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Su-Ren Neo on Trusting Your Gut vs. Uncertainty, Leading Across Geographies and Sharpening Your Marketing Play

· Show Notes,Executive,Women,Singapore,US

"People probably don't realize that marketing is an evolving art and the science altogether. Good marketers have a good predisposition of being, not only right-brained or left-brained, but being well equipped to address the art and science of it all. Being able to have that creative flare, but then still being very analytical to really think about what the insights are." - Su-Ren Neo

Su-Ren Neo is currently the Senior Director for Marketing, for Twilio in the Asia Pacific and Japan region, where she is responsible for driving Twilio's marketing and brand strategy. Twilio is an American cloud communications platform, as a service company based in California. Twilio allows software developers to programmatically make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages, and perform other communication functions using its web service APIs.

Su-Ren has over 20 years of experience in leading integrated marketing and brand development across technology, financial services, and telecommunications industries, in global and regional capacities.

Prior to Twilio, she drove marketing strategy with companies such as HSBC, Credit Suisse, United Overseas Bank, Sony, Qualcomm, and Singtel. Su-Ren graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Science in Economics. You can connect with her at www.linkedin.com/in/surenneo.

This episode is produced by Adriel Yong.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:59] Good to have you on board, Su-Ren.

Su-Ren Neo: [00:02:03] Nice to meet you, Jeremy. Thanks for having me on.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:06] Well, you've really had quite a career as a specialist and expert in APAC and marketing, as well as interesting duality from financial services to technology. And now, you're leading the charge at Twilio in APAC, which is many services that use you to notify or get notified about all kinds of brand-new stuff.

Su-Ren Neo: [00:02:28] Thank you. It's been quite a journey for sure, and I'm happy to be here and share a little bit more about that.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:35] For those who don't know you yet, how would you share your leadership journey over time?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:02:41] It's a really interesting question. I think when I think of my leadership journey, I don't quite think of my career when I graduated and came out to work, right? I think of it from my own personal experiences, even when I was much younger. So just as a quick background, I was born and raised in Singapore, but had the privilege to live and experience many countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and in the US over very many years.

My husband is originally from the US and we've always had very fond memories. We've been out in Asia many years ago and are very, very bullish about the growth that it brings in general. So after about 10 plus years in the US we decided to move back to Singapore where we are now based with our two kids.

So, going back to the question of that leadership journey. My work journey actually started when I was 14. It was a first job that I had during a vacation when I was working at my father's lab in his business soldering circuit boards of demo units of telecommunication equipment. I still remember being in that room, on that table and literally soldering. And I still remember that smell of the solder, being able to put components on and everything. And it was such an interestingly different choice of a job for a 14-year-old, but I kind of enjoyed it because it had a sense of creation that I enjoy. Plus, I was paid $50 a day, which is a very handsome sum for a 14-year-old many, many years ago at that point in time.

I was kind of proud that I was well paid just to do this alone. And, as a teen, I was very lucky to have come from a comfortable household, but I really relished being able to take up all vacation jobs like, soldering or anything else during my school vacations. And from soldering circuit boards, to selling computers at our trade show, to doing Christmas promotions for retail malls. And then working in kitchens in restaurants as well. I wanted to pick as many diverse, different types of experiences when I was young and a teenager as much as I can. And I still remember part of this milestone from a leadership journey where people that I got to meet and learn from.

I remember when I was working in a restaurant and I actually worked as a kitchen staff in this particular restaurant, this was when I was in college. And we were actually at that time grouped into small teams and we did prep work, but then got assemble for cooking or for serving. We were led by the supervisor called Susan. When I thought back after I realized her job was really not an easy one at all because she managed many hourly wage folks. Many were young college students like me and many had very varying standards of quality. And she was a stickler on quality in general.

I remember she was also very much older than us and probably saw us like her kids. And she was always very firm, but also very maternal. No nonsense personality, very patient. But she always led by example, she worked really, really hard and was just very, very good with customers in general. I used to just watch her and marvel in how she does her work in general and try to lead by example with everybody. And her attention to details and the level of respect that she upheld with whatever little she did, the details of how we skin the caps on mushrooms and slice them. The little details of how we prepare the desserts to be presented.

