Two inspiring women leaders in the tech industry, Sherie Ng (Country Director, Singapore & Malaysia of Google Cloud), whose domain expertise lies in the high growth tech environment across multiple industries such as BFSI, telecommunications, government, oil & gas, FMCG and more; with Aireen Omar, (President (Ventures) of Capital A), known to spearhead AirAsia’s digital strategy, promoted innovation, while overseeing digital strategic group-wide initiatives that helped transform AirAsia Group into a global cloud and data-driven platform company, recently illustrated how to play our cards right and create visibility for more women to excel in the tech industry and being recognized for it. Read more to know how these two industry leaders climbed the ladder and built robust tech-forward, inclusive and diverse companies.
You are moving this behemoth from the old world to the new world, and are both sitting at the top of the pyramids. What are the key experiences in your life that have brought you to this point in your career?
A nurturing environment with enough determination is always key
“Despite coming from a poor family and people would naturally think that I had no chance of succeeding in society, I was fortunate to have gained support and help from my surroundings.” as Sherie shared, that if it wasn’t for her support system around her, she would not have been able to defy the world’s gravity and countered the predetermined condition. Sherie, with a marketing background, walked right into tech and was exposed to radio signals, designing of telecommunication, device signals and more realized that you have to ferociously suck in information, “be a sponge” and learn new things. It was with her continuous hunger to learn that has also brought her to where she is today.
“There is nothing too difficult to learn. Aim as high and break the new limits.”
Sherie Ng (Google Cloud)
Turn a blind eye on gender
In any organization, people respect performance. “I was lucky to have been surrounded by the right kind of people that encouraged me to be who I am today. I think it is important that the first thing that should come to our mind is to put ourselves as an individual first, instead of: I am a female.” commented Aireen. To excel and to be respected accordingly by our peers, in any job and in any meeting, it’s important to always go back to: “how am I contributing and how can I beat people’s expectations?”. To Aireen, things will ultimately fall into place and opportunities will present themselves to us once we deliver beyond expectations.
“Listen to your work and your voice as an individual first, as opposed to seeing yourself as a gender.”
Aireen Omar (Capital A)
So Aireen, what do you think Tony sees in you for you to lead Capital A rather than himself?
Take on challenges, have an open mind
Leaders like Tony like to be challenged. To Aireen, working with him has not been a walk in the park, “Tony would tell me to do something with only one sentence. And I would think to myself, how do I do my work with one sentence?”. This lasted for a while until Aireen jumped to surprise the odds, “let’s give him options” as she took the challenge, reminding herself to have an open mind and execute as she wanted to be seen as. Afterwards, working with Tony became much clearer. Aireen here emphasizes that in order to progress and develop, don’t succumb to comfort and always find ways to make an opportunity out of a challenge.
Sheryl Sandberg joined Facebook to fill in the parts that Zuckerberg could not and she eventually wrote a book about it: Lean In. In the book it touches on how females in the corporate world would have to play their part to participate more. Boys are vocal, typically, and they like to talk big but they don’t always back it up with substance.
So looking at it historically and culturally, what kind of shift in mindset should women adopt to show that: hey, I am here, count me in?
Recognize the difference, act with indifference
The leaders started with saying that there is a biological makeup for females and males. It is natural for women to feel as if they should be the supporter or play the supporting role. “I recall in the early days of my career, I used to write every speech for my boss and he would present it as if it were his own. A speech he knows nothing about but made it his. You need a certain skill or confidence in you to deliver the way he did.” commented Sherie. Good storytellers to Sherie, are not masked up by gender, as she expands her learning and observation, saying that confidence is truly key when inspiring a movement in the community. As much so, asking for help, support and coaching should be done willingly as well.
As women leaders who go through childbirth, after one or two years preceding and succeeding, when the career path takes a different trajectory, how should one deal with that? How do you balance the different roles you carry as a working mother?
Communicate, manage and get involved
Take hold and care of your mindset. Through her own experience, Sherie mentioned that women then think that if they were to do well at work, they may have to compromise not being able to do well at home. Much to debunk, to her and Aireen, how balanced you are in one role will most likely translate into the different various identities and roles you carry, only if the individual works on themselves healthily. It is important to note that we have the power to define what is productive and efficient by our own means. In the end, we have the power to communicate, manage and get involved, both at work and at home with our kids.
“Never underestimate your kid’s intelligence. You’d be surprised how much they absorb.”
Sherie Ng (Google Cloud)
Aireen then added, when she was heading up the airline, AirAsia were the first in the industry in Malaysia to employ female pilots. With new gravitas, comes new quandaries, as Aireen puts it: “We had our cadet program by then, and there were a lot of female pilots enrolled in the program. During my time, when I took over from Tony and when these ladies got married, they came up to me and brought up how we didn’t have policies for pregnant ladies”. Aireen that immediately knew what she had to do. It started with working closely with the civil aviation authorities, implementing compensations, to maternity leave and paternity leave. Aireen led with the goal in mind to not only make it equal but rather equitable.
