How do you use technology to improve citizens’ lives?

Technology can be used to improve lives in many ways, but I find it most meaningful when technology enables those living in emerging markets to enjoy a similar quality of life as their counterparts in developed economies.

One example that I find inspiring is Temenos, which harnesses the power of Microsoft Azure to help microfinance organizations give underbanked people in Myanmar access to banking. By eliminating physical infrastructure, the cost of borrowing can be lowered by 90%, helping small business owners to conduct their businesses without being crippled by debt. This also goes a long way in stimulating local economies.

Another powerful example is our global Affordable Access Initiative announced in May this year. We awarded grants to 12 entrepreneurial businesses to help scale their solutions and business models to increase affordable Internet access in communities around the world.

Recipients from Asia Pacific include AirJaldi and Zaya Learning Labs from India; Kelase from Indonesia; as well as Wi-Fi Interactive Network from Philippines. Their solutions include leveraging TV White Space to deliver connectivity or providing online training to make education more accessible. Each company will receive seed grants and resources, such as free software, services and technology support to help extend the reach of their hardware, applications, connectivity and power solutions.

Tell us about your role or organisation.

I lead Microsoft’s business across nine countries that make up some of the region’s fastest growing markets – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. These are all exciting growth areas, and I cannot wait for the opportunities that digital transformation will bring to their citizens.

An interesting programme that I worked on was the Bangladesh Government’s Access 2 Information (a2i) program. Our technology not only helped to digitise services for citizens, but our Bangladesh team also trained thousands of women in technology skills such as troubleshooting, and how to use programs like Outlook, Internet Explorer, Windows, and Office. Called Windows Women, the programme enabled women to serve their communities in partnership with a2i.

Another area I am also passionate about is empowering youth to achieve more. Under our YouthSpark programme, we host workshops to promote and encourage students to learn how to code. This equips them with the fundamental skills required for the 21st century workplace, such as computational thinking and problem solving.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2016?

In October, we announced the Microsoft Youthworks programme, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, and the Laos government. Microsoft Youthworks is designed to provide universal access to online training and employment services, as well as career guidance. The platform will soon be available to Laos citizens.

Outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama referenced Youthworks in his speech while in Laos for the ASEAN summit, as an example of how U.S. companies are investing in skills building and development of youth. With more than 2,500 courses available via the platform, including ICT, entrepreneurship, vocational and soft skills, we have trained 26 million youth globally.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2017?

In 2017 and beyond, there is an enormous opportunity for emerging markets in the region to leapfrog ahead by digitally transforming through technologies such as cloud computing. The cloud holds the potential to truly revolutionise business processes. For example, strategic organisations can leverage cloud to work around challenges in local infrastructure resources.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2016, what would it be?

With more than 1 billion people in Asia Pacific online, and more people and businesses using various devices to connect to the internet, there are more vectors for cyberattacks to take place. This is exacerbated by software piracy, which is still a huge issue in many markets. About six out of 10 computers in Asia Pacific are running unprotected, non-genuine software; and in ASEAN, this figure could be as high as close to seven or eight computers out of 10 computers.

This confluence of factors increases cybersecurity risks such as data theft, financial losses and disruptions. As security and privacy threats become more sophisticated and malicious than before, security cannot be an afterthought in our digital transformation journey.

Who is your hero and why?

To me, a hero is a very personal thing so my parents are my heroes. My father taught me to be confident, resilient, and responsible. My mother, who was a teacher and President of the Missouri State Teachers’ Association in the U.S., taught me the importance of involvement, leadership and passion.

And finally, if you could recommend us one place to eat, where would it be?

My family and I love to eat at the Newton Hawker Center. We lived nearby when we first moved to Singapore nearly seven years ago. After three years in Seoul, we returned to find many of the same vendors there. As a result, it feels family oriented with a wide variety of options so everyone in our family leaves satisfied.

Image: Michelle Simmons and two Sri Lankan students at a recent Hour of Code event in Colombo