Audrey Ottevanger co-founded DataNoodle, a prominent e-commerce business analytics platform in Singapore, but her journey to success was not free of the long-standing prejudice against women.
In this interview, Audrey recounts her early days in the tech industry, the obstacles she had to overcome, and her guidance for women who are striving to establish a career in tech.
Could you tell us about your background and how you got started in the tech industry?
I graduated with a business degree, and my first few roles were in marketing and business development, before I landed a sales role in PayPal. It was like being thrown into the deep end, as I had no sales experience nor payments experience. But I really wanted to get into tech and this was back before “women in tech” was really a thing, so I was willing to take any role. I wanted to be a part of the tech that was going to revolutionize the way people paid. So I dived in, head first. I was treading water in my first 6 months.
As a female entrepreneur in the tech industry, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
I was paid less than my male counterparts, evaluated a lot harder, and as a result there was certainly some imposter syndrome on my part. Constantly second guessing myself and thinking I’m not good enough even though my sales results spoke for themselves. When I became conscious of this, I learnt to verbalize my thoughts better, and day by day, grow a ‘thicker’ skin. I learned to ask for what I wanted, to not be afraid of giving my opinions, and not to fear rejection. Along the way, I learned to fight my own corner when necessary.
I also have an added challenge of my husband, who also started his own business in AgriTech. 2 start-ups, with no income on both fronts, and savings being depleting is a sure way to see stress levels skyrocket. However, we have a great relationship tool, which is open communication between us. We discussed the challenges and also the milestones, our dreams, and goals. We do regular emotional check-ins. We do not know if any of our businesses will actually be successful, but knowing that I have a supportive partner has helped me tremendously.
What advice would you give to other women who are looking to start their own businesses in the tech industry?’
It is probably one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Having a great idea is one thing, but the ability to fund it and get the right resources to execute it is another. This is a major consideration when developing a tech product along with getting the right business partners.
Starting a business also means hustling every day, which means working smart, doing the things that other people don’t want to do, and doing it with purpose and passion because you believe in it. Trust me, at the end, it’s the passion that will take you to the next level.
Self motivation is the underlying foundation here. This journey has given me highs and lows, and sometimes, both in a single day. There are days when I want to give up on the business, and there are days when I feel grateful for where we are. All this ‘inner chat’ keeps me grounded, and is my motivation to put one foot in front of another to drive the business forward. I also think that finding the balance between work, exercise, and family is incredibly important. For me that means yoga, spin, dogs walks, wine, and finding time for my friends.
One of my favorite quotes : There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure – Paulo Caelho.
Can you talk about a particularly challenging moment in your career and how you navigated it?
I realize that I constantly challenge myself by putting myself into uncomfortable situations like being in a new industry or role, and having to prove myself within a short time frame. I recall my first job out of university was in a management trainee role in British American Tobacco, because it would give me a great marketing foundation. It is now so far away from who I am as a person, that it is a bit cringeworthy! This industry was like a big boys club. I was the only female that was accepted in my cohort, and I did everything from selling in hawker centres, sundry shops, and pubs in almost every town in Malaysia. I got shouted at, chased away and sunburnt going from shop to shop. And that was just the first year. After that, it was back to HQ to face the politics of navigating through the system. I was also expected to go along to ‘team building’ events at karaokes with hostesses, as that’s what they guys did. I did it, not thinking twice about it, as it was expected.
I would secretly cry from the stress, but I never let it show, or talked about it, as the job had no room to show weakness – it was a different time and place. There would always be someone else waiting to take your job, so I learned to just get on with it, build strength every day, and find the right mentors to help me through it. This job built the foundation of my character – not afraid to get my hands dirty, and to do what it takes to get the job done, and not to be afraid to seek opinions and feedback, as no woman is an island. Also, it is important to know when something isn’t a good fit for you, and when the time is right to leave. For me, that decision took me to Singapore, and I have never looked back.
What do you think are some of the most exciting developments in the tech industry right now, and how do you see these trends evolving in the future?
The buzz right now is all around ChatGPT. It is a massive leap in Generative AI, and I think everyone is jostling for positions around how best to use it in a business context, rather than just how to cheat on their college essay writing! It is really exciting, as we will probably see how this can potentially make people’s lives easier, and to assist with tedious everyday tasks. And of course, there are concerns over this replacing human intelligence.
