No woman is an island: Building a network for female leaders

Yolanda Lee, founder and CEO of Uncommon, explains how she’s looking to plug the leaky pipeline of women in leadership roles.

By Yolanda Lee | 17 Jan 2023

Even though I consider myself a social person, networking was always a difficult, uncomfortable and, frankly, dreadful experience.

First of all, it took place at an event, usually in a big hall. You would arrive with a stack of business cards in hand and find everybody in these little bagels of conversation that you would spend the evening trying to penetrate, if not fruitlessly searching for someone who’s relevant to the type of work you’re doing. It all felt very unnatural and transactional.

As I rose up the ranks of the tech industry, what I realised was that networking tools tend to be built for men, optimising for big numbers and transactional connections – between investors and founders, for instance. On the other hand, women prefer to build relationships, and it is through these genuine connections that they become comfortable sharing their experiences and asking for help.

Women are underrepresented in leadership

A McKinsey study found that, while women make up half the workforce at entry level, this proportion shrinks to around 30% at vice president level. The middle stages of a woman’s career – between senior manager and vice president – often coincides with a time where women start families or pivot to a new sector, and this is where we see the biggest drop-off of women in the leadership pipeline.

In their early careers, most women can move ahead by keeping their heads down and working hard. As they get more senior, the number of available roles dwindles, so hard work alone is not going to get them there. Networking becomes incredibly important – they need to form strategic connections and know the king- and queenmakers within the ecosystem.

I’ve experienced how lonely rising up the pyramid in a male-dominated environment can be. At a previous company, I was one of three female country managers out of around 40, and my market was the top one in my region. Though I put in the hard work – even cancelling a vacation to seal a big corporate deal – I was stunned when my boss commented at a company meeting how my market’s excellent performance must have been due to my winning smile.

I didn’t know how to speak up and advocate for myself, to point out that I deserved the promotion given to somebody I outperformed, to ensure that my achievements were being attributed to my grit or my leadership capability. It takes a lot to walk into a room where nobody looks like you or has your life experience, and feel like you belong and that your voice matters.

Starting uncommon conversations

After about four years of building tech companies in sub-Saharan Africa and tapping into the immense opportunity in emerging markets, I visited some friends in Singapore in 2015 and saw how its ecosystem was at an inflection point, with many exciting startups taking off, and how the country was a gateway to broader Southeast Asia.

I also discovered how easy it was to connect with others here. Within a week, I met around 50 people, including investors, founders, and other ecosystem players. It was through these meetings that I landed a job with Deliveroo – which was still in its infancy in Singapore – heading the B2B channel, before progressing to a regional role in strategic deals. 

Often being the only female leader at the table meant that it was hard to connect with women who understood the challenges I faced at work. In 2019, I began to host an informal dinner series with female leaders across industries, and we would have unusually open and frank conversations about our careers. 

After interviewing 120 of these women in senior roles, I learned that most believed in the critical importance of networking in their careers yet recognised the poor quality of their own connections. There was a clear gap that had to be addressed, a huge missing piece in terms of the support that female leaders should be receiving. In March 2021, with a group of 21 members, I officially launched Uncommon, a leadership network built for women.

How Uncommon empowers women

At Uncommon, women connect through shared experiences and through building relationships. Our peer groups are organised around common interests – be it AI or motherhood – and rooted in core principles such as confidentiality, active appreciation, and respect for difference.

Each group is led by a certified executive coach who is able to address specific challenges that are raised. These could range from stakeholder management to self-awareness to personal wellbeing.

On the whole, I would say that Uncommon provides value to our members in three main areas: 

  • Clarity – Careers today are not necessarily linear anymore, and there are numerous paths to choose from. Our group coaching serves as a compass to help women navigate their careers. 
  • Network – We offer a network that is relevant to each individual’s goals – people who can help achieve those goals, who may have walked the same road ahead of you. 
  • Training – Whether it’s pointing our members to a skills-based workshop or a talk by an expert, learning and development is tailored to their personal goals and is never one-size-fits-all.
     

For the first year or so, I personally interviewed every Uncommon member who joined the community. Now that the network has grown to about 300 members, I try to attend various sessions from time to time to stay connected to everyone’s needs and challenges.

For many women in Uncommon, being a part of the community is like having a personal advisory board that helps them in moments of self-doubt and gives them the push they need to go for those big, audacious goals that they don’t always dare to even say out loud. 

Improving the quality of your network

Networking is not a numbers game. Quality certainly matters far more than quantity. To improve the quality of your network, my tips would be: 

  • Start with low-hanging fruit. A simple first step you can take is to reinvigorate dormant ties. Scroll through your contact lists and see: Who have you not spoken to in a while? Who might be someone good to reconnect with? 
  • Express your passions. Letting your interests be known allows you to stay top of mind when the right opportunities present themselves. Because a friend knew of my passion for nurturing women leaders, I was asked to join the advisory board of an accelerator. 
  • Lead with generosity. The more you give, the more you see it returned tenfold when it comes time for you to have an ask. Being generous doesn’t have to mean a two-hour deep dive into a business plan. It could be sharing a project or article related to what a friend is working on.

In addition, my number-one piece of advice especially for women is to learn – not to be fearless – but to walk with fear. I still feel afraid in my career, and I think it’s often a sign that you’re learning and you’re growing outside of your comfort zone. Learning to say yes even when you’re afraid is such a crucial part of growing your career. You’re capable of much more than you think you are.

As the Uncommon community grows in Singapore, we’re excited to seed communities across the region, in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, and Hong Kong. In 2023, we’ll be announcing more markets that we’re expanding to, where we’re seeing the waitlists build up. 

My dream is to see women make up 50% of senior leadership everywhere, which translates to women making 50% of the decisions in the world. And we won’t stop growing Uncommon until we get there.

Join the waitlist

Applications are now open for the next cohort of Uncommon.

About Yolanda

Yolanda is the founder and CEO of Uncommon, a leadership network for women that was part of the Iterative Winter 2022 batch of startups. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Yolanda has been based in Singapore since 2016.

Connect with her here.

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