Renee Lo is a General Manager of Data and AI at Microsoft. She thrives on optimizing products, businesses and experiences to maximize impact on the end-users, partners and the bottom line. She is also a true believer in providing equal opportunities within her team.
Let us begin this interview by an introduction – can you tell me about your current role?
I am currently a General Manager covering Data and AI for Asia. My team of specialists sits anywhere between India and Australia; focusing on applications of data and AI for digital transformation at Microsoft’s most strategic customers. Every day holds a different challenge, that’s a part of the excitement and appeal of the role.
Can you share with me your path and your influences growing up?
I was born and raised in a middle-class, traditional Chinese family in Canada. Simply put, my parents love me to death, but are unable to allow themselves to be proud of me. While I struggled without parental validation, I was blessed with others that helped me find balance. Specifically, two people really influenced me.
First was my maternal grandmother who moved to Canada to take care of me. She’s a tiny lady, just under 5 feet, but a real force to be reckoned with. In her eyes, everything I did was amazing. She believed, and as a result, I believed that I could do anything with hard work. When I messed up, she pretended she didn’t see it. When I excelled, she shared it with the world. She created a space where it was safe to succeed and where we could be proud of my achievements.
Later, I attended a high school with an electronics department. My electronics teacher, Mr Gilbert, introduced me to a world where the boundaries between the physical and digital blurred. I spent four years with him where I learnt to build circuit boards, code in Hex and assembly, and got started in ham radio; even building antennas on the school roof. He used to open the classroom at 6 am so I could compete, across time zones, in international ham radio contests! He gave me the skillset and tools to unleash my creative energy. By the time I left high school, I was designing, building, and programming my own robots and machines. Imagine the advantage I walked into college with.
There are people in our lives that believe in us and that’s a huge part of how I got to where I am today. The ability to continuously belief that I can stretch and grow – unless it breaks the law of physics, it is, by definition, possible. Not easy. Not simple. But possible.
For Mr Gilbert, what do you think made him such a big influence on you? Was it his positive reinforcement or much rather the opportunities he provided?
His positive reinforcement came in the form of action. Because he believed in me, he created opportunities for me to grow. When we didn’t have the right equipment, he would go out of his way to secure the funding and make that happen. Of course, he did this for other students as well, but it meant a lot to me.
When you began your career in Technology, did you have any concerns that being a female might make things more challenging for you?
It was not something I was aware of in the beginning. I was blessed to have gone through school where it was purely merit-based. Early in my career, I also worked for managers that, I would say, are gender blind. As opposed to looking at my gender or work style, they looked at my final business impact. The beginning of my career was smooth because there were individuals that made it smooth.
As my career progressed, I realised that I hit the jackpot in the beginning. It was not the same for others. The more I hear from others, the more I learn about their struggles. Having those struggles early on in your career can really change your perspective on the industry. One of my goals, in my current position, is to create an environment that supports diversity: both in thought and working styles. I want to create a place where it’s ok to bring your full self and your best self to work.
Have you encountered any specific challenges because of your gender? How did you overcome them?
I would say unconscious bias. Let me give you an example of a business trip to Japan many years ago. I was the sole female in the group, and I found myself assigned seating at the back of the meeting room to take notes. While I was still confused, one of my male colleagues explained that not only was I the most senior in the group, I was also presenting and could not access the projector from my position. The other party apologised profusely and called a recess to reorganise the seating plan.
There are two things that I learned from this situation. Firstly, if my colleague did not speak up, I would eventually overcome my shock and would’ve said something myself. Having confidence in yourself to speak up at the right time is a powerful thing. Secondly, it’s important to accept and appreciate others’ help. You’re not alone, and fighting as a one person army is exhausting. Gender bias is an issue that women and men are addressing today. Allow others to participate.
Have you found any major differences between working in North America compared to Asia?
One thing I’ve learnt is that there are too many cultures, intricacies, and history to classify Asia as a singular entity. North America is a lot more homogenous in language, media, education, and history. Once I stopped trying to classify Asia and began to sincerely learn about the challenges and opportunities here, I was able to be a lot more effective at my job. I walked in with my own biases on Asia, but I found that once you get past introductions, it really comes back to competency and trust; two pillars that are gender agnostic. Now, there are societal expectations and that is something that women need to break through. I’m glad that in most of the customers and industries I’ve worked with here, there are examples of local women who have moved into leadership positions. They serve as sources of encouragement, generously giving their time to inspire others.
Have you ever felt the need to put in extra efforts compared to your male competitors just to get recognition?
