Women Must Dream Big to Have it All

When she was younger, she was more passionate about the law and not business. For various reasons, she chose to study psychology for her Bachelor’s degree and considered practicing it. When she eventually took her MBA (Master of Business Administration), she realized that she took to the business world like “a fish to water”. Loving it, there was no looking back for her.

Julie Tay, Senior Vice-President and Managing Director at Align Technology, Asia Pacific, in this chat with AsiaBizToday admits that her younger self would never have imagined that she would become a regional leader at a multinational company like Align Technology.

That’s the beauty of life, sometimes, it’s not about knowing what you want to do at an early age. “You never know what kind of surprises life throws at you. It is important to be able to pivot and embrace new experiences. Along the way, I picked up many learnings and acquired many different skills. Looking back now, it’s nice to know that all my experiences are building blocks to lead me to where I am today!” she says.  

What was your first foray into the corporate world like?

My first foray into the corporate world was in the shipping industry, where I worked at a freight forwarding company. We always hear about how Singapore is the busiest port in the world — but I never understood the true scale of what this meant until I was in the industry and witnessed the number of shipments that go through our harbours every day.

The experience helped me to gain a deep appreciation of logistics — a skill that came in handy in recent times. The COVID-19 crisis led to disruptions in supply chains across the world. My background in shipping gave me the confidence to lead my team in responding to the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, to adapt quickly, and manage potential supply chain risks. In a sense, it feels like my journey in the corporate world has come to a full circle — while I am working in an entirely different industry now, the lessons and skills from my first job have empowered me to be a better leader.

Your greatest achievement

My greatest achievement would be building a business that has grown tremendously from the ground up — not only in the business but also in how we have helped our employees to grow as individuals.

When I first joined Align Technology, we had a limited presence in Singapore and the Asia Pacific region. I had to wear many hats in the early days, including HR, operations, etc. Today, we are a much bigger organization with a regional headquarter in Singapore and direct sales operations in many markets in the region such as China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, India, Vietnam, and Thailand. We most recently celebrated 1 million Invisalign patients in Asia Pacific, and that’s a testament to how far we have come. Align Technology is not only the pioneer in digital orthodontics but is also at the forefront of digital innovation, looking to constantly innovate and develop capabilities to support our doctors and patients. I’m so proud of the team and what we do every day to achieve our purpose of transforming smiles and changing lives.

I am passionate about people’s development. Our employees provide us with a competitive edge, and we continue to invest in the training and development of our team.  We greatly encourage employees to explore job rotations and pick up new skills. There is no better way to grow your capacity and capability than by stretching your limits. I always tell my team to not be afraid to fail but when you fall, fall forward. Learn what you can from the experience and keep moving forward.

For instance, many of our employees’ day-to-day job scope was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of focusing on the fact that regular assignments could no longer be completed, we encouraged employees to use the time to learn new skills such as IT and coding. I received feedback from employees that they appreciated the opportunity to upskill, with some even saying that the pandemic gave them the chance to try their hand at being a developer.

Why are there not many women in leadership roles in Singapore?

I believe that many women in Singapore are very talented and capable but may lack the opportunities to take on leadership positions. This is a complex issue, with many different factors and variables involved. One factor could be the traditional view of the role women play in the family. Sometimes, female leaders are challenged to find “a balance” between work and family — an expectation that may not often extend to male leaders.

As a mother of three myself, my answer is that keeping “a balance” is an unrealistic ideal — for men and women alike. In my experience, it is not about keeping a balance, but how you embrace all your different roles — as a wife, mother, friend, and corporate leader. At the end of the day, it is about integrating work and family. It is an extremely challenging task for both men and women alike.

It is important to learn how to prioritize all these different roles — it is not about always putting work first, or the other way around. Our priorities for each day may be different, depending on the circumstances. If there is an important deadline to meet, then, by all means, spend more time at work. If a loved one is ill, it is reasonable for the family to come first. It’s not easy, because we need to decide on our priorities and make different choices every day. But it is possible, and women leaders should know this. One important message I have for aspiring women leaders is to know that you can do it all, to embrace all the roles of a wife, mother, child, friend, and leader.  

What kind of initiatives have can help build diverse teams in companies?

Beyond gender or race, when you have a diverse group of leaders with different experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds, they bring with them different perspectives. This means that as a team, we will have a better and more complete view, whether it is responding to an issue or improving the corporate environment. A diverse team can cover each other’s blind spots and enable us to better see around corners to set up for success.

For us at Align Technology, we view diversity as going beyond gender or race, to encompass different skillsets and beliefs. For instance, we established a Singapore employee group to encourage ground-up initiatives, such as organizing events for charitable causes. Through this, our employees can contribute their ideas to the overall corporate direction. All of this has helped us to ensure diversity and inclusion within the organization, especially at the leadership level.

Challenges that women face, especially in traditional societies like Asia

I believe that Asia is opening up and that a lot has changed over the last 20 to 30 years. Now, it is not uncommon to see women leaders — for instance, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has gained respect from world leaders and New Zealanders alike. Even in Singapore, we see more female leaders and women in politics.

However, there is still more to be done. Looking beyond how corporations can do better in improving workplace diversity, I think that every individual has a role to play. Societal expectations can also be an obstacle for aspiring women leaders. We must give women the first shot and the opportunity to prove themselves.

We should also review traditional family models and not teach our children that only men are expected to be the breadwinner or the bias that certain roles are only suitable for men. There is no quick and easy way to change these perceptions, so it is important to educate our children and encourage them to see beyond gender stereotypes.

Furthermore, we need to create an environment where women are set up for success. Good childcare systems, for instance, will help more women have the confidence to go forth and advance their careers.

Your advice to women

My first advice is to dream big. You need to believe that you can have it all, especially since you will meet different challenges along the way.

Next, make your presence known. For me, there were many times where I walked into a meeting and realized that I was the only Asian woman in the room. In times like this, be ready to speak your mind and make your voice heard. One way to build your profile is to volunteer yourself to take on projects that are not part of your job scope. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can, you never know how the skillset you may gain can help advance your career.

Finally, ask yourself this question: What is the brand image that you want for yourself? How do you want others to perceive you? You must be clear about your persona and continue to build and reinforce that. This will ensure that when the time comes for you to be a leader, the first thing that people will recall is not your gender, but what you are capable of.