As Silicon Valley struggles to shed its male-dominated "brogrammer" culture and bring more women into the technology industry, Asia can proudly point to a long list of female tech entrepreneurs -- including a number of self-made billionaires. Each of them has a remarkable story to tell.
For this special report, Nikkei Asian Review journalists interviewed five women who are thriving in a famously male-dominated industry.
Doris Hsu, raised in a poor farming community in Taiwan, runs a top global semiconductor supply company. Shilpa Vyapari's software firm competes in one of the most promising areas of tech: the internet of things. Carman Chan launched two startups of her own before becoming a successful venture capitalist, while Bai Xue and Han Mei both left top positions at Alibaba to pursue their entrepreneurial visions.
Their success should not be taken as a sign that Asia's tech companies are hiring and promoting enough women, however.
Pocket Sun, co-founder of SoGal, a U.S.-based venture capital firm that invests in women-led startups, says obstacles remain -- particularly in markets such as South Korea and Japan.
"Asia is not better or worse for women entrepreneurs," Sun says. "Raising funding for women entrepreneurs is hard everywhere, and in Asia, women face more blunt discrimination and straight-out biased questions at pitch meetings."
"There will be more successful women entrepreneurs across Asia and in the world. No doubt about that"Pocket Sun
China is emerging as a leader in promoting women in tech, however. Nearly two-thirds of startups in China have women in the executive suite, while 57% of their U.S. counterparts have no women in top roles, according to Silicon Valley Bank's 2018 Startup Outlook Survey.
One Chinese tech executive who believes in promoting women is Jack Ma, Alibaba's founder. At a technology conference last year, he advised companies to "hire as many women as possible."
Sun says women in Asia have new opportunities to start businesses on their own terms, thanks in large part to the opportunities created by the web.
"Today's women entrepreneurs tend to create businesses that are an extension of their self-expression, which really adds color to the business world," she said. "There will be more successful women entrepreneurs across Asia and in the world. It's a great time in history to be a woman."
Read the interviews here:
"The Queen of Wafers"
HSINCHU, Taiwan -- It is a rare thing to meet a female engineer working in the semiconductor business. It is rarer still to find a woman in the industry's executive ranks.
Doris Hsu is both. As the chair and chief executive of GlobalWafers, Hsu has driven her company from an industry also-ran into the No. 3 spot in the ultracompetitive business of making silicon wafers -- the shiny disks that are the raw materials for semiconductors. With a ferocious work ethic and a few well-timed acquisitions, she has turned herself, and the stealth Taiwanese company she runs, into a global competitor to be reckoned with.
She is a no-nonsense leader who eschews the trappings of a corporate CEO. Her staff had to talk her into replacing her 10-year-old car, and she is known for making grueling one-day business trips to Europe or the U.S., bookended with red-eye flights.
When she meets the Nikkei Asian Review for an interview, she is dressed, as always, in the standard company uniform of short-sleeved button-down shirt and dark trousers. Hsu, 56, speaks at a rapid clip as she describes her obsession with efficiency.
She begins her day at 3:30 by responding to urgent emails. She eats breakfast on the trot, arriving at the office in plenty of time to lead a video conference with her U.S. team at around 6:30.
"I do my best not to become a bottleneck for my team around the globe," Hsu says from the company's four-story headquarters in the Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan's tech hub. This commitment is one of the reasons Hsu's peers have nicknamed her the "queen of wafers."
GlobalWafers may not be a household name, but it plays an essential role in the global tech supply chain -- controlling nearly 20% of the market in making the fundamental substrate material that chips are manufactured on. Like its bigger rivals, Shin-Etsu Chemical and Sumco of Japan, the company supplies to the world's top chip builders, including Intel, Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Ten years ago, the company was the tiny semiconductor division of solar company Sino-American Silicon. Hsu was named chair and CEO after GlobalWafers was spun off in October 2011, and she quickly began her push into the big leagues.
"I'm lucky to work in the chip industry, a profession where know-how speaks louder than gender"Doris Hsu
In 2017, GlobalWafers generated 150% more in revenue and a 460% profit rise from the year before, thanks to the acquisitions of Topsil Semiconductor Materials of Denmark and SunEdison Semiconductor of the U.S. in 2016. Other notable takeovers included a unit of Covalent Materials of Japan in 2012. These deals took the company from number six in the industry to number three.
Under her leadership, GlobalWafers went public in 2015, listing on the Taipei Exchange. Since then, its market value has risen almost tenfold.
Hsu says the key to successful acquisitions is to hold on to the talent.
