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Career, family and the motherhood penalty that lies ahead



As UK childcare costs account for 26 per cent of household income, fintech entrepreneur Mel Faxon explains why motherhood means that women can’t have it all. 

Mel joins me from her London coworking space. “Being able to walk over to someone’s desk, especially when you’re in a start-up, makes such a huge difference. I can’t wait until we have an office” she candidly admits.

Faxon met Siran Cao, her now co-founder, in 2019. As two millennial women, they started looking at why we often refuse to think about our bodies and careers on the same track. A few coffee conversations later, they decided to make a change in the way we perceive the idea of starting a family and they created Mirza, a care now pay later product that aims to distribute the costs of childcare over time and close the gender pay gap.

“When we first started, we were looking at the causes of the motherhood penalty and the decline in earnings that a woman sees after she has a child,” Faxon says. “This is one of the biggest contributors to the gender pay gap and if you don’t have good parental or maternity leave, it can hurt your career acceleration down the line.”

Taking time out of the workforce after stepping into motherhood is something that women naturally do, mainly because they can’t afford the increasing costs of childcare. However, the long-term financial implications are a lot bigger than we might think, the entrepreneur adds.

“We wanted to tackle this issue by launching a product that helps women keep working and that distributes the [childcare] costs over time to when they have higher earning potential,” she explains. “We want to allow women to take this zero-interest financing mechanism through their employer without having to choose between family and career.”

Mirza was initially aimed for women, but the two co-founders soon realised parenthood shouldn’t be one-sided.  “We wanted a family-focused financial planning product that helps parents understand what the parenthood penalty looks like and what taking unpaid leave looks like,” Faxon says.

“Once we realised that this is not just about women, we decided to shift [our idea] and make it much more gender neutral for both men and women.

“We constantly hear things like ‘I don’t want to have to choose between family and career’ or ‘women can have it all’. But right now, it’s unrealistic to think that women can have it all unless they have a lot of privilege and support.”

With one in three childcare centres shutting down in the US and over two million women dropping out of work during the pandemic, the need for a change seemed even more imperative.

“Covid has been a really good spotlight,” the co-founder adds. “This great resignation really highlights that people aren’t going to go back to work in places where they don’t get the support that they need and it also shows that care is the future of work. If we don’t support parents in their childcare needs, they are not going to be able to participate in the economy and help it grow.”

But why is financial planning so important in this process?

“Everything gets so disorganised when you have a child,” Faxon explains. “You don’t know where to go and you feel like you don’t have a balance between your career, what you were doing in the past and your current life.

“Financial planning helps people be a little bit more proactive. Having a child, then looking for childcare and realising what the expense is going to be, is very much a reactive approach that can mean that one of the parents would have to stay home.

“We want to help parents start these conversations ahead of time to help facilitate that dialogue around parental leave policies and statutory leaving,” she continues. “That would give them a sense of control and would help them navigate that with their employer.”

Mirza is purely tech-driven and is able to source some of the expenses that are coming up and taking your income into account, it will estimate the upcoming cost of care for the coming five to ten years. It is already available in the US, mainly because the data used was based on a US model.

“Both my co-founder and I are American. So, it felt a little bit more genuine for us to tackle those problems there,” Faxon says. “But our whole team is here, in London and we would love to expand it to the UK in a few years.”

Mirza’s five-year goal is to shape parental leave and have over two million families using the service. “Our vision is to become almost like a neobank of offering more tailored financial products for families ,” the co-founder adds.

“Women shouldn’t have to take that financial hit right when they have their first child and I hope we will change that.”

To find more about Mirza visit


‘Years of being dismissed, ignored and belittled’: the founders reshaping gynaecological care



Vittoria Brolis and Gaia Salizzoni, Hale co-founders

“Gynaecology is a neglected area of global health,” Dr Ranee Thakar, president of the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, stated in an article discussing the stigma in gynaecological care globally.