And she always reminded us about, no matter how much we feel that we're just working on the back end and that it's all unnoticed, but our work actually really shows up in front of a customer and really impacts that customer experience who actually receives a beautifully served dessert dish. I always remembered, through all these different types of experiences, like the one that I had with Susan in this restaurant. Meeting so many different people from all walks of life and learning so much about life in itself and people in general. I think through that situations, I learned a lot about authentic leadership, about really good work ethics. A lot of empathy, and also a lot of thinking on my feet. I think when I finally graduated and officially started my career, those were very, very big lessons that I had taken for myself and in what I then upheld myself to do in my career going forward.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:12] That's amazing. And thanks for sharing the journey, as well as your own set of foundational experiences and mentors in the early stages. Now, one thing that's interesting is that you've obviously built up quite a career, initially in APAC financial services, right? And then you had this interesting transition to Sony electronics and then Qualcomm. How did that shift come about? What was going through your mind, what led to that career transition and choice? How did your friends think about it?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:07:47] When I graduated, I graduated with economics. But interestingly, my career actually officially started in telecommunications versus financial services, which is really the natural path for most economics graduates. But during that time, I had graduated in the year of the financial crisis. It was a very, very difficult time for many people. Many, many people struggled and somehow started my career with a very sobering view of the working world. And it really built in me a strong, innate desire to be able to just build and create and market things in general.

I realized that I was a lot more keen on technology related areas. Maybe this was influenced by my dad who is not only a businessman, but an engineer by training. And it was only when I started to work with a particular customer while in telecommunications. And this customer was in regional bank who then asked me to consider joining them to drive marketing and business development for electronic banking services like, mobile internet and phone banking that I then decide to move towards the financial services' industry.

I stayed for nine years and served in varying marketing and business development positions with banks like HSBC, Credit Suisse, UOB, before then deciding to focus back on technology. And to work for, as you mentioned, the brands that you had talked about. I think that it was a very interesting transition. There were very many, catalysts that actually ignited that change. Now that I'm at Twilio, one of the reasons why I'm also drawn to where I currently am at Twilio is, not only the possibilities of what the products and services and solutions bring in general. There's such a great opportunity for, for so many people to be able to use it and tap into the market.

But also, it's the values that I believe in. I think that a lot of the values that the company believes in have to resonate with me and it's things like being inclusive, and this is helping and supporting a diverse workforce, supporting the underrepresented communities and also women in the workforce. And then also being able to give back to communities in general.

So, things like the We Pledge movement that Twilio has. So right now, we actually have this annual global week of service. So, through an employee movement called the We Pledge program. We, our teams are all signed up to volunteer. We're all encouraged to give back time to help our communities in different ways. And so next week I will be serving and preparing food at a local charity that actually operates a soup kitchen that provides meals to many, many needy people in Singapore.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:26] Let's tighten that timewise, what was it like transitioning back to technology? From Credit Suisse to Sony, were your friends fans of it, were they asking you what was going on? Did you feel like you had a career crisis? What was that like?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:10:40] Yeah. Many friends were quite curious about that and that change. But I think that there were a lot of different catalysts and when I share it with them, they all understood, and they could see why. I think they knew that I've always had that innate interest in wanting to be in technology. I was always very inclined that way, but during that time, it was also because of the changes in their personal life that had occurred. At that point in time, we had to move back to the US for my husband's job. And it had required me to be able to leave a job that I had been enjoying at the bank. And the process really made me really re-look at my passions and think about what is going to be the next phase of my career.

And I was very privileged because I was allowed to be free to explore whatever I wanted to do. And I went from, I kid you not, even thinking about going into F&B, being a chef, went to culinary school for a while, and it looked across many different things. But then I realized that I really wanted to just go back to technology and combine my marketing expertise with this. I found myself at Sony in the US driving brand and marketing a range of consumer electronic devices like headphones and Walkman and laptops. Tablets, phones, et cetera. It was a really, really interesting time that all my friends who then very skeptical, then started to envy me.

Because I was working on partnerships, working with Sony Entertainment Properties, music and movies. We were in the billboard music awards. We did ads featuring artists like Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Foo Fighters. We put devices into movies like James Bond movies and spun campaigns out of that. It was really, really an interesting time at that point. And then with all these like shifts in technology was quite clear to me where the trends and technology was going, and it was that wireless communications was going to disrupt the world. I really wanted to just challenge myself, go in all the way, go in deep, learn all about this.

