Tessa Wijaya describes herself as "a unicorn among unicorns among unicorns."
As an Indonesian woman running a $1 billion financial technology start-up in Southeast Asia, she is a rather rare breed.
Women leaders in tech are uncommon. This is especially true in fintech, where they hold 7% of leadership positions. But Wijaya said she is hoping that will change by showing more women and girls they can follow the path less traveled.
"I really do want to encourage more women to be in tech," the millennial entrepreneur told CNBC Make It.
A $1 billion female founder
Wijaya is the co-founder and chief operations officer of Xendit, an Indonesian fintech platform that processes digital payments for businesses in Southeast Asia, like Grab, Wise and Traveloka.
Since launching in 2015, Xendit has grown rapidly. Today, it processes more than 65 million transactions worth $6.5 billion annually. It reached the $1 billion "unicorn" status in September.
To Wijaya, however, success still feels foreign.
"The unlikelihood of someone like me — a woman born and raised in a small town in Indonesia — becoming a co-founder in a tech company invested in by billion dollar funds, does not escape me," she said.
Finding her feet in finance
As a young girl growing up in Indonesia, Wijaya said she was "strange," preferring to play with G.I. Joe action figures rather than dolls.
But she was ambitious too, inspired by the grandmother who raised her and her cousins, while running a small food business.
In her early 20s, Wijaya interviewed for an analyst job at a new private equity fund in Jakarta. Though she had no traditional finance experience, her critical thinking and determination impressed the company, and she secured the job. She studied the industry outside of work hours to build her knowledge.
Still, the journey wasn't easy.
As one of only a few women on the team, Wijaya struggled to be heard. She didn't have a degree from Harvard or MIT, like many of her colleagues. The general manager of one of the fund's companies would simply ignore her when she spoke, she said.
"For me, it was a massive challenge... how do I keep up with these people? I had no Ivy League degree," said Wijaya. "I looked really young, too. To be taken seriously when you look young and you're a women is really hard."
Identifying a rising trend
Yet, she was undeterred. Wijaya was eager to play a role in Southeast Asia's evolving business scene.
Working closely with emerging start-ups in the private equity space, she saw the region's rapid rise of technology in the early 2010s. But she also noticed a missing link.
"You have ride hailing, you have e-commerce," said Wijaya. "They're nothing without the payments."
In a stroke of luck, Wijaya was introduced to a group of students from the University of California, Berkeley who were working on a similar project through start-up accelerator Y Combinator.
"It was work love at first sight," said Wijaya.
The team immediately began working on a new payments platform, that would later become Xendit.
Encouraging more women in fintech
Six years on, the founders and their team of 600 process online payments, run marketplaces and manage finances for businesses in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and beyond.
Of Xendit's staff, some 40% are women, according to Wijaya. She said she views helping women progress in their careers as a personal responsibility.
"I've been given the great opportunity to change how the workplace behaves, so more women can move up the ranks and be the next generation of leaders," she said.
Xendit does that by running "Women In Tech" mentorship schemes for young women and girls, offering return to work schemes for new moms, and providing meal deliveries for working parents during the pandemic.
Wijaya said she hopes that extra support will make the difference in encouraging the next generation of female fintech professionals to believe they can be leaders too.
"Sometimes I think about where my grandmother would be if she had the opportunities given to me," she said. "I'd like to think she would also be right here. A COO and co-founder... a unicorn among unicorns among unicorns."
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