Virginia Cha On Closing the Diversity Gap in STEM

Virginia Cha
Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Insead

1. What do you do and what is your background in STEM?

I’m an educator, mentor and angel investor for high tech start-ups in Singapore. I’m an adjunct professor of technology and entrepreneurship at UNSEAD, a French business school. I also teach at the International  University of Singapore, and I’m a mentor at Singapore Management University. I have a Computer Science Degree from the University of Hawaii and PhD in Entrepreneurship from the National University of Singapore.

2. Why do you believe in supporting diverse STEM talent?

If you look around in the news right now, everyone is talking about AI technology taking over everybody’s job.

I think the education and the awareness, and the passion about science and technology is absolutely mandatory for any young person who wants to have a place in the world. I just don’t see it as being optional any more.

3. What do you see as the key recruitment & retention?

Here’s the biggest problem for us in Singapore – we spend a lot of time, money and energy nurturing engineering talent and our biggest challenge right now is that the best of the best, the cream of the crop, get immediately recruited by the big tech giants from Silicon Valley who lure them with big salaries and a working culture that is second to none.

So we have a problem here in trying to retain top talent in Singapore for the locally based enterprise. The salaries locally for engineering are just not that high, so the secondary talent who are not whisked away overseas immediately get recruited by banks because the banks realise that engineering talent are very good workers – they’re analytical, they’re logical, they’re well trained and they have specific skills.

We end up losing our STEM talent to banks and overseas, we don’t actually get to keep many of them in Singapore. It’s a real challenge.

4. How do you believe employers can better attract, secure and retain diverse STEM talent?

I think it’s probably superficial to just say ‘pay them more’. I think that that is a hygiene factor and you need to pay well but I think employers don’t really know how to manage STEM talent well. Most STEM talent are looking, firstly, to work on interesting problems and they want to be challenged and, secondly, they want to be surrounded by equally smart or smarter people so they can learn from them. Most employers don’t pay attention to that. They think that if they hire you and give you a certain amount of pay then that’s good enough and they neglect that smart people who are very proud of their knowledge and technology actually just want to be left alone to do real work and want to have role models to look up to – not necessarily as a mentor but just being surrounded by really smart people and a stimulating work environment.

5. What is your advice to diverse talent looking to join or progress within the STEM sector?

When I recall the days I came out of university, I had five job offers. I picked the one that didn’t necessarily have the highest pay but the one that gave me the opportunity to work in operating systems, which is what I wanted to do. So I followed my passion because it was a pride thing.

If you’re a deeply technical person your identity is wrapped around how complex a technical problem you can solve and the type of technical issues that you’re challenged by. So even if someone was to offer you a lot more pay but you’re manning the help desk, for example, you wouldn’t be interested because your identity is not there. If you’re stuck in a job that pays well but you’re bored then you’ve wasted your talent. You have to maximise what you can do with your talent.

Everyone needs to find a purpose in life and for a lot of young people that’s not in the foreground of cognitive consciousness – they just want graduate, get a job and be able to pay for their beer or whatever!

But along the way in life they go through a variety of experiences and then they come across something really challenging. Almost always when you talk to people and say ‘what did you enjoy about that job that made it so interesting for you?’ and they’ll almost always tell you ‘it was challenging’ or ‘I learned a lot’ or ‘I really liked my direct supervisor who gave me opportunities to learn.’ They won’t say things like ‘ I was paid well’ or ‘I really enjoyed my job because they gave me an extra 20 days leave.’

For STEM talent it’s a whole different mentality – for them it’s all about what boundries they have in terms of their ability to solve complex problems using their skills and training and always trying to push themselves. In this fast-moving field you have to be constantly pushing the edge of the art if you want to keep up with what’s going on, otherwise you’ll be left behind. So for young people, my advice is you’re going to see a lot of experiences along the way, try to choose a job that maximises your learning and helps you, eventually, figure out what your purpose is in life. Don’t look for the immediate rewards of money or pay because to me, those are hygiene factors.

6. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing to get more women into STEM what would you change?

I would change the early education system and to expose young people to more science projects at a young age. We need to work on exposure at the pre-school, kindergarten, primary school level in terms of how education is provided.  We always give subtle clues as a society for girls to play with dolls and to do ‘girl’ things; and we give subtle clues to the boys that they can tinker with things. And if there was one thing I could change, that would be it. Don’t have these subtle clues – in fact, do it the other way around.

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