The piece, although published four years ago, is relevant to this day when millions of women around the globe are still struggling to access treatment.

Despite progress in getting people talking about fertility and menopause, gynaecological health remains deeply stigmatised. It’s impossible to discuss the anatomy involved – vagina, vulva, clitoris, cervix – without disapproval and censorship.

Because of the silence, it’s likely that the true burden of gynaecological conditions is grossly underrepresented, so prioritisation of these conditions for research development and health system improvement has been low.

Gaia Salizzoni and Vittoria Brolis, who have endured years of being dismissed, ignored and belittled, know this too well.

“We were the typical examples of women who were being mistreated and misdiagnosed for years before getting a diagnosis,” says Salizzoni. “We realised we got a diagnosis not because a new product was out, but because we just met the right gynaecologist.”

The duo, now founders of the virtual clinic Hale, believe the lack of standardised care and the stigma surrounding reproductive health are responsible for the mounting waiting lists and the long diagnosis times women are facing.

“Some of the most basic things, such as STIs, UTIs, are not tackled properly simply because there are no standardised approaches,” says Salizzoni.

“Many doctors and are not trained in specific conditions, which puts women at risk. At Hale, our job is to simplify and standardise the process in order to make it shorter, cheaper and more effective.”

Hale, the winner of this year’s Femtech World OB/GYN Innovation award, aims to revolutionise patient care through a digital platform designed to guide women through their health journey.

With a focus on scientific evidence, data integration and collaboration with existing healthcare systems, the app, currently available in Italy, aims to bridge the gap in pain research and offer much-needed support to women experiencing pelvic pain.

“There are many women at the beginning of their journey, who are seeking answers,” says Salizzoni.

“For some, answers might be getting a prescription, for others, it might be getting a diagnosis. Our focus is on this this first triage, where we use technology to gather as much information as possible about someone’s medical history, symptoms and health outcomes to offer them the care they need.

“We centralise this data on our platform and we are using algorithms and tools that are helping us understand the needs of the patients and the protocols they might require. Through these protocols – online consultations, gynaecological check-ups, nutrition support – we are trying to reduce as much as possible the human factor to make it more efficient.”

Many of the gynaecological problems women are experiencing, according to Salizzoni, can be tackled without them becoming chronic, which opens the possibility of preventing them from happening in the the first place.

“We are still working on the algorithms we are developing, but we know that if we understand how to tackle these conditions, we can help prevent them.”

Hale’s biggest challenge so far has been people’s attitudes towards digital health. While the adoption of digital technologies has significantly increased over the past few years, some women are still finding it difficult to use digital tools.

“Some people are not used to doing everything online, but I think over time they will start trusting digital health and see the benefits,” says Salizzoni.

“We’ve seen this happening already with mental health. Yes, it can be hard at first, but we have to change our mindset. Things are not going to change in the traditional way.”

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‘You don’t need to have it all figured out’- the founder getting more women into tech



Safa Jemai, founder and CEO of Víkonnekt

Safa Jemai knew she wanted to study computer science from a young age, but it wasn’t until she moved to Iceland from sunny Tunisia that she embarked on the journey of entrepreneurship, building the software and product development firm Víkonnekt. Here, she tells us how she got into tech and why she would like more women to do the same.

Safa, could you tell us a bit more about your background?

I was born in a middle class family in Bizerte, a small town in North Tunisia. My parents knew from the start that the only way to see their kids succeed in a tremendously challenging environment was to study and study very hard.

I was encouraged from a very early age to excel in maths, science and physics but later on when I was 12, I decided to take the path of computer science.

In 2018, I made the decision to move from Tunisia to Iceland to study the Icelandic language and continue my degree in computer science, receiving my degree in both from Iceland’s top university.

I had the opportunity to work on two projects that combined knowledge from my studies: a language processing project to preserve the Icelandic language in the age of AI – at a time when small nation languages have been at their most vulnerable – and entering a national incubator programme with a mobile app to help people more readily and easily learn Icelandic.

