Singapore Youth Award Finalist - Elisha Tan

Elisha Tan

Founder, TechLadies

TechLadies founder Elisha Tan knows how it is to fail and fail again. But she has also learnt to rise from setbacks to attain success on her own terms — and hopes to inspire and empower women around Asia to do the same.

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By her own account, Elisha Tan wasn’t really made for entrepreneurship. With a conventional childhood that saw her going through the “default” path in school, even she could not recall a time when she had showed entrepreneurial zeal.

However, a spark was lit in university. The Psychology major had joined the Entrepreneurship Club, where she organised and participated in competitions and exchange programmes. She was exposed to how startups can provide practical, real-world solutions while being profitable at the same time.

So, when she graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2010, Elisha took a path less travelled by youths in Singapore. Instead of looking for a stable, well-paying job after receiving her degree, she plunged into the start-up world with her first company, Learnemy. It was a peer-to-peer marketplace where one could learn skills from the community.

Although Learnemy would later help Elisha redefine what it means to be successful in Singapore, it was also to be her first big failure. Learnemy achieved modest success — at its peak, it had more than 250 instructors and served over 900 learners — but Elisha still had a few big challenges that proved very difficult to overcome. For instance, she struggled to get users to come back to her website once they had connected with their instructors — both parties would simply connect offsite. She also struggled to grow the platform and get new users. “I had difficulties in distribution, retention and traction, and tried multiple methods to turn things around. Despite my efforts, I could not get out of the rut that I was in.”

Even from the beginning, Elisha was faced with myriad challenges, which she bravely took on. For instance, she started literally from scratch — by learning how to code. The 31-year-old says: “I was a nobody, so although I tried very hard, I could not find a technical co-founder who wanted to join me for Learnemy. I decided to do it myself. Thankfully, a programmer friend helped by giving me ‘classes’ after work and weekends at cafes and libraries. It was extremely difficult, but I was very motivated as well.” Eventually, after four years of operating Learnemy, she decided to move to Silicon Valley in a quest to keep the company afloat. With money that she saved from years of living with less, she headed there for three months for mentorship and networking. Though she gained a lot of exposure, she soon realised that everyone had differing opinions, and at the end of the day, it was “up to me”.

With her savings dwindling, and physical and psychological burn-out becoming a reality, Elisha — Learnemy’s only full-time employee — made the difficult decision to shut down her start-up for good. She had no other option but to find a job, and fortunately, she was soon hired by a tech media company. Then — as if her life adhered to the saying, “when it rains, it pours” — she was asked to leave the company six months into the job, with only a week’s notice. She was devastated. “I was stunned. I felt like the ultimate failure. I thought at the time that finally, I was taking the proven path. You know, ‘get a job, work hard and all will be okay’,” Elisha recalls, tears welling up as she remembers one of the lowest points in her life. “I was left with nothing.”

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Elisha’s first thought after losing her job was to update her resume and go for interviews (“Any interview.”). “I also kept asking myself what I had done wrong. I went over my actions and obsessed about what else I could have done,” she shares. “Eventually, I realised I was basing my self-worth on conventional standards of success, such as how much money I had earned, or how far up the career ladder I had advanced.”

She stopped herself from jumping into just any open role, and instead, reflected on what she had learnt from Learnemy. While trying to figure out her next steps, Elisha continued to cut back on her lifestyle expenses. That meant no outings with friends, no holidays, few luxuries like going to the movies, and eating extremely cheaply. She realised she still wanted to work in tech, where she was particularly interested in building communities. Elisha began reaching out to her tech contacts; in interviews, she demonstrated how her skills and experiences in the past several years were relevant and could add value to the roles she desired. She managed to find a contract role with a tech MNC in Singapore, which was later converted into a full-time job as a programme manager. She still works in the role, which she says brings her much personal satisfaction. “I’ve built developer communities across Asia, reaching tens of thousands of developers, up skilling and helping them with employment and startup opportunities.”

And Elisha kept going. All those years of experiencing disappointment had a silver lining — it taught her resilience and coping skills to bounce back from failure. After work hours, she continued to maintain her entrepreneurial zeal and passion to help others. She set up TechLadies in 2016 (see box), offering an online community and volunteer-run boot camps, primarily teaching women to code. Again, the software engineer and coder friends who helped her out when she started Learnemy answered her call for collaborators.

With TechLadies, she decided that the women she taught weren’t merely learning to code — they were going to be a force for change. Alongside learning, they would also work on meaningful projects for NGOs. One real-world issue the pioneer batch of ladies solved was for the Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME), which needed to improve the database it uses to track instances of domestic workers being abused by their employers.

Overall, she also thinks that there should be more gender diversity in tech, she adds. “The computer doesn’t know or care if you’re male or female. It only cares that you can code competently.” To close the gender gap, “we must first be invested in solving it,” she explains. “I took action in a way I knew how — by starting something.” Although she has big plans for TechLadies, she is taking measured steps — something she also learnt from her Learnemy experience. With a Penang chapter recently launched, Elisha is focused on growing the community in Singapore and regionally.

TO THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM

Looking back, Elisha can now appreciate that her ability to rise from failure isn’t just a feel-good story. It’s an investment towards the future, and she knows this growth mindset will help her weather the down points in life. “Failure is not painless. It inevitably happens to anyone. Still, we must fail in order to build our resilience muscle,” she says. “Even if I fail in the future, I know I will be all right as I have failed pretty badly in the past.”

Shaped by her failures and triumphs, her definition of success has also matured. “Success cannot be measured by money alone, though it’s nice be comfortable,” she says. “I’ve learnt not to equate the financial success of my startups with my own self-worth.” She also now speaks publicly about her failures,at tech and networking events, in the belief that it will help someone else gain a different perspective. By sharing her story, Elisha also plays a part in helping Singaporeans expand their idea of what it means to be conventionally successful. “Being vulnerable in front of a crowd was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. I was surprised by how much my story resonated with my peers, and that made me feel less alone.” She wants aspiring young entrepreneurs to know that they should “take calculated risks, be unafraid to fail and contribute what they can”. As she tells it: “I may have created Tech Ladies but this could not have been done without a group of volunteers. When everyone contributes what they can, we can make a big impact.”

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