How to Save Ourselves From Tech Dystopia

The tech debate has gone on for a long time. With the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 and the latest Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals, the tech debate has finally edged to the mainstream. I am a relative latecomer to the debate – I only started engaging with it seriously last year. I thought there was no space for non-techies as there was so much technical jargon, and I also did not feel that there was a space for women given the sexism of the tech industry. As we approach the Fourth Industrial Revolution, humanity cannot afford the tech debate to be confined in an echo chamber of tech elites. Ordinary citizens need to reclaim the tech debate – if we don’t, with the rapid development of advanced technologies, dystopia will be near.

Technology itself is neutral. How it is currently applied is not. If one studies the history of the Internet and the vision of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, it was created in an open architecture, flourishing the free flow of information. Yet, as the Internet grew and technology giants emerge, profit maximisation becomes the dominant paradigm and the Internet moved away from its original intent.

The Edward Snowden leaks have made us aware the extent to which the Internet and data collection have been used for large-scale institutional surveillance. Being from Hong Kong, where Edward Snoweden took refuge briefly, I followed the story very closely, but with a sense of powerlessness in face of “Big Brother”. As my interest in this area grew, I started watching Black Mirrors, a sci-fi TV series that explores a tech dystopic world. It made me think back about George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I read as a teenager. Why are the emancipating potentials of technology overshadowed by human’s ability to cement control through technology? It was a question that I only asked myself, and explored as part of my Master dissertation (which was not published), as I did not feel I had the right to engage in the tech debate.

What changed for me was living in Berlin for a few months in 2017. Through my social enterprise, I joined a social tech accelerator programme focused on women entrepreneurs, called F-Lane, run by Vodafone Institute. It exposed me to the growing movement of Women in Tech.  Apart from running F-Lane, Vodafone Institute deals with issues on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and I was suddenly exposed to it. In Berlin, I also met an organisation called Tactical Technology Collective, which does fantastic work on training human rights activists in digital security, as well as equipping general public with the awareness and tools to grapple with the social and political implications of technology. Their Glass Room exhibition, which attracted over 200,000 people in New York and London combined, was an attempt to make the complex tech debate accessible to the ordinary individual, through creative use of art. I started to see how I belonged, and this process broke a stereotype that I have had for a long time.

I did not feel I could engage in the tech debate because I thought it was technical. The truth is, the tech debate is not technical.

The technical jargon is put up so that it is accessible only to the ones benefiting from the status quo. Fundamentally, the tech debate is about the central questions of:

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free?

As the seminal book Homo Deus sought to argue, the tech debate is very much an existential one for the human race.

Technology itself is neutral. How it is currently applied is bringing us towards dystopia. But there is an antidote. Ordinary citizens need to start engaging in this debate, and feel ownership of it. We are seeing this happening with the recent enforcement of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in Europe that puts citizens’ rights at the forefront, but we need more of this happening across the world. Otherwise, very soon, robots will be speaking on our behalf.



Gender lens and climate action: the ripple effect

Gender lens and climate action: the ripple effect

“The challenges of climate change cannot be solved without empowering women,” UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Mary Robinson.

My generation, born in the 1990s, was probably the first generation learning about climate change in school. Learning about Mary Robinson’s work made me think about the links between empowering women and combating climate change, culminating in a blog post last year about female eco-warriors combating climate change. It’s been well-received and in many conversations I have with people about this topic, the most common reaction is one of surprise – they have previously not considered the gender lens in climate change. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change, but they also play an extremely important role in combating climate change. Understanding and applying gender lens in climate change adaptations is one that we need to consider. 

UN Environment, guided by its own Gender Policy, strives to conduct a context-based gender analysis of each of its projects. Victor Tsang, its Gender Officer, talks about the poignant story of Mandelena in South Sudan in this blog post: “During the prolonged dry season in Gwor County, South Sudan over the last two years, Mandelena and her family have been able to eat only one meal per day... Women and girls walk four to five hours every day to collect water, and young girls are married off for a dowry of cattle as soon as they hit puberty.”