I did feel the need to over-compensate. The difference becomes more obvious during times like pregnancy when the fact that you are female is emphasised and opportunities are taken away without consultation. Because I was hit pretty hard during my first pregnancy, it is something I care deeply about and I want to ensure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. From an organisation perspective, there are measures that HR put in place to protect women during times such as pregnancy, but it’s still up to the leadership team to implement. It is critically important to recognise that whether a woman wants to take on more or less work due to her physical condition is her choice. Leaving that decision up to the woman is important.
What advice would you give to career-driven women who also want to build a family?
When it comes to investing in work or family, I view it as multiple work streams. These sometimes will conflict, so prioritisation is key. I have friends who regret not having kids early on in their career as they struggle with the lack of energy to keep up with their children. Others regret having kids early because they miss that hockey stick trajectory in their career. At the end of the day, starting a family has an impact on all aspects on the individual’s life – just like launching a new product will impact the whole organisation.
There will be trade-offs, but you need to decide and own what that trade-offs will be. When I made the decision to have children, I knew that my career will be affected. I am blessed with a husband who is supportive and can financially support our family. I had to decide “do I stay at home?”. After discussing with him, we realised that I would be a better mother if I had work as an outlet for my energy. As a result, at 6 months old, we placed our child into childcare so I can resume my career. Do I feel guilty for putting my child into childcare? For sure. Do I regret it? No.
This is not a trade-off that females need to make alone. I have made sacrifices and my husband has made sacrifices. He is an equal parent. Sometimes we only think about the female as we are the ones carrying the child, but I have been fortunate enough to have an equal partner who is a key part of the equation.
Having worked in two of the biggest tech companies in the world (Amazon and Microsoft), what has it been like for you in terms of culture and career progression?
I have seen people work 16 hours a day and I have seen others work six. We are all under pressure whether we are working for large or small organisations. The key is to prioritise what your career and success look to you. For me, I make it a priority to see my children in the evening and spend quality time with them. The balance, therefore, is very much driven by the individual. I have given up on jobs that would upset this balance.
Therefore, whether it be large companies or small companies, it is down to the individual and their style. I chose very large organisations because they are places where strong talent congregates. You can find the best of the best in some niche skills that you may not encounter elsewhere. I have learnt a ton on comms, financial modelling, and sales approaches. When I was at Microsoft, I never stayed put. I went from engineering to marketing, business strategy, ops, sales strategy, and partner-facing roles. I did everything because it was a perfect training ground. It was a fantastic learning experience.
When you go to an organisation like Amazon, it is different. Those that have the skillset are empowered to reimagine customer experiences and products, break all the boundaries, drive reform according to your vision, and run after it in a super agile manner. Agility is key.
I’ve always wanted to own a P&L and be a General Manager, so I need to have a certain level of understanding across the business. Therefore, it comes down to the individual taking control of what they want to do and ensuring they are in an environment that is supportive.
Within these companies, have you seen a change in the diversity or an effort to change the diversity structure within them?
Yes, there has been a focus on ensuring we have diversity, especially within the leadership teams because it drives the future of the organisation. If we want to serve the world, we must represent the world. We are careful about how we staff. Everyone has heard of the horrible term “diversity hire”, where individuals are hired based on certain attributes, but not necessarily their competency. That hurts even more, leading to possible reinforcement of biases while the individual is not actually set up to succeed.
Luckily, both companies have a strong brand and can attract all sorts of talent. What we need to do is to ensure we have diversity in the interview process, and then help the best candidate through an unbiased process.
What advice or ideas could you give business leaders reading this around promoting of females and diversity within their organisations?
From my experience, the most successful efforts are ones led by a grassroots group with executive support. These are the most sincere and honest, as opposed to ones led as a diversity or HR effort, which might come off a little forced and unnatural. Executives can show support by creating room for the grassroots conversations to take place, by showing up, giving talks and encouraging the business to support these groups as a definition of its culture as opposed to an afterthought.
The second thing is understanding the different working styles within the business. This certainly impacts a lot of women but also some other groups too. Women are often less vocal about their accomplishments. Therefore, when looking at individuals across the organisation, let’s not just focus on those who toot their own horn and have all the connections, which is probably part of their success, but also look at those who are a little quieter, who get the job done and develop success differently. We need to be balanced in the type of success stories shared.
Finally, is there anything else that you would like to add to this article?
When I look at Women in Tech, I would say the following 3 things:
Find your voice
Be confident in your abilities
Be willing to accept help