Virginia Tan Is Empowering The Female Technology Leaders Of Tomorrow

Leadership

September 12, 2018 | BY Rachel Duffell

Five years ago Virginia Tan didn’t know how to use an iPhone. Today she is founder of three organisations focused on empowering women in the workplace—particularly in technology

Women everywhere have been encouraged to “lean in” to their careers, to leadership, to their ambitions. First it was at the behest of Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. Now, in China, Virginia Tan is leading the nation’s very own Lean In China movement, which runs as a non-profit women’s platform and currently has around 100,000 members spanning 25 cities.

Lean In China began in 2013, when a group of ten women met in a Beijing bar to discuss their professional challenges in the hope of learning from one another. 

“We started to hold public events and that’s when things really took off,” says Tan, who is a co-founder and Lean In China President. “Hundreds of women would show up, and we realised that Chinese women faced very similar challenges: lack of confidence, the lack of social network and the lack of role models who were approachable. Therefore, we decided to build what is in essence a social network.” 

The community spread from Beijing to Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the first year, expanding to smaller cities across the country the following year. Today, Lean In China also has chapters in more than 100 universities.

“We focus on education… training more women leaders in order to build communities so that you can scale that impact,” says Tan, who is also a member of the Tatler Tribe, the panel of experts we consult when compiling the Generation T List across Asia. “I think that the values of Lean In are universally applicable: encouraging people to pursue their ambitions, to believe in themselves, to raise their hand, to have more confidence.”

A new platform for female tech entrepreneurs

Lean In China is just one of Tan’s ventures. She is also the founder of She Loves Tech, a global conference and female-focused tech startup competition. Tan originally founded the event as Her Startup in 2015, following an eight-year career as a finance lawyer that took the Singapore native around the world.

In its first year, China Central Television (CCTV) produced a documentary about the competition, no doubt attracted by the involvement of a number of top players in the Chinese startup world, including VC firm ZhenFund; 36Kr, China’s leading technology media; and Sinovation Ventures, which is Chinese venture capitalist and AI expert Li Kai-Fu’s fund and incubator.

The competition was a resounding success. The following year, Tan took it to four countries and held the finals in Silicon Valley, before doubling the number of locations the following year and rebranding it as She Loves Tech.

This year, She Loves Tech has hosted rounds in 14 locations, predominantly along the One Belt One Road, with the final due to take place on Saturday, September 15, in Beijing.

Funding technology that works for women

Teja Ventures, which Tan describes as a venture capital fund with a gender lens, came off the back of She Loves Tech.

“I decided to build Teja Ventures because She Loves Tech started to grow and grow and I realised that there was this real need for more women entrepreneurs to get the exposure that they required—but also that technology which benefited and impacted women positively needed to be funded,” says Tan.

Passionate about the She Loves Tech startups, Tan started by putting her own money, as an angel investor, into some of the companies that came out of the competition. “I realised there was a need to build something a lot bigger, something more sustainable and more institutional. It shouldn’t just be about one person trying to do something good.”

Teja Ventures takes gender into account in every stage of the value chain of investment, under the premise that this will make it a better investment. As Tan is keen that people understand, her investment strategy is not simply to invest in female entrepreneurs or companies with female CEOs. Instead, it’s about looking at the technology a company is building to ensure it’s serving women or impacting women in a positive way.

“When people think about gender equality, they think about gender—but that is only the very first level of addressing the question"

“When people think about gender equality, they think about gender—but that is only the very first level of addressing the question. For me, the question is: ‘Are the companies we are building, is the technology we are shaping and designing, taking into account the needs of both genders and the fact that both genders have different needs?’” 

Tan gives the example of the development of airbags in cars in the 1960s and ’70s. Following the launch of the airbag, it was found that disproportionate numbers of women and children were dying in cars. The reason was that most of the people designing airbags were men, and they had based their design on the male body. As female bodies and those of children are smaller, they were impacted by crashes in a different way, something that had not been taken into account in the design. “This is an extreme example,” she says, “but it’s the same thing with technology.”

“Look at the data,” urges Tan. “If your data is telling you that women consumers are the majority then maybe you should be focusing hard on who is designing your products and how you are designing them. I’m not saying men cannot design products for women, but it would make sense to have a diverse team and people who really understand what the demographic is thinking.” This will lead to better products that deliver greater value, and ultimately a better return on investment.

Despite a career that is now focused on the technology sector and empowering its women, tech was not always high on Tan’s agenda. “Five years ago, when I moved to China, I didn’t even know how to use an iPhone,” says Tan. Now she is CEO of the world’s largest technology startup competition for women.

The “China effect”

Tan credits China with much of her success. Had she gone to work in a more established market, such as the UK, she says she may have followed a more common path and continued her career as a finance lawyer. 

“I think China gives people courage. The opportunities are huge. The market is massive, and I think this empowers people to be braver because they know that if they take a risk there could be huge rewards.” There are also often lower barriers to entry as well as more room for flexibility in a less established market. “In China the sky is the limit. There’s no set career trajectory. You can be a media personality and a host one day, and all of a sudden you are doing investment and no one even blinks an eye. You can have a private equity fund and be a fashion designer at the same time, and no one queries it. In China, because the market is open, people are open to new ways of doing things.”

This is to the benefit of all, but brings particular opportunities to women, says Tan. “In first-tier cities women are increasingly empowered, not just by growing consumption power but by economic opportunities, and they are seizing that,” says Tan, whose own data—Lean In China publishes an annual white paper on Women, Work and Happiness—shows that the size of the “she economy” in China is predicted to hit US$4 trillion by 2020.

“I think that translates to women having greater economic say and more control over what they are doing socially,” she says. “I am optimistic about the future of women in China.” And their bright future is one that Tan continues to help shape.

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