This story is part of Forbes’ coverage of Asia’s Power Business Women 2020. See the full list here.
In a year defined by a global pandemic that has challenged almost every aspect of life, leadership is being constantly tested. The 25 business leaders on the 2020 Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen list have risen to that challenge and are demonstrating their mettle in these difficult times.
Our listees this year represent a wide range of industries—from biotech, fintech and edtech to more traditional sectors such as retail, logistics and law. Each has a track record of success either running a company with sizable revenues or founding a startup valued at over $1 billion.
What these women have in common is resilient leadership and vision to adapt to the new normal and spot opportunities where others see challenges.
Facing the Future
“You always have to keep agile, and quite hungry and entrepreneurial,” says Roshni Nadar Malhotra, who in mid-July became chairperson of IT services giant HCL Technologies, the title previously held by her father, Shiv Nadar. Despite the company’s size, she wants it to behave like a startup.
Nadar Malhotra, 38, who has worked at HCL for 12 years, was previously vice chairperson for two years. Despite some weaknesses in the company’s business due to the pandemic, she is optimistic over the longer term as the digitalization process will create demand for the services and products offered by HCL.
“There’s been an accelerated emphasis on technology and how businesses are going to need it now to thrive and even differentiate themselves,” she says. “There’s a lot more focus on digitalization and that’s something which uniquely has opened up a few opportunities.”
Tech entrepreneurs on the rise
This year’s list also celebrates women entrepreneurs who built tech startups, each attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and valued at over $1 billion.
Melanie Perkins, 33, cofounded Canva while an undergrad at the University of Western Australia. The graphic design software company has raised more than $300 million since, with the latest round ($60 million) in June valuing it at $6 billion. Canva has turned profitable in mid- 2017 and is in competition with the likes of Adobe. Now available in more than 100 languages, Canva has more than 700 employees and over 30 million active monthly users in 190 countries.
Another tech entrepreneur on the list is Lucy Yueting Liu, 29, who cofounded Airwallex, a fintech startup valued at nearly $1.9 billion. Airwallex has attracted $362 million in funding, including $160 million in April. Airwallex helps customers conduct multi-currency cross-border transactions more cheaply than banks. Headquartered in Hong Kong, it has 440 staff in offices in 10 cities from Bangalore to Tokyo.
In India, Divya Gokulnath, 34, and her husband Byju Raveendran cofounded edtech company Byju’s, which offers online courses for K-12 students. With India’s school-age children stuck at home because of the pandemic, Gokulnath has had her hands full. “We’ve added 20 million students just in the last four months,” she says.
Byju’s — which has raised $1.6 billion in investment funding so far and is valued at $10 billion — counts 64 million active users across 1,700 cities in India and overseas.
Setting a precedent
Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen list this year also features outstanding leaders who are making remarkable strides in traditionally male-dominated roles and industries.
In 2018, Singapore’s Rachel Eng, 52, joined global professional services firm PwC where a year later she was appointed to its global legal leadership team—the only woman in the nine member team—helping oversee the network’s 3,600 lawyers across roughly 100 countries. Eng now heads PwC’s Singapore member firm, which now bears her name, Eng and Co.
Another woman shattering the glass ceiling in Singapore is Lily Kong, 55, the fifth president of Singapore Management University and the first woman to lead one of the island-state’s top universities.
South Korean Jang In-a, 44, is one of the few women worldwide to run a gaming company. Joining Smilegate Entertainment as a game developer in 2007, when it had just 20 employees, she rose through the ranks to become CEO in 2015. She now heads one of South Korea’s largest gaming companies (sales), with $451 million in revenue last year and about 600 game developers.
In Japan, Maki Akaida, 41, is the first female CEO of Uniqlo Japan, the fast-fashion brand’s most profitable division worldwide. She has also been tapped by Fast Retailing’s CEO Tadashi Yanai as a possible successor. Fast Retailing, the company behind Uniqlo, has a tradition of women executives, as nearly 40% of its managers are female. On the company’s website, Akaida is quoted as saying: “What I want to tell women is, ‘Realize early on that you have a much higher potential than you think!’”
This year’s list consists entirely of newcomers, and thereby expands our network of female business leaders shaping the business environment in the Asia-Pacific region.
Research and Reporting: Megha Bahree, Karsha Green, Jane Ho, John Kang, Danielle Keeton-Olsen, Pudji Lestari, Suzanne Nam, Lan Anh Nguyen, Jihyun Park, Anuradha Raghunathan, James Simms, Yue Wang and Jennifer Wells.
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