Get more women to choose areas in which they are currently vastly underrepresented. It’s very common to find women founders of companies focusing on beauty, fashion, care, or other sectors that are well represented by women. Unfortunately, it is rare to find women founders in the engineering and technology section. If you look at how many women choose a STEM career that is not surprising. It’s not uncommon to have only one or two female students in a computer science class I teach. Also, without a technical background it is so much more difficult to receive funding from venture capital if you are leading a tech startup. So, you must start getting young girls interested in these fields at an early age. That needs role models, STEM toys that are appealing to girls, and much more to trigger that initial desire. At IU South Bend, I regularly teach a computer literacy course for non-computer science majors. Majority of students in this course are female and many of them are still undecided about their majors. So, I get them exposed to concepts of programming, dispel myths about programming to spark their interest in computer science. I firmly believe that more women with a technical background will not only result in more women founders but also in more successful founders.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hang Dinh.
She grew up in a small town in Central Vietnam without computers, electricity or running water, then moved to the USA in 2003 for her Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Connecticut. She is currently an Associate Professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. In 2020, she co-founded the one-stop social media platform ExtentWorld that aims to protect your data rather than exploiting it.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
About six years ago, my brother, who is a senior software engineer, noticed how Facebook exploited users’ personal data through targeted ads. This unethical use of data triggered two reactions in him. He stopped using social media and had the idea of building a new social media platform. A platform that not only protects its users’ private data but also rewards them for their engagement. Because social media would be nothing without user contribution. The idea was also to make it a one stop social media platform. You can have separate profiles for all your everyday needs, friends, business, dating and more. ExtentWorld was born. I was very skeptical of his idea though. Even a standard social media platform would require at least 30 full time developers. And that does not even take all the additional great features that he had in mind into account. However, I was teaching a course that discussed privacy policies of social media. Therefore, I became even more aware than the average social media user how far the privacy concerns reach. Facebook also tracks your internet browsing history. This completely changed my perspective as like most people I simply do not like to be spied on. My brother had in the meantime gone full steam ahead. He had invented two code-generating tools. This enabled ExtentWorld to be developed by just three developers. ExtentWorld was launched on the web in January 2020. Since it now also has end-to-end encrypted video calling I finally took the big step and deleted my Facebook account. I can now connect with my families in Vietnam and Germany without concerns about the privacy of my calls. However, my brother is in love with programming and coding. He did not spend the time necessary to create a company. While others in my family have successfully founded a business, this was never on my life plan. Seeing how my brother’s fantastic product could not develop its full potential though I stepped out of my comfort zone. I read up and studied. And finally, I formed ExtentWorld LLC to help my brother succeed. While the transition was slow and at times a bit scary I am now really enjoying my new additional career. It is great to see how I am helping ExtentWorld continue to grow. I feel so refreshed and fully empowered to do what I was previously scared of.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Since I started my career with ExtentWorld, I have been talking about it in my family a lot. My 5-year-old son started to notice the world “ExtentWorld.” He understood that it is something that I am helping to build. From time to time, he would sit next to me while I was working, and told me: “Mom, I want to create Kids’ ExtentWorld.” But his real motive was just to get to play with my computer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made a lot of mistakes in my early ExtentWorld days. I learned from all of them, but I am still waiting for a very funny one. The one closest to being funny (rather embarrassing) was when I created the first flyer for ExtentWorld using Microsoft Word! I put a lot of thought into the content and design of the flyer. I was very satisfied with it. I proudly showed it to my brother and he also praised it. You know he is a computer science Ph.D. too. Fortunately, we did not rely on my husband, a chemist, and rather shared it with a friend, expecting positive feedback. But the response was: “Who’s your graphic designer? The content is good, but the design is like in 2000 rather than in 2020.” This response made me laugh! Then I started learning how to use a graphic design app to create other posters for ExtentWorld.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
A lot of people helped me to get to where I am, but I would not be able to start a company without the support of my husband. We have two kids, age 3 and 5, who need attention. I am also working full time as a professor. Our parents live in other continents. We don’t have any relatives close by either.
My husband and I always had our jobs in different towns (2.5 hours apart) looking for opportunities to spend more time together. A big first step was when his company started to allow him to work remotely part of the time. This allowed him to take care of the kids in the evening more often and take on a bigger share of the work in our primary residence. Last year he could extend his remote work even further and when he recognized how much I love working on ExtentWorld he completely took over kids and kitchen after 5 pm. In return, I have accepted the change in the taste of the food, on most days. Fortunately, our kids do still enjoy a bed-time story from both of us.
