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Women on Top in Tech – Damini Mahajan, CEO/Co-Founder, We Make Scholars

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Women on Top in Tech is a series of Women Founders, CEOs & Leaders in Tech. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.

Damini is the CEO and co-founder of We Make Scholars (http://www.wemakescholars.com), a “Not-just-for-profit” organisation addressing a major social issue: “Lack of reliable and transparent information” in the higher education sector. Their mission, in their own words, is “to be the earth’s best platform for aspiring scholars.”

Here are excerpts from my conversation with Damini.


What makes you do what you do?

The main motivation is my mission to provide quality and affordable education to everyone in this world. And as you know, the developing, the developed countries, if you talk about America, they have a lot of opportunities but if we talk about third world countries, India or Vietnam, Malaysia and Africa, Europe, there are a lot section of the society which is under served.

The affordable education is not available. In India, if you talk about the education, is not about the quality, it’s about degrees and certifications. My motivation is to provide quality education so that people, not just become educated, they become literate. They know how the world works, how to win or wait. So I think the reason why third world countries are poor in Science and Technology is because education is there but the innovation and literacy, people and residents, STEM, Science and Technology is less. The innovation is not there. So, that’s why all the innovation comes from America. My motivation is to provide quality education so that people can innovate even in our countries where resources are there but people are not doing that. At ‘We Make Scholars’ where we started helping students with the global scholarships so that they can pursue their education at top universities around the world. (see http://www.wemakescholars.com/)

we_make_scholars_logo

When you have a mission, you have target and you know what you want to achieve and you know what you want to serve to the society, it always gives you internal inspiration and it makes you go ahead on your mission.

And your second startup is a nutritional beverage, how did that arise?

A lot of infants and mother they die after the delivery. This nutritional drink, reduces the mortality rate in infants. So it has that vitamins required for a postnatal carriage.

How do you manage to do two things at the same time? Or is it because we multitask as women or you have two lives?

(laughs) Yeah. I mean it’s always a challenge because both the startups are on the rise. And there’s always a lot of work to do. It’s a lot of work. But I think it’s the, again, the motivation which makes you divide time and prioritize things so you are take time from your personal time, let’s say, sleep or personal work. So that you can now dedicate equal time to both of these and so that they both can run properly and in a good way.

Many women, especially in Asia, give a lot give priority to family and sometimes don’t take leadership positions.

I agree with that. But I think now it’s changing. Personally, I had these issues because I belong to a very small place in India. It’s India, probably metro cities, people are not like that, but I belong to a small town. There are people who have these issues and leadership roles they don’t take. They want to take very light jobs where it’s flexible so they can give time to family but for me, I would say from childhood, I always had this thing that I wanted to give back to the society. I didn’t want to just study and not use my knowledge, not use my skills. I always wanted to — I would say even when I was little, High School, I used to teach primary kids from the labor class or the working class who didn’t get a chance to attend school. I used to do that. So, teaching was always my interest.

I’m hearing you say that despite the challenges that come from a social norming of a small city, the fact that you’re slightly supposed to be young person and inexperienced (an under-represented as woman in technology) you still kept going because of the mission. That’s what you’re saying?

Yeah. And I think you need support from people who are very close to you even though the societal norms doesn’t tell you you’re doing wrong or you’re going against the norms, you need a few people. Keep people who are near you. Your family, your friends. If they are okay with that and if they support you and you have the internal motivation, you can go ahead.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

So I would say industrial, the mentors in the industry are there who give us inspiration. But my internal inspiration is my mother. Because she also grew from a society where women are not educated because it’s a small town as I mentioned. They don’t take college degree. So she took up the challenges and she always taught me that thing that you have to take the next step. People will stop you, society will stop you but if you want to do that, you can do it.

For my industry mentor, I was fortunate to have Mr. Raju Reddy who established a very big company in the US, Sierra Atlantic. At its peak, it was one of the top companies in China. So, he’s an inspiration and like me, he belongs to a really small town in India. He’s now one of the biggest investor in Silicon Valley. My other key mentors include Prof Sunil Handa and Mr Sanjay Jesrani. So when you look at these people and they tell you it’s not about where you belong to or come from, we all can be reach our goals and be make an impact.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?

Okay. So I met him in a town in India where he is serving back to the society. So he’s helping social entrepreneurs. So when I was there and I was starting something in the space and I wanted to/a help, so I met him and he was very excited about it. And he could see that at a young age, I was 23 when I was working in this idea, and he was very happy about it and he wanted to mentor us and give me the way, the part. He always supports me so the part, he never tell me this is what you should do. He always say, “You tell me what you wanna do. I’ll tell you if there are some challenges or anything so that you can be alert.”

I am a huge fan and cheerleader of this Young Powerhouse Damini – If you know of a AMAZING Woman Founder, CEO, Leader in Tech or you are one yourself – Write me.

