“Coding is the most challenging thing I’ve ever encountered. That’s what attracted me to do it.”
Sitting across me is Michelle Sun. Young, beautiful and highly intelligent, Michelle left her high-paying job as a research analyst at Goldman Sachs, went to Silicon Valley to learn coding from scratch and now owns a coding school for kids, First Code Academy, which has branches in Hong Kong and Singapore.
I watched my BFF’s eyes widen as I told him I was going to meet Michelle.
“Can you bring me along for your interview??” the UPenn computer science major pleaded with me. He launched into a fanboy speech about the great things he had heard about her at a big hackathon event in the States.
Many of the things he mentioned had appeared in my pre-interview Google search: Michelle had no prior programming experience. In fact, she took economics at the University of Chicago. But she fell in love with the tech industry during her time at Goldman, working alongside software engineers from Alibaba and Tencent and many other giants in tech. “These people are change agents,” she would tell me later in our interview. “They are the future.”
She wanted to be part of that future, so she enrolled in an all-girls coding camp at Hackbright Academy for adult learners and picked up coding in what she described as an “inclusive network of really clever people”. Unlike other coding camps where the gender ratio was usually 9:1 favouring the boys, Michelle thrived in an environment absent of gender expectations, full of women whom she could relate to, who shared similar challenges.
After that she jumped headfirst into the tech world, worked in a couple of successful start-ups before finally starting her own business with a single purpose: teach Asian children to love computer science.
What strikes me as Michelle is describing her journey from undergraduate school to the present day is her fearlessness. She is clear about her ambitions and what they demand of her. She is enticed by the monolithic scale of the challenge she set for herself. To enter into a field that one has no formal knowledge or expertise in is too big a risk for most ordinary people to take. To us, it sounds like courting failure. But not Michelle. For her, it is an opportunity for mastery. It is a way to prove to herself that she can overcome anything if she pushes herself hard enough.
I think about my girls. All of us have big dreams, we dream of pursuing pastry, business, law, photography, therapy, academia, writing. We aren’t content with the traditional homemaker/wife role that has been assigned to our gender. Yet, whenever we talk about what we want to do, we always return to the same joke: “Marry rich first, then you’ll have the means to pursue anything.”
We say this in jest, but I think at the back of our minds we all believe that this would be an elegant solution to our otherwise unrealistic goals. Without the backing of a spouse who makes a ton of cash, we are resigned to settling for less as if we are sure we cannot do it by our own will. We don’t chase our dreams as doggedly as the boys. We recognise our limitations, and we accept them.
Ashamed of my own cowardice and hoping to find a scapegoat for my unwillingness to accept such challenges, I steer the conversation towards gender.
How tough is it to make it in the tech sector, or any sector, that is dominated by men? I ask. I point out that the only close friends I have who are in tech- the BFF, Keefe and Leslie- are all male, all ridiculously smart and most important of all, extremely ambitious. Doesn’t being female make it that much harder?
As I am saying this, my brain paraphrases: “Women are at a disadvantage, because… well, we just aren’t as ambitious. Right?”
Michelle smiles. She reads between the lines. “When you are an entrepreneur, being an entrepreneur is your primary identity and not your biological sex.
“You have to remove the lens that colours everything with ‘gender’,” she explains, though I should know this. I wrote my Senior Thesis under the supervision of the leading researcher in profession-gender identity integration, for goodness sake.
The word ‘ambitious’, when used to describe a woman, sounds coarse, even brutish. Females aren’t supposed to be too driven, competitive or career-minded. If you dare show it, you are perceived as domineering and disagreeable.
This is according to my friend Adam, who recounted how his all-male organising committee selected candidates for his Overseas Community Service Programme (OCSP). “If a guy was confident and outspoken, they’d say ‘Oh yes he would make a great leader’ but if a girl carried herself in exactly the same manner, they’d say ‘Oh no she’s so dislikable I would hate to work with her’. It was disgusting.”
Michelle remains defiant, and I think that’s what impresses my BFF so much about her. She’s not afraid of breaking the mould and being ambitious. In the world that my BFF and I come from, the elitist Singaporean public school system, we are rolled out neatly down conveyor belts from junior college to university to one of three categories: cushy government job, law firm, medical practice.
If you don’t fall into one of those categories, you’re probably the son or daughter of a property/oil tycoon who is just rearing to start their own business. (Okay as a counterpoint, my BFF’s young, beautiful and highly intelligent girlfriend is currently interning at Goldman Sachs, possibly following in Michelle’s footsteps, and earning about five times as much as I earn at my full-time job. She’s one of the anomalies.)
My point is that we have been conditioned to believe that there are safe, predictable options that we ought to stick to and are aghast when others make alternative choices. Imagine the perplexity that overcame my relatives when they found out I had chosen to study the social sciences and not the ‘real’ sciences.
It is Michelle’s final piece of advice that sticks with me. “You have to find people who believe in you.”
Because it isn’t monetary support that we need as women who have been told for generations that we must rely on the men to bring home the bacon. We know now that we can definitely support ourselves. We’re just afraid to reach higher. While God blessed men with hugely inflated egos to combat this fear, women are unfortunately more in touch with reality.
A lot of us don’t know how to believe in ourselves, so it is pivotal to surround ourselves with others who give us the confidence to do so. “It’s amazing to meet people who are excited about your idea and who want to support it,” says Michelle. “And you will meet those people, believe me.”
A reassuring statement, and one that I am going to bet my money on.