As a chemistry graduate, Stefanie taught herself how to code before entering the technology industry where she started out as a web developer before moving on to software development. Stefanie shares her experience as a female leader and advice for the next generation of female leaders.
Hi Stef, could you share what your career journey has been like and how it led you to Advance?
I was a chemistry graduate and my first job was an R&D researcher for a global chemical company. I wanted to apply my college education and gain experience in an industrial context but quickly realised that I wanted to work in a more dynamic environment where I could see the impact of my work more quickly. With my peers entering the technology industry at that time, I became intrigued at the thought of building products and started learning to code in my spare time. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to switch careers and pursue full-time technology roles.
I found the fast-paced and immersive nature of start-ups incredibly rewarding. Being exposed to all facets of the business allowed me to hone my critical thinking skills and create more thoughtful solutions. It was also invaluable in leading me to my current role as COO of Advance.
Advance is a Philippine fintech company that allows employees to access their wages on-demand, helping them manage their daily financial needs in a way that suits them best. As part of the company’s founding team, it’s been really fulfilling building a company alongside friends and teammates that are all driven by the same vision to empower the Filipino workforce.
What do you love most about the technology industry?
I love that technology focuses on innovation and impact. With technology evolving at such a rapid pace and the barrier to entry decreasing, more and more people are able to build and ship products that not only impacts lives but also fosters ingenuity.
At the beginning of my career, I was excited by the technology industry’s dynamic, fast-paced and creative environment. I wanted to challenge myself to learn as much as I could and the immersive and fluid nature of start-ups seemed like a great fit for the growth I wanted to achieve. I personally love exploring technology products and the best ones, in my opinion, are those you never thought you needed until you used them. In addition to enjoying coding, I became driven by the desire to build something that positively impacts others. With that, it was an easy decision to shift gears and pursue a career in technology.
Could you share your experience as a female leader in a technology company? What advice would you have for women aspiring for leadership roles?
I’ve been very fortunate to be part of teams that share similar views when it comes to providing equal opportunities for women in technology. However, sharing similar beliefs and being part of a gender balanced team isn’t always the same. Being in a technology company, it’s a common occurrent to find myself as part of a male-dominated team.
Though we’ve come a long way, I think there can still be pressure or expectations on women to adhere to certain personalities or archetypes in order to progress in the workplace (or pressure not to do certain things). For example, being wary of speaking up, asking for help, or being compassionate for fear of seeming ‘weak’.
My advice for those aspiring for leadership roles is to recognise that your gender and personality are integral parts of your perspective and value as a professional. Don’t be intimidated by how others might perceive you; instead, focus on building the skills that will make you a great leader in your field and understanding what type of leader you want to be.
What does female leadership mean to you?
I don’t think generalisations should be made when it comes to leadership and gender: a leader is a leader. The attributes that make a great leader aren’t gender-specific – even those traditionally affiliated with women, such as compassion and empathy, can and should be shared by all. I believe it boils down to the individual and the ability to rally people behind them and lead them towards a common goal, regardless of their gender.
Having said that, gender bias and inequality very much still exist and it’s vital that we further the conversation on these issues. Women should also continue to aspire and push for leadership positions to inspire others until we balance the scales. It’s also important to engage with everyone – not just women – to reach true equality.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders?
While we see more women assuming leadership positions and more company policies being revised to encourage gender equality, there’s still a long way to go before this shift is seen across all industries and cultures. In addition to the continuous efforts towards making gender equality the norm rather than the exception, it would be great to see the next generation of leaders not only accept but also celebrate the diversity that comes with gender-balanced teams.
How does Advance support gender balance?
As a team of 30, we have a near-equal gender split (16:14 male:female), with similar levels of representation in the management team as well. We assess an employee’s performance based on the same objectives and offer equal opportunities for all to progress in the company. In addition, we respect that every team member has their own circumstances and needs and this is one of the reasons why we’ve been deliberate since day 1 about having a flexible work culture with no fixed working hours. We want to ensure that each member in our team is able to find the best setup for themselves based on their prevailing circumstances to optimise their performance.
What do you think founders can do more to encourage gender balance in technology companies?
I can think of seven points that are important:
What advice would you give young women who are just starting to work?
To all the young women out there, firstly, don’t be intimidated by any pressures or biases in your environment that could be self-perceived. Focus on finding a field or profession that is fulfilling to you and helps you build your skills. It’s easier to weather through any challenges you face and progress if you’re working towards something you’re personally invested in.
Secondly, respect everyone, including yourself.
Thirdly, recognise that your gender, personality and background are integral parts of your value as a professional. Don’t be pressured into adhering to certain personalities or avoiding activities (e.g. speaking up) while in your career journey.
Finally, never justify any lack of respect or judgement that arises from gender biases. Find teams and leaders that share your values. A company’s management team is often a good litmus test for this.
Is there something or someone who inspires you?
I often look to high-performing, people-centric leaders that emphasise culture, communication, and empathy as inspirations for my own growth as a leader. Top of mind are: Susan Wojcicki, Sheryl Sandberg, Brian Chesky, and Jacinda Ardern.
As a COO in a technology company, I also draw a lot of inspiration for growing a business from listening to podcasts and learning from the insights and experiences of different founders and entrepreneurs. I’m a big fan of the podcast “Masters of Scale” which is hosted by Reid Hoffman.
Lastly, receiving feedback on the impact that Advance has made for both our customers and team members is a significant driving force for me.