Singapore Youth Award Finalist - Annabelle Kwok

Annabelle Kwok

Founder and CEO,
NeuralBay

Through her unique achievements, technopreneur Annabelle Kwok hopes to inspire young people to be a force for change.

Does Annabelle’s story inspire you? Tell us why!

Not many young Singaporeans can boast about having a one-on-one pow-wow with former US President Barack Obama about tackling Asia’s problems. Earlier this year, Annabelle Kwok did just that with the charismatic American leader. She was one of 21 youths chosen from the Asia Pacific to help his non-profit foundation plan workshops in the region.

While such an encounter might prove intimidating to many, a quick scan of Annabelle’s impressive resume of career- and community-related achievements shows that she is accustomed to operating out of her — and most people’s — comfort zones. Indeed, her work with the Obama Foundation is just the most high-profile in a series of accomplishments that has propelled the 26-year old into increasing prominence on the regional and global stage.

When she’s not hobnobbing with world leaders, Annabelle is the founder and CEO of tech startup NeuralBay, which seeks to close the growing technological gap between SMEs and large corporates by offering small business owners in Singapore — the backbone of the local economy — access to easy-to-use and affordable artificial intelligence (AI) solutions. “We often talk about financial disparity and seek to balance it out in hopes of a better world, but what about technological disparity? In the years to come, there will be a huge technological divide between such businesses, and it will give rise to a range of social problems, including financial disparity. This is our effort at giving the SMEs a fighting chance to stay relevant in the world moving forward,” she says.

Annabelle hopes that NeuralBay’s solutions will help SMEs to increase their profits, which would then translate into higher salaries for their employees. The company’s unique business model had them developing AI solutions for multinational companies and repurposing them for use by SME clients. NeuralBay is now developing image- and video-processing software that provides data-driven insights to retailers. She aims to roll out the solution next year and expand its application to other industries thereafter. Her work at NeuralBay also feeds into her belief that a person can give back to society and the community in knowledge and skills, not just with money or time. “This is what I am trying to do with NeuralBay, to use my expertise to develop something that SMEs can benefit from.” Founded in 2017, the company has already snagged international clients. It managed to pip global competitors like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to win a project for an international chocolate company. With the buzz generated by NeuralBay, Annabelle has been invited to speak on topics around the world, including Dubai, Iran, China and Indonesia. Earlier this year, she delivered the keynote address at London Tech Week.

A YOUNG START

Annabelle’s passion for tech started when her parents bought her a LEGO robotics set when she was in primary school. Her interest grew exponentially when she got hooked on playing computer games. She would stay up late into the night gaming, which irked her parents. “At one stage, my mum took my computer and locked it up! But I could always pick the locks,” she says with a chuckle.

This early deep dive into world of bits and bytes led her into a career in the technology sector after she graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Mathematics degree in 2014. One of her first jobs saw her getting her hands dirty building image-processing robots in a workplace filled with men much older than her. But rather than feel handicapped as a young woman in a male-dominated field, she relished the challenge and proved herself through her sheer ability. She soon left to found her first company Smart Cow, a hardware company that builds AI devices, before going on to start NeuralBay in 2017.

Through it all, she never felt hindered by her youth and says she enjoys interacting and gaining valuable life experiences and advices from senior and experience individuals. Nor does she believe that women should get a “free pass” just because of their gender. “I attend a lot of tech conferences where women complain about not having equal pay. But I believe you have to prove yourself and earn the respect of those around you.”

STAYING TRUE TO ONE’S SELF

On top of her business endeavours, Annabelle volunteers her time in the community and with young people (see sidebar), including as a mentor at NTU. She helps with some of their programmes and is a guest speaker or lecturer for several student modules.

She is also part of the Obama Foundation, former President Obama’s signature programme to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia. In 2014, she was involved in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, where she worked alongside regional directors of brands such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Intel, Uber and World Wide Fund for Nature to address issues like civic engagement, environmental and natural resources management, entrepreneurship and economic development. In January, she gathered with other youth leaders in Hawaii to participate in a workshop to help the Obama Foundation design its future Leaders programme in the Asia-Pacific region. “My previous community work took a bottom-up approach, but this was top-down. As the years go by, I get a little more prominent and my reach gets bigger for me to help more people,” she explains. “I strongly believe in giving back and this could be in any form, from volunteering your time and energy, contributing your knowledge and skills, or something as simple as spreading happiness.”

To juggle her many pursuits — she’s also a Taekwondo black belt and an accomplished musician — Annabelle relies on “energy management”, where she schedules activities or meetings that will energise her. “If I’m wide awake at 2am, why should I force myself to sleep? Rather than managing my time, I focus on doing activities that will energise me, like running or meeting people who inspire me,” she says.

Through her own experiences, Annabelle has learnt that one doesn’t have to be the best at what they do to give back. As such, the most important advice she has for other ambitious youth looking to follow her trailblazing path is to follow their own heart and forge their own paths, even if they are far off the beaten track. “They say that when you do a business pitch, you must follow this format. Or when you go to school and study, that you should study all this stuff. But I have always done it my way.” She also advises youths to start with something simple they can handle and grow from there. “You don’t have to run off to Africa like I did [see box]. Wisdom can be found anywhere; you just have to find a way to unlock it.”

Does Annabelle’s story inspire you?
Tell us why!