"We did not send anyone from Taiwan to these plants overseas that we took over from acquisitions," Hsu says. "It's important to trust the local staff when it comes to daily operations."
Jack Huang, a leading M&A and corporate governance lawyer at law firm Jones Day, told a recent forum that Hsu's formula is working.
"It's incredible that GlobalWafers turned around many money-losing companies within a short period of time and bought them cheap in an industry downturn," Huang says. "A lot of people also found it surprising that Chair Hsu could successfully manage a Japanese takeover while tech companies in Japan rarely have female and foreign leaders."
Jason Chien, chief financial officer of GlobalWafers, noted a key factor behind the success of the Covalent acquisition: Hsu learned Japanese so she could communicate with the staff. "That move really helped build a team that has coherence in a very short period of time," Chien says.
"She sets a very high bar, has a great memory, attends to details, is so passionate for work [and] studies so hard. No executives can brush her off when it comes to numbers," Chien says. "But on the other hand, she cares about employees from the bottom of her heart."
Despite being a rare female leader in the semiconductor industry, Hsu says gender is never an issue for her.
"I'm lucky to work in the chip industry, a profession where know-how speaks louder than gender," she says. "I don't think my gender has made my path smoother or more challenging."
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Cheng Ting-fang
TOKYO/PUNE -- Shilpa Vyapari has done something even India's biggest IT companies have not been able to: penetrate deep into the Japanese market.
The company she founded, Indicus Software, is squarely in the middle of one of the hottest areas in technology: the internet of things, or IoT. It makes real-time data analytics tools that analyze information collected wirelessly from sensors attached to everything from cars and solar panels to parking spaces and streetlights.
The company is still small -- it has 10 engineers in Japan and some 50 in Pune -- but its tools have been adopted by top Japanese manufacturers of electronics and auto components, as well as by local government authorities.
Vyapari's success shows that IT service is not just about writing computer programs, but also about understanding clients and earning their trust.
Building a customer base in Japan, however, was far from easy, despite the fact that Vyapari lived in the country from 1995-2015. "Once you become an American, you are an American. But here, we always remain Indians," the 47-year-old said in an interview in Tokyo.
Language is often cited as the biggest hurdle to entering the Japanese market, but Vyapari says there is a flip side to that: "When you speak Japanese, half the battle is won."
"If you know the business culture," she added, "then you win the trust of your customers. ... Once the trust is established, it is very easy to work with Japanese companies."
Vyapari majored in electronic engineering at college, following her childhood affinity for mathematics and physics, but she also maintained her interest in art, such as painting and Japanese calligraphy.
Studying Japanese, she soon realized that the language has a similar sentence structure to Hindi. "Once you know the vocabulary, you speak Japanese," she said. "Speaking is very easy for us. [It's] exactly the same pattern."
After graduating from Pune University, she went to work for a subsidiary of Japanese IT company Fujitsu. The job took her across Japan, giving her a chance to see the "craftsmanship culture" of Japanese manufacturing up close. "I wanted to ... inculcate the same level of perfection in my work," she said. After four years she quit Fujitsu and started Indicus in Pune, with a branch in Tokyo.
Many Japanese companies are investing heavily in R&D and cutting-edge technology in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Vyapari sensed a business opportunity. Because much of this software is developed in the U.S., English-speaking Indian programmers often have an easier time understanding and working with it than their Japanese counterparts.
Cracking the market, however, took some time. "While competing with large conglomerates, I often found it difficult to gain the trust of the end-users, such as the traditional industry owners or their IT managers," Vyapari said.
She discovered the two iron rules of Japanese business: never miss a deadline and never compromise on quality.
"I am a firm believer that if you learn how to learn, you can survive and grow in any circumstances"Shilpa Vyapari
"Japanese take time to decide," she said, "but when they decide on a company, they will stick with it longer. ... It's a trust-based relationship." In the U.S., by contrast, "people will take chances. When it works, it works. If it doesn't, they move on to some different company."
Vyapari recently moved her base to Pune from Tokyo, partly to spend more time with her aging mother, but also to expand Indicus beyond Japan, which currently accounts for nearly 90% of its business. The company is setting its sights on India and other emerging markets, as well as the U.S.
No matter where she is based, her goal remains the same: to build an organization that will last for centuries. How does she plan to do that?
Vyapari says her role model is Steve Jobs, who built Apple into a company that survived and grew by adapting.
"I am a firm believer that if you learn how to learn, you can survive and grow in any circumstances," she says.
