While studying Computer Science at De La Salle University - a leading institution in the Philippines - Louise Co was presented with an opportunity to apply for a scholarship in Singapore.
Initially enthused, the Filipina student - who specialised in database deep dives, artificial intelligence and hardcore programming - started work eagerly filling out the application form with a sense of purpose. And rightly so given that Co came from a technology family, having been introduced to Visual Basic classes at an early age by her engineering graduate mother.
Yet at some stage during the application process, then Manila-based Co paused; “I realised that I would never be selected for the scholarship. I was an average student from a small school in the Philippines. There was no way that I would be selected among the many applicants who had better credentials than I did. So I decided not to pursue the scholarship.”
When Co’s uncle heard of this decision, his advice was clear; “it was not my job to decide if I should be selected into the scholarship or not. It was the selection committee’s decision. Why was I removing myself from any chance of being selected?”
For Co - now based in Singapore as regional alliances manager of Asia Pacific at NTT - this represented the earliest and biggest career lesson; “be brave and do not discount yourself.”
Fast forward more than 10 years and Co - recently Highly Commended as a Shining Star during the inaugural Channel Asia Women in ICT Awards (WIICTA) in Southeast Asia - is leading the charge building and managing relationships with key strategic partners for a giant of technology. Aligning closely with Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and SAP, Co is tasked with driving joint success across the region through combined business and investment planning.
“Any time that I am faced with an opportunity to do something I think I am not qualified for, I remember this advice and take the opportunity anyway,” said Co, when speaking exclusively to Channel Asia. “It is not my job to remove myself from any opportunity - whether I am qualified or not. It is another person’s problem to reject me but before that happens, I am going to take as many shots as I can."
Starting out in tech
When Co was born her mother - then an engineering graduate - decided to take a step back from her career to manage the small family business, allowing opportunity to take care of the family.
“She was on the computer the whole day, typing up documents with Microsoft Word and doing the financials with Excel,” Co recalled. “I used to play in her office and I eventually picked up Word and Excel skills from her.”
Supported by a mother who realised the future potential of technology, Co grew up “extremely comfortable” with computers, operating as a self-confessed “rockstar” in basic computer classes during high school.
“We learned the wonders of Powerpoint and HTML,” she said. “I really thought that having a career in IT was going to be a breeze but when I eventually started on my computer science degree I realised that it was not remotely as easy as I expected it to be.”
Despite all the complexities and challenges associated with database programming, Co excelled to graduate from De La Salle University in 2009, before being selected as part of a graduate trainee program with Datacraft - a former subsidiary of then Dimension Data and now NTT - to specialise in Microsoft technologies.
While not officially part of the workforce, Co seized on the opportunity to enhance capabilities under the Datacraft banner, assuming a role at Microsoft managing a small part of the business operations. Less than 12 months later, Co yearned for a deeper dive into technology and joined Dimension Data as a technical consultant in late 2010, moving to Singapore in the process.
“There were no detours, but there were definitely leaps of faith and lots of blessings in terms of taking on new roles and expertise within the industry,” Co added.
After a few years on the technical side, Co was selected to participate in Fast Track, a leadership program providing guidance on finance, strategy and marketing. In addition to enhancing business knowledge, the move also helped elevate Co’s profile within the wider organisation, culminating in the aspiring executive being offered the position of chief of staff reporting directly to the CEO of Asia Pacific.
“This role was a huge turning point in my career as it focused more on business strategies instead of the technical path that I had initially mapped out,” Co outlined. “I had to adapt quickly and along the way I realised that I enjoyed learning these new skills that extended my capabilities.
“I am most proud of the work that I have done as chief of staff. It was a role where I had to reinvent the way that I perceived and tackled challenges. I was also recognised by our CEO for my work during my tenure in the role, which further validated my potential. This has definitely been the driving force that encourages me to be fearless in learning and growing.”
Time to be brave
Following two years as chief of staff, Co pursued a more hands-on role role more closely linked to the technology delivered by NTT, which formally launched to the market in mid-2019. In addition to now running regional alliances at the global system integrator, Co also volunteers at Very Special Arts (VSA) Singapore as the IT Committee Chair, helping the non-profit organisation develop a sustainable technology roadmap.
“Recognise that you are good enough,” advised Co, when offering guidance to aspiring females seeking a career in technology. “As women, we tend to discount ourselves because we don’t believe that our skills are good enough for a role or task. This could be because we are realistic about not knowing everything and wanting to ensure that the right expectations are met.”
On the flip side, Co countered that women must instead realise that such skills and attitudes already exist, advocating against instant disqualification from opportunities based on false assumptions.
“Give others the chance to appreciate your greatness,” she said. “Believe and be brave because you might not realise it yourself yet but you are already great.”
Besides the gender pay gap and the tendency to be dismissed in conversations, Co acknowledged however that numerous unconscious biases against women that still exist today.
“I learned that these unconscious biases do not occur only in the way that other people or society as a whole perceives of me, but I have unintentionally applied these biases against myself as well,” she qualified. “I am still in the journey to remove myself as a factor to achieving my own - or other women’s - potential. I have truly been blessed most of my career but being a woman in a male-dominated industry has its challenges.”