Digital is only a platform; People are real

Focus on what you want to achieve and the rest is all noise, says Larissa Tan

Larissa Tan is one of the few female leaders in the technology and automotive industry and heads up Singapore’s first electric automotive company, Vanda Electrics. Under her leadership, Vanda Electrics has successfully launched the Dendrobium, Singapore’s first hyper car, with Williams Advanced Engineering, the engineering team for Williams F1 as Vanda’s technical partner. With a passion for innovation and technology, she has also launched the iconic designed Motochimp, a fast charging electric scooter for urban transportation and Ant Truck, a mini electric logistics truck, both under the Vanda Electrics’ umbrella.

She started in banking and finance and moved to strategic branding and marketing with startups in her late 20s, when digital first started to come into existence. Having hands on experience at the beginning and implementing digital marketing and e-commerce sales tools and channels throughout her career and seeing this transformation into where it is today has allowed her to gain much foresight and be at the forefront of digital and technological transformation strategy.

Since then, she have been in numerous industries, luxury, retail, consumer, heavy industry, technology and automotive. Because her roles have always been global roles, this allowed her to understand business at a strategic level and how cross industry experience was an asset.

In an exclusive interview with AsiaBizToday, she shares her story.

How did it all begin?
Vanda Electrics was officially started in January 2016, and I was hired to the founding team at the onset. I had been working on the concept and strategy together with the founder for a few years before. The original concept of building an electric hypercar was first conceptualised in the mid 1990s, however technology and engineering had not developed to a stage where the design of the Dendrobium car could be built and it was only recently that technology had caught up with the design of the car that we decided that this was a venture that could be pursued.

As CEO, I manage the strategy, marketing, branding of the company and oversee the day to day operations that include the production and sales. We have successfully launched the Dendrobium hypercar and our electric scooter, Motochimp. And we are always looking at developing new products, the battery technology and digitisation of our products and technology.

What was your motivation to get into this role?
When I was asked to join Vanda Electrics, it was initially as the CMO and to help them with their global branding and launch efforts for their products. It was to build Singapore’s first electric hypercar, which in itself was already a daunting prospect, yet alone, a small group of people from Singapore, with no experience in the automotive industry and coming from a country where we do not have a history of a vibrant automotive industry, experience and technical expertise in this field. And to tell this story to the world was something that was exciting. But the challenge was an interesting one and the prospect of building a business despite these challenges got me curious. And we did this with much global success. The same year, we also launched the motochimp, our iconic electric scooter, which has gained much acclaim from international press like Top Gear, Wired Magazine and many others. And we also launched the Ant Truck, our electric urban logistics truck.

What have been your experiences running this business?

The journey has certainly been a challenging one. When we first announced that we were going to build an electric hypercar and launch it on the global stage, it was met with many negative views, especially when they found out it was a startup company coming from Singapore with no experience in automotive and run by a female CEO, especially in an industry dominated by men. I think every start up has challenges and we were not the exception. There were challenges with fund raising, looking for production partners and getting people to believe in us. However, the team believed in it and the passion and resillence that the team had was what convinced our partners and investors to take a chance on us. When we partnered with Williams in the UK to build the car, this was a milestone of achievement for us and in record time, we had a dynamic show car ready for the launch at the Geneva Motor Show.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?

The people keep me going. Getting the right people around you is extremely important. The culture of the team and the company builds its success and brings you through the tough times. These are the people that will inspire you and also call you out on anything that isn’t right. And with everything that is going on in our world today regarding the importance of climate change, the knowledge that I can do something to help change this gives me a goal bigger than Vanda Electrics. My passion when it comes to work is in working towards a purpose, setting things up and coming up with the strategy and working with people to make this work and Vanda Electrics has allowed me to do this with a great team.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?
Absolutely. Being one of the few women in a male dominated industry is probably a challenge in itself. When I first started in this role, it was already going to be an uphill climb. A woman running a car company, from Singapore, with little experience in the automotive industry, launching the company on the international stage was always going to have obstacles and a very steep learning curve. But I think it is attitude that overcomes it all. And is something that I will be grateful to my founder for seeing in me. Rather than looking at my steep learning curve as an obstacle or me being a woman, he saw the attitude and personality that I brought to the table. I’m still learning and will continue to do so. Rather than looking at the obvious, sometimes it is best to not focus on it and get on with what you have to do. In this instance, rather than looking at a male dominated industry as an obstacle to women entering the industry, I simply choose to look at is as an industry full of men and therefore, there is a lot of space and scope for a woman to do something. The furthest thing from my mind when I joined, was that the industry was mostly men and that there would be obstacles and glass ceilings because of it. I saw what I wanted to achieve and just got on with it. Everything else is just noise.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?
I find inspiration from people. My team, from other thought leaders, from my children. I think that in this age, we sometimes forget that digital is only a platform. I’m all for making our lives easier with technology, but we sometimes forget that at the end of it all is the people. It’s the people that make the decisions, people that buy our products, people that work in our companies, people that subscribe to our content, people that listen to our stories, people that tell us what they like and what they don’t like, people that make our lives more interesting and its a fine balance between technology, digital and where our people culture is.

What’s your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment is becoming a mother. I cannot stress the joy and the frustrations that it brings. But it has taught me that life doesn’t always go the way you plan it and patience is definitely a virtue.

How would you define success ?
I think that the secret to success is realising that success is not happiness. It is a moving goal post and not a permanent state. Wholeness is and the two should not be confused.

What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
There are no shortcuts in life. Hard work is nothing to be afraid of. All dues have to be paid eventually. Just keep moving forward with passion and drive.

Do not be afraid of failure for these are where the lessons are learnt that success does not teach. Fail often and fail fast as challenges bring lessons in humility, perseverance and courage. Realise that there is nothing wrong with failure, but do not dwell on it.

Never be afraid to ask for help. The worst that can happen is that someone says no. Constantly be willing to learn, as there in no one person that is the authority on knowledge and the work is always changing. There will always be others that know more than you and that is ok.

Be discerning with who you surround yourself. Realise who is in your corner and trust those that are willing to help. Be loyal, committed and grateful to them for success is nothing without integrity.