Google Southeast Asia chief wants to help underserved communities in the region

Janet Ong
·Finance Editor
·6-min read
Stephanie Davis, managing director, Google Southeast Asia (PHOTO: Google)
Stephanie Davis, Vice President, Google Southeast Asia (PHOTO: Google)

SINGAPORE — From tiny Hoboken in Georgia, USA, all the way to the Little Red Dot, Google’s Vice President, Southeast Asia is, one can say, personally invested in the Southeast Asia region.

Born and raised on a farm in the town with a population of 450, Stephanie Davis says her sense of adventure has led her through not only different postings in different countries but also different divisions in the tech conglomerate.

Making Asia her home since 2017, Davis, who is in her 40s, understands that the Southeast Asia region is important for the company.

Google is “deeply committed” to supporting small- and medium-sized businesses in the region who have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, Davis told Yahoo Finance Singapore during an interview.

The region has a fast-growing internet economy and an increasingly affluent population of over 600 million. Southeast Asians are the most engaged mobile Internet users in the world, according to the “Google & Temasek/Bain, e-Conomy SEA 2019” report. There are 360 million Internet users in the region and 90 per cent of them connect to the Internet primarily through their mobile phones.

Google made a commitment at the World Economic Forum meeting in 2018 to train 3 million SME workers in ASEAN by 2022. It’s still on track, having trained 2 million individuals to date. Between January and September 2020, Google has trained around 320,000 small-and medium-sized businesses, 125,000 teachers and 570,000 students across Southeast Asia.

In June, Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, announced a US$3.3 million grant to Asean and The Asia Foundation. This initiative will train up to 200,000 people from rural regions and underserved communities—including entrepreneurs, underemployed youth and women – to help minimise the negative impact from the COVID-19 crisis.

Some of the initiatives Google had pushed out over the recent months include teaming up with three Singapore government agencies to launch a new jobs and skills initiative for 3,000 local entry-level and mid-career job seekers in the city. As part of its expansion in Asia, Google is constructing its third cloud data centre in Singapore, bringing its long-term data centres investment to US$850 million.

‘Write a letter’

Davis, who joined Google in 2006 as head of publisher partnerships and has led teams in the US and UK, took on the role as country director for New Zealand in 2016 before moving to Singapore a year later as country director. Three years later, she became the managing director for Southeast and South Asia.

On her journey here, Davis recalled how every year, her parents would show her and her brothers a slideshow about their honeymoon adventure of a eight-week camping trip to Alaska on their wedding anniversary. That triggered her sense of adventure and set her dreaming about travelling.

Davis said she would go home a couple of times a year to visit her parents, although the pandemic had put paid to that this year. When she is home, her mother always prepares her favourite food — fresh peas from the garden and grits for breakfast.

Davis says she doesn’t speak any Asian languages yet, although her team is trying to teach her Singlish. She shared with Yahoo Finance Singapore some of the challenges she had faced in her career and the people who had shaped and influenced her:

What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman in your career?

“I personally feel fortunate that I have been supported in my career, I've been surrounded by people who have cared, amazing people. But that is certainly not to say that I haven't encountered challenges as a woman.

I have been in meetings where I did the homework or I did the analysis but the presentation, and the questions from the audience have gone to a male counterpart.

But what I have come to feel over time is that it wasn't because I was a woman necessarily or it wasn't about me personally. It was an unconscious bias that happens when you don't have diversity in the room.

I have also really aimed to stay true to myself. I have learned that I'm happier being true to myself. It's important on a personal level, staying true to who you are. But from a corporate level, I think it's really important to promote diversity — something that we do at Google.

What advice can you give to woman entrepreneurs, especially those in tech-related sectors?

I'm not sure if I have the right tips, but something I say internally at Google and for women that I have the opportunity to speak to, which I think also applies to women who are looking to start their own ventures — and that is to write your story.

Write a letter. Write a letter to yourself, to your daughter, to your parents, to your best friend and describe in that letter, what your venture has accomplished five years from now. So you’re looking in the future, and what do you want it to be, what do you want that venture to achieve. What do you, as a female entrepreneur, want to achieve in the process, and let that be your guide, hold that letter out of the drawer or from your computer wherever you may file it away, pull it out and pull it out often and check and see where are you, and are you staying true to the course that you set out for yourself because again it's a brave, impressive, awesome and needed thing.

Can you share a favourite quote or saying?

“There is a quote from Thomas Carlyle — “He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.” A friend, who had since passed on, who had a boat in the marina where we lived in California, used to raise a glass and toast to this. For years I thought he had made it up himself. Regardless of where it emerged, I find it very fitting as it gives me a good reason to pause, reflect and be thankful for all that I have. Hope is an important factor among us.

What are some of your favourite books?

“Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space” She's a woman who chose to throw out stereotypes. and she has accomplished so much. I also deeply inspired by Jane Goodall’s “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey” and Nelson Mandela’s ”Long Walk to Freedom”. Anything that is written by Mark Twain and John Steinbeck.

I am also reading “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going” “Cambodia’s Curse” “The Malay Dilemma”.

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