Interview with Facebook’s first Singaporean female VP in APAC: On gender inclusivity and her love for small businesses
As we embrace the beginning of a brand new decade, it's felicitous timing to reflect on the many victories that the world is claiming. That includes the eventual demise of what most of us would still dub as 'a man's world'. And yes, in a small city like Singapore, we're fortunate to be basking in a progressive time for the workplace — where slowly but surely — female leaders are rising up in male-dominated industries. Of course, why shouldn't they? Gender association to career stereotypes have sort of blurred like how women can rock up in tuxes and men can parade in slinky pleated skirts. Of course, there's still work to be done. But Singapore's well on her way. At least that's what I thought as I sat across Karen Teo, Facebook's first Singaporean female VP in APAC, in one of the many meeting rooms in their expansive office at Marina View.
I for one, was especially curious about her social media activity. Is it a tool where she scouts talents from? Does she use Facebook and Instagram like I do? And truth is, she does. Teo for one, is an avid consumer — an inevitable victim from the clutches of commerce on social media — just like everybody else. Especially when it comes to local artisans. Her current favourite is Tempeh Culture (@tempehculture), as she recounted how her recent purchase of handmade plant-based tempeh was procured from a DM, and then secured at a bus stop. Being the enabler that I am, I recommended my personal favourite: The famed black metal briyani chef (@globalmatsoulkitchen) who churns out cult-favourite batches of basmati gold and then manages to sell out within an hour after an Instagram shoutout was uploaded. To her delight, she instantly requested to follow the engimatic chef.
Perhaps, the makings of a leader was already encrypted in Teo's beginnings — she previously owned a cat café in Chinatown, but her path in Facebook actually catapulted from the most unlikely of places — the gaming industry. Starting from Universal Games where she made her bones, then to Microsoft, where she launched Xbox 360 in the region. Overtime, she worked with a games publisher then met and worked with giants like Tencent in China. Facebook then knocked on her door to head up its APAC Gaming. Eventually, after 4.5 years, Teo moved on to take on vice president of the Global Business Group APAC at Facebook — essentially looking after a dedicated team that supports the eco-system of small, medium businesses. She also serves as the executive sponsor of Facebook's Pride and Women employee communities.
From head of gaming to vice president for APAC, how did that happen?
The move was lateral. It can really be attributed to Facebook's values of inclusivity and diversity of leadership. I was someone who came in with a different perspective of things — that we should be working with gaming companies and positioning our solutions with them. That was very different from how things were done internally. And that was what Facebook welcomed – "Let's make sure that cognitively we have many different kinds of thought leaders as possible."
This created a really safe space for me to able to speak my mind and share opinions, which may or may not have been right at any time but it was always taken into consideration. Along the way, there was a lot of communication and community building that came out of the conversations that we had and it definitely helped me grow. So, through all that I was often given exposure and opportunities so much so that within nine months I headed the entire APAC region for gaming and years later, I was recognised for showing the ability to learn quickly and be culturally nuanced not just with clients, but with our own people.
At any point of your career, were you ever intimidated or afraid as a woman?
Absolutely. Less so in Facebook. In my early days in the gaming industry, it was hard. Most of the time, you step into the room and you see all these male executives who grew up through the ranks surrounded by their peers. In my first week here, I was definitely intimidated by going into a global meeting for gaming and being the only Asian woman present. But I had a manager who believed in my capabilities and passion, and often encouraged me to speak up. He took into consideration that I was more of an introvert and needed briefings before an actual meeting happened. People of different personalities and working styles can be accomodated here.
On gender equality in the workplace, do you think Singapore has reached a optimum level?
There's still alot of work to be done. People in power should be doing more to influence things like hiring and putting true equal opportunities out there for people of both genders. As for Facebook, we don't want to be complacent on this issue. We have various groups within the company that champion women and those that are underrepresented. But with that, we are starting to learn that there are things like intersectionality — there are mothers, single and young graduates, millennials, gay women etc. How do we make sure people are represented, people are given the chance to be in a safe space where they can speak their minds, show up in their best of whichever aspects of themselves they want to come to work in.
What do you love most about your job?
I look after a team that supports the ecosystem of small, medium businesses. I make sure my team and I are tapped into the needs of the businesses that we support and through all that, we build community and give back to the communities which we are in. Most importantly, small businesses are able to thrive on our platforms. In the past, it was only the big boys who coud afford big TV campaigns and now a mom-and-pop shop can run a Facebook ad and reach out to people in their vicinity.
How would you describe your management style? And what do you look for in your employees?
I would say it's flawed because there's constant learning that we need to acknowledge. I'm the kind of manager that likes to surround myself with people who are very strong. I like people who fill my gaps. I know what my gaps are and all these strong people are actually people that I will be happy to work for. So when you surround yourself with people like that there is a huge benefit in growth. I grow really quickly because we have these debates and discussions and then my style is not just to give them the space to do what they can do really well but also to support them when needed. To allow for these different ways of thinking and giving my team a safe space to be able to grow and develop.
The million dollar question: How hard is it to work for a company like Facebook?
I don't think it's hard to work for a company like Facebook. I think what might be hard is for people to understand that balance of wanting to achieve a lot from a results-and-matrix perspective, and at the same time be a really good human being. We are focused on a few values — one of them includes: "Whatever you do make sure you bring people along with you." You are not going to be running off on your own, and if you see the posters hanging on the wall here, they say: "If you want to go far, go with others and if you want to go fast, go alone." We are all about going far and going the distance so that is something we look out for. Part of that is being able to collaborate well with other people. When you collaborate well with people and when you work with a big group to achieve something, that forms a very interesting tension. That can also be when many people find it hard to manage that tension.
Social media is increasingly becoming a useful tool to scout employment. But how can we better enjoy the platforms on a personal basis?
Use the privacy and security controls. Essentially think of it as what do you want your public brand and persona to be seen by the public. And there are certain things about you where you want to be your true authentic self. You don't want to look like you are always professional, you want to let your hair down sometimes with your close group of friends or family. You can control all that. What people see and who you want to see which side of you.
This might be a bit meta. But does Facebook hire people based off social media profiles?
[Laughs] It's a bit meta. I think it depends on the hiring manager. For myself, I've not really done that unless I realise it's a mutual friend or acquaintance. Then I'll just check it out.
What can we look forward from Facebook in 2020?
You probably know that Facebook is all about ensuring that we continue building innovative new experiences. For me personally, what's exciting is Occulus going mainstream. That's huge and I'm very excited about that. Another aspect would be Facebook Watch, streaming is becoming a really big thing and we're trying to support that a bit more.