, people tend to want to find out more about what business I was involved with, especially investors. Attendees of the conference were very interested in what I was doing and how I got into taking on such a big challenge against existing mega email companies with unlimited resources. Everyone wanted to know more about my story and were even more perplexed that I was running the business from Bali, Indonesia. I did have a few people chuckle, in a way that I was not taken seriously as an entrepreneur, to be working on a tech startup from a developing country in an exotic vacation hot spot which is not exactly known for its technological infrastructure. Since remote working culture is still at a nascent stage, people fail to understand it is tough but not impossible to achieve. Let’s explore that a bit.

Mailbird is not the only startup that embraces the remote working culture. More successful startups like Automattic (creators of WordPress), Zapier, Basecamp, Buffer, Invision and many others have completely remote teams that work from different parts of the world.

There are challenges with remote working mainly with team members located in different time zones and collaborating with everyone a decade ago seemed tough. In 2015, with plenty of collaboration apps, lower internet connection costs and portable devices it’s easy to communicate and maintain fast progress, no matter where you are. This is something that I believe can inspire many women aspiring to start their own business, where technology and globalization enable us to get things done, almost anywhere and in any situation. That is awesome, and I challenge women to ask themselves, “why wouldn’t I start my own business?”

In fact, in my own experience time difference has not been the biggest issue when running a business with a distributed team. It’s the sense of responsibility every employee has to get their part done which keeps the company on the right track. This also brings forward the importance of hiring the right people who are dedicated and responsible.

Today, you no longer are restricted to hiring people within your geographical boundaries, the world is your oyster and talent is everywhere. All you need is an open mind to work with remote team members, tight communication, an awesome working culture and trust with the right people to get the job done.

P.S – If you’re interested, check out The Ultimate Guide to Remote Working by the awesome folks at Zapier.

Coming back to the conference…

You’ll hear many of the tech event coordinators comment on how excited they are to see more women in attendance at their event this year. Here I’m thinking, “Really? Where are they? Is it just me?” It was more like people seemed impressed to see any women at this event. I felt like I had somewhat of an advantage being the minority in this situation, and also a duty to change this culture where technology and entrepreneurship are primarily for men only – at least in Southeast Asia. It was really cool to have investors approach me to talk about Mailbird after our pitch and demo. Several of the conference attendees greeted me saying that it was a great presentation. It was encouraging and points to the fact that people are welcoming towards more female entrepreneurs in Asia.

Startup Show by Channel News Asia

This noticeable trend was present even when I was a finalist for Startup TV show by Channel News Asia. Take a look at the finalists here and you’ll find there were only 2 women out of 8 finalists.

The deciding factor to choose finalists is primarily based on the projected growth and validity of the company, the business model and scalability and finally the team behind making it happen. This simply indicates that there simply aren’t enough companies run by women, brilliant women who are hard working, smart, passionate and that deserve to be recognized. I really hope for the next season we see more women represented in the show – that would be awesome.

Does this mean there is a lack of infrastructure, mentors, evangelists and motivators for potential female entrepreneurs? Definitely, but I hope by sharing my experiences through my entrepreneurial journey and with more awareness being brought forward about this issue, that we will see a cultural shift in the gender gap within entrepreneurship. It’s already starting.

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How to Make a Difference?

Internet Penetration

Internet penetration in Southeast Asia is only 32% as compared to 34% in the rest of Asia and 52% in rest of the world. This poses the challenge to enable access to internet to more people, as well as encouraging more women to start a businesses from the comfort of their home (data source) or anywhere in the world. However, the Philippines and Indonesia are also the most rapidly growing internet markets in the world which signs to the a growing number of female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.

Infographic - internet usage on 25th birthday of internet

 

Need For More Mentors

According to the results of a research done by Weber Shandwick, female executives with an interest in the CEO position are especially limited, as they are less likely than their male peers to want to be chief executive (respectively 23% women vs. 32% male). Yet when female executives work for a female CEO, they noticed the level of interest increases by 29% for aspiring to fill that role of CEO. Interesting, again comes down to the community and support and motivating factors that tell more women “yes you can!”.

“Our research indicates that when women work for female CEOs, they are more motivated to strive to be corporate leaders themselves,” said Gail Heimann, president of Weber Shandwick. “These results lead to the undeniable conclusion that if we really want gender equality at the top, we must promote more women into CEO positions and do it now.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in movement, Women in Technology, Girls who code and many other movements are already in place to foster mentorship and training programs but a stronger presence of such programs are required in Southeast Asia to groom future leaders and female entrepreneurs.

Being a part of the tech ecosystem, I’m always happy to help aspiring entrepreneurs with my knowledge and experience. I am always learning everyday and I don’t carry the weight of my business lightly. It is something I am 110% dedicated to. I love it, I love what I am doing and I love my amazing team. I’ve learned much more through my entrepreneurial journey about what it really takes to run a business, about myself and about the meaning of drive. You learn about how to manage stress. Some days are amazing some days are not, but in the end it is all worth it. It is really a beautiful thing to build something from nothing and to make an impact on the world as your leadership impacts the growth of your business.

I am always looking to connect and build a community of amazing women who also aspire to starting something and to be their own boss. So, I’d love to connect just add me on linkedin or email me at al@getmailbird.com.

Discussion

What else do you think can be done to make a difference in empowering more women to lead, to start and to grow in business? Let me know in the comments below.

 

You would like to read more posts like that?

Then you should also check out Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of the series.