By SGN | 28 April 2020
At age 27, Annabelle Kwok has accomplished quite the feat – having started two AI companies, SmartCow in 2016 and Neuralbay in 2017. The successful boss lady spearheading tech in Singapore came from a rather humble beginning, unknowingly starting her journey in tech when she was just a child.
“I have a typical Asian mum who would rather buy science kits instead of Barbie dolls. She bought me the first generation of Lego Mindstorms to build robots when I was about six or seven,” Annabelle muses. However, it was not until she enrolled in Temasek Junior College’s integrated programme, did the fiery teen get interested in technology.
The tech-savvy 14-year-old would spend her time in class trying to hack through the school’s firewall systems and run multiple virtual desktops on her computer so that she could play her computer games – all while trying to dodge the watchful eyes of the teacher. Somewhat echoing after her past, Annabelle is not only cracking through firewalls today, she’s breaking down gender barriers as a leading woman in tech.
In her journey, she has even met and worked with ex-U.S. President Barack Obama to plan for workshops in the region, as part of the Obama Foundation. “What really stuck with me was his actions through all our little interactions. [Ex-U.S. President Obama] is one of the most powerful men on earth and yet he speaks with such authenticity, seriousness and playfulness at the same time – a big difference in my experience from having interacted with senior executives in various companies,” she says.
“To me, he’s an example of how a leader should conduct himself, and also a testament that we can change the world, do good work and have fun, all at the same time.”
A human take on AI
Annabelle is currently Director of AI of Prudential’s AI Center of Excellence, where she exemplifies what she has learned from the ex-U.S. President in leadership. Under her direction, the team is using AI to build better products by understanding “the everchanging and broad spectrum of needs” with the use of “data-driven approach and insights, alongside machine learning.”
Annabelle’s clearcut vision for the future and insightful leadership was not born overnight. Her experiences being in a start-up environment, which she notes to be much leaner, have made her the strong leader that she is today. In fact, the regional team that Annabelle leads functions much like a start-up and is made up of different nationalities, backgrounds, professions and culture.
“There is laser-focus on understanding, listening and fulfilling the customers’ needs and wants. This is something I am bringing with me as I move into a larger organisation – to continue leading with a passion to serve the needs of others and of course, along the way, inspiring change within the industry,” Annabelle says.
Championing women in tech
Annabelle believes that more can be done to champion women in tech and she remains hopeful for greater acceptance for women in power in the industry. “Be patient and persistent. A change will eventually happen, if not for yourself but for the next generation of female leaders to come,” she says.
“I have never viewed my gender as an impediment, but instead, being a woman helped expedite my learning and figuring my way around the tech industry,” Annabelle recalls. She lists that as a woman, she had gathered more attention and guidance while on the job at a fabrication lab, and received more opportunities to attend local and international tech conferences because of free passes set aside by organisers for women – which greatly helped Annabelle to widen her network and exposure to various tech in the industry.
She credits the opportunities and support she had received to those before her who had paved a path for women in this industry. “It is important for women my generation to continue paving the journey that the women before us started, for the women in developing societies where gender bias is still a big problem and for next generation of women to come,” Annabelle stresses.
Continuing to push the boundaries of tech
As part of developing Singapore into a Smart Nation, the government has proposed the National AI Strategic Plan, which will see transformations in tech with AI. Annabelle reckons that Singapore is well on its way to achieving its targets by 2030.
“Singapore, in comparison to many other countries, is in a better position, because we have been building our foundations in tech like the cleaning of datasets which can often be a tedious and expensive process. Singapore has done it and that is an impressive feat. We are also in a good position to integrate new technologies to come, to handle high volumes, variety and velocity of data, and also be well-equipped to evaluate the veracity of data,” she explains.
While Annabelle thinks that it is important for businesses to keep updated with the latest trends, she believes that the focus, when trying to implement tech, should be on what will solve current business problems.
“There is a lesser need to be keeping up with what competitors are using as it is more important that the tech you implement serves the business purpose. Identify what needs to be optimized, augmented, automated or re-invented and then look for tech solutions that can help with the process,” she says.