The agricultural sector is heavily impacted by extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, and majority of the agricultural workforce are women. However, a new report by the World Resources Institutes finds that, when communities are compensated or resettled, not only are women paid less for their land, but they are also disproportionately affected by loss of access to resources such as rivers and forests.

Yet, applying gender lens to climate change adaptations and climate action is still on the fringes of discussions. As our world moves towards critical urgency to curb emissions, incorporating gender lens can maximise the impact of existing solutions, as well as creating new ones.

On existing solutions, there are many examples whereby incorporating gender lens have increased their impact. This is very much the premise of UN Environment’s Gender Policy, so that any projects will be truly inclusive and minimise any harm caused to vulnerable populations, including women and children. Barefoot College in India, which was cited as the most vulnerable country to climate change, created the first association of illiterate and semi-literate women who fabricate, install and maintain parabolic solar cookers in their homes. In the UK, which is celebrating the Suffrage Centenary for women’s right to vote, there will be an international summit and Arts festival focused on the role of women taking action on climate change. Two out of ten most effective solutions to combat climate change, according to World Economic Forum (WEF) , are related to empowering women: Educating Girls and Family Planning.

As for new solutions, there is an emerging frontier between climate finance and gender lens investing, which incorporates a gender analysis into a financial analysis in order to get better decisions (definition by Criterion Institute). The same study by WEF argues that “sustainable savings is the number one solution to climate change and the effects are larger than rooftop solar, solar farms, afforestation and electric vehicles combined.” Given the fact that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, there could be new finance innovations to address this gap. Project Sage, part of The Wharton Social Impact Initiative, is the most comprehensive overview of the gender lens investing landscape within private equity/venture capital, and private debt funds. Energy and the Environment is one of the top three sectors invested by the 58 funds.

Gender lens and climate action is an extremely important intersection to consider, and there are a lot of synergies between Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 and SDG 13. Climate change is a global challenge and while global solutions matter, we also must not forget the local stories of resilience. I leave you with the beautiful story of Nukul and her village.

Nukul, 28 years old, comes from Pong Lom Rang, a Karen village in the mountainous Mae Wang district of Northern Thailand. She has a 4-year-old son, Nu Nu. She works at the Chai Lai Orchid, an eco lodge and social enterprise that trains at-risk women. Part of her job is to feed the elephants. The thumbnail image of this blog is taken by Nukul. It shows the river which the elephants bathe in. However they have been facing more severe droughts, threatening the environment that the elephants live in.



Gender Lens Social Impact Investing: What’s the Deal?

Gender Lens Social Impact Investing: What’s the Deal?

This blog post is a summary from the Gender Lens Social Impact Investing panel at the Good Deals conference that I chaired, with speakers Katherine Miles, Servane Mouazan and Katrina Cruz.

It’s 100 years since (some) women in the UK won the right to vote, yet they are still underrepresented in Parliament and in business. This year, companies more than 250 employees in the UK also have to publish their gender pay gap data for the first time - and three weeks before the deadline, 5 out of 6 have yet to submit their figures on the website. There is no better time than now to talk about gender and reflects on how it plays out in the impact investing and social enterprise world. In 2016, only 9% of the £3.58billion invested in start-up’s went to companies with at least one female founder.

Are social ventures and impact investors doing any better? There is a definite shift in social ventures having women at the helm - 41% of the UK’s social enterprises led by women. A new INSEAD study shows that “the strictly commercial venture was perceived to be more viable when it was pitched by the man, but the gender penalty vanished when the pitch also included information emphasising its social mission”. Social enterprises seem to be a more levelled playing field for both genders.

Yet, what about on the investors side? In a piece of research that my firm commissioned, among 83% of social investors surveyed, women made up less than 25% of those making investment decisions. This is still an area of under-representation, but the Economist’s article earlier this month shows the promise of women rising as investors - by 2020 they are expected to hold $72trn, 32% of the total private wealth, with most of the private wealth that changes hands in the coming decades is likely to go to women.

