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‘Ability to adapt to new roles key to survival in new economy’

‘Ability to adapt to new roles key to survival in new economy’
After 15 years as a banker, Ms Sandhya Devanathan joined Facebook where she was appointed the firm’s inaugural country head, with responsibility for Facebook’s e-commerce, travel and financial services division across Southeast Asia. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

‘Ability to adapt to new roles key to survival in new economy’

SINGAPORE — In the new economy where new types of jobs are created every other day, making the transition from a secure profession to untested waters can be daunting. But veteran banker-turned-country head of Facebook Singapore took the plunge and hasn’t looked back since.

Ms Sandhya Devanathan left a banking career after 15 years to enter the tech industry. Having held top managerial roles in Standard Chartered Singapore and Citibank in the United States, she transited to Facebook Singapore in January 2016 and now runs the Singapore office. She also helms the role of Regional Lead for Facebook’s e-commerce, travel and financial services.

The onslaught of the mobile revolution has not only impacted jobs but is also changing the way people interact and how companies work. Facebook, which is making the world more open and connected, is at the heart of all the action, said Ms Devanathan in an exclusive interview with TODAY.

“We have now more phones in the world than people. Mobile has been this big megatrend that has underpinned the rise of many new companies and new business models. It has been a huge and quick change for society,” Ms Devanathan noted.

Facebook is uniquely placed to take advantage of the trends unfolding in the fast evolving landscape, as trending forms of e-commerce such as mobile commerce and conversational commerce hit our wallets. In recent years, we have seen the growing trend towards business transactions conducted through messaging applications like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Talk and WeChat.

These trends are even more significant in Southeast Asia, which is in particular a ‘mobile-first’ market, she added. By the end of 2015, Singapore’s mobile penetration rate was at 148 per cent, according to Data.gov.sg.

“We are seeing interest definitely on messenging and using bots to service, communicate and reach an audience. Conversational commerce plays directly into that,” Ms Devanathan added. For starters, Facebook Messenger is not just a chat service.

In the United States and across Europe, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines sends boarding passes directly to customers through Facebook Messenger. In select locations in the US, you can also order a ride on Uber services through Facebook Messenger, as well as conduct person-to-person payments through Mastercard, she shared.

“We are looking at trends that are coming out from there, (and) there is appetite,” said Ms Devanathan.

Meanwhile, there has been a push in recent years to develop capabilities and resources in the tech sector. As Singapore seeks to attract students and graduates to study and work in the STEM sectors – or science, technology, engineering and math – in line with the Smart Nation initiatives, there is a need to break the misconception towards the kind of roles in tech industries today, said Ms Devanathan.

“If you think about the roles that are getting created, a lot of the roles didn’t exist years ago. Social media didn’t exist 15 years ago, or ride sharing didn’t exist until 9-10 years ago. Many of the companies that are here today haven’t existed in the past.”

“In the new economy, (some) jobs did not exist last week. There’s no precedent in the roles that are opening up…Which means there are new kinds of demands on the kinds of roles that are opening up. But if you are someone that is able to apply your skills, is able to adapt to a new set of circumstances, you will do phenomenally well,” she added.

Facebook, as Ms Devanathan says, holds diversity for its workforce close to its heart. The company champions cognitive diversity in the workplace, from gender, ethnicity, orientation, age and career background.

About 32 per cent of the workforce are women. The company has been driving various initiatives to bring more women into the industry. What was found is that there are not enough women choosing to graduate in STEM fields. Many also have misconceptions about tech-industry related jobs.

“Not all jobs in Facebook are coding jobs. There are roles where you manage a country, there are business development roles, there are marketing, sales roles,” shared Ms Devanathan.

In Facebook, almost the entire leadership team has been through a managing bias programme, which helps them acknowledge biases or stereotypes they may have in their heads and manage through the process to make for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Having diversity is crucial for a company like Facebook which serves 1.8 billion people on a monthly basis globally.

“We believe that cognitive diversity helps us do good business. It’s not a good-to-have, it’s a must-have if you want to build a sustainable business for the future,” she added.

Singapore has very visible role models of women helming top positions and with its support systems in place, Singapore is actually more empowering of women, noted Devanathan.

Despite her busy schedule, she still makes it a point to spend time with her nine-year-old son.

“The question is the balance and the trade-offs that you make. This is not a work-life balance question, but a work-life integration. What’s important to you, (is to) know your priorities and go after them.”