My previous attendance at Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in Hong Kong delivered a number of great insights into business opportunities and challenges in Asia, so when I received an invitation to attend again this year it was a very easy decision to plan a trip and make it happen. After all, in the words of one of the event’s speakers, Maheen Rahman, CE of Alfalah GHP Investment Management, it’s not enough to sit at home and read about emerging markets, you have to be prepared to get on the ground and listen to what the business leaders are saying.
While China was a hot topic once again, speakers were at pains to point out the pitfalls of bundling emerging markets together. Sheila Patel, CEO international Goldman Sachs Asset Management told us successful investors understand the market differentiations and the varying opportunities they deliver, and this shows in the returns they achieve.
Clearly my key area of interest was around what is happening in the healthcare sector, but this can’t be considered in isolation without factoring in the other significant market shifts under way.
It’s clear that Asia is leapfrogging the rest of the world when it comes to digital transformation, with a number of the speakers talking about not only the rate of smartphone uptake but the massive consumer shift to e-commerce models that this is facilitating. China now has 600 million smartphone users, providing access to on demand services across virtually every industry. India is following closely behind, with today’s 150 million smartphone users forecast to escalate rapidly.
This delivers the ability to overcome the challenges that lack of existing infrastructure can provide in terms of meeting the needs of the growing mass middle market. Sheila Patel said that while no bank could possibly build enough physical branches quickly enough to meet market demand in India, as we know smartphones can deliver the capability to do all of your banking via the computer in your pocket, fast tracking the ability to scale up a customer base.
There is significant segmentation in markets in both China and India, with the largest cities already having hospitals and healthcare services which are as advanced as any in the western world. The difference lies in the vast regional areas, where the demand is enormous and the service delivery models do not yet exist. Creating simple to use, easily replicable healthcare systems which are digitally enabled is a tremendous market opportunity, and one we are acutely interested in.
Discussion around the challenges that female entrepreneurs face in most Asian markets highlighted that many of these are sadly consistent globally. There is still significant bias against investment in female led businesses, and while female consumers are dominating e-commerce models a realisation that backing female founders who bring an understanding of those purchase drivers and build their businesses accordingly seems to be a slower mind set shift.
The very real economic challenges that not addressing gender diversity can create were spotlighted by Haruno Yoshida, the first female President of BT Japan. Encouraging women to enter the workforce is now viewed as a key component of solving Japan’s economic crisis, with the term Womenomics now part of a public campaign launched and supported by the Japanese President.
With the salaryman mentality and its horrendous working hours and commuting times still alive and well in Japan, increasing the uptake of teleworking has the potential to remove those barriers and facilitate female employment. Surprisingly for a country which has long been viewed as technologically advanced, businesses have been slow to incorporate technology into their work practices, with only 9% of Japanese workers using their smartphones for work purposes.
The reality of the challenge in overcoming long held cultural norms was illustrated when Haruno told us that one of the reasons her career opportunities opened up was due to the Japanese view that ‘women are like Christmas cake, after the 25th nobody wants to buy’- at 26 she was seen as being left on the shelf from a marriage perspective, so was able to throw herself into her work!
My biggest take away from the event was that while western healthcare models may continue to grapple with how to incorporate digital technology into their service delivery, that’s a luxury which doesn’t exist in the emerging markets. Digital has to be a key, upfront component of any service model and I came away even more excited about the work that we are doing at Epic Digital.
Of course in addition to those conversations which took place on the stage there were just as many gems in the discussions amongst the fabulous group of women who attended and it was great to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. It may have been a short trip, but it was definitely very worthwhile.