And I went and joined the global leader in wireless technology and innovation that's Qualcomm. The position was a global one and it allowed me to able to work across many global partners imagining the future of what technology can bring. And so, it was all about the cutting-edge technology, launching the first 5g modem in the world, cutting edge mobile processes, software technology that we all use in our phones today. And it was a very fascinating time of really thinking about the enablement of what technology could bring to people.

What led me to Twilio eventually was that it was about growth and possibilities of the API ecosystem and cloud technology. The way that it brings and enables businesses big and small to implement and with global scalability is just tremendous. And I think that during this pandemic especially, it has taught us so much. It's all about the importance of being very, very agile about being able to pivot very quickly and also about digitizing. We were very privileged to just share and serve many, many types of customers and non-profits, right?

And very meaningful things that we were able to also do through the technology, which is working with Lifeline Australia to implement solutions that allow remote working for their volunteers and staff to cope with increased calls of distress, of people with suicidal thoughts and everything. And then working with big businesses, Standard Chartered Bank, Gojek, Singlife to implement a lot of communications and solve different types of business problems in general. This move back to technology has been a very interesting one. And I think frankly, a very, very meaningful one as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:14:33] What's interesting as well, is that one way to look at your background in career has been who's who of brand names that parents would approve of, right? Singtel, UOB, HSBC, Credit Suisse, Sony, and then of course Qualcomm and even Twilio. These are things that, in retrospect good moves, right? But it is interesting that, if you look at the timing that you choose to make those moves, you were often ahead of the curve. I would say in terms of, them being no brainer moves for people. They must've been quite scary to make those career transitions at each time. How do you go about it? Do you have particular mentors or friends that you consult, or do you talk to your husband about career moves? How do you basically put together that an advisory board of directors around your career transformation, right? Including whether or not to be a chef.

Su-Ren Neo: [00:15:27] That's a very interesting question. I think that my husband plays a very, very big part in the choices that I make. I think he has been a tremendous partner for me in life and my best friend. And he's always being able to give me very, very good sound advice, but I think one of the things that he always does tell me also is to trust my gut and that knowing and feeling where my passions lie, how I read the market and the environment, and maybe that's part of the economics background that I have. Think about forecasting, charting, but really identifying new ways of doing things.

I think the other part of it is also, he understands my innate sense of curiosity and that I was always very curious about something. And that curiosity always spurred me to make leaps of faith, to make a lot of changes that forces me to continuously think about reinventing myself, that I was not just at this person or that person. And that if I were thrown into anything that I would be able to learn to thrive. I think that my very solid advisory board of, my husband and also a few good friends. They're able to lean in and also share some advice. And often times what they tell me is, "Remember who you are and what you are capable of and what you always thrive in." And I think based on that, it has given me lots of great guidance to make a lot of decisions.

Jeremy Au: [00:17:04] I think that's so underrated. Right? Which is the ability to have that frank conversation with people you trust, because these are scary career moves right by anybody. I think it's also really interesting because you've also been able to, I think, broaden the expertise of being a bridge between the West and Asia Pacific, right? Because when they see that in your financial services, marketing leadership career but also Qualcomm and even Twilio. You've kind of had that cross-border leadership. How do you think about that? I mean, is it just a natural path of job or are there specific skills that you should have or experiences that you should be intentional about to make such a role be a success?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:17:49] I think my innate sense of curiosity makes me a little bit of a wanderlust in traveling. So, from a very young age, my father in his own work is an extensive traveler. He's always been a road warrior since I could ever remember. And every time he goes to somewhere new, he always brings back something. And it could be a little bit of a souvenir. It could be a piece of an artwork; it could be something. I think he had always wanted to be able to trigger that curiosity and to think about that big wide world around me. So, in that formative years of coaching from my dad, maybe very subliminally. It started to make me really want to explore. And I think that it's not just a sense of wanting to explore, but it's wanting to explore with respect of a different place, of a different market, of a different continent in general.

So, I think that it was very important that firstly, it was a great graduation from a career perspective to be able to look across a wider region, to play global roles or regional roles. But it was also the aptitude of who I was being raised in a certain way to not only learn more about the world around us, the region, but to have that respect and curiosity about, what does it really like? What's the market like, how do people think, what do people enjoy? What do people hate? How do you appeal to different sets of audience? How do you work with different people?