I put my focus on building two companies that serve multiple purposes, including fostering a diverse, inclusive tech industry and inspiring interests in different cultures and inclusivity across cultures.

What inspired you to create Vikonnekt?

I saw an opportunity in the market. While I was still in university, I worked also as a developer for a few start-ups and as a freelancer project manager.

I noticed the innovative ecosystem in Iceland is growing and we have more and more exciting companies with more entrepreneurs, but at the same time we have a need for more IT specialists.

I thought I could leverage my connections in Tunisia and build a strong team that could work remotely with another team based in Iceland and Víkonnekt was born.

I reached out to a few entrepreneurs and asked them about their experiences hiring tech people and implementing software products and in summer 2021, we officially launched Víkonnekt.

How would you describe Vikonnekt in a few words?

Víkonnekt is focused on providing third party technical development services to Nordic tech enterprises and companies and supporting the technical due diligence process for venture capital firms— as well as leveraging the technical development expertise of talented folks from Tunisia’s emerging technology sector.

 What makes Vikonnekt different?

Like other projects that I have been working on, Víkonnekt serves a multitude of purposes. Perhaps most notably, the company’s work showcases the new opportunities in North Africa by expanding the Nordic and European viewpoint of tech development, beyond Eastern Europe, and into the African continent.

Tech talent in Tunisia struggle with garnering fair, equitable salary negotiation. This results in significant immigration to European countries and destroys Tunisia’s ability to compete in the innovation sector.

As hybrid and remote work becomes more and more viable, and the normalisation of tech outsourcing to previously underutilised nations, like Tunisia, gains traction, Vikonnekt fosters regional economic development. This is reinforced by offering talent in Tunisia higher salaries and amenable work cultures than current market norms.

It enables talent to stay connected to their home cultures and reduces economic and housing challenges across Europe, improving work efficiency and better business outcomes.

Víkonnekt blends two seemingly unrelated and often underestimated cultures together, hiring talented people for compelling technical projects, both from Iceland and Tunisia. Though Tunisia is a big tech talent hub, it rarely has the chance to be showcased in European media and can be overshadowed by ecosystems in the Middle East.

Víkonnekt opens new doors of understanding of Tunisian possibilities for companies in Iceland and the Nordics, with regard to taking projects offshore or outsourcing. Víkonnekt also demonstrates to the emerging Tunisian tech sector the wealth of possibilities in collaborating with European and Nordic enterprises, expanding business opportunities for both regions.

It’s still quite rare for women to found tech entities in Europe, let alone garner success by bootstrapping. Even in Iceland, the reining utopia of gender equality, the number of female-founded tech companies remains relatively low. Compound this with additional distinctions, such as immigrant-founded, non-christian founded or non-white founded entities, and the stats drop to daunting levels.

With Víkonnekt, our aim is to eliminate barriers for non-white, non-christian, immigrant women technologists and entrepreneurs and help them thrive in the tech and business world.

It’s no secret that women are in the minority in the tech industry. How is Vikonnekt solving this issue?

While it is always a work in progress, our strategy has been from the beginning to search for female talent in universities.

We found it helpful to advertise for end term projects that students can work on with us and when they finish it, we hire them in the company. This way we are able to attract female developers more easily, as they feel more confident to apply for the end term projects, as well as train them well while working on the internal product through their end term project.

What are some of the ways to attract and retain women in tech that you discovered while building Vikonnekt?

Companies need to make sure that they provide a collaborative environment where voices are heard and opinions are taken seriously.

Through my journey with Vikonnekt, I noticed that women tend to listen more than talk. This is good, but it tends to create some imbalance – all team members need to communicate their thoughts out loud and influence the decisions of the company.

