When we launched #WinWithWomen, we wanted to feature women across all levels of leadership and functions. This week, the spotlight is on Katie Kyungseo Lee who shares from her perspective as a young woman in a technology startup. For the past 2.5 years, Katie has been a product owner at Neat, an alternative business account solution that gives customers access to multi-currency wallets, corporate cards and incorporation, with the goal of making the world of trade more accessible to entrepreneurs, SMEs and ambitious young companies.
Hi Katie we’re glad to have you with us today and to hear from the perspective of a young woman in the technology sector. Could you share with our readers why you chose to start your career in the food and beverage (F&B) industry?
My first job was as a management trainee in a restaurant group. I was drawn to the F&B industry as I realised, through my past experience working part-time at restaurants when I was a student, that I enjoyed working there as it was about helping people to have a good time. It made me feel happy to see people enjoying their time under my service.
I learned a lot from my first job with rotations at different departments, but after some time, I felt that the industry was too traditional and that my personal growth would be limited. I started looking for opportunities at technology startups in search for something more dynamic and fast-paced; something that would bring more meaning to my work and allow me to have greater impact in the company. I was able to make the transition into the technology startup industry as a community manager soon after.
What were the greatest drivers that led you to join technology startups?
For me, there were two main reasons: first, the emphasis on the outcome rather than output, and second, the stronger bond between teammates. The nature of startups is such that there is often a lack of resources, money and time. This naturally shapes people to focus on outcome rather than output. No matter how many hours you put in, if the goal is not met, the hours you spent won’t serve as a badge of honour. Things have to be done one way or another and as efficiently as possible. There is often no place for legacy procedures or things done just because “someone wants it that way”, which I saw happening in traditional or large companies. In startups, it’s far easier to make a change.
In startups, people tend to care more about what they can bring to the table and the impact of their work to the company. With the right leadership, it becomes like a team sport where people are invested in maximising the value they bring to the team and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. I believe this kind of environment fosters collaboration which results in innovation, invested employees who care about their product and customers, and therefore a successful business.
How did you end up in your current function?
In my new company, I chanced upon the product manager role. After working with the product manager, I realised that I was fascinated by the role of product management as it acts as a bridge between customers, business, and technology and gave me the ability to be involved in every single aspect of building a great product, starting from ideation and culminating with the launch of the product, with endless iterations in between. Eventually I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in product management. After a lot of research, advice-seeking, and networking, I had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience as a product owner at Neat and it’s been 2 years since! Looking back, I am indeed grateful for every experience I’ve had so far in my career.
Could you tell us a little about your company and what you love most about your work?
Neat helps companies to grow their business globally by offering them payment collection and remittance services as well as corporate virtual/physical credit cards. We want our customers to leave all the financial operation and administrative work to us so that they can focus on growing their business and doing the stuff that truly matters to them.
What I love most about my work at Neat is the endless opportunities. The possibility of Neat’s product is so broad because we don’t position ourselves as an alternative to banks. We want to be better than banks in areas that matter to our customers. This mentality helps us to step out of the “banking” mindset and opens opportunities to engage in many creative ventures. On top of that, the agile mindset of Neat’s strategy team enables the team to quickly validate these different ideas.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey and in your opinion, what are some challenges that women in tech face?
The biggest challenge I faced was learning to be ok with the fact that I cannot do everything perfectly. As a product manager in a startup, you have to change your hat so many times in a single day and this can get overwhelming. There is work to be done everywhere around you. I used to throw myself into every task and push myself to deliver all tasks perfectly, but that was neither sustainable nor effective. I learned to ask for help and prioritise so that I maximise result for the time spent.
As a woman in technology, one of the challenges is breaking into the male-dominant culture; the so-called “boys club”. While my experience as a minority gender in my team has been smooth sailing, it’s very common to see product and engineering teams dominated by males and this does affect the team culture. One way to manage expectations is to acknowledge and understand that you will be the odd one out. Your voice as a champion for gender balance will be important to change the status quo.
Could you share your experience working in a startup? What advice would you give to young women like yourself who want to join the technology industry, and do you think starting young is an advantage?
My advice is to be ready to fail, learn and move on. Often you don’t have a great amount of support or mentors to learn from in a startup because of a lack of resources. You will have to take care of things even if they aren’t your forte and to adopt a “can-do” attitude in trying first and seeing what happens next. This means that you are likely to experience things not working as you had planned or imagined. If that happens, you need to reflect on why it didn’t work and move on.
This is also the best part of joining a startup – you get to try so many different things. However, you also need to remember the takeaways and make sure you do not repeat them in the future. I do recommend trying out different corporate settings before you settle in one environment. At the end of the day, the earlier you experience different corporate cultures, the quicker you realise what kind of values you cherish in your work life. I am in the midst of this process as well!
How does the company you work for support gender balance?
The fact that I don’t feel gender discrimination at Neat is something worth mentioning. From my past experiences, there were certain expectations or stereotypes of female employees no matter what function or level of seniority they were at. At Neat, everyone is encouraged to be themselves and is recognised for who they are. I think that creating a safe place provides a foundation to achieve gender balance and diversity at any level of seniority in a workplace.
What would you like to see companies do to encourage gender diversity?
Acknowledging the impact that gender balance or diversity in general has on the success of the business is a start. Even after countless research, case studies, and testimonies, there is still a fair amount of scepticism around the impact of diversity in the workplace. In hiring, including diversity an evaluation criteria can help the company achieve a greater gender-balance. As investors, recognising diversity as a factor to look out for while evaluating potential portfolio companies will create a waterfall effect on founders and serve as a gentle nudge for companies to encourage it.
Who or what inspires you?
Strong alignment in a team inspires me – I love working with different people because with teamwork, I can achieve something bigger than myself. To do that well, the shared understanding and excitement about the mission is key. When I feel this shared purpose in my team, work becomes joy!
Any final words?
I am curious to hear about success stories of anyone who managed to convince their companies about the importance of gender balance and of people who have sparked a change in their team‘s diversity!