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Mitsuru Obe
The right prescription
SHANGHAI -- In the early 2000s, Bai Xue had a comfortable job working for Japanese electronics giant Panasonic in China. But then she began to ask herself how the internet -- still a relatively unfamiliar concept for most people in China back then -- might one day change people's lives.
That simple question led to a big decision. In 2003, Bai surprised her family by quitting her well-paid job and joining Alibaba, then a loss-making startup with a less-than-flattering reputation.
Despite doubts and initial hardships, Bai has never looked back. Fifteen years later, she has made a name for herself as the chief operating officer of Ping An Good Doctor, the world's largest online health care startup, with some 200 million registered users.
Powered by what SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son has called the most advanced artificial intelligence health care technology in the world, the nearly 50 billion Hong Kong dollar ($6.37 billion) company is transforming China's notoriously inefficient health care system, in which patients can end up waiting hours just for a five-minute consultation.
"When I first joined the internet industry, I didn't expect it could grow so fast. I don't think many people in Alibaba were anticipating this back then either"Bai Xue
Good Doctor's platform connects users with a network of 40,000 doctors across the nation via a mobile application, and uses an AI assistant to handle general patient questions. This allows doctors to spend more time focusing on diagnosis. The company's business model has attracted investment from the likes of Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, U.S. asset manager BlackRock, and Japan's SoftBank Vision Fund.
"When I first joined the internet industry, I didn't expect it could grow so fast. I don't think many people in Alibaba were anticipating this back then either," Bai told the Nikkei Asian Review at her Shanghai office on July 24.
To Bai, who majored in chemistry, being part of a team exploring the future is more satisfying than the results. "I have always been more curious about the unknown world. I could see exactly what I'd be doing in 20 years if I had stayed [at Panasonic]."
While she is among the very few women to reach the pinnacle of China's tech world, Bai's journey is not over. The 45-year-old is still exploring the unknown -- and pushing herself to improve on her past successes.
"I feel like I have a sort of obsessive compulsive disorder that compels me to start over every morning," Bai said. It is a habit she picked up during her time at Alibaba, where employees were told to treat their best performance in the past as the minimum requirement for the future.
This has translated into a busy schedule for Bai, who manages day-to-day operations at the fast-growing startup. "Your rivals think faster than you. It is meaningless to talk about your achievements," Bai said. "As a manager you have to push yourself and focus on questions about the future so you don't lead your soldiers in the wrong direction."
The mother of a 17-year-old daughter, Bai admitted that her long work hours make it difficult for her to spend much time with her family. "For anyone who works in the internet industry, woman or man, I think their families need to be very supportive," Bai said.
While many blame family pressures and gender bias for the tiny share of female leaders in China's technology industry, Bai argues differently.
"I don't think women are pushed aside by men at work. The difference in personalities plays a much bigger role."
According to Bai, women tend to approach the world more intuitively, while men rely more on data and systematic methods. "As the company grows, you realize it's less effective to deliver your message to employees and customers by just describing your feelings," she said.
Bai also cited poor management skills as another reason talented female professionals often fail to realize their full potential. "Women can manage a big team, they just need some training."
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Nikki Sun
Asking the right questions
HONG KONG -- Carman Chan fell in love with mathematics when she was a teenager.
"I loved pure math's highly abstract, logical thinking," recalled Chan, founder and managing director of venture capital company Click Ventures. She went on to earn a masters in the subject in 1996.
So it came as something of a surprise when it turned out to be English -- a subject she had found "boring" at school -- that set her on the path of entrepreneurship.
Shortly after receiving her master's and still in her 20s, Chan "became fascinated by the idea of turning English learning into entertainment."
The result was "EnglishStreet," a website she launched in 1997 that used movie trailers to help teach language skills. Around the same time, Chan was offered a scholarship for a Ph.D. program in mathematics at Imperial College in London. She declined, having found that running a startup was "much more fun."
"Building a startup was addictive," she said. "I felt it opening up all my senses, making me sensitive to everything around me. I was super motivated and learning super fast. I kept creating, from zero to one. I felt like I was a super human."
Having discovered her entrepreneurial streak, Chan launched and sold two online "edutainment" services, including EnglishStreet. By 2013, she decided to focus on investing, mainly so she would have more time to spend with her children, as she was expecting her second daughter.
As an investor she has been just as successful -- thanks in part to a little luck. In late 2013, an acquaintance offered to allocate her shares of Spotify in a secondary private placement. The music streaming company ended up becoming one of the biggest IPO issues in recent years in April and is now worth about six times what it was five years ago.
But luck only goes so far. Chan says her "failure rate" so far is below 10%, meaning that fewer than one company out of every 10 that she has invested in has either gone bankrupt or failed to increase in value.
