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Women on Top in Tech – Jessica Chen Riolfi, Head of Asia at TransferWise

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

Here is my interview with Jessica Chen Riolfi, the Head of Asia at TransferWise, an alternative to banks and brokers that allows people to transfer money across borders at a lower cost than ever before. She is responsible for 15 countries in Asia, including India and China, doubling the volume every six months.

What makes you do what you do? 
Growing up in a Chinese-American household, my family always had one eye to the East. As a result, I have seen firsthand the types of change brought about by globalization. Traveling to Shanghai for the first time in the early 1990s, I recall the unpaved roads and lack of infrastructure. Returning just ten years later, I barely recognized the city: construction everywhere, a general increase in standard of living, and my aunt’s pride as she showed us her newly constructed house.

Since that time, the power of technology and business to make meaningful change has been a persistent interest of mine. I’ve spent my career building global products and currently work to accelerate TransferWise’s mission of money without borders throughout Asia. My enduring belief is that when there’s a new invention or new product in one part of the world that can meaningfully improve people’s lives, then it’s worth accelerating that access to people all over the world.

How did you rise in the industry you are in? 
I took the initiative. In my career, I’ve worked for progressively smaller companies. As you can imagine, the smaller/the younger the company, the less structure there is. That means there’s more opportunity to take initiative and more responsibility. I remembered joining TransferWise about three years ago… I felt like a kid in a candy shop. So many things to work on and not enough people to work on them! In such an environment, it’s about raising your hand and just doing it. Your learning curve and your level of responsibility is accelerated. Obviously there’s risk, but I would encourage others to take as much risk as they’re comfortable with. You won’t learn and you won’t grow if you’re too comfortable.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
When taking this role, it didn’t even cross my mind that I was different from the typical applicant. It was a challenging opportunity that was a good match for my skill set; there’s no reason on this planet why I wouldn’t go for it and push ahead.

Not being part of the usual leadership demographic is what motivates me even more. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been inspired by the strong women who came before me. Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman in the US Supreme Court, more recently Sheryl Sandberg as the COO of Facebook, and pushing the cause of women in the tech industry.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him/her? 
I have lots of mentors – people I’ve met throughout my career, former managers and teammates. Different people define mentorship differently. For me, a mentor is someone I look up to professionally and who I’d feel comfortable going to for advice. From that perspective, my network of mentors is as wide as my entire professional network. I’ve always found incredible support when I’ve asked mentors for help or advice… it’s just a matter of having the courage to reach out in the first place.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
That’s an incredibly tough question – it’s something I will likely spend a lifetime continually improving. There’s one main principle that I stick to, however, both on the hiring side and the supporting side. I try to hire people who are self-motivated, who are excited by the opportunity to learn and grow in the role. Then, following on, is the understanding that those people most likely won’t be on your team or your company forever, therefore your role is to help them get to where they want to go. If a teammate wants to eventually start her own start-up, how do you give her the opportunities to be entrepreneurial in the current role? It’s about, to the best of my ability, building their confidence and giving them the skills and honest feedback they need to grow.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why? 
I very consciously support changing the professional workplace so that we remove hidden biases and ensure more equal footing for those of us in it. One thing I’m super proud of is that in TransferWise Singapore, we give new parents 16 weeks of parental leave, no matter if you’re a new mom or a new dad. So many companies give unequal maternity and paternity leave, or even none at all, and it constrains parents into family structures that may not work for them. There are so many more adjustments we can and should make… it’s how we’ll get the best out of our workforce of all types.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
What I’ve seen differentiate really great leaders is vision. It’s a personal conviction that rallies other smart people. I joined TransferWise in part because of Kristo and Taavet, our founders – they passionately believe in a world of money without borders. It’s incredibly powerful because (1) the world would be a better place if this vision came to be, and (2) the vision is actually possible. People can tell that it’s genuine.

Advice for others?
I’ve now worked at different companies and in different roles and have the realization that, try as I might to force this thing, my career, in a certain direction… whether it’s to get a specific title, or to get a specific role, it doesn’t always work exactly the way you plan. Both opportunities and roadblocks can’t be fully anticipated and planned for. Therefore, my advice is to focus on what you can control — work at the intersection of what you’re good at and what you like. If you keep pushing in that direction, and if you always stick to your values, then you’ll end up in a good place.