And here comes in gender lens investing. We had a diverse room of attendees, and most of them have not heard of the term before. The term gender, as our panelist Katherine Miles mentioned, refers to social relations between men and women, which is socially constructed and can change over time and from place to place. Criterion Institute defines it as “incorporating a gender analysis into a financial analysis in order to get better decisions”. In short, it is not just about investing in women, but because of imbalances between men and women as outlined earlier, a lot of the focus is indeed on women and girls. Katherine describes five lenses in gender lens investing, and these lenses can be applied individually or simultaneously, ideally intentionally:

1.     Access to capital/ Increasing capital to women entrepreneurs/ women owned SMEs: this is where investors proactively seek to channel capital to women entrepreneurs on the basis they are an underserved group. Examples: EBRD women in business programme, IFC’s WeFI initiative (women entrepreneur’s finance initative)

2.     Promoting gender equity in the workplace/ value chain i.e. promoting women as leaders, employees and distributors: Examples: Nordea’s study; JITA Bangladesh; Sama Source

3.     Products and services that benefit women and girls: Examples: SPRING Accelerator; Ogunte’s Make a Wave programme (by our speaker Servane Mouazan)

4.     Gender transformative Investing in ventures that seek to address the root causes or structures of gender inequalities to achieve longer term or transformative change. Examples: Timewise; Menstrupedia; Lensational (my own venture)

5.     Investor make up and practice/ women as investors. Investors considering and strengthening their own practices. Examples: Women in Social Finance; Acumen and ICRW’s review

From the definitions above, some of gender lens investing intersect with social impact investing, using gender lens investing to actively addressing societal challenges and creating positive outcomes.

And for many – intersectionality is also an approach in gender lens investing. Intersectionality is a sociological theory describing multiple threats of discrimination when an individual’s identities overlap with a number of minority classes — such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics. Our speaker Servane reminded us that in the United States, less than 0.3% Venture Capital-backed startups are owned by black women, compared to less than 1% black-owned, 5% owned by women. 

In this series, the next blog posts will talk about the why of gender lens investing, some of the trends and barriers and call to action. Tweet #genderlensinv to continue the conversation.

Single Sex Education to address Gender Inequality: 3 Lessons Learned

I spent 12 years in an all girls’ school. Gender did not seem to be a factor of consideration for a very long time, and I thought - still think - that it was a blessing. Growing up in an all girls’ school provided me a safe space for me to define what I want to do, based on my merit and merit alone. It was only when I stepped into university that I started seeing gender, and seeing gender inequality. It plays out in everything from how my male friends were more career-oriented than myself, to the natural confidence that they seemed to possess.

But my 12 years of single sex education has protected me from the sexism - and if I could use the word, patriarchy - of the wider society. Before ‘releasing’ me to the wider world, my teachers and peers have helped me to become a strong woman, and that when confronted with biases and stereotypes as a result of my gender, I was in a better place to cope with them. I don’t think I would have coped with them when I confronted them at the beginning of my puberty.

So, from a very personal experience, I believe that single sex education is a great tool to empower young women and girls. But I understand that it is a contentious issue among educators, and evidence points us in many directions. BBC reports on a study in 2016 that noted girls at single-sex state schools in England get better academic results than those in mixed schools - and that the advantage remains even when other factors such as social background are held constant. Contrary to this conclusion, a US study in 2014 analysed 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students globally and it found that single-sex education does not educate girls and boys any better than coed schools. So where does this leave us?

It may be helpful to deconstruct what single-sex education meant for me. First, it meant that I was encouraged to take up initiatives that interest me, and that I am good at. There is no such thing as ‘this is not for a girl’; and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects were particularly encouraged. In the UK, 23% of girls in the UK feel STEM subjects are geared towards boys, partly contributing to the gender gap in STEM that we see. This is especially important in education, especially primary school, because gender stereotypes form by age 10, according to a global study reported by the Time Magazine.

