What will it take to achieve gender parity among founders in Southeast Asia?
This is undeniably an exciting time for tech innovation in Southeast Asia as we begin to see a seismic shift in the demographic makeup of the modern labour force. Governments are waking up to the GDP growth opportunities that are unlocked by closing the gender participation gap and driving a culture of female entrepreneurship. Active strides are being made across the region to increase female enrolment in continuous learning, improve their digital connectivity and create fairer markets in which to operate.
But, as we approach International Women’s Day 2020 with a theme of #EachforEqual, we need to acknowledge that significant barriers remain. Female entrepreneurship still challenges cultural norms in many Southeast Asian markets and women can struggle to gain support and access capital. As a result in the tech sector, women are still underrepresented and underpaid. This is particularly troubling at founder and leadership levels.
Senior-level gender parity is a considerable strategic advantage, especially in fast-moving startup environments. Female leaders are proven to build more collaborative, transparent teams resulting in faster, more creative problem-solving. They create more trusting environments in which testing to learn is second nature and innovation thrives. In our portfolio at Jungle Ventures, I see female-founded and led companies such as Tookikati, Saltmine, Livspace, Paysense, and DocDoc evolve and grow as a direct result of empathetic, unified cultures.
MARKET CONDITIONS ARE IMPROVING AND ATTITUDES SHIFTING
Governments across Southeast Asia recognize technology as a competitive, strategic economic pillar and are actively engaging with the entrepreneurial and corporate communities. They are furiously upgrading educational systems, refining regulations and establishing incubators to maximise the upsides for the economy.
To ensure that this growing emphasis on technology translates into a gender-equal tech sector governments, VCs and accelerators must play their part. They must actively encourage, fund and foster female tech entrepreneurship. Thailand, the Philippines and especially Singapore have worked hard, invested carefully and now offer a vibrant, welcoming environment for female entrepreneurs.
But top-down initiatives are only one half of the equation. The real change is happening bottom-up.
Even in some markets where prevailing social norms do not actively encourage female entrepreneurship, progress is inevitable because in the app economy technology is a part of life. When technology is in the palm of your hand every day, being a tech entrepreneur becomes an accessible ambition regardless of gender, profession or even experience. For ambitious female founders like Jeeta Bandopadhyay, technology was not a scary word. She recognised that successful entrepreneurship is 90% attitude and that the necessary skills can be learnt.
“Those who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs in the tech sector should be willing to persevere past the initial stages of skepticism from colleagues. Just believe in yourself and learn diligently. To me, grit matters more than pedigree — I do not have a technology background but learned it on the job as I had the grit and believed in thinking from the first principle” Jeeta Bandopadhyay, Co-Founder of Tookitaki
THE OPPORTUNITY FOR FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS
There are natural sweet spot sectors for female entrepreneurs. While women are underrepresented in STEM sectors, they are well represented in a huge array of other industries like HR, marketing, education, retail, travel, hospitality and design. Shagufta Anurag has been a star in our community of founders for many years and a consistently disruptive force in the design industry. Her creative passion and drive has seen her build three companies with her latest Saas endeavour, Saltmine, set to reinvent the rulebook for the $300bn workplace design industry.
“Female entrepreneurs in the next 10 years will not be buckets or limited to any sectors or technologies and will see them active across all areas” Shagufta Anurag, Founder Saltmine, Space Matrix and Co-founder of Livspace.
It is important to also recognise that in the tech sector female entrepreneurs are not limited to industries where women have typically been well represented. There are so many categories in which women are in fact the primary audience meaning female founders bring to the party invaluable insight and instinct.
A fantastic example is healthcare. While only 13% of the C-Suite level leadership roles in healthcare organisations are held by women, they make over 80% of family healthcare decisions. One of our most inspiring partners Grace Park, founder of DocDoc, recognized this truth and has built a thriving business in this sector by empowering patients to make data-informed decisions during the doctor discovery process.
“There is a clear opportunity for female entrepreneurs to step in and design products based on personal experiences that cater to the pain points of the key decision makers.” Grace Park, Co-Founder of DocDoc
It is by celebrating the amazing achievements of pioneers like Shagufta, Sayali, Jeeta and Grace that we will provide inspiration to a new generation of female tech entrepreneurs.
The way forward
The venture capital industry has a responsibility to support female entrepreneurs and their ideas in two critical areas — funding and access to networks. Globally, steps have been made in the right direction but change is far too slow. Data revealed by PitchBook highlighted that a miserable 2.7% of venture capitalist dollars were invested into start-ups founded by women in 2019. When we step back and consider the extraordinary track record of female founders this figure becomes not just unacceptable, but inexplicable.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is Each for Equal — a focus on collective individualism and a call for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions, all day, every day. We must assess founders based on their skills, their collaborative mindset, their risk-taking attitude and the integrity of their business model. We must be honest with ourselves, scrutinize our own biases and be deliberate in tackling them. We need to celebrate women in the tech industry, ensure that their achievements are recognized and take others on the same journey towards a gender-equal startup world.
At Jungle Ventures we recognise that we can and must be a catalyst for an equal world in an enabled world. We are proud to have made a start but we are not resting on our laurels. We have a long way to go. This International Women’s Day we are pausing, reflecting, and setting our sights on empowering a generation of innovative, motivated and determined female tech entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.
I don’t think any amount of money can buy that.