Q&A Series #7: When Women Do Better, Countries Do Better

Women entrepreneurs have come up with extraordinary innovations that are transforming millions of lives around the world. In this series of blogs, the U.S. Agency for International Develoment (USAID) introduces you to some of the women whose ideas they have supported. These women are having an outsized impact in the developing world — and beyond — proving that when women do better, countries do better.

Seventh and last in the series is Frei Sangil, president and tech director of LAYERTech Software Labs. LAYERTech provides a wide range of software and technological solutions to address issues like disaster preparedness and medical networking.

How did you come up with your innovation and how did you turn it into a business?

I started coding for a fee when I was around 13 years old. My family often had financial difficulties, so I helped earn money for my college fees thru programming. In 2013, I made Mileaf Medical Network Information System for a Hong Kong Innovation Competition, but when Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, we turned the technology into a disaster information system instead (Balangay). Me and my team resigned from our desk jobs to work full time on Balangay, because my home province is one of the most hazard-prone provinces in the Philippines and we didn’twant the same thing to happen to our families and friends.

We were given seed funding by MAVC for eight months. But after that, the project stopped and what remained were us, five jobless youngsters, crazy enough to dream of continuing the project somehow. So, we were forced to register a business, and started accepting software development jobs so that we could sustain our daily operations and research. That’s how Layertech officially started.

What struggles have you faced as a female entrepreneur?

Sometimes, I still face stereotyping: Guys are better than girls when it comes to logic and coding. Plus I have this problem with my (and my team’s) age/s. It’s really difficult to be taken seriously, especially by clients who have a more traditional take on things. Imagine a 4-foot-11 girl in her early twenties, who doesn’t have much experience in tech and business, proposing to long-time officials and businessmen what they should do to solve a problem. Actually, when I was in college, I used to hide behind a fake identity (a man in his early 30s) just to get that initial trust from clients. I’m so glad we can put our real names on our works now.

What advice would you give to girls who dream of becoming entrepreneurs when they grow up?

I used to feel sorry for myself when I was a kid, because I wasn’t born rich, I wasn’t born influential, I didn’t have access to resources that others have, and I had many insecurities and disadvantages. But looking back, the skills I have right now, my intuition, knowledge — they were all forged during those times of struggle. For example, I understand by heart how it is to work with limited resources. That’s why we have a good grasp of optimization and efficiency. So for girls who dream of becoming entrepreneurs, especially those who are facing difficulties and doubts, you are currently forging the strongest weapon you will use in the business world in the future. Learn, learn, learn. Don’t give up and continue improving yourself. You’ll see that someday, those lessons and experiences will end up helping you A LOT!

What’s been the most gratifying part of this work for you personally?

With Layertech, we now have the freedom to select who to hire and engage with. All five of us in the team grew up in difficult environments, so we understand by heart that a person’s CV alone does not reflect his/her capabilities. Now, we are especially thrilled, working with youngsters who are very passionate to make a change, who have brilliant ideas, but are not given the opportunity to shine because of their circumstances like financial, academic, etc. So, more than anything, we are proud that we are working to make products, conducting activities that make the world a bit more equal.

What advice would you give institutions like USAID that want to help entrepreneurs like you succeed?

Many times, our applications for funding or pitches were rejected because we didn’t have the mastery of making proposals. We didn’t know business buzzwords, proposal formats and many things that normally decide a project’s application status. And back then, we also didn’t have the connections and resources that would help us learn more about these things. Thankfully, many institutions started making open courseware and online learning materials — that’s how we first learned how to write business plans. Otherwise, we will be trapped in a cycle of rejection and disadvantage. Coming from that situation, we can guarantee that there are many, many brilliant ideas out there, from the most unusual applicants, just waiting to be recognized and polished. It would be really helpful if institutions would consider these circumstances and incorporate in their selection design and strategy how to also include these kinds of applicants.