 

If you’d like to get in touch with Jessica Chen Riolfi, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicachenriolfi/

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Jonathan Oh, CEO & Co-founder of Supplycart

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Jonathan Oh’s enquiring mind and love for learning has led him on an entrepreneurial journey, with him starting Supplycart which helps businesses manage their offices better.

What’s your story?
I am a person that just can’t sit still. I was always intrigued by how the world spins and how people connect. Spending a lot of time outdoors, I had an affinity with exploring new paths, thus leading me to become a serial entrepreneur with experience in creating, operating and building new companies. I am a firm believer there is so much to learn in the world and I love talking to people about ideas, what they are passionate about and what drives them.
Starting off my career in the medical industry, I realised I had a flare to create something that mattered, something that impacted other people’s lives. After exiting my first company in 2014, I continued my journey with two other ventures with a purpose to look towards impacting businesses in the region together with like minded individuals, and here I am.

What excites you most about your industry?
Being able to part of the SME tech industry and seeing how technology is moving SMEs to go digital to improve workflows and efficiencies is an exciting space to be in. Users are consumers. More and more, they are familiarising themselves with using technology in their everyday lives. We foresee the SME space to be the next area where adopting new technology would become vital for any organisation to remain relevant. As I have dabbled in this industry for close to nine years now, I am really looking forward to working with more people in the business community to make a change.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Born in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to go abroad and I realised there was so much to do back home. Spending time in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of years and recently Silicon Valley, it has provided me with experiences and insights into the difference a multicultural community can make. It also made me aware that Asia is still a very culture driven economy, as each country has its unique differences. I believe that the time is right to be in Asia now. We are a growing economy and a lot of exciting stuff is happening in this region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Malaysia. I believe Malaysia is still a very attractive destination for business as it’s close to other neighbouring countries within the region and travelling between the countries is easy. There is also proper infrastructure in place, an affordable cost of living and a sizeable pool of talent. The government also has numerous initiatives for technology companies to apply for MSC status that permits companies to hire foreign companies without restrictions. Malaysia is the perfect launchpad to start growing businesses regionally. From a culture perspective, we are multicultural, which promotes diversity in business and language is never a barrier here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“The difference between a businessman and an entrepreneur; one does a markup and the other creates value.”

Who inspires you?
I would say the people around me inspire me. I wouldn’t narrow it down to a particular person but lump it up with family, workmates, entrepreneurs and friends. From my eyes, everyone has a certain drive, a certain glow and strengths that sometimes they do not see, and that inspires me. I believe the journey to success is never alone, it’s with people.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Something recently that blew me away, made me realise, visually about how much time I have left. I was reading and stumbled upon the writer doing this. This might sound morbid but I drew a horizontal line and started plotting the year I was born all the way up to when I think I might go. It showed me that I have spent 25% of my life growing up, I am going to spend another 55% of my life working and the final 20%, maybe retirement. It got me remembering all the milestones I have achieved and to be thankful for and above all, how I want to spend the 55% of my life doing what matters the most.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I believe that I am exactly where I need to be because of the experiences I have had before. Thank god for the journey so far. It has been filled with ups and downs, new experiences and people along the way these have moulded me. I guess a small thing, if I had my time again, would be to pick up playing a musical instrument which I think still possible now. You are never too old to learn anything.

How do you unwind?
Unwinding for me would be spending time with my family and my two little boys. The little ones are such a bundle of joy. Reminding myself to have balance in terms of not missing the early years with them. Other than that, having coffee with other entrepreneurs, sharing ideas and learning from them is also another way I unwind.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
A term I would use would be “cuti cuti Malaysia.” This means heading to a local destination for some R&R to save on the cost of going on overseas to travel. Top of my the list would be heading to a farm or the jungle with clear river waters and a waterfall all to myself. Staying the night, out in the open under the stars, with a campfire and heading back to nature. The other option would be taking a boat to one of the furthest islands in Malaysia, just before the border of Indonesia, to get away from civilization.

