Jill Baker speaks to four female founders of early-stage tech companies who have beaten the odds of women receiving 2% of global venture capital and are addressing social need
The tech industry has a gender problem, with the World Economic Forum finding that women comprise only 22% of workers in artificial intelligence. The AI skills gender gap may hinder women’s preparedness for the workforce in the future, since AI skills are in high demand.
And given AI’s potential to fundamentally disrupt societies, there is an acute need to ensure that those tasked with its development reflect humanity, rather than an elite bunch of “brogrammers” in Silicon Valley or China’s Greater Bay Area.
Female leadership of tech companies could also be critical to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s WomenRising2030 report suggested that businesses run by women are more likely to offer goods and services to communities with limited access to financial products and to prioritise the tackling of environmental issues. (See Why women can lead the way on achieving the Global Goals)
Working in venture capital, I found I was often the only woman in the room, and that did not feel good
Yet with women currently receiving only 2% of global venture capital, female entrepreneurs are up against huge odds. Ethical Corporation spoke to four Asian female founders of early-stage companies who have beaten those odds to develop businesses that use technology to address problems of inequity across a range of areas; in access to capital and healthcare, or in redressing the power imbalance between banks and consumers. Each is, in her own way, a resounding success.
Pocket Sun is co-founder of SoGal Ventures, a global next-generation venture capital firm that invests only in companies founded by women.
Sun, who was born in China but lives in Singapore, got the idea for a venture capital firm focused on funding women early in her career. “Working in venture capital, I found I was often the only woman in the room,” she said, “and that did not feel good. So, I started to get women together to talk about it. I soon found women needed more than a community; they desperately needed access to capital.”
Sun and her business partner Elizabeth Galbut, who met at Stanford University in a venture capital programme, both saw women-run businesses as an under-served and potentially highly profitable niche. “We thought, ‘this is not just a feel-good opportunity, but a super-lucrative blue ocean for us to dive into’.” Sun references a 2018 study from BCG showing that female-run startups, though initially only able to raise less than half the venture funding as male-run startups studied, were found to earn 2.5 times more per dollar invested.
By cherry-picking investments in their $15m fund from what Sun calls “the 2% pool” Sun’s “female arbitrage”, as she refers to it, is beating industry averages. In venture capital, she explains, typically about 30% of seed-stage funded portfolio companies survive and are able to get to the point of raising outside capital. SoGal’s fund is doing much better. “In just two years, 80% of our companies have raised additional capital and garnered higher valuations … It is a much better venture model.”
What does Sun think is driving this better performance? “Women are the largest minority in the world. When you are a minority you have to be so much better, you have to work so much harder to get to the same place, to gain the same level of respect. So, for women, they have to prove themselves with solid metrics, and numbers, and traction to even get to an investor meeting.”
Pakistan is at a place where India was 20 years ago in terms of tech and innovation
Maliha Khalid, founder and CEO of Doctory, started the company to provide better healthcare information and access in her home country of Pakistan. When she was young, she experienced fainting spells, and was anguished by her own mother’s struggle to find her the right doctor. She recounts a bad joke currently circulating: “A patient walks into a hospital in Kashmir, and finds it deserted, with only a recording playing that says: ‘If you need to see a doctor, go to Islamabad’.”
Despite having the sixth-largest population in the world, Pakistan ranks 154, behind Ghana and just ahead of Laos, in the Lancet’s Healthcare Quality and Access Index for 195 Countries, and at 52 out of 60 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Access to Healthcare Index. Successive IMF bailouts have resulted in healthcare cutbacks in all but major cities. Compounding matters, recent high-profile cases of medical malfeasance and fraud have reduced trust in doctors.
Khalid’s initial research showed that “one patient has to go through five different doctors before getting the right diagnosis. Seventy percent of the population is rural and has to travel five to six hours to get to a doctor. Many have lost touch with the primary healthcare system,” she said.
Through Doctory, Khalid wants to improve healthcare access in Pakistan, and iron out the kinks of long wait times to see a specialist. Available online and through mobile phones, Doctory connects users with its network of high-quality physicians. During an initial consultation, which is free, users speak with a qualified Doctory physician. Based on the person’s health needs, the patient will then be referred to a specialist, and their appointment is scheduled in the same call. Doctors, vetted using peer review and client feedback, pay a subscription fee for referrals. The system works well for both sides, as the process of triage and referral is streamlined by the initial consult.
In 2017, Khalid travelled to Berlin to attend Vodafone Institution’s F Lane, a seven-week “accelerator” programme for high-potential digital impact ventures focusing on female empowerment. “Pakistan is at a place where India was 20 years ago in terms of tech and innovation,” Khalid says. “We don’t yet have mentors who have had the experience of building a billion-dollar company.” Khalid says her two months spent in Berlin helped her fill that knowledge gap.