Second, it meant questioning the gender bias in our curriculum. My history teacher, in our first history class, has called to our attention the construction of the word, history - his-story, that it’s always been written by men. In English Literature - taught by a man - we read extensively female writers to ensure that there is an equality of representation; and we discussed the role of women in Shakespearean times versus in our modern contexts.

Finally, it meant having strong female role models. I see them as sports coaches, as teachers, as mothers - any possible role that you can imagine. It was only when I went to university and started immersing myself in the gender equality movement, that I realised these role models were not present for many women and girls across the world. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

I think there will always be promoters and detractors of single sex education, but it is not helpful for us to move forward - and we need more solutions urgently. The study quoted in the Time Magazine,  interviewed 450 adolescents and their parents, and they found that children at a a very early age—from the most conservative to the most liberal societies—quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent.

As a starting point, we could ask ourselves if our schools are doing three things: taking away the gendered nature of school subjects; enabling students to question gender bias in curriculum; and enabling relatable role models for students to look up to.

A commitment to encourage diversity in entrepreneurship in 2018

A commitment to encourage diversity in entrepreneurship in 2018

Picture an entrepreneur. Who would you think of? When I ask that question to most people (including myself), the first picture that comes to mind is that of a older white man. I started my first business at 16 years old, and in the past 5 years, I have been living and breathing entrepreneurship every day – yet it is only this year when I truly feel comfortable with the label of an ‘entrepreneur’.

More than a year ago, a friend of mine has kindly invited me to speak to his 8-year-old daughter, whose homework assignment was to profile an entrepreneur. She shared my story with her 24 other classmates, in Hong Kong. My story was the only story of a female entrepreneur shared, and one of the few stories of Asian entrepreneurs, and one of the few stories of young entrepreneurs. That moment really crystallised for me how underrepresented women, young people and certain ethnic groups are, in global entrepreneurship. 

Having the privilege to share my story on many global platforms, most recently as part of the Lavazza calendar advocating for gender equality, I will make it one of my New Year’s Resolution to encourage more diverse founders in 2018.

Let’s look at some statistics: In the United States, while 62% of young people want to start their own business, only 3.6% of all businesses were owned by someone under the age of 30. In fact, the share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen by 65% since the 1980s and is now at a quarter-century low. Statistics are less readily available for other countries but it would be plausible to assume a similar picture across the world. 

In my firm’s own research, co-authored with Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Youth, it was clear that young people across the world are invariably passionate individuals, with a determined vision to fill unmet needs and deliver positive change for the communities, societies and the world they live in – and they identify entrepreneurship being an important channel for this vision.

What, then, is prohibiting them? There is a remarkable consensus on their relative lack of financial resources. Young social innovators consistently identified difficulties in accessing financial capital as the main barrier to progress, and this poses even further challenges when it comes to scaling the solutions. For women, according to a NatWest study, what’s prohibiting them is rather a fear of failure.

In 2018, I pledge to be focusing on encouraging more diverse founders, through three key ways:

  1. Increasing visibility of diverse founders and challenging gender and cultural stereotypes, through the work of Lensational

  2. Sharing best practices in my entrepreneurial journey through public speaking and mentorship

  3. Increasing the diversity of funders and social investors, through the work of The Social Investment Consultancy

If you are reading this and you are thinking of starting a business as a young person, I think it comes down to thinking creatively – what can you do without money? Leveraging on volunteers and using social media are two simple ways to demonstrate traction, which will help you to attract capital to your company.




Role of Impact Investing in Funding Universal Access to Healthcare

Role of Impact Investing in Funding Universal Access to Healthcare

Population ageing inevitably means that healthcare funding will only become more pressing issue. How can universal access to healthcare be funded? I think the answer lies in impact investing - investments made into companies, organisations, and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.