Aim for balance
“For me, it’s creating balance in life,” Aireen added. Striking a balance in the game requires us to prioritize, ask ourselves: what’s key first? If it is work that needs to be focused more in the moment of time, spend a little bit more on it and in the next, we may need to compensate for spending time with the family when we can. Compensation of time and focus in the end, equals to Aireen’s definition of “balance”.
A diverse mix of people makes for a very diverse set of experiences and set of outcomes. To leaders as you, Aireen and Sherie, what does a diverse corporate structure look like where it’s diverse not only by gender, but also by age and race? What’s next for the century?
You cannot manage what you do not measure. From her experience in Microsoft to Google Cloud, with her corporate perspective, Sherie shared that it starts with the intentionality to achieve diversity, then only it will be structured within the company. It’s a spectrum of agendas: opportunities, contributions, mission, design, solutions, board, policies, environment, to the very imperative of the business - does it serve people the way it can serve? To understand and behave where the culture of diversity can thrive needs leaders that can be intentional in their leadership and carry this spectrum forward, putting aside unconscious bias.
How do you see the all-female leadership team you have in Google Cloud, Southeast Asia? What kind of outcomes are you seeing there?
A flourishing culture
“It wasn’t intentional by design,” Sherie commented. Google Cloud was mainly looking for individuals that can do the job and the competency an individual brings. It should not be by design to hunt for women. Bringing back the importance of hiring people that fills in the company’s gap and the culture we create for these people ultimately plays an even bigger role where diversity can flourish.
Not a lot of females are very good at shouting about themselves. Men relatively have shown more interest in networking and telling the whole world their story and what they are capable of. Sherie and Aireen emphasize that women should work towards the same approach and let the world see even more women are here in the space, and we can strive as the best, if not better.
Access to the growth-enabling tools
It’s important to equip employees with the right tools. At times we will get people using gender as an excuse for them not being able to move forward, and not acknowledging that it may be because they do not have enough knowledge or skills to be in that position. Individuals should rethink the decision when using this excuse as it may backfire the whole movement of encouraging women to take their career higher. Companies then would need infrastructure experts to guide these individuals and encourage them to higher positions, regardless of their gender but solely on their substance.
The clinical psychologist, John Peterson has divided the world down the middle and one of the things he said is that women are more drawn to empathetic jobs, jobs like nurses, healthcare and education, and for men, they are more drawn to objects, like engineering and technology.
Thankfully we are moving towards the gray area in division of industries. Aireen, you have built a super application that is breaking new grounds which a lot of people may not realize. Can you cast your mind into the future and tell us what are the few changes you see that may evolve into something grander?
Fluidity is key
Tech has broken down the geographical boundaries that we had in the past. The future of these women leaders are exciting as tech has been customisable and personal to each individual. We are also moving into the space of metaverse and multiverse where we can maintain the same identity yet transition in different environments in a manner that is secure. Through this, we have the opportunity to transfer values with each other faster.
So there’s no really one answer. From digital currency, tokenization, informative data that you can create and transform from - it really is up to each industry leader to leverage on, whether it is healthcare, f&b, retail, fintech, and so on.
In the jobs of the future, where flexibility and fluidity are even more apparent, what kind of people will succeed the most in these jobs?
Equip your infinity stones
“Have multiple skill sets,” Aireen asserts. It’s already happening today, where those who survive are seen to be agile. With the speed technology is moving, both Sherie and Aireen emphasized the importance of having multiple skill sets as we would need to shift accordingly to how the industry requires.
“Have the ability to be flexible, know how to optimize your hours and showcase the competency you are furnished with.”
Aireen Omar (Capital A)
Grow to infinity and beyond
It’s a collaborative effort between people’s ability to communicate and share their opinion but more importantly convey a story that is crisp and clear, one that enables people to be inspired and influenced on a positive tangent. We need to harness all the natural powers we have as much as we put importance on new skills. These are the metrics to succeed in most jobs. People can tolerate mediocrity but what takes us further is that hunger to grow and the eyesight to see that growth is endless.
From the crowd: What are your pro tips on becoming a power lady-leader and staying informed in a space where tech can change rather quickly?
Have these three Rs
“Have the desire and vision to be powerful,” Sherie remarked towards the end of the session. It comes back down to how we want to see ourselves and what we want to become in the future. Focus on these three Rs: Relationship, Resources and Rhythm. Sherie added that when it comes to relationships, we must build deep relationships and be generous when giving our time, in return, it will come back to us tenfold. Through resources, no matter how far we have come and how high of a position we are at, everyone needs a coach, a mentor, so look for the right one that will push us, one that will invest their time to see us exponentially grow. Finally, create our rhythm. “You can only lead when you learn how to follow,” to quote Sherie when adding her thoughts on this. The discipline it creates for us is very important, either for our spirit, mind and body. Rhythm created through our disciplined self will lead us to a higher chance of success.
The content of this article is summarized from our ‘Thought Inspire Series’, a series of six exclusive physical interviews with world-class & established company owners highlighting their entrepreneurship journey organized in collaboration with Google Cloud and CGS-CIMB. The series is aimed to inspire entrepreneurs globally to Innovate rapidly and sustainably. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.