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Gender Equality

Q&A with Adrianna Tan, entrepreneur and queer role model

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Adrianna Tan covers all the bases when it comes to uplifting young women around the world, from education to entrepreneurship. Her nonprofit, The Gyanada Foundation, educates young girls in India and her startup Wobe provides women in Southeast Asia with a mobile e-commerce platform to achieve financial independence. We were delighted to talk with her about growing up queer in Singapore and all the projects she's working on.

You've traveled a lot. How sexually tolerant/open is Singapore compared to other places you've been?

I have traveled a lot. I've spent most of the past decade living out of a backpack… and now a suitcase (clearly I've developed back problems from years of itinerant wandering).

Growing up queer in Singapore, I was always acutely aware that my life wasn't headed for the Singapore Dream narrative: check all the boxes, meet a nice man probably in high school, marry him, move to a HDB (public housing) flat, have 2.2 children who will go to the same kinds of schools I went to. I couldn't even check any of the boxes.

Singapore is a conflicting place in many ways. We're the freest market in the world, and also the least. We're one of the most sexually repressive societies, but then we're also not. We criminalize sodomy (but only between men), but trans* can get married. We have several massive queer parties (for men and women), weekly, and we have 28,000 people showing up to Pink Dot, but we also have Christian fundamentalists who want to do here what their counterparts in the American Evangelical Right have failed to accomplish — all of that makes for a diverse place where 'sex' and 'freedom' are concerned.

I probably speak from a position of privilege as a middle-class, ethnically Chinese, English-speaking lesbian who appears femme-ish: Singapore is pretty sexually tolerant and open for me. It's not necessarily the same for the men (for whom anal sex is criminalized, though not much enforced), or for women who appear to be different. By and large, the Singapore you see varies quite wildly in some ways. From some parts of it, it can be as queer and free as any major global city I've been to. From other parts, it can be repressive, especially if you grew up among evangelicals (of which there are many). So yeah, Singapore is a weird place in almost every way. Which is also why I love it.

Is menstruation a taboo topic in Singapore? What about in the lesbian community?

The sex ed we get here is pretty primitive. It's all "Abstain!" Menstruation, like sex, contraception, and nearly everything else in this category, is taught/discussed in a very clinical way: the physiology and the mechanics of how all this stuff works. All I remember about this topic when they awkwardly taught me about it was that I ended up thinking of all my unborn babies every time I had my period. It's not a taboo in the same way it might be in say, India, but it definitely isn't healthy or empowering or anything like that.

While the lesbian community in Singapore is pretty large and visible, it isn't necessarily the most sexually or socially progressive. People barely even talk about safe sex or boundaries or consent, and a part of it I think comes from the overall repression of any kind of overt sexuality in Singapore as a whole, even of overt heterosexuality. A lot of this is attributed to "Asian Values," which has always struck me as a kind of nebulous and all-purpose concept you can use to defeat anything you dislike. Homosexuality is against Asian Values, but no one has any qualms using a colonial-era criminal code bequeathed to us by the British to uphold our Asian Values.

Do you have any advice you would give to young women who are confused about their sexuality or afraid to come out?

Your family is probably far more tolerant and resilient than you think. Don't get caught up in creating hyphenated identities. All that matters is your happiness. Other queer people who tell you that you suck because you're bisexual or trans*, they're just horrible people. Find your community, but don't get stuck in it: have more than queer friends. Be authentic and be the best version of yourself that you can be. The friends who will desert you because of who you hypothetically love aren't the kinds of friends you ought to keep. We live in a different world today where things like this shouldn't matter, yet they do. Learn to be financially literate and work towards economic self-sufficiency (all women should learn this, but especially queer young women, for various reasons). Being in a relationship with a woman shouldn't have to be damaging or abusive or hurtful. Women are not crazy. People love you much more than you know.

Be authentic and be the best version of yourself that you can be. The friends who will desert you because of who you hypothetically love aren't the kinds of friends you ought to keep.

Why do you think there's such an imbalance of female executives in tech? What should young women do to change the ratio?

At first they said it's because there aren't a lot of women in STEM in higher education. But even if you normalize for that, the imbalance is crazy.

Then they said it's because women don't lean in enough.

'Tech executives' as a class — and don't get me wrong, A LOT of my friends form this class — come from class and privilege. You're making 80 grand a year as an intern at Apple. You're making 150 grand a year as a first-year engineer. Good for you! You probably went to a top school that cost your parents much more than that.

But what kind of meritocracy is it when Facebook has hired only 7 black people out of 1231 new hires in 2013? It isn't just women, it's any kind of minority beyond the 'white young man who looks like Zuck' narrative (some top investors have been known to say, they can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg). Women. Trans* people. Minorities other than Asian-American. People who don't drink. People who actually like to have a work/life balance.

A lot of the current tech exec culture over-emphasizes overworking and the idea of living and breathing your job. Sure, passion is amazing and we should all love what we do — but you want everyone to get on a weekly 4am all-hands meeting because that's the timezone that suits only the bros with no kids who are jet-setting across the world?

I think young women should aspire, of course, to positions of power and accomplishment in their chosen fields. They should also be very clear on what kinds of trade-offs they are willing to live with, and which ones they just can't cross. Startups and tech companies feel like the soccer teams I used to play on, as a child. If you look like, act like, sound like them — aggressive, fast, competitive, welcome to the team! If not — go and play with the girls in a soccer league nobody ever wants to watch or cheer. Unfortunately, it does take a bit of playing by 'their' rules in order to get noticed. But once you get there and if you've developed a certain amount of influence for yourself, you can do a lot more. I still get asked if I know what I'm doing, although I've founded several companies and have often done a lot more than the people who ask such questions. Young women should learn how the game is played, and then rewrite the rules for themselves. That's not the best solution, but I'm honestly stuck trying to think of how we can advance and truly bring about change. Baby steps are important.

Young women should learn how the game is played, and then rewrite the rules for themselves.

As a side note, I've observed how a lot of diversity efforts tend to reward the women and other minorities who act and behave and think most like white men with privilege. If you speak up/show initiative in some very specific ways, they 'get it', and see it as you = just like them! That's not diversity. That's just putting a United Colors of Benetton splash on the same things.

Tell us a little bit about your educational non-profit, The Gyanada Foundation.

Twelve years ago I first went to India, where I painted walls and built computer labs with 20 other college kids. I knew immediately that we are terrible at things like that, that the trip probably changed my life far more than anyone we were supposed to help. That's just what volun-tourism is, sadly.

In 2013 I set up a non-profit out of Singapore and India, The Gyanada Foundation. We focus on girls from disadvantaged backgrounds — minorities in their own way, sometimes ethnic, religious, always economic — and we give them bond-free scholarships. Our goal is to let as many girls as possible, within our purview, complete 12 years of formal education. We truly believe that improving their access to better education is going to give them, and their families, a leg up.

It seems like you're always working, traveling and writing. What's next for you?

Indeed! Often cycling, running and also playing video games too!

For the next 12 months, I have another side project to focus on, this time it will bring me closer to home.

Together with a team of volunteers, we are throwing dinner parties for Singaporeans, expats, migrant workers in a format we call Culture Kitchen. It's weird but after a long time on the road I want to just spend more time with my family and my puppy. While also doing all kinds of things I love, anywhere in the world.

For more, follow @skinnylatte on Twitter.

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