Today, at the helm of a business analytics and software provider that provides data-crunching and analysis services to the Government for its smart nation initiative, she continues to play a pivotal role in shaping the daily lives of Singaporeans.
Yet Tan Yen Yen’s reputation goes beyond that of a go-getter and influential figure. She is revered also as a nurturing leader. When asked about her proudest achievement, the 50-year-old doesn’t talk about establishing a global cloud-computing research laboratory in Singapore in 2010, or being the first woman who was conferred the title IT Leader of the Year by the Singapore Computer Society.
Instead, she enthusiastically shares how she had unintentionally improved the lives of co-workers during her time at Hewlett-Packard (HP). As a result of her love for endurance sports, she engaged trainers for the HP team to compete in the Osim Singapore International Triathlon in 2006. The team emerged champions for the five years that Tan served as managing director of HP.
“It’s not so much about winning the title that I am proud of, but the process of getting us there. And it never occurred to me the long-term impact it has. When I left, quite a few people told me that I changed their lifestyle (for the better), and that is the legacy I want to leave behind.”
Indeed, Tan’s influence in the technology sector comes not just from her ability to grow markets. Her reach also comes from her ability as a people-builder – like how she started a company that mentors entrepreneurs and invests in tech start-ups.
“They have so many interesting new ideas. However, they might not be as strong in the business aspect or might not have the network to make the business succeed,” she says of her experience at TNF Ventures, a firm she started with some friends in 2012. “If there is anything I would like to do more, it would be in this area of new innovation and creation – and I live vicariously through them since I am too old to start my own venture!”
As director and council member of Singapore Institute of Directors, Tan is also an advocate for greater representation of women on various boards. Though she feels that Singapore’s meritocratic system, supportive schemes for working mothers and performance-based work culture gave her equal opportunities, Tan, who is also chairman of Singapore Science Centre, observes that the “old boys’ network” still wields significant influence when it comes to board recruitment. She laments the lower-than-international-average percentage of women-held directorships in Singapore – even compared to countries such as Malaysia and China.
“It is surprising because we have many capable women at senior management level,” says Tan, who also sits on the boards of publicly listed companies Singapore Press Holdings and Gemalto NV, a global digital security firm, among others.
“That said, (as a woman) you don’t want to be just a statistic or a token figure. Getting women on the board is not really about diversity of gender but diversity of views. The 11-member board of Gemalto which I am on has three women and members from seven nationalities, and I really enjoy the views across different industries, geographies and nationalities – more boards can benefit from discussions informed through such diversity.”
“Yen is perhaps the only sales leader I know who is willing to take on extra business targets in order to accelerate the growth of her region. Her boldness absolutely stunned everyone in the (budget meeting of 2012). She also proved herself correct at the end of the year.”
Steve Au Yeung, previous VP, Oracle AsiaPac
When asked what she feels women leaders bring to the table by virtue of their gender, Tan cites “a stronger sense of empathy, collaboration and a nurturing aspect in relationship-building”.
“But of course this might sound biased!” the mother of four teenagers admits with a chortle. “When you are a mother, you are more patient as you have to deal with plenty of different personalities at home. And as children grow older, you do not get to tell them what to do – one-way management doesn’t work! It is the same for the workplace today; it is about delegation and collaboration, and I empower individual decisions through guidance.”