Asia

The tiger mum who went from sales representative to managing director of tech giant HP Inc

SINGAPORE – Some of her staff call Ms Vivian Chua “hu ma”.

“Yes, tiger mum,” says the Singapore managing director of technology giant HP Inc, translating the Mandarin phrase with a grin.

Not because the 47-year-old is ferocious (although she was actually born in the Year of the Tiger) or regularly eats them for breakfast.

“They call me tiger mum because I’m very protective of my cubs,” she says.

That is not to say she has no tiger traits. She is sharp, determined and confident, which probably explains why she is standing tall today as one of the rare women leaders in the male-dominated tech industry.

Ms Chua did not have a degree when she joined HP as a sales representative more than two decades ago. But she more than found her feet in the multinational, taking on various roles in business development, channel marketing and consumer personal systems, both locally and regionally.

Today, she is the cluster head of HP in both Singapore and Malaysia, enlarging the company’s footprint in computing, print and other emerging technologies including 3D printing.

Her beginnings were humble.

The second of five children of a taxi driver and a housewife, she grew up in a one-room rental flat near Beach Road.

“I lived there until I was 16. It was a very colourful neighbourhood. My next-door neighbour was a butcher and others living along the same corridor included a fishball noodle seller, a transvestite and another girl who became a boy.

“Everyone kept their doors open, everyone knew one another,” she says.

Once, when she was about seven years old, her mother had gone to the market after forgetting to turn off the stove.

“Whatever she was boiling dried up and caught fire. My siblings and I were still sleeping then. Our neighbours from the furniture shop downstairs broke down the door and gate and got us out,” she recalls.

The years she spent here were formative in more ways than one.

“I picked up different dialects. It made me appreciate the elderly. It also made me appreciate what I had and spurred me to do better in life. I realised early on that education was the ticket to a better life.”

Money was often tight because her father was the sole breadwinner, so she started working during the school holidays at a young age.

The money she earned helped pay for her school fees and defray family expenses.

Always interested in gadgets, she decided early on in life that she wanted to be in the tech industry.

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“The newspaper classifieds were filled with pages and pages of vacancies in the computer industry, so I told myself I’d better be there,” she says.

A self-starter who could have easily taken the university route, the former student of Geylang Methodist Secondary opted to study business and marketing at Ngee Ann Polytechnic instead.

“My three sisters were also schooling, so I wanted to start work early to alleviate my family’s financial burden,” she says.

Her first job upon graduation in 1993 was selling industrial magnets for a small company. The job required her to make cold calls to factories and other businesses in industrial areas.

The experience was tough but it taught her one thing.

“It was possible for a girl to be convincing in a technical field. If you understand what you are selling, you can do a good job in a male-driven industry,” she says.

Three years later, she joined the IT world when she landed a job in events and marketing with a tech company under Singapore Technologies.

It did not take long for her to move into sales where she handled, among other things, tenders for government agencies.

“I got to know all the vendors – HP, Compaq and IBM,” she says.

Struck by her resourcefulness, HP asked her if she would like to join the company.

“I did but they couldn’t hire me. The bar to entry was a degree but I only had a diploma,” she says.

Recognising her lack of a degree could stymie her career, she enrolled in a part-time business degree programme offered by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology at the Singapore Institute Of Management.

HP knocked on her doors again after a couple of years.

“I told them I still didn’t have a degree although I was midway through one. They said ‘come, come’,” says Ms Chua, who was then doing product management with IT wholesaler Tech Pacific.

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That was how she ended up as a sales representative with the tech giant in 1999.

“I was like a small-town girl joining a big company, but it was something I really wanted because HP has the breadth of products, from PCs to printers, servers and total solution. I was motivated and really started to work very hard.”

Getting to the top was never part of her agenda.

“I’m more about what’s next. Is there a new skill I need to learn? Do I look forward to coming to work every day? Have I been in the role too long? Do I need to learn another aspect of the business?

“That was how my career progressed in HP,” she says.

Her determination to understand the whole business saw her taking up opportunities when they presented themselves. She started in sales but went on to do product and business development, channel marketing and consumer personal systems.

For several years before she became managing director in late 2019, she spearheaded the company’s growth in personal computer systems in the Asia-Pacific including China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and South-east Asia.

When she first went to China where she targeted the e-gaming and e-sports segments, she found it a tough male-dominated market.

But she was not fazed.

“You just have to prove that you are a good leader and that you can value-add, which is important to them. You have to bring to the table a wider view outside China, and you have to let them know you’re helping them make China bigger within the global ecosystem.

“When they see you rolling up your sleeves to get involved in their business, you will gain their trust,” she says.

Through her career, Ms Chua has never felt sidelined or undermined because of her gender.

“You just need to be able to hold your own, whether it’s about the product, thought leadership or style of working,” she says.

It helped, she adds, that HP’s hiring practices and policies were enlightened and pro-diversity and pro-inclusion.

“If you really want to build your career, there are opportunities here. It’s whether you want them.

“About 45 per cent of our workforce comprises women, with 35 per cent of them in leadership positions,” she says, adding that HP has several policies and programmes to help accelerate women in leadership

Among them are Catalyst @ HP, a women’s sponsorship outfit, Women In Leadership Lab, which prepares female employees for C-level roles and where women leaders share their journey, as well as Women’s Impact Network, which provides resources and a venue for programmes on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Having risen through the ranks and benefited from these programmes, she is determined to pay it forward. Last year, she was honoured in the inaugural Women in ICT awards, which recognise the achievements of women in the tech industry across the region.

Although the trajectory of her career was smooth, the mother of two boys, aged 12 and 15, hit a low point professionally around 2008 and even tendered her resignation.

“I’d just had my elder son and wanted to spend more time with him, and I felt that I did not have work-life balance,” says Ms Chua, whose husband also works in the IT industry.

Her V-P, however, took her out for coffee. “He said: It’s you. It’s not the role or the company. You are the one who decides your work-life balance. If you’re the type who always finds things to do, when you join another company, you will not have work-life balance too. Do you get it?”

She withdrew her resignation.

“He made a lot of sense. I’m lucky because I have a really supportive husband and very strong family support and I realised that, ultimately, I have control over how I want to balance my life.”

Her motto now? Make the time count, whether at work or at home.

She candidly admits to being blindsided by the pandemic, which erupted just a couple of months after she took over the reins as managing director.

“Covid-19 changed the way we worked quite drastically. And as a new MD, I had to show that I knew how to take care of our staff. How do you keep them safe? How do you engage with them virtually?

“This job has given me a new perspective of the company, not just the business but also the people. In the light of the pandemic, how do we come together to make things happen?” says Ms Chua, who is extremely chuffed that her employees came together to put up a virtual charity show and raised US$75,000 (S$101,000) for different charities last year.

She smiles when asked for three tips she would give to women aspiring to be in leadership positions.

“You must want the role. You are never ready. Nobody is taught to be a CEO. If you have the aptitude, go for it.”

Building a personal brand is also important. “Do people know you as kind, empathetic, data-driven and objective? These are traits which go a long way when people consider you for leadership roles. Soft skills are hard to come by; tech skills and product knowledge, you can pick up.”

Her final tip?

“You are what you are. You need to decide how you want to balance your work and your life. Nobody can do it better than you.”

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