He even enables me to work some on the weekend though that is easier for him as he enjoys playing in the backyard as much as our kids. I am very grateful for his help and understanding in my business endeavor.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Ok, this one has a bit of a back story. When I was younger Vietnam did not have as many opportunities as it now has. Therefore, I was always very ambitious in school as my parents fostered an interest in learning in my siblings and me. At 9th grade, I won a second place in a national math competition and got accepted to the most historic Vietnamese high school — the one that many Vietnamese leaders such as Ho Chi Minh went to. But that school is in another city and my parents could not afford to pay rent for me there. Therefore, they made a big decision, sending me to the capitol Hanoi where I could live with my richer uncle and aunt to save money on food and rent while being able to go to a good school. I was only 16 years old when I had to leave my parents and siblings to move to Hanoi. It was about a 17-hour train ride from my family but even if I would have had the time to go I had very little money to pay for a train ticket. I didn’t get to see my family during my first year in Hanoi. And at that time I could only connect with my family via snail mails. Living with my relatives without paying them for rent and food was a difficult experience. I struggled to adapt. Before Hanoi, my aim was getting selected to the Vietnamese national team for an international math competition. In Hanoi, my performance dropped. I felt like the ship was sinking. During this depressing time, I was given the biography of Marie Curie by my high school which was named after Marie Curie. I was astonished that even such a famous and successful person had so many struggles. She lived on very little money after leaving Poland for Paris. She had to cope with the sudden loss of her husband, and she had to defy sexism in academia. But ultimately, she overcame. She was not only the first woman to win the Nobel Prize but also the first person in history to win the Nobel Prize twice. The story about Marie Curie’s life and work had a profound impact on me. It helped me get out of my depression and stand on my own feet when I was still a teenager. She also became the greatest source of inspiration for my career later.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite quotes is “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” In the second year of my Ph.D. study, a friend shared a list of Dalai Lama’s quotes with me. It is this quote that stood out to me as I had just lost. My first academic article was simply rejected! But I still believed in my research. I learned my lesson, I fixed the issues, resubmitted it and I was very proud when it was accepted for publication. Since then, I have always tried to save the lessons from failures that we all have to go through in life. A major success is ultimately only the culmination of a series of failures and “lessons learned.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We are just at the start of the road, but I hope that ExtentWorld will make the world a better place. That is the entire motivation behind it. Better Social Media. We build ExtentWorld because we believe that your data belong to you and nobody else. Your data should not be used to generate maximum ad revenue and that is our key rule. Which leads us to the second issue. The profits of social media typically go to a platform provider and not the content creators or users. We want to change that. We want to share ad revenues with users, for example, those that choose to click on the ads. Users on ExtentWorld can also sell their content to other users. But if you really like some content you can also directly donate to the content creator.
But these issues are not necessarily at the forefront of complaints about social media. Misinformation and a lack of inhibition is probably an even more important flaw. This is in large part a result of news feed algorithms that use the user data that they track. It traps users in a bubble which can even be dangerous. ExtentWorld’s business model is different. We don’t have algorithms based on users’ personal data. Instead, we organize information on ExtentWorld based on locations. Users visiting a location, say the United States, on ExtentWorld, they will see the posts related to that location. Now you are not pre-programmed in your bubble by the first article you ever clicked on when visiting a social media. The content posted on individual profiles or groups will automatically get a view price once it reaches a certain number of views. If the content is bad this will limit the number of viewers. If it is simply really good then it’s worth paying for and the content creator should be rewarded.
But hopefully we will make the world not just a better place but also a more convenient place. Facebook for friends, Twitter for public messages, LinkedIn for work, eBay, and a random dating app. That is a lot of apps to scroll through for what you need. Hence you can use our “one account, many profiles” feature. With just one account on ExtentWorld, you can create up to 8 profiles of different types: public, private, work, academic, dating, merchant, anonymous, and secret profiles. Each profile functions like an account in a separate social media app. But since all the profiles are in the same system, it prevents your dating profiles from being seen by your family, friends, and co-workers.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Lack of support and inspiration is often a major factor that is holding back women from founding companies. This is not new. Starting a company always involves risks while many women tend to prefer stability and security. I was scared too. I started ExtentWorld LLC only after I had weighed in all the risk factors it may bring into my life and my career. I am fortunate, that I had great support from my husband even if though he might be more scared than I was. But more importantly I have seen others in my family succeed. My sister in Vietnam started a very successful company that sells natural essential oils and other natural health and beauty products. And my brother in Singapore founded a tech company focusing on cybersecurity. This gave me the strength to believe in myself.