And so, growing up, I was made very, very culturally aware in many different ways. And with that sense of that innate curiosity, I wanted to really go out and explore traveling from a personal standpoint, for work and then living and working in so many different places in the world was such a privilege, but it really allowed me to be able to think much broadly. I think taking on a global capacities, for example, with Qualcomm and some of the companies that I've worked with, as we mentioned earlier allow me to be able to bring that value to the table because there are many people who did not have that privilege that I did. Being able to transcend through a lot of cultural barriers, being able to then use that to appeal to a different set of business audience, technical audience, different sets of market or consumers was a tremendous strength that I was able to bring. I thrived at it because it satisfied that, that a bit of that wanderlust from a physical and also from a mental exploration standpoint. I really, really thoroughly enjoy being able to do something like that.

Jeremy Au: [00:20:28] That's amazing. One thing as well about that is you've probably seen, just trends of technology moving around the world, right? Financial service, multinational corporations moving from America to Asia Pacific. And now, obviously electronics is obviously a bi-directional game these days, also technology trends have like going every direction as well. How do you feel about that? Do we feel innovation is for the sake of a strawman argument, it is still done in the US and it flows to the Asia-Pac or what's your sense of how technology and talents flowing across the different geographies?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:21:07] I think that there's a lot of talent out here in the Asia Pacific. And, while there is indeed a lot of innovation that does come through from the US but there's tons of talent here. And I think a lot of it has also been spun off by the necessity, right? Inventions has really brought about the necessity to innovate in many different ways, for example. If you think about different companies that have spun off, so if you look at the super apps. And there are no super apps in the US by the way, right? But they're super apps that have actually originated from our region. Things like that have really started to come in the address of a different set of audience, a different set of needs, and they have actually become a lot more disruptive to the rest of the world, more so than we all think.

I think I would never really belittle the incredible talent. In fact, that's also one of the reasons why wanting to come back to the Asia Pacific and be amongst the amazing people in talent has been a big draw. And there are so many of these trends that are happening in Southeast Asia, for example, right? A lot of the ecosystem that we work in, in technology, or even the API ecosystem if you want to nail it down to a certain genre. It has evolved and mature in so many different new ways. And as more and more of these companies just become digital.

And so, with COVID-19, of course, that has really been a big pivot for many. It's really allowing people to think about how can we do this differently? How can we rethink this? How can we reinvent? How can we adapt? And a lot of these talent and trends are now addressing that catalyst, and really showing up in a new different way. So, from a communications point of view, for example, right? Since I'm in that business, we see great uptake in a lot of people who are now starting to think about, it's not just about technology, it's about what technology can do and what can they then do with customer engagement and communication?

So being able to do more live chat, a lot more voice, a lot of self-service, automation. Those are growing trends in our region that we are starting to see, and then being able to then think about like, how do I make this more intelligent? How do I make this a more connected journey? And then bringing in tools like integrating with CRM to enable it to be a lot more thorough from a connected journey standpoint to our customer. And then being able to pay, transact digitally effectively.

Being able to not only use from a hardware side, NFC, which is quite common in the US but, then to also do more E-wallet payments, digital payment platforms and transactions. There's a movement out here in technology in Asia, and it's starting to thrive. And what that really means at the end of the day, right? It's like, this technology, that technology trend, but at the end of the day, it is the benefit to the consumer that matters and what the consumer wants and gets to enjoy is more options, greater convenience, improved customer service, like nobody would not want any of that. And so, for example, I can buy kombucha online and get it delivered by delivery services like Lalamove to my doors at any time. And if I want to do that, contactlessly, I could always choose that as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:24:26] How did you learn this whole marketing stack, right? Obviously, your father has been a great role model as a technical leader and global exposure. We shared about, your friends and your husband as being trusted partners and thinking through your career. Who trained you, were there any great trainers or mentors along the way that you remember that taught you the craft of marketing?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:24:51] I think I was very privileged to have worked with many very talented marketers during my journey. They're always these talented people that I meet across every single place that I've gone to. And they've always taught me this and that, or I pick something else. But a lot of it was also because of the opportunities that these many brands that I've worked with have presented to me. A lot of it is also because you get thrown into a deep end and you have to just learn to sink or swim. And so, the necessity to just be able to learn to thrive in those type of situations and to build marketing expertise from there was a big, big teacher for me.

