During a business trip to Vietnam in early July 2022, Verena Siow - SAP Southeast Asia president and managing director was delighted to see a healthy representative of women leadership in the corporate board room. According to Verena, globally, the rate of women in management at SAP increased to 28.3 per cent in 2021, including herself.
“I was born and raised in Singapore, attended university in Budapest, then lived and worked in the US and Israel. In the US, my husband and I started a small business that fell miserably after one year. But it was a good learning experience for both of us.
Before joining SAP, I worked for Click Software - a small software company specializing in mobile workforce solutions and SAP's partner. 10 years ago, when I decided to move back to Singapore, I talked to several companies and got the opportunity to work at SAP. At that time, I was already a mother of two little girls.
“When I joined SAP, I was in the Asia Pacific Japan role, starting with services and then moved to Southeast Asia as I wanted to be closer to our customers. Five years ago, I became managing director of SAP Indochina and relocated to Thailand. In September 2020, I was appointed president and managing director of SAP Southeast Asia”, Verena shared with TheLEADER her journey to becoming a female leader at one of the top 20 technology companies in the world.
Technology helps promote diversity and inclusion
Looking back at the start of your career, did you choose “business” or “technology”?
Verena Siow: In the past, I worked at quite a few small companies and startups. I like technology because it is fast and dynamic, so you get to try many new things. Technology is a great enabling platform to promote diversity and inclusion because it is very objective. In tech, as long as you produce great results, it doesn't really matter whether you're a man or woman, and what nationality you are.
If you had not been in technology, do you think you could have got the same career development opportunities as you are enjoying now at SAP?
Verena Siow: I've thought about this a lot. My first job out of college was in healthcare. When people saw that I had good medical knowledge, many thought that I studied to become a nurse. 25 years ago, the majority of doctors and medical professionals were men. This was a classic example of gender bias.
However, things have changed a lot after 25 years, especially in tech. As long as you deliver or exceed expectations, you'll be celebrated and recognized, regardless of your gender, nationality, or age.
If I hadn't joined SAP, I probably wouldn't have gotten the positions I was given the opportunity to try out. Therefore, I greatly appreciate SAP for giving me many opportunities to learn, grow and take on progressively essential positions.
Do you credit such opportunities to luck or is this for everyone?
Verena Siow: Employees at SAP South East Asia come from 49 different countries, in which women account for 51 per cent, and female leaders account for 47 per cent. I always support my employees to share with their managers their goals and receive support from the company. Every employee needs to understand what they need to learn and develop, not only for their current job but also for future plans.
I am happy to see a growing representation of women in the technology sector, especially female engineers. For example, 55 per cent of SAP Vietnam employees are female. However, many women are in customer-facing roles such as sales or marketing. For research and programming jobs, men still make up the majority.
To encourage more women in tech, we need to start very early. Usually, girls will be encouraged to study humanities while boys tend to study maths & science. We need to break this gender barrier at school so that companies have a healthy pool of young female IT talents to hire from in the future.
SAP is actively working with universities to promote Women in Tech through the SAP University Alliance program. We are partnering with the ASEAN Foundation on the ASEAN Data Science Explorers program, which encourages ASEAN students to use our SAP Analytics Cloud solution to analyze data to uncover real insights and develop solutions to pressing issues such as sustainable development in ASEAN.
Last year, for the first time ever, the number of female participants actually outnumbered male participants. More importantly, thanks to this contest, there are many female students who are more interested in data science and are keen to develop their careers in data analytics. As mentioned earlier, we need to encourage female students to be interested in technology right at school, so that later on, there will be a sizable talent pool for businesses to recruit.
What makes SAP and you especially advocate for diversity and inclusion?
Verena Siow: Diversity and inclusion are good for the business. Many studies have demonstrated the positive business impacts of gender balance in leadership teams through diversity in perspectives, opinions, and decision-making processes.
SAP supports all employees, regardless of age, gender, background, or nationality. I think having a diverse team will help businesses gain a holistic view of the problem, thereby bringing the best solutions to customers.
This is also why many people stay with SAP for a long time because they have the opportunity to explore different positions within the same company. I myself have been with SAP for over 10 years and have taken on 6 different roles. This is the strength of SAP – although we are a technology company specializing in providing solutions to help businesses run better, we are a very people-centric organization.
As a woman myself, I hope to see many female leaders at different levels in the corporate world. As a mother of two teenage daughters aged 20 and 15, I really look forward to a better future for girls, including my 2 children. I hope young people will have an equal opportunity to do what they want to do and follow their dreams. Half of the world's population is women, so women’s rights are also human rights. Once women's rights are guaranteed, only then can we can build a sustainable community for future generations.