But for now, I would just recommend looking for a person in your circle that really believes in you but is also able to talk to you honestly because that combination has the best chance of making you successful. For me this person is my brother who co-founded ExtentWorld.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
I hope that my visibility as a woman founder in a men-dominated sector can help empower women to become founders. For all diversity topics we know that people need role models. Marie Curie was my academic role model. I hope that one day I can be a role model for other women seeking to start a business. Other women founders, especially those in the deep tech industry such as the VMware’s co-founder Diane Greene, have helped empower me to become a founder too. Unfortunately, there aren’t many such women founders in tech, because women only account for roughly 20% of the computer science and engineering undergraduate degree holders. As a professor of computer science, I have served as a role model and an advisor to many female students in computer science. Some female students in other majors came to my office to talk to me when they were considering switching major to computer science. I think empowering women to pursuit computer science and maybe even science and engineering in general is as important as empowering women to become founders.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
A lot of people answer that this good for society but before jumping into that I just want to point that on a personal level it can be a lot of fun and fill you with pride. For me it is very rewarding.
And yes, also half of the world’s population are women, so half of the users or customers are also women. Women will have ideas that men do not even think of. Therefore, more women founders mean we would have more products and services that better suit the society and it would be a pity if we continue to waste these ideas. Even big companies understand the topic of diversity as a cornerstone of success. ExtentWorld, for example, was initially built from men’s perspective until I joined as a co-founder. I identified issues that my brother and other founding team members did not. For example, our dating profile was initially programmed from the view of men looking for women. I identified issues that women typically face on dating apps so that we could improve our dating service to make it more women friendly.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
- Get more women to choose areas in which they are currently vastly underrepresented. It’s very common to find women founders of companies focusing on beauty, fashion, care, or other sectors that are well represented by women. Unfortunately, it is rare to find women founders in the engineering and technology section. If you look at how many women choose a STEM career that is not surprising. It’s not uncommon to have only one or two female students in a computer science class I teach. Also, without a technical background it is so much more difficult to receive funding from venture capital if you are leading a tech startup. So, you must start getting young girls interested in these fields at an early age. That needs role models, STEM toys that are appealing to girls, and much more to trigger that initial desire. At IU South Bend, I regularly teach a computer literacy course for non-computer science majors. Majority of students in this course are female and many of them are still undecided about their majors. So, I get them exposed to concepts of programming, dispel myths about programming to spark their interest in computer science. I firmly believe that more women with a technical background will not only result in more women founders but also in more successful founders.
- Don’t focus on age. In the article entitled “How to Start a Startup,” the Y Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham suggested the cut off age for starting a company should be 38. It was also at a Y Combinator Startup School event in 2007 that Mark Zuckerberg said, “Young people are just smarter.” But many women and many men want a family with kids and a career. For women, this focus on the family naturally must happen at a younger age as our biological clock is ticking. That may not allow enough time to start a company at young age or lead to the desire to first have some level of security. Or they may simply have that one great idea later in life? Why should that matter? I would even argue that this is a bad business practice because you lose a lot of diversity in ideas. I have seen many older successful women leaders. At IU South Bend, we have Deans of colleges to the Chancellors, that are all in their 40s or 50s or even 60s. The VMware co-founder Diane Greene also founded VMware when she was 43. As I am now in my early 40s, I see the ageism culture in Silicon Valley as a big problem. Thus, to encourage more women founders, the startup accelerator companies must look beyond startup founders’ age. Women should not be forced to choose between career and family.
- Publish and share more stories of women founders. Since starting a company, I have read several stories of women founders, especially those in tech, as they are more relevant to me. I can learn a lot from the experiences of other women founders. Many of those stories are also inspirational. I really appreciate that you have this interview series devoted to women founders.
- Have more women venture capitalists (VCs)! When I thought about finding VCs to pitch my company, my first choice in the list was a VC firm founded and run by a woman whom I found after reading her interview on Y Combinator (YC). It is easier for me to pitch to women because I am less scared about being judged on my abilities being limited by my two little kids. In the article entitled “How to Start a Startup,” the YCombinator’s co-founder Paul Graham admitted “I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon.” I believe this mindset is quite widespread in men VCs. And then for young women there are other hurdles because of stereotypes. A study by Harvard Business Review revealed that a group of Sweden government VCs consisting of 2 women and 5 men described young men entrepreneurs as “promising” while young female entrepreneurs as “inexperienced.” With more women in VC this mindset would change.
- Make professional networks for women founders and women VCs more visible. Networking is always important in any career, and starting a company is no different. You need to get out there to connect with people to build your network and get support for your company. But imagine you are a woman at a big conference where less than 10% of attendees are women. That is not an easy environment to network in. In my academic years, from Ph.D. study to my current position that is the standard. The only conference I attended that had more women than men was a workshop for women graduate students and women junior faculty members in Computer Science. And that workshop was very helpful for me when I was building my academic career. We need opportunities like this for women founders and VCs across the country.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, that would be to teach everyone to speak a programming language. Let’s try this:
if (percentage_of_women_founders < 50)
Such a movement would empower many people in this digital era. As Steve Jobs once said: “Everybody in this country should learn a computer language because it teaches you how to think.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with the VMware co-founder Diane Greene. I have mentioned her several times in my interview.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.