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Start-ups

How Hong Kong women are levelling the pitch in the male-heavy tech industry

The technology sector has long been a male-oriented domain and women have often struggled for equality, especially when it comes to pitching for investors for their start-ups. A new generation of women are determined to change this

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 5:26pm

A cursory look around the recent Rise conference in Hong Kong may have convinced participants that the city’s technology industry is a female-friendly environment. The region’s biggest jamboree for start-ups featured round tables and ticket discounts for women. The female attendance was a respectable 40 per cent of the total 14,000, and an anti-harassment policy banned offensive comments and behaviour based on sex and race.

“Female entrepreneurs are better placed here than in the US, and you can tell by even the smallest of things. At a Las Vegas tech show I went to, the men had to queue for the washrooms, but the women’s were so empty you could dance in them,” says Serena Pau, chief executive and co-founder of Groking Lab, a Hong Kong company that makes an app-enabled water bottle called Ozmo that helps fitness enthusiasts stay hydrated.

In the US, only 17 per cent of start-ups have at least one female founder, according to research company CrunchBase. In recent weeks, more than a dozen women in Silicon Valley have spoken up about being sexually harassed by male colleagues and fund managers. Growing evidence of how women have suffered under a degrading, “frat boy” culture has led to the resignation of a number of CEOs at some of the biggest names in tech since June, such as Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Dave McClure of start-up accelerator 500 Startups.

Nevertheless, just because there were plenty of women at last month’s Rise conference doesn’t mean gender equality is a fait accompli in Asia – where women are still widely expected to conform to stereotypes and deep-seated chauvinistic values prevail. Some of the events highlighted how far the industry has to go. Sixty-three companies from across Asia competed in the Rise “pitch” challenge – short, sharp presentations in front of a large audience, followed by a question-and-answer session with judges. Only 10 were represented by women, and none of those made it into the final 14.

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Some reasons for men’s domination of the tech industry are well-documented. It starts at school, where girls are less likely to study so-called Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. In Hong Kong, a study commissioned by The Women’s Foundation this year found that nearly three times as many boys are studying information and communication technology than girls at the Diploma of Secondary Education level. The rarity of women on the “buy side” is also an important factor. Crunchbase found that only 7 per cent of senior investing partners at the top 100 US venture capital firms are women, which reinforces the “boys’ club” environment of the tech sector and helps to account for why just 9 per cent of global venture capital deals went to companies with a female CEO (according to Pitchbook, an investment data provider).

Another, less-discussed factor is the manner in which start-ups are expected to sell themselves to investors, and how that may put women at a disadvantage.

Lori Granito, known for her Magnolia Private Kitchen, also runs culinary incubator Kitchen Sync and is a motivational speaker. She says women generally tend to find “pitching” intimidating. “I took part in a Baker Tilly pitch night once and I was the only woman pitching. What I found was that for this particular kind of platform you need more confidence ... You have to prepare to get up there and take your licks,” she says.

The Rise pitch contest was run according to a standard industry format – like reality television on speed. The 60-plus competitors each had seven minutes to wow the audience: a four-minute presentation, followed by a three-minute question and answer session with the judges. Around the world, this is how many start-ups get to meet early-stage investors, and compete for prizes such as cash, mentorship, the chance to have longer talks with potential backers, or credit for popular computing services.

Pau entered an even more extreme contest last year: the Elevator Pitch, organised by Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks. Contestants going after US$120,000 in prize money had to pitch to judges during the one-minute lift ride up to the observation deck on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Centre.

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“I was the only woman who made it to the shortlist. Women are not as used to showing off in public and making themselves memorable. As a start-up founder, you have to do all that,” she says.

But studies show that women have good reason to feel unsure about their chances of winning. Statistically, judges tend to favour men even if they deliver the same pitch as women, according to a 2014 study by the Harvard Business School: male pitches are considered more “persuasive”, “fact-based” and “logical”. Other studies have shown that judges are more willing to consider the future potential of companies represented by male presenters, while female presenters are likely to be pressed on what their start-ups have achieved.

Pitch Like A Girl, an inaugural, all-women pitch night held during Rise, was co-organised by Nicole Denholder, founder of Next Chapter, a crowdfunding platform for female entrepreneurs. She says 10 international teams were chosen from 60 applications to compete for more than US$60,000 in investment capital. They took turns to give three-minute pitches followed by a Q&A with a judging panel of three women and one man.

“A real benefit of our event was the supportive and collaborative environment that everyone was feeling – both the pitching teams and the audience,” she says.

Among the judges were Granito and Renu Bhatia, a former banker and founder of the SuperCharger FinTech Accelerator in Cyberport. Bhatia says as an investor in start-ups, pitch events allow her to meet a large number of companies. That’s important because the success rate of early-stage investments is very low. “On average, nine out of 10 start-ups you invest in fail,” she says. Pitching also helps entrepreneurs sharpen their business plans. “If you really have a good idea, you’ll be able to describe it in less than a minute.”

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All-women pitch nights help women deal with the inhibition they may have speaking in front of large audiences, she adds, and they are particularly good for networking and for women to see how others face up to similar challenges.

Not all women in the tech community regard themselves as worse-off than men. Cindy Nguyen is the founder of Regit, a Singapore company that provides online communication services. She was pitching in a Rise competition for new start-ups called Breakthrough Pitch, facing an all-male judging panel.

“I’m indifferent about gender bias. As the only woman co-founder in my company, I am the one who usually goes out and pitches. I know that judges see me differently from men, but it’s a reversed advantage in a way because I stand out. It’s not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing. You just have to play with the cards you’re dealt,” she says.

Encouragingly, the youngest generation of female entrepreneurs don’t seem to be burdened with any preconception that their gender will hold them back.

Hillary Yip is the CEO of MinorMynas, an online language-learning service for children, and she is 12. She set up the company two years ago for the AIA Emerging Entrepreneur Challenge, won it, and is now running the business as a serious venture. She was also pitching at the Rise Breakthrough Pitch and she was as confident and fluent in English as any of the grown-up contenders.

“Pitching is no different when you are a girl. I have never felt I’m at a disadvantage. Perhaps it’s because my parents have always been very encouraging. But it was good to meet a lot of women during Rise. I think there’s a shift in society because gender equality has become a lot more important,” she says.

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The co-founders of ASAPHEALTH, a hospital comparison service, are not much older than Hillary. Cindy Yeung, Madeline Leung and Tivona Yeung have just finished their third year at St. Paul’s Convent secondary school and they, too, were pitching at Rise.

Tivona Yeung says the team started out by joining the Hong Kong round of this year’s Technovation Challenge, a global endeavour to encourage more schoolgirls to go into tech. “I don’t think the gender thing affects me. We’ve also pitched in a mixed-gender event and we were definitely stronger than everyone else,” she says. Still, she believes it is still important to discuss gender issues. “If people didn’t talk about equality before, the 21st century would not have become a better place for us. We must keep talking about it,” she says.

At the end of the day, it’s the ideas that count, Bhatia says. “Sometimes, women entrepreneurs think too small. They don’t know how to scale up a business. Women say they are discriminated and they are. But if they don’t come up with enough good ideas, it could create a backlash against them.”