Overcoming gender obstacle in climb to CEO

A jump from clerk to chief executive may seem like an incredible feat, but this was a natural progression for Ms Connie Wu.

When Ms Wu, 53, first joined furniture construction company Sunray Woodcraft, which was a family run business, in 1983, she was armed with an O-level certificate and tasked with overseeing all the administrative aspects of the small company, which had fewer than 10 employees.

But a clerk in a small company covers a wide range of tasks. She handled everything from goods procurement and human resource management to client negotiation and final accounts.

"Guys know how to use the hammer more than they know how to use the pen," joked her son, Mr Charles Tan, who is now the executive director of the company. "She was essentially the headquarters of the company because she was the only administrative person then."

Since she had to solve most of the problems and staff always looked to her for direction, she was a natural choice for the post of chief executive officer when the company expanded.

Last year, she became the first CEO of Sunray.

Of course, her journey as a woman leading a small company in a male-dominated industry to become a company with about 1,500 employees and a presence in nine countries was not without difficulties.

When the company was small, it acted as a subcontractor, which brought all the disadvantages of being a middleman.

Sunray had to please both ends of the equation - the supplier and the customer. When the customer did not pay on time, the company in turn could not pay the supplier and this led to several arguments.

Beyond the obstacles faced by a small company, Ms Wu had to overcome an additional barrier - her gender. She quipped: "Nobody treats me as a woman."

But in truth, she said that she has been looked down on just because she is a woman. She did not lose her confidence, though.

"All the people I deal with are men, but I can do whatever they can do," she said.

Eventually, the company's efficient procurement, and good service, helped it establish a reputation in the industry despite the gender of its leader.

"Of course, there were times during meetings when people gave in to me because I am a woman," she said, laughing.

Ms Wu thus led Sunray to its current success - a main contractor with annual revenue of more than $200 million.

It also won the Enterprise 50 award last year which, Ms Wu said, was a surprise.

"The award serves as a recognition for all that the employees have put in. It definitely boosts their confidence," she said.

Even though the company has expanded so significantly, Ms Wu insists on the company functioning like a family.

"She puts in the personal touch," said Mr Tan. "She will ask about the staff's families and even help them on a personal level."

Ms Wu said: "I am quite hands-on with the staff, even the directors. I make sure that the heads of department also have that element of personal touch to keep the spirit of the Sunray family going."

In fact, the company retains employees who were involved in the early stages of its development even though their age hinders their performance.

But the success of the "Sunray family" made her struggle to keep up with her own family as well.

"This industry is very tough. The hours are long and I even have to work on weekends and public holidays to finish the job."

But Mr Tan said that the family has worked through that and are still very close.

Ms Wu has even bigger plans for the company - she aims to expand to even more countries.

"Maybe every single person in the future generations of the family can take over one country each," she joked.

Sunray recently moved into its new Sungei Kadut headquarters, which is four times the size of its former Bukit Batok premises.

The company also hopes to strike a greater gender balance. Ms Wu is currently the only woman on the management board, but there are a few female department heads.

"It is hard because most women don't want to go into the construction industry," she said.

'Lack of confidence' holds back women entrepreneurs

One of the greatest obstacles women entrepreneurs have to overcome might just be in their minds, say female professionals.

Ms Anna Marrs, group head of commercial and private banking clients at Standard Chartered Bank, says lack of confidence was a problem that was constantly brought up in a panel discussion about women entrepreneurs.

While they do indeed face all the problems that all entrepreneurs have to overcome and more, simply because of their gender, she feels that women also do not grasp opportunities.

Studies have shown that prejudice against women when it comes to things like getting loans from financial institutions or employment in leadership roles does exist, but Ms Marrs said that these problems can be fixed only when more women are in power.

Ms Marrs was speaking to The Straits Times after participating in a panel discussion as part of the Entrepreneurial Winning Women Asia Pacific conference held at Marina Mandarin.

However, she adds that there are areas where women simply do not grasp the opportunities available to them because they lack the courage to do so, noting: "There has never before been a better time than right now to be a woman entrepreneur."

But recent studies have shown that women are less networked than men. "Beyond just confidence, this might also be because business networking seems to be perceived as men playing golf together, or smoking cigars over drinks at a bar," says Ms Marrs.

But she notes that networking has moved beyond that with platforms like LinkedIn.

She also says that women entrepreneurs should learn to leverage on the fact that women form deeper connections than men.

While women may not cast as wide a web as men, studies indicate that the connections they develop tend to be more personal.

"It can be so much more powerful because the connections are deeper and more long-lasting," says Ms Marrs.

Beyond just trying to network more, she also points out that women have to overcome the issue of being less involved in mentorships.

Research has shown that when mentorship programmes are made available to both genders, women are less likely than men to take part.

"Women don't ask in the business context enough, whether it's about the promotion, the raise or the advice," she says. "Many successful women entrepreneurs are very willing to help; all the young entrepreneurs need to do is ask."