Leanne Robers is an angel investor, entrepreneur, adviser to start-ups and community builder. She is the Co-founder of She Loves Tech, the world’s largest pitch competition focused on women in technology
“I studied psychology. I come from a family of psychologists; my father is my biggest role model ‒ I saw how he was changing lives, but he was doing it one at a time and I thought that was too slow and so I wanted to do it at scale,” Leanne Robers tells Augustman as the makeup artist preps her for the photoshoot.
She continues, “I went into corporate at Siemens, an engineering conglomerate in the UK and I was doing business development. My department was mostly white men in their 50s and when I became a manager at age 24, they certainly had doubts about this young female Asian who was roughly their own children’s age.
It was really hard for me to distinguish myself and have my voice because in Singapore, I never really got the sense of obvious gender differences and perspectives, and there’s a difference in opportunity between women and men in the UK context. I was given a lot of bad advice.
I was told to be like one of the boys, wear black or pinstripe pantsuits, wear a wedding band to look unavailable, wear glasses to look older, learn how to drink beer and learn how to play golf, and things haven’t changed that much.”
Robers’ take on false diversity
I actually spoke about this. I don’t want to work with diversity in name-only companies. I don’t think someone should approach hires with the mindset of checking boxes because that’s not what diversity is.
In fact, it hurts to cause more when people get roles they’re not qualified for and merely because they were the right gender or orientation. I get frustrated because women who deserve these roles are put in the same category of women who don’t, and the effect is everyone else looks at them like they didn’t deserve it when they are eventually picked on their merits alone. Nobody wants to be the “diversity hire”.
On men versus women
I don’t believe in this is helpful at all. Some things like playing golf are not gender specific, only that networking happens where people are congregating and having fun, like that episode of Friends where Rachel pretends she smokes just to get connected with colleagues. At the end of the day, you do your best and trying to be one of the boys just doesn’t work for me.
You have to use your own unique identity and attributes to build your own voice. I’ve been on many panels where it devolves into male bashing and I say: Hey, can we steer away from this because this is not what She Loves Tech stands for? If you persist, I’m sorry, we cannot remain involved.
On her ability to spot gaps in service in the market
I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. My aunt Marion is a very talented artist who creates a lot of great artworks, and I had realised that she didn’t sell any of it because she didn’t know how to. I began to speak to many talented artists across Southeast Asia; they were more interested in the creating than the business of it and it turned out that when they did go to art galleries, the galleries would take between 30% and 70% commission.
So we created a platform called Comish that really helped artists to be connected to buyers from all over the world. It was also a smart platform that could facilitate everything an artist needed and it also came with a commissioning tool for people who wanted to commission art. It was funded by Mediacorp and along the way I started She Loves Tech as a passion project that gives a platform to women.
It was my friend Virginia’s idea, she’s a lawyer and she created Lean In China that became the biggest lean-in circle in the world with over 100,000 members. What she discovered is there were many entrepreneurs in the circle and then she floated the idea of creating a platform that could be a showcase for them.
Being an entrepreneur myself, I saw amazing women building great technologies but [they] were never on the stage. At the point when we started She Loves Tech, there weren’t many women in tech and we were among the first to shape this “women in tech” movement. In the early days, many of the tech conferences we attended were all men [sic], in start-up competitions, the judges were men, the organisers were men, so why would a woman want to go up on stage with a disadvantage?
Misogyny or people making decisions from their frame of reference?
Back in 2016, one of the famed judges was a giant personality from Silicon Valley and there was a device specifically for women. It was a wearable that assisted a woman’s safety and his question was: Why is this needed? I think it’s not so much a disadvantage, but that there are unintentional biases because their frame of reference and experience is merely different.
The most important thing is to recognise that we all have personal biases and then be able to have groups of people in your network and team to have these diverse perspectives, and that’s how you overcome diverse. You can say you don’t see gender and don’t see colour, but we all have blindsides. You have to have people around you to catch you out when it happens. Men aren’t just choosing men consciously; people invest in people who look like them and have similar backgrounds and it’s natural.
At She Loves Tech, we recognise that and we tend to have judges, speakers and mentors who are representative rather than people who just champion women to the exclusion of merits. I believe we need everyone and in this manner we can close the funding and gender gap in technology.
Finding difficulty dating as a smart, attractive woman
Really tough [laughs]. Men were intimidated and those who weren’t had egos which made them insecure. I’ve also worked on my own insecurities because I started out trying to be somebody else. Being a trained psychologist made it worse because you beat yourself up even more. It’s a vicious cycle, but now it is better with the right support system around me. I think back that I was not somebody who was ready to date.
What attracts you?
My husband was a combination of right place and right time and I do believe divine intervention was involved because he was the perfect partner by the time I was ready. His quiet confidence allowed him to be supportive. We had our individual lives, but he always saw us as a team.
When we had to decide our finances, we decided he was going to go back into corporate so he left entrepreneurship aside and joined Visa, while I continued this path so that we had money coming in [during the time that] I was pursuing the high-risk, high-return strategy.
My husband has this self-assurance that he doesn’t feel like he needs to compete with me. He’s my biggest cheerleader. Sometimes my team reaches out to him without my knowledge for him to be a mentor or lead one of the workshops; he’s equally comfortable leading or being in the background.
Is there such a thing as toxic femininity?
Society makes light of this with memes about henpecked men, but I think it can happen to everybody. I don’t want to put labels on it, but it stems from not being content, being insecure and it rises out to the level of toxic masculinity or femininity.
Photography Darren Gabriel Leow Styling Daryll Alexius Yeo Hair + Makeup Hongling Lim using Kevin Murphy and Nars respectively Photography Assistance Fried Rice