Education has the power to change lives, and by extension, the world; and by improving access to education, Aziza Sheerin wants to enable others to pursue fulfilling careers. Under her leadership, General Assembly, which offers programmes such as web development, data science and analysis, and user experience design, has inspired many to continue learning and exploring. By taking its classes, workshops and events online in 2020, the company attracted 106,000 participants in Singapore alone, more than double of the year before.
General Assembly offers programmes like digital marketing and user design experience to prepare talents for the tech industry. What do you think of the future of the industry?
Covid-19 has accelerated and amplified the rise of digital consumption habits in Southeast Asia due to mobile connectivity. Digital consumers in Southeast Asia are expected to reach 310 million by end-2020 — five years ahead of initial projection — and millions more in the coming years.
Border closures, social distancing measures and lockdowns led many to turn to the Internet for almost every aspect of their lives, from shopping to socialising, education, entertainment and others. Brands had to quickly pivot and focus more attention and resources on improving their digital consumer experience, or risk getting left behind. Hence, we’re seeing more companies investing in equipping their workforce with the tech skills needed to build digital solutions; they are also cultivating talent in fields like digital marketing, data science and web development.
There’s a lot of anxiety about what the job market will look like due to the crisis brought on by Covid-19, but we’re confident that the digital skills we teach such as coding, data science and digital marketing will become even more critical as businesses shift increasingly to digital-first operations.
Why do you think women are under-represented in the local tech industry? How has General Assembly contributed to closing the gender gap?
Let’s start at the top: we’re brought up with stereotypes around what interest boys and girls respectively; these in turn influence the courses of study women pursue. Women account for 25 to 35% of the total intake for engineering and computing degree programmes, according to the Ministry of Education. But the number dwindles further as they drop out of the industry at various career stages.
At General Assembly, we decided to start by increasing supply. Our first Software Engineering Immersive course in Singapore in 2015 had just one woman in a class of 20. When I realised we simply didn’t receive many applications from women, we drew up a plan to increase awareness and figure out ways we could support them in their journey to taking up a tech career. We partnered with communities that had strong female memberships and advocated for the opportunities and prospects in tech.
We also host several discussions about trends and opportunities in tech and make a conscious effort to ensure our panels have a solid representation of women. Today, 50% of our students in Singapore are women; in technical courses such as software engineering, 30% are women.
To commemorate International Women’s Day, we are rolling out How We Got There, an initiative featuring female leaders from across various industries like tech, design, data, venture capital, media and more. I firmly believe that representation matters. It’s beneficial for younger women to see and hear from female tech leaders, to inspire them to realise that these possibilities are well within their reach.
As an endeavour to help remove barriers to entry, we also launched a See Her Excel scholarship last year. It provides financial support to women who are pursuing a new career in technology and earn below $48,000 every year.
What role do you see Singapore playing in the global tech scene over the next five years?
Singapore offers several advantages for tech companies and start-ups, including the government’s continuous investment in growing the landscape and the country’s proximity to larger Southeast Asian markets. While most Silicon Valley tech MNCs set up their Asia-Pacific headquarters here to initially run sales and marketing, many have opened up product development and engineering teams here to build and contextualise products for the Asian market, such as Tencent, Zoom, Alibaba, Bytedance and Stripe. This will further fuel the demand for tech talent here in the years to come and this is where we want to help grow the talent pool and close the gap.