When Vanessa Tan joined the founding team at Tech in Asia as a journalist, she never expected she would one day be running her own team at Xiaomi. Vanessa shares how she pivoted from being a journalist at Tech in Asia to marketing director at Xiaomi, and her experience navigating cross-cultural teams in China and Indonesia.
9 Sep 2021 / By SGN
Vanessa Tan always had her sights set on starting her own business. Even as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), she seized every opportunity to learn, taking up internships and part-time roles across human resources, marketing, sales, and business development.
“I took up internships across different fields because I wanted to know everything about running a business,” Vanessa explains. Her first brush with tech through the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) Beijing programme, where she quenched her thirst for knowledge by attending as many tech events as she could.
“I subscribed to every tech and start-up publication that I could find and attended every tech or start-up event in Beijing,” she laughs. It was at one of these events that she met Willis Wee, CEO of Tech in Asia, marking the beginning of her career with the company as a journalist covering the start-up beat in Asia. Today, Tech in Asia is the largest English-language technology media company that focuses on Asia.
“I found immense joy in covering start-up stories. As a journalist, I met many brilliant start-up founders and tech leaders. What I’ve learned from speaking to them about entrepreneurship and leadership continues to influence me today,” Vanessa says.
Taking a Leap of Faith: From Journalist to Product Manager
While journalism was invaluable in deepening her understanding of the start-up ecosystem in Asia, Vanessa still felt that her knowledge of start-ups was still lacking. This inspired her to pivot to product management, where she was responsible for gathering business and user requirements, creating hypotheses, running usability tests, and executing new products for Tech in Asia.
“It was an extremely steep learning curve for me. I shared a love-hate relationship with this role, but my time as a product manager trained and shaped me as a leader,” Vanessa recounts.
For two and a half years, she honed her skills at Tech in Asia before gaining the opportunity to join Xiaomi’s Beijing office in the capacity of product marketing manager in 2016.
“Tech in China moved so fast that I could hardly keep up. Working at Xiaomi gave me the same rush, and I became addicted to the adrenaline of working in the ever-changing Chinese market, which was becoming increasingly open at that time,” she says.
Founded in 2010 by Lei Jun, a computer graduate from Wuhan University, Xiaomi quickly gained market share in China for smart devices and home appliances such as air and water purifiers, smart televisions, and vacuum cleaners. Xiaomi’s well-designed, minimalist smart devices – sold at a fraction of competitors’ prices – quickly gained attention and market share in China and abroad.
Growing a Tech Community in Indonesia
After four years in Xiaomi’s Beijing office, Vanessa was offered the opportunity to head Xiaomi’s fledgling marketing team in Indonesia. “While I loved my life in China, I felt that I could contribute more in the Southeast Asian market since I had a good understanding of region. At the same time, I wanted to be closer to home; the Indonesia opportunity came at the perfect time,” she explains.
With over 61 million digital internet users, Indonesia is home to a growing market with a slew of emerging start-ups in the sector. Vanessa shares that many Indonesians are young and highly tech-savvy, and the market was especially exciting to develop innovations for.
Xiaomi Community, a place where Xiaomi Fans can ask questions, discuss Xiaomi products, and get the latest news and updates, was one of the things Vanessa was laser focused on developing when she first joined the Indonesia team. She elaborates that Xiaomi Fan interactions were important as they provided reliable feedback on what needed to be improved and what new technology should be introduced.
“With any overseas stint, the experience is largely influenced by the local culture and the people you meet during your time there. I have always admired how close-knitted families and local communities are – which gives us a good foundation to build a stronger Xiaomi Fans Community in Indonesia,” Vanessa says.
Indonesia’s two million strong Xiaomi Fans community is one of the largest amongst all markets that Xiaomi is present in, and Vanessa shares that the strong community inspires her team to create more advanced products and ecosystems. This has led to her team tripling in headcount within a year.
“The main challenge of managing a rapidly growing team is learning how to ensure that the whole team stays bonded, and how to motivate each teammate to reach their maximum potential,” Vanessa says.
As a leader in tech, Vanessa is passionate about building a diverse team culture. She firmly believes that it encourages the development of more robust thought processes, stronger growth, and better outputs at work. She echoes that the pandemic has led her to adapt in her communications with the team to continuously affirm and recognise the efforts of her teammates.
This includes flexible work arrangements so long as the output is not compromised and taking breaks whenever necessary – a leadership style that has remained unchanged since the start of her career. “You need to trust your teammates to deliver on their work. If you sweat the small stuff, you’re going to be miserable in the long term thinking about them,” she says.
A Sweet Treat Away From The Hustle Of Tech
With workplace boundaries blurred as a result of work-from-home (WFH) measures, Vanessa shares that it is difficult to expect to have the perfect work-life schedule every day.
“There will be days where you have to put in extra hours at work, and others where you’re able to spare more time doing things you love with people you love,” she says. She advocates adopting a fluid mindset to achieving work-life balance over time.
As a leader, she advocates for her team to start their day by listing three goals to help prioritise work, thereby preventing ‘overdrive’. “It boils down to priorities and discipline – once you know what your priorities are for the day, you follow up with discipline to see them through,” she says.
Vanessa shares that as professionals, knowing when to switch off, rest, exercise, spend time with loved ones and learn something new is also important. For Vanessa, her interest out of the office lies in baking.
“I love making cupcakes with fillings. I would typically bake them when someone new joins the team so that they can give out these cupcakes while introducing themselves,” she says.
“I also create bakes for my teammates’ birthdays, based on my understanding about them and their personal preferences.”
Vanessa’s Beginner-Friendly Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf
Tech expert by day, bake expert by night – Vanessa shares her beginner-friendly banana chocolate chip loaf recipe for a therepeutic weekend to recharge in the kitchen. Here’s the recipe (bakes one loaf, one 9” cake, or 16-17 cupcakes):
- 160g or 1 ¼ cups All-purpose flour
- 100g or ½ cup Sugar
- 4.8g or 1 teaspoon Baking soda
- 2.8g or ½ teaspoon Salt
- 3 to 4 Very ripe bananas
- 125ml or ½ cup Vegetable oil
- 2 Eggs
- 75g or ½ cup Chocolate chips (or walnuts or pecans too)
- 10g to 25g Chocolate chips (or walnuts or pecans) for topping
1. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
2. Coat loaf pan with cooking spray; flour lightly.
3. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
4. In a second bowl mash bananas; stir in oil and eggs until just combined.
5. Mix dry ingredients into banana mixture.
6. Stir in chocolate chips (or walnuts or pecans).
7. Pour batter into the pan.
8. Top it with your favorite chocolate chips, walnuts, or pecans. You can even split the banana into half and put it on top.
9. Bake 35 to 40 minutes for cake loaf or 16 to 18 minutes for cupcakes (largely depends on your oven). It is cooked when you insert a toothpick and it comes out clean.
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Vanessa is the Director of Marketing for the Indonesia region at Xiaomi. Before assuming her current position, she led product PR and product marketing at Xiaomi HQ, where she was instrumental in helping Xiaomi build a global presence. Prior to joining Xiaomi, Vanessa was a journalist and product manager at Tech in Asia.
If you share similar passions about gadgets, start-ups, and baking, connect with Vanessa here.