Everyone in business should read this book:
I would actually recommend two books that everyone in business in the early years should read. ‘Founder’s Dilemma’ and ‘Start with Why.’ After being in a couple of businesses and many mistakes later, I came to realise the importance of starting it right. Both these books address the whole mind-set on what founders need to have from selecting who is it we start a business with to why are we starting the business. The business foundation is built from the founders and moving forward everything is built from there. Sometimes we are so into the business that we forget we need to be on the business as well. I would have definitely avoided a couple of bumps if I came across these much earlier on.

Shameless plug for your business:
Manage your office better, that’s our motto. We are always on the lookout to work with organisations, suppliers and partners in this field for partnerships and collaborations.
Supplycart is a B2B procurement platform addressing a need for a change in the way companies manage their office supplies, products and services. We enable suppliers and companies to adopt digital technology when selling and procuring for their business, resulting in a more efficient and productive workforce.
Supplycart provides an easy to use, convenient platform that streamlines the whole procurement process by allowing users to quickly order and reorder, receive instant quotations, obtain quick approvals from necessary approvers and fulfilment items are coordinated/planned to ensure a timely a speedy delivery.
Businesses can now focus on the more important matters in growing and sustaining their business while leaving managing the office to Supplycart. Our vision is to be the number 1 office platform for businesses across South East Asia. “Your office will never be the same again.”

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/ohjonathan/
e : [email protected]
w : www.supplycart.my

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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Trung Nguyen, Founder & Managing Director of Advertising Vietnam

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Having initial success with his first start up in the ad industry, Trung Nguyen went on to start other ventures in the ad world in Vietnam. He now has the largest agency community in Vietnam.

What’s your story?
Three years ago I got my first job in the advertising industry. I worked for a local agency in town, and I fell in love with the creative industry. In June 2015, I founded Agency Life Community in Vietnam. It quickly became the most engaging community in the ad industry. The main content focuses on entertainment. After six months we had over 30,000 organic followers, now we have 120,000 followers.

Because the industry had been good to me, I decided I had to something for the industry to help the industry be better. So, I opened http://AdvertisingVietnam.com – a creative industry ad site which keeps advertising informative, creative and inspiring.

After more than a year in the ads industry in Vietnam, I figured the industry needed a better solution for the recruitment of good staff. Given I own the largest advertising community platform, why don’t I utilise Agency Life to help connect talent with ad agencies. So, I founded job site, AdJob.Asia in January 2017.

What excites you most about your industry?
The ad industry is a creative one with very passionate people who are always challenging themselves. The exciting part for creatives, in the morning they might be working on a baby brand and in the afternoon they are answering a beer brief. There is so much diversity. Every day is the new journey.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I am Vietnamese.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Thailand. The Thais are the kings of the creative industry in SEA. Thai ads are very smart and creative.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Do what you love.

Who inspires you?
My friend, mentor and partner Mr Nghi Nguyen, founder of BrandsVietnam.com. We started our businesses at a similar time. He doesn’t see us as a competitor but rather, he believes that we share the same passion and we are working to provide better knowledge for the ad community.
Mr Nghi also guided me a lot when I first opened the business. I am inspired by his vision to make our marketing industry better.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Our business is a startup company and as a founder I do everything from operations, business development, planning and strategy. However, this is not the good way grow our business. You have to share the workload – find a co-founder or hire a great employee to help share the workload. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Quit my full time job sooner.
During the first year of running my business, I was still working as an ad manager for an agency. However I lacked focus at work due to the overload of work and it affected the company I used to work for. I strongly recommend people who have an idea to start their own business, quit their job early on and focus 100% on it from the get go!

How do you unwind?
Play with my cat.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love to travel throughout all of Asia. I enjoy new places and meeting new people.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Carpenter: A story about the greatest success strategies of all.

Shameless plug for your business:
AdvertisingVietnam.com is a site where you can quickly update yourself on the advertising news in Vietnam. We have 15,000 unique monthly readers who are professional people in the advertising and communications industries.

The Agency Life, https://www.facebook.com/agencylife is largest agency community in Vietnam. This is the right place for ad agencies to share their creative work.

AdJob.Asia now has more than 160 agencies in Vietnam who use our services. We are a leading recruitment service for the advertising industry in Vietnam.

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trungnx26
Email: [email protected]
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trungnx26/

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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