Mother of two Vivian Chua started her journey with HP Inc. as a sales representative, and 21 years later, she is the tech giant’s vice-president, head of Singapore and Malaysia, and Singapore managing director. She sits down for a chat with Options and chronicles her journey with the company, and how she manages her role as a mother, and a top executive at one of the world’s biggest companies 

SINGAPORE (May 15): Growing up, Vivian Chua always knew she liked technology. Always the first in her family to get excited about new tech, and being interested in gadgets, she was fascinated by the potential of technology and always knew she wanted to work in the field somehow.

After all, the late nineties were a time of exciting new tech, especially in consumer tech. Microsoft was taking over the world of computers, the Internet abounded with music technology like Napster and Limewire, and web companies like Yahoo were rising stars. At the cusp of the new millennium, technology was the “it” industry.

It was also in 1999 that Chua joined Hewlett-Packard, which is now known as HP Inc., as a bright-eyed young sales representative. Her years of tinkering about with computers and gadgets had paid off, even if the journey was not initially a smooth-sailing one.

“I was scouted by HP, but when they first hired they needed to hire graduates, and I only held a polytechnic diploma at the time. So I took up a part-time degree and they came back to me and said, “Hey, you’re pursuing a degree right, come and join us”,” she recalls. “I was very happy to be able to finally join the company I’d always aspired to be a part of.”

Indeed, HP is one of the original “big tech” companies, tracing its history back to the late 30’s in California, United States, and is sometimes recognised as the symbolic ‘founder’ of Silicon Valley. In Singapore, HP has had decades of presence; with this year being its 50th anniversary here.

“Back then, the industry was really booming, and I’ve always been very into gadgets. I was always the one to fix [the gadgets] at home. Joining HP was kind of a continuation of my interests. I also saw, back then, that technology was our future,” she tells Options in a recent interview. HP was the choice that made sense to Chua back then, flipping through the jobs advertisements and classifieds. “If you look across the job advertisements it was pretty much IBM, Compaq and HP — and there were a lot of open positions in HP Singapore. But HP’s presence and range of products seemed the most complete to me, and that’s why I wanted to join.”

Fast forward 21 years later, and she is HP Inc.’s vice-president, head of Singapore and Malaysia, and Singapore managing director. Over the two decades she has been with HP Inc., she has had numerous different roles in several different markets, including being vice-president for the Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) consumer personal systems at HP Inc., in addition to other leadership, sales and business development roles in APJ, both in regional and country capacities.

Milestones

For Chua, HP changed her life and career. “There are a lot of opportunities within HP for me to explore, and my original role was never cast in stone. When I first joined HP, I was just a sales representative, covering government accounts and tenders like any other sales rep. But look where I am today. I’ve gained different experiences in channel marketing, and have been given the opportunity to work in different countries,” she says. “I’ve had the chance to understand the evolution of technology in both emerging and mature countries — and that is exposure that anyone would crave for in career development.”

Now back as a top executive in Singapore, the varied experience she’d gained stands her in good stead to continue to grow HP within Singapore; for her, Singapore is an ideal growth “partner”, so to speak, for HP. “Singapore is a unique country that has really invested in its people.

Clearly the advantage that we have in Singapore are its people — the highly tech [savvy] and high quality people we have groomed in Singapore. And clearly the unique position that Singapore has complements the growth that we jointly have at HP, with Singapore.”

She says HP has set up its regional research and development facilities, as well as regional headquarters in Singapore, for the fact that Singapore is able to attract the right talent, and because the government also plays a big part, together with corporations like HP, to groom talent for the future. It’s efforts to proactively work with corporations in ensuring the tech courses planned for in universities today at the higher education level are truly future-ready.

“So these are very important elements why Singapore plays an important role for HP. And that’s why HP is celebrating 50 years here, and it’s a big milestone for us.”

Evolution of tech

Having been in the industry for over two decades, Chua says she has seen the industry change, and companies have evolved from just providing for consumer needs to thinking ahead and to be ready for what is to come. “Back then, people purchased based on their needs. Today, corporations are thinking ahead of what is needed today to be equipped for the future. Now, we’re planning for the future,” she says.

