Looking at her father, who was in the shipping industry, building his own computers sparked an interest in technology in young Yvonne Soh. Ever since her childhood, she has taught herself different aspects of technology and even chose a career in the field. After working in the corporate world for more than a decade, she set up her first start-up Jam Factory in 2009.
Now rechristened Noodle Factory, it started off as a corporate education platform. Since its new avatar was rolled out in 2018, it makes use of AI to improve lesson dissemination of schools and institutions of higher learning across Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom. A self taught technocrat, she talks to Women Icons Network about her life as well as the gender disparity in both corporate and start-up ecosystems.
Yvonne remembers her childhood being pretty relaxed and carefree. Her parents never put much pressure on her with regards to studies, yet they always cautioned her against going overboard with the extra curricular activities for fear that she might overcommit. Still, she remembers being a busy teenager with lots of different interests and hobbies.
A big influence on her young mind was her father who instilled in her the love for technology. She says she still has a very clear memory of the moment when she wrote her first “Hello world” code. She has not stopped learning since that day, and continues to discover new marvels of technology each day.
Growing up, she wanted to become a doctor, a veterinarian and even a journalist. When time finally came to choose the subjects she would graduate in, she opted to study philosophy and political science. “These were two areas I had little knowledge of. Business was not something I had considered because I did not want to be in a boring corporate job like everyone else,” she explains. She feels those subjects have helped her to be able to think critically and to be open to different ideas, both traits that have come in handy as an entrepreneur.
Diving into Technology
After graduation, Yvonne found herself in a sales position at a small system integrator selling HASP keys (security dongles used to protect software from being copied). From there, she moved to Pacific Internet selling internet lines, and then to National Computer Systems in a technical role installing software for government systems.
Having ridden the dot-com wave, she then made a conscious choice to stay in IT. That decision led her to Dell Technologies and F5 Networks, where she did product marketing and product management. “I really enjoyed being able to ‘marry’ tech with the business need/problem. One of my responsibilities was also to train sales teams to be able to position the products effectively as a solution to customer problems. That was something I really enjoyed as well,” she recalls.
She partnered with her husband Jim Wagstaff to start a training company. As educators, they experienced first-hand that the most difficult thing was in trying to scale an operation. One area that was a sore point for them was the off-the-market ‘chatbot’ technology that they were using was not suited or adaptable to their needs. The two self confessed geeks started to look for a solution, and thus Noodle Factory was born as an AI tool especially meant for educators. Yvonne is glad she has the chance to build a product to solve a problem, and fill a gap in the existing markets.
Yvonne entered the tech world right out of college. Though it didn’t really strike her as odd at that time, she recalls that the gender ratio at most tech companies at the time was 70:30 in favour of men. This gender disparity was even more apparent in senior management with most of her supervisors and bosses being male.
At one of her jobs, a male colleague looked at her petite frame on the first day of work and asked her how she would be about to do her job when she wouldn’t have the strength to lift a server. Being new, naive and shy, she had no idea how to respond to that. Fortunately for her, her female boss overheard and reminded him that the value of a pre-sales engineer was not in “lifting equipment” but their ability to recommend smart solutions for customers. She went on to assure him that Yvonne was more than capable of fulfilling her responsibilities.
“That was one of my first lessons on how to play to my strengths. I’ve since become less shy and definitely more self-aware,” she says. Her leadership style has always included being open and honest, highlighting the good and providing guidance on improvement areas. She would never hesitate to stand up for a female colleague, just like her boss did for her all those years ago.
Women in the Workplace
Having experienced both a big corporate and the start-up environment, Yvonne is sad to note that neither ecosystem has succeeded in making the workplace gender neutral. Providing her definition of the term, she says a gender-neutral workplace is one where no judgments or decisions are made based on the gender of an employee.
In some of the corporations, they try to enforce gender diversity in the teams and leadership, but there’s still a lot of underlying bias, she insists. Something as simple as a ‘boys’ club’ where male executives tend to hire and promote their ‘bros’ can seriously undermine all efforts. “It’s also about creating work environments where women can feel confident to take up more responsibility because they know they have a flexible work environment. That they will not be penalised for not working regular hours or taking time off for personal or family obligations,” she explains.
There are two telling signs that a company is committed to gender equality, she feels. One, that the senior leadership is 50% male and 50% female. Second, that there is a truly flexible work environment where employees are measured purely by their work performance, and are supported for their personal needs.
Impact of Pandemic
Yvonne notes that the economic and social impact on women was much greater due to many factors. The sectors where the pandemic hit most, like hospitality, tend to have more women, so many were affected by job losses, she explains. Additionally, she points out that women were still expected to be the primary caretaker of the home, aggravating the problem for many women as they no longer had the options for childcare that they normally do. “Meanwhile, men felt free to lock themselves in another room to work, away from the rest of the family and domestic distractions,” she adds.
Her own domain being education which employs more women than men, she has seen many of these domestic conflicts seeping into the workplace. She feels that life of female educators was very difficult during the lockdowns and school closures, as not only did they have to manage their virtual classrooms of students but also were expected to take care of their children at home, plus help their own children with their studies.
In a multicultural society like Singapore, there’s a high number of employees who are expatriates, many of whom chose to move back to their home countries while working from home. Several of Yvonne’s own teammates also made a similar choice. “The pandemic isolated all of us, and family became even more important. We were more than happy to support that as with today’s technology, and in our business, we can really work from anywhere,” she says. She informs that she has always thought of empathy being an important trait of a good leader, and she ensured she was more empathetic than before with the employees during the difficult times. All of this, she feels, helped the company to have happy employees, which ultimately resulted in better outcomes for everyone involved.
Yvonne looks forward to the negative impacts of the pandemic being erased. She is even more excited about the large-scale digital adoption that is an offshoot of the lockdowns, especially about the future of artificial intelligence. “Thanks to Hollywood movies, many people think about AI as this mysterious thing that ultimately takes over humans. But the reality is that AI can be very practical,” she states.
Decoding the mystery, she shares that AI involves making use of data patterns and then assessing the statistical likelihood to determine actions. It can do this much faster and more accurately than humans, and for this reason, AI is meant to assist humans and improve their quality of life.
Yvonne enthusiastically speaks about the use of AI in education, too. “It can help to personalise the learning experience for students based on their past interactions with thousands of students, whilst still having the benefits of delivering digital learning at scale. AI can help teachers with repetitive activities like marking papers, creating assessments, transcriptions, building knowledge bases, classroom simulations, even helping to identify at-risk students,” she explains. She insists that it’s not made so that we do not need teachers anymore, but it’s really to help thousands of overworked teachers to focus on doing what they love, teaching.
Speaking of students, she really wishes for more and more girls to come into the STEM fields. She has a message for young girls with an inclination towards the sciences: Don’t be intimidated, be confident in your own abilities and do what you love. “There will be times when you might be the only female in the room. So what? Sometimes, it’s good to be different. There will be times you might hear some remarks about how women are not suited for such careers. That really stems from ignorance, and most people don’t set out to be biased, it’s often unconscious,” she advises ambitious young girls. She also feels that such unconscious biases can be weeded out when people have enough success stories to not call a successful female in STEM an anomaly.