In your opinion, what advantages do female leaders have in the tech industry?
Verena Siow: Many female leaders are also wives and mothers, and they tend to be good at juggling multiple tasks at the same time. In addition, they are usually very good listeners. This is a great advantage because listening to and understanding customers, partners, and employees... is becoming more and more important, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic.
The definition of leadership has also changed significantly over time. 20 years ago, leaders needed to be strong and aggressive - very "masculine" qualities, but nowadays, the ideal leader will need to possess different qualities such as understanding and caring, as well as being highly flexible and adaptable.
A successful female leader will also inspire other women. Women leaders are often very conscious and supportive of diversity and inclusion because they themselves often need to overcome many gender biases to succeed.
In addition, networking is also very important. We often talk about men’s clubs and they tend to be better at building relationships than women. In business, women also need to network, share, and support each other.
Diversity and inclusion for sustainable development
Different companies have different definitions of sustainability. What is SAP's definition of sustainability?
Verena Siow: SAP has an initiative of chasing zeros– zero emissions, zero waste, zero inequality. The confusion regarding sustainability is partly because many businesses don't know where to start. If businesses want to achieve their sustainability goals, they need to start today, because it takes time to implement these plans.
More importantly, businesses must determine what success will look like. A lot of businesses still use sales or profit as their main measurement of success. However, stakeholders are increasingly focusing on the sustainability metrics of a business. For example, when buying clothes, consumers will be interested to know whether it is produced sustainably, whether recycled materials are used, and whether the working environment for workers is safe or not...
The market is also demanding sustainable products. A few weeks ago, I attended a private equity event in Singapore, and for many private equity firms, one of the consideration factors for investing in a new business is whether the company adheres to ESG practices (environmental, social, and governance) or not.
Finally, employees also want to work for companies that are sustainable and have a purpose. Therefore, businesses will need to meet these criteria if they want to hire the best talent.
It is clear that businesses need to redefine how they measure success and meet the sustainability expectations from customers, markets and employees. SAP helps businesses collect data to aid the decision-making process, and improve sustainability in their business operations.
To many Vietnamese small and medium enterprises, sustainability is a luxury, not a must-have item. What do you think about this?
Verena Siow: It's time for us to change our mindset so sustainability becomes part of the guiding principle of the business and not a luxury.
Having a sustainable world is not a luxury, it’s a necessary requirement for us to survive. In addition to pursuing profits, businesses need to be conscious of how they can contribute to society.
We all have a part to play when it comes to sustainability, and it needs to be a public-private partnership, not just the government’s responsibility.
Therefore, we often encourage businesses to take advantage of available data to build sustainability reports and promote sustainability goals based on those reports.
From your experience, is it difficult to implement sustainable policies in enterprises?
Verena Siow: I don't think it's difficult to implement. The biggest challenge is still changing mindsets. Once we are clear on what needs to be done, implementation will be the easy part.
Sustainability needs to be driven from the top in order to set the direction and make it an integral part of the business strategies in the future. Only in this way can businesses succeed in implementing policies when it comes to sustainable development.
In fact, sustainability is closely linked with diversity and inclusion. Supporting diversity in the business and having more women at the leadership level will also drive sustainability in the company.
What has SAP done to tackle sustainability issues within the company as well as in your ecosystem?
Verena Siow: As mentioned earlier, many businesses don't know where to start. Therefore, SAP provides guidelines to help them set a plan, define what success will look like, and then set goals and KPIs. We work closely with our partners and customers to address the challenge of where to start.
Sustainability includes the efficient use of resources. We work closely with universities and the SAP ecosystem to develop more talents to meet market needs and support the growth of dynamic economies like Vietnam.
Technology is the backbone of promoting sustainability. We need to find ways to integrate sustainability standards into each business process so that it becomes an integral part of the business, and this is where our SAP solutions can come in handy.
Finally, no business can succeed on its own. Every business has a unique network of customers, suppliers, and partners. A sustainable business will help promote sustainability in its ecosystem. SAP has a solution to help enterprises grow their business network and leverage it to promote sustainability in their ecosystem. Many of our clients are concerned about ESG metrics and they have also expressed their desire to work with businesses that meet those sustainability criteria well.
Looking back at SAP's development, what has SAP done in the past and what will it bring in the future, ma'am?
Verena Siow: This year is SAP's 50th birthday. We started with ERP solutions, and gradually expanded to other solutions to help businesses grow in a smart and sustainable way. Initially, we helped businesses automate business processes, then gradually leveraged technology to operate more intelligently, while making the most of the power of the business network to work towards a Successful Future.
Thank you very much!