Sep 27, 2018
By Nayantara Bhat | Hobert Wai has fulfilled a number of diverse roles throughout his career: academic, scientist, and investor. One troubling observation that has followed him is the disparity in gender representation in the field of biotech, which has informed his approach to management and investment. Through adopting this lens, he hopes to make small steps in bridging the gender gap and eventually bring about paradigm-shifting change.
Wai’s career began in the life sciences after completing his Ph.D. in biological chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. He later entered the corporate world, working in medical research and technology companies Bio-Rad and Beckman Coulter before becoming Associate Director at Becton Dickinson, where he focused on improving medical diagnostic devices. During this time, he observed that while he and his male colleagues advanced up the corporate ladder, their female counterparts seemed to be falling behind, leading Wai to make a diagnosis of a different nature.
Unlike other Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) fields, Wai’s biology and life science courses at Berkeley and Irvine had a 50-50 breakdown of male and female students, generally a good sign for representation in the workforce. Wai says that men and women were equal up to a certain point on the corporate ladder – equal opportunities, equal standing, and equal numbers. Given the disproportionate gender ratios at the management level, Wai began to ask himself what went wrong in the pipeline from university to the workforce.
“The longer your career stays in one company, you think more and more that, ‘How come some of my male colleagues – including myself – get moved up, and the mobility moving up is so different?’” Wai says. “The velocity is different for female colleagues.”
One reason behind this, he says, is that men and women have different communication styles. In his observation, men tend to instinctively speak up as ideas come to them, often before anyone else has the chance to voice an opinion. He adds that as he and his male colleagues enjoyed upward mobility, their female colleagues either became fed up and left the company or resigned themselves to technical rather than managerial work.
“A lot of the times the loudest voice in the room dominates the conversation,” he says. He admits that this is not always the case, but he has been working closely with his team to improve communication in the past several years by making sure everyone’s voice is heard.
In 2016, Wai co-founded early-stage investment firm Black Tiger Capital and became a partner at angel investing firm Hanawa Group. Making the shift from the corporate world to the startup ecosystem exposed Wai to another disconnect in female representation from university biology to the workforce.
As he watched startups pitch for investment, he realized just how few of the founders were female; 50 percent of his classmates were female, so where were all the female founders?
“For the other engineering, maths, and science [subjects], there are [fewer women] coming into the education funnel, so you have less coming into the workplace and less in the investment world,” he says. “But biology is somehow amazing – and not in a good way.”
Wai doesn’t have a cure-all prescription for getting more women to found biotech startups – he says he’s still learning as he goes along.
He was recently a panelist at the Asian Venture Capital Journal’s Women in Asian Private Equity forum on September 13, where he discussed the Asian landscape alongside influential female VCs including Edith Young from 500 Startups.
“I came away with better understanding,” he says of the conference. “We can’t solve the problem in one clean shot; we need to continue the movement with societal evolution.”
About Hobert Wai Hobert is the Co-founder and Managing Partner at Black Tiger Capital and covers the life science and healthcare sectors. He focuses on AI, biopharma, deep science, diagnostics, medical devices, and social impact applications of life science. Prior to Black Tiger, he was the associate director at Becton Dickinson where he was instrumental in driving the clinical business to achieve US$1 billion in revenue through new oncology and HIV detection devices.