AMPLIFY Conscious Business Leadership with me


For more information about We Make Scholars, please see http://www.wemakescholars.com.

For information about Turning Gen Y On, my recently-published book to help leaders overcome workplace challenges with their Gen Y staff, please see http://tgyo.asia/.

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Callum Connects

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read, “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang

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Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang.

Jeff knows how to spot and groom good culture, as the book session was held in Zestfinance a company he invested in and now, “The Best Workplaces for Women” and for “The Best Workplaces for Tech”, by Fortune.

These are the questions during the Book Launch.

How to know if a hire including the founder is Startup material?
Jeff says to watch for these qualities.

First, do the hires think like an owner?
Second, do the hires test the limits, to see how things can it be done better?
Are they problem solvers and are biased toward action?
Do they like managing uncertainty and being comfortable with uncertainty? And comfortable with rapid decision-making?
Are they comfortable with flexible enough to take in a series of undefined roles and task?

How do we know if we are simply too corporate to be startup?

Corporate mindsets more interested in going deep into a particular functional area? These corporate beings are more comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control, and communication? They are more hesitant or unable to put in the extra effort because “it’s not my job”.

If you do still want to enter a startup despite the very small gains at the onset, Jeff offers a few key considerations on how to pick a right one.

He suggests you pick a city as each city has a different ecosystems stakeholders and funding sources and market strengths. You have to invest in the ecosystem and this is your due diligence. Understand it so you can find the best match when it arises.
Next, to pick a domain, research and solidify your understanding with every informational interview and discussion you begin. Then, pick a stage you are willing to enter at. They are usually 1)in the Jungle, 2) the Dirt Road or 3) the Highway. The Jungle has 1-50 staff and no clear path with distractions everywhere and very tough conditions. The Dirt Road gets clearer but is definitely bumpy and windy. Well the Highway speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Finally Please – Pick a winner!

Ask people on the inside – the Venture Capitalists, the lawyers, the recruiters and evaluate the team quality like any venture capitalists would. Would you want to work for the team again and again? And is the startup working in a massive market? Is there a clear recurring business model?

After you have picked a winning team and product, how would you get in through the door?

You need to know that warm introductions have to be done. That’s the way to get their attention. Startups value relationships and people as they need social capital to grow. If you have little experience or seemingly irrelevant experience, go bearing a gift. Jeff shared a story of a young ambitious and bright candidate with no tech experience who went and did a thorough customer survey of the users of the startup she intended to work with. She came with point-of-view and presented her findings, and they found in her, what they needed at that stage. She became their Director of Growth. Go in with the philosophy of adding value-add you can get any job you want.

And as any true advisor would do, Jeff did not mince his words, when he reminded the audience that, “If you can’t get introduced you may not be resourceful enough to be in startup.”

Startupland is not a Traditional Career or Learning Cycles

Remember to see your career stage as a runs of 5 years, 8 or 10 – it is not a life long career. In Startup land consider each startup as a single career for you.

Douglas Merrill, founder of Zestfinance added from his hard-earned experience that retention is a challenge. Startup Leaders to keep your people, do help them with the quick learning cycles. Essentially from Jungle to Dirt road, the transition can be rapid and so each communication model that starts and exists, gets changed quickly. Every twelve months, the communication model will have no choice but to break down and you have to reinvent the communication model. Be ready as a founder and be ready as a member of the startup.

Another suggestion was to have no titles for first two years. So that everyone was hands-on and also able to move as one entity.

Effective Startupland Leaders paint a Vision of the Future yet unseen.

What I really enjoyed and resonated with as a coach and psychologist was how Douglas at the 10th hire thought very carefully what he was promising each of his new team member. He was reminded that startups die at their 10th and their 100th hires. He took some mindful down time and reflected. He then wrote a story for each person in his own team and literally wrote out what the company would look like and their individual part in it. In He writing each of the team members’ stories into his vision and giving each person this story, it was a powerful communication piece. He definitely increased the touch points and communication here is the effective startup’s leverage.

Douglas and Jeff both suggested transparency from the onset.

If you think like an owner and if you think of your founding team as problem solvers. Then getting transparent about financials with your team is probably a good idea. As a member of a startup, you should insist on knowing these things
Such skills and domain knowledge will be valuable. There is now historical evidence of people leaving startups and being a successful founder themselves because they were in the financial trenches in their initial startup. Think Paypal and Facebook Mafia.

What drives people to enter a startup?

The whole nature of work is changing. Many are ready to pay to learn. Daniel Pink’s book Drive showed how people are motivated by certain qualities like Mastery, Autonomy and Where your work fits into big picture. Startups do that naturally. There is a huge amount of passion and the quality of team today and as it grows then the quality of company changes.

The Progress principle is in place, why people love their startup jobs is not money rather are my contributions being valued? Do I see a path of progress and do I have autonomy over work and am I treated well?

Find out more about StartupLand on Amazon

And learn from Zestfinance

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