Officially available in December 2018, Doctory has already taken more than 5,000 calls and scored an average 4.5 out of 5 in customer satisfaction surveys. On its first day in business, one of Khalid’s colleagues went on a local radio call-in show. By the end of the day, five more doctors had joined the single original doctor doing customer care.
Recently, the colleague went on the radio again. “Users kept calling in and praising the service, they said, ‘for the very first time, the doctor gives me respect and does not hurry the conversation.’ That is the entire thing," says Khalid."We wanted to bring that element of respect and trust back to healthcare.”
Actually, I do not feel that gender plays a role at all, and that women stand exactly the same opportunity
Caecilia Chu is CEO and co-founder of YouTrip, a Singapore-based multi-currency travel wallet that helps travellers to avoid foreign exchange fees. She grew up in Hong Kong in public housing, and attended Wharton and Harvard on academic scholarships. “When I was young, my Dad was a postman, and my Mom was a kindergarten teacher. We used to live month to month.” When her father was refused a loan to start his own business by multiple Hong Kong banks, the experience stayed with her.
Years later, when she was working at Citigroup overseeing technology and consumer growth investments in Southeast Asia and China, she decided to quit her job to start YouTrip, a next-generation product that would give people more control over their money.
With YouTrip, users create their travel wallet by prepaying up to $3,000 onto a Singapore-dollar-denominated Mastercard, co-branded with EZ Link, the Singaporean contactless payment system. As part of the Mastercard network, the card is accepted at over 30 million merchants worldwide. The card is paired with an app for a no-fee currency exchange service for 10 currencies, and overseas payment service for over 150 currencies.
The traveller avoids foreign exchange transaction and currency conversion fees, and YouTrip gets paid a small piece of every transaction by the merchant. After the trip, users can convert unused currencies back to Singapore dollars, also at no cost, alleviating the problem of unused foreign currency left to moulder in a travel wallet.
In May, YouTrip raised $25.5m in a pre-series A funding round, the largest raise for a fintech company in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters. It will use the funds to enter one or two new markets in Southeast Asia in the next 12 months.
Asked whether being a woman helps or hinders her, Chu says: “Actually, I do not feel that gender plays a role at all, and that women stand exactly the same opportunity. I literally don’t feel any difference, in business, in technology, in discussions or negotiations.”
By helping a single doctor, we reach potentially hundreds and thousands more people
The gender lens notwithstanding, Chu talks honestly about the demands she faces daily. “Work-life balance? I can’t do it. But I’m at peace,” she laughs. “I am a mother of two children, my son is five years old and my daughter is three. I am a daughter, an in-law, a wife. That already takes up 150% of my time. I work very hard to keep myself sane. I’ve come to the realisation that I just can’t have it all – there are plenty of trade-offs that I have to make.”
Dorothea (“Dot”) Koh is founder and CEO of Bot MD, an AI assistant for doctors that helps them access medical information quickly and accurately. “I feel bad when I see poorly designed technology for doctors,” says Koh, a native of Singapore who studied bioengineering at Stanford. “I think about the amplification effect. By helping a single doctor, we reach potentially hundreds and thousands more people.”
BotMD solves a problem Koh witnessed while working for Medtronic, and then Baxter, in different countries in Asia. “Healthcare knowledge is disparate. The information doctors need is not easily searched online, thus the need for a medical AI, especially for doctors in under-resourced areas,” Koh says.
She and co-founder Yanchuan Sim built a low-tech prototype of the app while Koh was still working full time. Based on a strong response from doctors, she quit her job in 2018 and Bot MD has been on a fast track since then. Koh and Sim participated in a three-month intensive programme for startups run by Y Combinator (YC), a San Francisco Bay area seed company incubator, which has funded more than 2000 startups with a total value of over $100bn since it started in 2005. The Bot MD app launched on Play Store in July of 2018 and has since been downloaded by doctors from more than 60 countries. Bot MD has raised $1.6m from Y Combinator and Floodgate.
Koh has never had a problem speaking her mind, but she is aware that this can be an issue for women. She says women often tell her how they admire her confidence.
“Think about it,” she laughs. “Have you ever heard a guy go up to another guy and say that?” Koh adds that many of her male colleagues had played a positive role, “especially if they themselves have daughters,” but she emphasises: “The more women who are encouraged to speak up, the better.”
Jill Baker is an independent analyst, writer and editor whose current focus is on ESG investing. She has significant expertise in Asia, especially Hong Kong and China.
This article is part of the in-depth Tech for Good briefing. See also:
Can AI light the way to smarter energy use
The appliance of science: How AI is making inroads on transport emissions
How AB InBev is using blockchain to improve the lives of smallholder famers
Bigger, faster, smarter: What the conservation movement can learn from the tech industry
‘AI can’t be put in the “too difficult” box. Boards have to take risks now
The drive to solve tech’s missing women problem
Speed-mentoring initiative Rebus will help women get a hand up the tech ladder