Meet 5 Fearless EF Female Founders Fighting the Status Quo

By Elise Tan, EF Funding Manager Singapore

8th March is International Women’s Day and at EF, we’re proud to support outstanding female entrepreneurs to create some of the world’s most important companies. Not only do we value diversity among the EF teams, we also celebrate diversity within our own team. In Singapore, females make up a significant 40% of our team.

In honour of International Women’s Day, we would like to highlight the entrepreneurial stories and struggles of five fearless EF female founders in Singapore.

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We all know it is not easy being a female founder. According to Pitchbook research (refer to chart below), the number of female founders is clearly rising over the years. More of them are also getting funded. The percentage of global VC deals for companies with at least one female founder has risen to 16.8%, the highest percentage since 2007. While all this is worth celebrating, female-led companies still have a lot to catch up in terms of average deal size. Their average deal size was just over US$5 million, compared to almost US$12 million for male-led companies.

The challenges faced by female entrepreneurs today come from various sources: gender bias at work, stereotypical criticism, the expectation to prioritise family over work. Our EF female entrepreneurs face these issues but they stay strong, continue to hustle their way through and even lead the way in changing mindsets. Hear their stories and join us in cheering them on:

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1. Shi Ling Tai, CEO and Founder of UI-licious

Shi Ling founded UI-licious, an intelligent user journey test automation platform, with Eugene Cheah, whom she met during the Entrepreneur Firstaccelerator programme in Singapore. In her day-to-day work, she is the Chief-Everything-Officer, which means she takes care of any matter that affects the company’s ability to deliver value to the users. UI-licious may be launched only less than one year ago, but Shi Ling is happy to share that “ We are already testing thousands of web applications daily for our users, ranging from simple shopping sites to complex SaaS web applications including those sexy AI, fintech and blockchain applications everyone is raging about.”

Shi Ling’s journey as a programmer to founder of UI-licious has been far from a smooth-sailing one. She started messing with the computer since she was a kid — learnt to code her first web page when she was 11. “Back then, being a computer geek was not as cool as it is today. In fact, it was super uncool, and I don’t tell people about my computer hobbies. Growing up, I was self-conscious about sharing my interest in computing, because kids and adults will tease me about my uncool and tomboy-ish hobby (and that boys won’t want to date me).”, confides Shi Ling.

Nevertheless, she decided to study Computer Science when she was 16. Despite discouraging remarks such as “it’s for the boys”, she stuck to her choice, hoping to make a difference in the world, having seen how ubiquitous computers were at that time. At university, she continues to be judged as a female, “I still sometimes feel excluded from the “brogrammers” despite being an extremely competent programmer.”

Her advice to aspiring female founders: People will always try to tell you what you should do or how you should behave. As a CEO, I have been advised before, to appear more feminine and less authoritative but thankfully, I choose to be myself. Be yourself.

2. Yasaman Nematbakhsh, CEO, 42lab

Yasaman is the CEO of 42LAB, the first modular, notebook-size and affordable biotech experiment kit. Their vision is to enhance Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) hands-on education for students particularly in the area of biotechnology. Since their launch in Singapore in October last year, they have expanded to Hong Kong and secured one contract and four letters of intent.

Before starting her company, Yasaman was doing her PhD in biomedical engineering at NUS, studying the mechanical properties of Circulating Tumor Cells. She was later offered a job by a prestigious research company. But driven by her passion for biotechnology, education, and entrepreneurship, she decided to start her own edutech company with her co-founder, Data Ng.

Starting and running a business is no small feat, but imagine doing it while being pregnant and then, taking care of a newborn at the same time. Yasaman managed to do all that. She was working till the very day she delivered her baby in January this year and resumed working less than two weeks after the delivery. She confides that “Being a first time entrepreneur and a first time mother have their own challenges and it is not always easy. However, in my opinion, you can overcome anything with your will power. It might sound cliche, but this is my true belief. In my life, there have been so many instances where I had to be strong, I had to work hard, I had to learn from my failures, I had to embrace change; and each of those experiences shaped my personality as a strong and dedicated individual. It is how we respond to the challenges that makes a difference in our life.”

While it has not been easy managing both work and family, Yasaman is pleasantly surprised by the immense amount of support she received from her family, colleagues, customers, and community in general. She feels fortunate that in this day and age, people are more respectful of women and the important role they play in the society.

Her advice to aspiring female founders: Be confident. I have met so many women in my life who look down on themselves or don’t follow their passion because they don’t have the confidence to make it happen. So appreciate yourself as well as your own abilities and follow your dream.

3. Nidhi Gupta, CEO and Co-founder, Portcast

Before founding Portcast, Nidhi spent the last 10 years in the logistics industry as part of DHL in various leadership roles across Asia in management consulting, sales and strategy. She met Ling Xiao, her co-founder during the EF programme and they started Portcast together. Portcast focuses on making logistics routes profitable, by predicting demand using machine learning and real-time external data. This allows logistics companies to deploy assets effectively, define best spot pricing and target right customers. Since the soft launch in Jan 2017, they have managed to garner significant investor interest and will be closing their seed round soon.