The other thing is operationalizing AI in data, which is close to my heart. Most organizations struggle to analyse the ocean of data they collect. This is because nearly 90% of data is unstructured or has no defined schema. AI and Machine Learning (ML) technologies will allow businesses to analyse this unstructured data in a smarter and faster way. The “self-service” or “democratised” analytics model will be readily available to all businesses. And it will be interesting to see how Large Language Models (like ChatGPT) will impact the analytics space.
DataNoodle’s aim is to make data approachable and accessible to e-commerce businesses. Too much data is overwhelming, too little is no use. We leverage on AI to present actionable insights to businesses, which at the end of the day is what e-commerce businesses care about.
How has your experience as a female co-founder influenced the culture and values of your company, DataNoodle?
I started this business with my 2 male business partners because I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. Having worked in multinational companies throughout my career, I felt my influence on products and people was limited. I also felt that as a female, I didn’t have the opportunity to voice my opinions or ‘lean in’, because I didn’t deserve a seat at the table. That’s why at DataNoodle, one of the first things we did was to go through a brand value exercise to determine what our culture and values are – Approachability, Honesty, and Integrity…and Fun. I bring the first 3 values and the others bring the fun element (just joking).
Can you talk about a specific accomplishment or project that you’re particularly proud of, and why?
I completed my yoga teacher training in Costa Rica about 7 years ago, and it took me over 200 hrs. I did it not because I wanted to teach, but because I wanted to deepen my understanding of yoga. I also struggled with articulating instructions, and I thought that this would help me break it down in a more concise manner.
I was pushed to try teaching part-time by a friend, and discovered that I love it. Teaching yoga is my way of sharing the great passion I have. Yoga balances me and I want to share that with people. I was all about closing deals during the day and a yogi by night – like a cross between Gordon Gecko and the Dalai Lama! I proved to myself that I am able to take a lot more on, work on my fears and balance out my spiritual and physical needs.
What do you think are some of the most important skills and qualities for successful entrepreneurs in the tech industry, and how have you developed those skills?
Resilience, grit, and determination, depending on how you define each of them. A resonance with what the customer wants and the ability to be fearless (I’m working hard on this one).
How do you think e-commerce businesses are evolving, particularly in the context of the pandemic and shifting consumer behaviours?
I look at e-commerce a bit like Ed Sheeran, it might divide opinions, but world domination is inevitable. Changes in global business caused by Covid-19 have only accelerated digital transformations.
One of the biggest shifts in behaviours is loyalty. Consumers became less loyal to their normal brands during the pandemic, and started venturing into trying new brands, mostly because of lower prices and availability of stock.
Also, several social media platforms took advantage of higher online retail demand by adding more e-commerce features and enabling shoppers of participating online retailers to browse and purchase products without ever leaving the platform.
To be successful in e-commerce, you need to think bigger than e-commerce. The core question retailers must ask themselves first is not, “What e-commerce investments do I need to make?” but rather, “What consumer experience do I need to offer?”
The consumer’s entire journey is especially important and in order to offer consumers the journey they want, retailers must understand the future of experience-led capabilities. E-commerce is a key piece of that future. But it’s not just about being online — it’s about doing it right.
That is why e-commerce data is crucial to the survival of online businesses. With multiple data sets coming together, it cannot be throwing ‘bodies’ at the issue like having interns scan competitors websites, or assigning marketing to do some research on the market. It is making use of data in sustainable growth.
In your opinion, what needs to change in the tech industry to promote greater diversity and inclusion, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups?
The tech diversity problem has been partly blamed on the ‘bro culture’ because many tech startups are started by developers who are mostly male. This is slowly changing, but not quickly enough. Because of this lack of diversity, there are insufficient role models. Positive role models are needed to reach and inspire young girls, along with people from more diverse backgrounds and cultures, from an early age. This is so that they are aware of tech as a real option for their future.
But to get enough role models, we need to first address some systemic issues like
- Education: There is a need to raise awareness for STEM careers amongst girls, and to provide digital education from a young age (e.g. coding, computer science)
- Follow the money: VC funds are famously lacking in diversity (for example, African American investors make up only 4% of VCs in the US). Founders who look and speak like them often win the majority of the funding (white, male, privileged). Female entrepreneurs typically struggle to get funding. VCs need to play a role in backing underrepresented groups.
Companies need to prioritize diversity and inclusion as a core value. Then determine success metrics and track it. Then adapt internal policies to make change happen. For example:
- hiring process that promotes diversity
- flexible and remote working (provide support system for working mothers)