“Companies are thinking, for example, “How fast do I want to be on cloud computing”, for example, or how secure do I need to be in order to be ready for a pandemic, like the one we’re in now.” Leverage on technology is also a lot higher today, with the advent of 5G, and or artificial intelligence (AI). “For example, in Singapore today we’re going into trial for things like autonomous vehicles. Corporations are also thinking of how it can change society by being more sustainable, at HP for example we think ahead of how we can give back to society, to make sure that technology complements [needs] and provide the best experience versus merely providing a basic function.”

She sees the future of technology moving very much into AI. “You should see a lot more AI coming into play. I think a consumer usage model will become the core of how we put the insights we glean to use,” she says. “We are investing a lot of insight and research into understanding the customer, to build some of these insights into the future of our products; understanding the customer is very important for us.”

Family and work

To be sure, understanding someone is the cornerstone of Chua’s approach to leadership and to striking that “holy grail” of work-life balance. She prides herself on being a female leader in a very male-dominated industry, and believes in the power of empathy and understanding. “I feel it is an advantage to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. To be viewed as somebody who is able to listen with empathy, who is able to earn the trust and respect of the people through being present at meetings, and being able to lend a listening ear — this gives me the advantage to be able to stand out in a male-dominated industry,” she says.

“As a female leader, we approach things with a different perspective. Other than getting results, we are also focused on the process of getting there. Caring for our people and the various issues they may face along the way matters as much to me as the end result.”

This leads into her strong belief that being true to yourself and building your brand is the key to success. “Fortunately for me, being in HP for 21 years, being true to my own personality and myself has brought me a long way, because I think people know me as who I am,” she says. “After all, the theme for International Women’s Day this year is ‘each for equal’, and it’s clearly telling each individual to be yourself, to bring out the best that you can be in order to be recognised and also progress along the way in the company.”

“I feel being true to yourself is important, because your next hiring manager is going to know that you have the right traits and personality for the job. This is what I share with my team as well: What is your personal brand? Who do you want to be known as? At the end of the day, your career is really about you building a personal brand that will carry you a long way into the future,” she says. “It’s not about whether you are achieving 200% — that’s not the only measurement [of success]. It’s also about how you’ve gotten to the 200%; about the way you carry yourself at a meeting, to be present, objective, and able to share your views while bringing out the best in your people.”

Chua takes her cue from a former manager, with whom she has worked with for a decade and still deeply admires. “Although we are friends off-work, at work it was always about results and open communication, being transparent with one another on our strengths and weaknesses and how we continue to build on our weaknesses. There was not a moment where we’ve discussed a situation as manager and staff, and she’ll tell me what to do,” Chua adds. “[After all] we’re in this together, and so as a part of the team, we need you to work on some areas which will take you to being a better leader. It’s about grooming others for the future, to prepare them for working with you for the next five to 10 years. And I practise this same culture now with my team, to make sure that they are ready for the future and not just because they are working for me now,” she says.

Chua laughs as she is asked how she manages her family and children, in addition to her undoubtedly big responsibility at work.

This work-life balance, cliched as it sounds, is one that is weighed carefully, and she takes great pains to ensure she strikes the right balance between the two.

“Right now, [working from home] when it is 6pm, I have to tell my team “Sorry guys, I have got to go and cook dinner and spend time with my children”. And after [the kids] have gone to sleep, maybe I will have some time and we can continue with work if there are urgent deadlines — but it’s not just work deadlines that are important, family time is also very important to me,” she says. “I think it’s about striking a balance between the two. There are some days whereby work will take a bit more time, and some days that home will take a bit more of your time. And I think if you have a good ecosystem, and a good understanding with your staff, if you have something that is pressing at home, they will know,” she says.

In the end, it boils down to a mutual understanding. “They will understand because the other times when you are at work, you’re putting in 200%. So I think it is down to the work style, as well as the mutual understanding that we need to give each other space to also accomplish all the other milestones in our lives."