This is almost unheard of in the venture capital world. A 2017 CB Insights report showed that less than half of startups that received seed-stage venture capital funding during 2008-2010 managed to get next-round funding.
"Before deciding to invest I ask founders many, many specific questions"Carman Chan
Click Ventures' first fund, launched in 2013, had a net internal rate of return of 30.8%, according to a March 2018 report by U.K. research company Preqin, making it the fifth most profitable seed-stage venture capital fund launched anywhere in the world during 2003-2015 and the only Asia-based fund among the top 10.
The secret, Chan says, is what she calls "founder-experience due diligence."
"Before deciding to invest I ask founders many, many specific questions." These cover everything from the fundamental objective of the startup to its daily operations.
The founders of Hong Kong startup Origami Labs, one of Click Ventures' portfolio companies, said they were overwhelmed when they first met Chan to pitch their idea in 2016.
"She threw numerous tough questions and opinions, some of which took us a long time to digest," recalled Kevin Johan Wong, co-founder and chief executive of Origami.
The idea that Origami's founders pitched was for a small, wearable ring-shaped device that uses bone-conduction technology to turn the user's finger into a wireless earphone for mobile devices. A built-in microphone allows the connected device to be voice-controlled. The founders initially planned to market their product toward the visually impaired.
Chan, however, advised them to expand their potential market. At first the founders thought she was talking about the market for that particular device but later realized that she was suggesting something more: that they should develop technology that allows any type of device to be voice-controlled.
Today Origami is building a suite of software that does just that. Interaction with Chan "opened our eyes," Wong said.
Interviewed by Ken Koyanagi, editor-at-large, Nikkei Asian Review
Knowing what you want
HONG KONG -- When Han Mei left Alibaba in 2014 after working there for a decade, she not only gave up a senior position at one of the world's biggest tech companies. She also let go of stocks and options worth millions just months ahead of the internet giant's blockbuster IPO in the U.S.
Four years later, Han is back in the spotlight as co-founder and chief operating officer of Hellobike. The two-year-old bike-sharing company is logging strong growth at a time when a brutal industry shuffle is forcing many of its rivals out of business. The latest round of fundraising, in June, put Hellobike's value at $1.47 billion.
Wearing a beige dress and matching heels, the 39-year-old arrived at a Hong Kong hotel for her interview with the Nikkei Asian Review slightly before 8 a.m. "I hope it's not too early for you," she joked. "People in our sector have a terrible sense of working hours."
That is probably to be expected. During her 14-year career in China's fast-growing internet industry, Han says she has often worked more than 12 hours a day.
"My parents and siblings thought the job was too tough [for a girl]," said Han, who grew up in a small village in the southern Chinese province of Jiangxi. "But my husband has been very supportive. He believes the internet is a promising industry." While women are often expected to take care of the children in China, Han said her husband shares in the household responsibilities.
When Hellobike co-founder Yang Lei approached her about starting a business together, Han was four months pregnant with her second child. Knowing that opportunities do not wait in China's fast-changing tech industry, she said yes.
Starting out as a low-level salesperson dealing with corporate clients at Alibaba's B2B department, Han rose to become the section's top manager in less than seven years. She later took over as head of the international credit card business at Alipay, Alibaba's core financial service.
Han had an unusual sales approach. "I often refused clients. I would tell them, 'Don't work with us. There is no point in wasting your money.'" Many Chinese vendors back then were not ready to venture into international business, so Han would brief them on what they needed to do to prepare and ask them to come back when they were ready.
"We help clients," she said. "Only by doing so can a company make money."
"After 10 years at Alibaba, there wasn't much left for me to learn. Sometimes, it's good to move"Han Mei
However, when Han herself had the chance to make a fortune with Alibaba's $25 billion IPO -- the largest in history -- she chose to leave the company and pass up a hefty payday.
"It would have made me look terrible if I left the company after the IPO," Han said, adding that she did not want to appear greedy, especially when her goal at work has never been financial gain.
Han also felt she had reached a professional "bottleneck." "After 10 years at Alibaba, there wasn't much left for me to learn. Sometimes, it's good to move."
The decision, she said, was not a tough one to make. "I know exactly what I want."
Han also has a knack for understanding what others want.
"Humans are complicated. They know if you treat them well," she said.
Many tech companies fail to fully understand customer needs, she says, but women tend to be better at sensing such needs. "Men are like mountains. Women are like water. Men can make the companies bigger, but women can make them better."
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Nikki Sun
Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writer Coco Liu