Here comes the responsibility of managers to notice these behaviours and create a safe space for everyone to listen and speak as well. When female developers see that their opinions matter and they are heard then they appreciate that a lot and tend to choose to stay in that company as they know that when they speak, they will be heard. People in general don’t seek only high salaries or bonuses but also a place where they are respected and taken seriously.

What is something you wish you learned sooner about the tech industry?

I wish I was taught early in school that I don’t have to figure out everything from the beginning to be able to participate in cool projects. Confidence is more important than knowledge in most cases. People trust a more confident person even if they might be making a wrong decision.

I think we need to teach our kids to be confident and communicate their thoughts early on even if they don’t have the right answers.

What advice would you give to people in the tech industry looking to diversify their tech talent pipeline?

Attracting tech talent doesn’t start in universities, it requires much more effort. If societies want to reach more people, they need to start earlier in the process which means in primary schools – that’s where kids start developing their passions.

Governments could arouse kids’ curiosity through programmes in their studies either through schools or associations. My passion for tech started when I was still 12 as I joined the local association in my hometown where I had the chance to work on simple IT projects. Having not taken part in the association, where I started familiarising myself with creating simple software projects, and having not chosen computer science in high school, I would have not chosen to build a career in the tech industry.

When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they tend to lean more towards jobs like a doctor, teacher or an astronaut – that’s because the environment introduces them to these positions at a very early age.

How about we use the same tactic and introduce them to software development when they are still young? I am not talking about familiarising them with using social media but much more than that; I am talking about helping them understand how these programmes are actually built.

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‘There’s a lot of medical gaslighting’: the entrepreneur shaking up the fertility industry in South Asia



Anna Haotanto, founder and CEO of Zora Health

Fertility treatments can be unnecessarily complicated and out of reach but they shouldn’t be, Anna Haotanto told herself when she stepped down from ABZD Capital – an investment and advisory firm she co-established – looking for a fresh start. 

Inspired by her own egg freezing experience and let down by the lack of innovation in reproductive care, she set up Zora Health, a Singapore-based digital platform that aims to simplify fertility care at no extra cost for the patients. Here, she tells us more.

Anna, tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to create Zora Health.

My last role was the managing partner of ABZD Capital and I was on the board of directors for Gourmet Food Holdings after serving as the managing director and overseeing the company’s growth in technology, digital innovation, branding, marketing and human resources.

I also founded The New Savvy – Asia’s leading financial, investments and career platform for women. Before being a founder, I was in banking for 8 years in wealth management.

I’ve been working for 22 years, and I was ready for a break and a fresh start. I stepped down last year because we reached a big milestone and I was keen to explore more tech opportunities. In that period, I looked at a lot of ideas, but asked myself, “What problem do I feel passionate about? What is overlooked and underserved?”

It’s not about proving myself, but solving something I care deeply about. I’ve always been interested in healthcare. Throughout my journey, I’ve had a lot of health issues. Last year alone, I had five surgeries. I thought I was suffering from perimenopause and started learning more about the symptoms.

It was an interesting area that I didn’t know much about. I started deep diving, because if I have that problem, I might as well try to solve it or find somebody to help. I realised there were very few solutions here. However, I couldn’t find a single source of truth or a platform of trusted resources.

So, I went into fertility as egg freezing is a topic I’m familiar with as I’ve done it myself. It’s also a very overlooked US$54bn global market, and 44 per cent of treatments are in Asia.

Technology has changed a lot of the way we do things, the way we travel, the way we stay in hotels, and the way we commute. There are a lot of developments, but not in fertility care. In Southeast Asia, I believe, there are only three or four fertility tech companies, mostly hardware or e-commerce.

I thought it was a very interesting market: high quantum, underserved. But we don’t talk about it because there are barriers to entry, such as shame and guilt.

How would you describe Zora Health in a few words?

Zora Health is a one-stop reproductive health and family planning platform that integrates patients, corporate employers, and fertility care providers, simplifying the journey and enhancing accessibility for all parties.