I have to say people don't probably realize that marketing is an evolving art and the science altogether. And that good marketers have a good predisposition of being very, not only right-brained and left-brained. So being very well equipped to address the art and science of it all, being able to have that creative flare, but then still being very analytical to really think about what the insights are. What are we trying to address? How do you see trends to chart a lot of where that creative flare gets channeled into? A lot of that is also very renewed, constant renewal because marketecture, marketing tech stacks are constantly changing. They're constantly new tools that you get to use to shape or sharpen your play in the world of marketing. And so, I think that being able to continuously renew yourself, learn about technology. You learn about what's out there, learn about what's capable to keep that eye out. It has been incredibly important. It does not come with a playbook. It really comes with the appetite to just go out there and learn, pick up, listen, talk to people, discover, trial, error, try again.

And then just really have that trust that gut and feel that, "Okay, let's try this out." In Twilio terms, we have this thing in our, what we call our Twilio magic value as draw the owl. And so, for example, 2020 has been quite a challenging year for many marketers in general. It has been one year of what we call, the draw the owl year. We were just constantly trying to reinvent new things. Think about, you're not given a playbook, you're going to have to write this. How do you change? How do you pivot? How do you do something and try to address your problem statements in a whole new way, if you weren't told to be given any other sets of instructions.

Jeremy Au: [00:27:23] What's interesting is that you are also a graduate from NUS, right? A local Southeast Asia University. And I think there's something when I chat with my friends a little a bit of a sense that if you come from a local university, you can't rise to become an executive because you're always going to be behind the sea turtles who are returning for America with their fancy degrees or Australian degree is better than a local degree. There's a lot of comparison of the undergraduate degree. What do you think about that? What do you think you brought from NUS to your jobs, but also how do you feel about people's sentiment about local degrees?

Su-Ren Neo: [00:28:04] That's very interesting question. I actually am proud that I came from NUS. I was very fortunate. I had actually the opportunity to go to either the US or to Australia to have school there, if I had wanted to, I actually even had places already. But I actually made that choice to stay in Singapore at that point in time. So, while my brother was in school in the US for example, and I had chosen to stay in Singapore. I think that the degree is as good as any. And also, it is still actually a really good school, let's not forget that. I think what's also very important is the choice of schooling that I had chosen, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to learn, the people that I got to meet were a big value add in my life.

I have wonderful friends that I would prize over many, many things that I had actually met and developed relationships from school at that point in time. And even despite me being here and really being very nomadic, I haven't been in Singapore for very, very much in throughout the last many years, but then still being able to come back and then continue with those relationships. The relationships never left me when I left. No, they actually got to strengthened when I came back. I think that the schooling aspect, it's great academically, but I think that instead of just about the degree, about being book smart, there are so many other things that it teaches you. It's about building the networks, building the relationships with people, learning and seeking new journeys from the course of study that you take, taking them into a whole new journey, whether or not you stay with your field or not, for example like me. But really being able to then take the helm of what you then wanted to do with it, or not, in your life.

Jeremy Au: [00:30:00] That's so true. I think as we all progress in our executive career or that earlier angst and, quantification about which degree, and that kind of ends up being eradicated to this, then the third or fourth or fifth attribute. Because I think the most important is you shot individual dynamic performance on a job. How well you think through the next job and how you position yourself to be improving yourself all the time. I'm just kind of curious, are there any books that you recommend for people who are thinking about pursuing a career similar to yours.

 Su-Ren Neo: [00:30:38] What is probably important to me is not only just being able to learn a greater sense of awareness. So marketing, there are plenty of marketing textbooks out there, but I feel a lot of the marketing that you get to learn is really being able to OJT, On Job Training and, so that the ability to be able to just continuously soak up, learn, expose yourself, pick up anything you want to do and sink into it is incredibly important. And then beside, never forget to build yourself as a leader and being able to learn about the importance of awareness, being able to learn about defining yourself.

Jeremy Au: [00:31:20] Awesome. Well, it's a pleasure catching up with you. Thank you.

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