As Nidhi builds her company, she faces the challenge of fighting the status quo and culture in the large enterprises in the traditional logistics industry. The large companies are so used to using their intuition, relying on manual processes for the last 30 years, so Nidhi needs to convince her potential clients (logistics companies) that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an enabler for competitive advantage and Portcast helps them to become more productive and profitable. As an example, when you think of an airline ticket, there is an algorithm that prices the airline seat; yet in the shipping world today, there is still a human who is employed to manually determine the price of a container.

As a female founder, Nidhi has received her share of stereotypical remarks. She remarks, “ I have been asked on a number of occasions how it would be possible for females like myself to manage both roles as a founder as well as a wife and/or mother. I also find it interesting that these questions come from not only investors, but also millennials who aspire to become entrepreneurs.” In response to these questions, Nidhi surprises them by demonstrating her conviction, work ethics and the ability to get things done. “Having said that, it would have been impossible without the constant support from my husband, who’s not only encouraging me on this journey but also lending a listening ear whenever I need one.” says Nidhi. She is also staying positive by noting that while the logistics and tech startups have seen few women in leading roles, being a female herself helps her stand out in the crowd and it can sometimes be a big advantage!

Her advice to aspiring female founders:

Founding a startup is intense and hard, especially as a female founder. There will be much diverse advice and biases. Own your uniqueness and constantly keep in mind why you’ve decided to startup, as that helps in times when things don’t go according to plan.

4. Jayantika Soni, CTO & Co-founder, RESync

Jayantika was completing her PhD in power and energy at the National University of Singapore when she was approached by EF’s talent team to join the programme. During the programme she met her cofounder Emir Nurov and they started RESync, a smart energy management platform for systems with multiple generation sources like Solar, Storage, Generators and Electricity grid. As the CTO of RESync, she brings to the table years of experience of working with hardware and solving complex problems of the systems during her PhD. She was mainly focused in the area of designing control algorithms and controllable loads for easier adoption of renewable energy in electrical systems. Since the launch three months ago, they have made much traction. There are four tier-1 solar system installers in India who want to use their product as soon as it is ready commercially.

In spite of her strong credentials, Jayantika still face inherent biases on whether a female can actually handle problems on the ground, deal with hardware, or understand customer problems etc in the energy industry, as it is quite male-centric. Growing up as a girl in India, she is also constantly reminded of the fact that she is not a boy. While people don’t explicitly say it, they would say things like, “If you had been a boy, things would have been better.” It was never expected of her to become an engineer. In fact, there was even once that a teacher told her that women are bad at maths and cannot be engineers. She managed to prove the teacher wrong by getting into one of the top ten engineering schools in India. Jayantika made the decision to design and work on hardware systems when people around her assumed that women are just bad at it. In hindsight, all the naysaying seemed quite hilarous but certainly hurtful at that time.

In the book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg says “The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophecies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t.” Jayantika is glad to share that for at least for her family of 3 daughters, they manage to overcome gender bias: one of them is a doctor, one is an engineer and for her, she is a business owner.

Her advice to aspiring female founders: Brush off the naysayers and don’t doubt yourself, you probably have accomplished more than the men around you. You deserve this amazing journey to change the world!

5. Sadaf Monajemi, CTO and Co-founder, See-Mode

Sadaf founded See-Mode with her husband Milad Mohammadzadeh during the EF programme. By combining computer vision, artificial intelligence, and computational fluid dynamics, they aim to empower clinicians to predict stroke and save lives without having to run any additional test. They are developing cutting-edge technology to accurately determine the patient’s stroke risk and assist the clinician to decide the optimal treatment for the patient.

Prior to starting See-Mode, Sadaf was doing her PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering in NUS, focusing on AI and machine learning for biomedical applications.” I’ve studied and worked in a male-dominated industry for almost 10 years. That first moment of facing discrimination has been upsetting for me. But, a minute later, I’m just motivated to push even harder and do what takes to change that. I would look back at the challenges I’ve already overcome in this industry, and that keeps me going”, shares Sadaf. “Women are not well represented in tech and entrepreneurial industries. These industries (like many others) are seen as a man’s world. As a result, women are taken less seriously and are undervalued. It is common for female founders to be asked strange questions, for example about their family and work-life balance! Interestingly, these issues affect male and female founders equally, but only women are questioned about them.“

When asked about how to improve the challenges faced by female founders, she believes that there is a need to openly discuss challenges of being a female founder in order to make a change. She explains that “I always get a nice surprise whenever I do this (openly discuss challenges). I find people, in general, whether male or female, to be supportive and understanding. It has been a positive experience for me and I see these open discussions as a promising way to increase awareness and change the ecosystem.”

Her advice to aspiring female founders:

I love this sentence by Maryam Mirzakhani (the first and only female mathematician who got the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics): “If we knew things would be so complicated, I think we would have given up… I don’t know, actually. I don’t know… I don’t give up easily.”

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