Our comprehensive services include online and physical consultations with a global network of partner clinics, medical concierge services and expert support. We also provide corporate fertility education workshops to cultivate fertility-friendly work environments, which ultimately help companies attract and retain top talent.

What makes Zora Health different?

Our clients often encounter common barriers, such as lack of information, stigma surrounding fertility issues and concerns about the affordability of treatments. They are also unsure of their options, what the process is like and regulations in different countries. These barriers can significantly impact their family planning journey, leading to delays or hesitations in seeking care.

At Zora Health, we strive to address these challenges by providing personalised support, educational resources and partnerships with over 80 clinics across 16 countries to empower our clients to make informed decisions about their reproductive health.

We also provide corporate fertility education workshops to cultivate fertility-friendly work environments, which ultimately help companies attract and retain top talent.

Zora means light or dawn. To us, it signifies a new beginning, a new way of doing things. We are building solutions we wished existed.

Women’s health comes with a lot of stigma. How has this impacted you as a founder?

The more stigma and problems there are, the more opportunities we see for Zora Health. The more I speak to our patients and clients, the more I see how important the work is.

Over the past few months, I realised that fertility is a problem that people address when it’s a bit too late. A younger friend of mine was told that she could only retrieve one viable egg. She’s only 37, so I think it’s a real problem. It’s just a problem that has never been talked about.

How does it impact me? The work is very meaningful and honestly, I’m very surprised to have found something that I truly love and care deeply about. We have an opportunity to change lives and make an impact. Even when I pitch to investors, I tell them I’m not here for five years — I’m here for 10, 15 years. I hope this will be my last work because there’s nothing else I want in life.

What obstacles have you encountered on this journey?

I don’t like bringing up gender issues, but the problem exists. We know that two per cent of total funding goes to women. There are a lot of female analysts and associates, but they’re not the ones writing the cheques. When I fundraised, I experienced it myself.

One of the biggest challenges for femtech is that female healthcare is poorly understood. Most of the research money historically goes to male afflictions.

There’s also a lot of medical gaslighting. When my friends see doctors, they share their discomfort but are not understood. It’s not because doctors don’t want to solve the problem, but rather that they don’t understand it. There should be more research money spent on all this.

Two, if the people writing cheques are males, they may also need help understanding, not because they don’t want to, but because they are unaware. Many years ago, when speaking to a start-up founder in his office, I saw one of my friends who needed to pump breast milk.

She complained that she had to pump in the copier room. He was completely clueless when I asked the founder why he didn’t have a private room. He was only 33. It’s not necessarily a gender problem – at 33, I didn’t have kids and I didn’t know that you needed a room for privacy and pumping breast milk.

We’ve spoken to about 400 women now, and many women don’t know about the egg freezing process. I did it five years ago, and I still didn’t know the process until I wrote an article.

Where are you with Zora Health now?

We are serving our patients and have 80 clinic partners across 16 countries. In addition, we are currently focusing on working with corporations through corporate workshops and offering corporate benefits for reproductive health and family planning. This covers the whole spectrum of fertility, menopause, PCOS, endometriosis and more.

Where do you see the company in the future?

In the long term, our vision is to unlock possibilities for women’s healthcare in Asia. To provide women with choices so they can live their lives without limitations.

To do this, we need a few things. One: resources and knowledge. It’s about creating a knowledge platform for women. And then you need providers, and a large network of clinics. And last, which people don’t talk about, is financing.

When I was young, my mum had a few surgeries because of breast cancer. I was very scared because she was not eligible for insurance by the time I could buy her insurance.

Until today, I live with that fear. What happens if she has a life-threatening disease in the future? Can I afford it? Financing is very important, and that’s often something people miss.

Maybe one day I’ll have to use my service. I’m 40 this year. Struggling with PCOS for the past six years, it will be harder for me to get pregnant. If I ever want to have kids, I believe there is a high chance I need to have IVF and if I do, I will definitely be a Zora Health patient myself.

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