Jessica Tan devises groundbreaking tech solutions for public health

by Sophie Hong  /   October 7, 2021

The co-CEO and executive director at Ping An Group was named second in Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Woman International list in 2020

WOTY jessica tan
Jessica Tan is Her World’s Woman of the Year 2021.

Jessica Tan, co-CEO and executive director at Ping An Group, is a firm believer in creating impact and value in business, which has been the cornerstone of her driving force. In 2020, Fortune magazine named her second on the Most Powerful Women International list among businesses outside of the US. Educated at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and armed with a computer engineering degree, she started her career at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Thirteen years later in 2013, she joined Chinese insurance company, Ping An, as group chief information officer, and was behind numerous technology breakthroughs to power the company’s growth into a global financial service mammoth, including developing a telehealth app offering free online medical consultations during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020.

Today, the insurance giant’s impressive international network of digital offerings and services is a testament to Jessica’s persistent efforts, sheer hard work mixed with resilient grit, that have successfully created value and impact for Ping An.

Jessica Tan now just wants to be happy, and also make sure that her family is happy. These are “simple aspirations” for the co-CEO and executive director of Ping An Group, who has, over the past seven years, helped steer China’s largest insurance company to record profits as well as double its share price. Her career has had only two parts, by her own admission – 13 years at McKinsey and eight at Ping An – but it has undoubtedly been a very impactful period of 21 years.

Since joining Ping An in 2013 as group chief information officer, Jessica has masterminded its numerous technology breakthroughs to power the company’s growth into a global financial service mammoth with over 223 million retail customers and 627 million Internet users (as at June 30, 2021). Its Ping An Good Doctor tele-health app, which offers free online medical consultations, garnered 1.1 billion hits during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, and was singled out as a crucial first line of defence for the country. Supported by a tech team that she expanded from 3,000 to more than 34,000, she’s also successfully incubated 11 start-ups and raised four unicorn outfits – three of which are listed – for Ping An.

Last year, Jessica was named second in Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women International list, among businesses based outside of the US.

A topper from young

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Jessica at Ping An shareholder’s conference in 2020.
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Tan

As a child, Jessica strived to be a good student. Her parents – her father was an engineer with Texas Instruments, and her mother, an accountant turned homemaker – constantly reminded Jessica and her two younger sisters that hard work was the only path to success in life.

Although she was not always at the top of her class in primary school, Jessica was the top scorer for her cohort at the Primary School Leaving Examinations at Ai Tong School, and continued to perform well through school. Her industry paid off and she earned a place to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Although she qualified for a scholarship, her father insisted on paying her school fees in full so she wouldn’t have to serve a bond. “He wanted me to experience studying and working in the US,” she recalls.

During her second year at MIT, however, the Asian financial crisis hit, wiping out all of her family’s savings. Her father had to take bank loans and even maxed out his credit card to pay her school fees – the sacrifices her parents and her siblings had to make during that difficult time is something that Jessica will eternally be grateful for. To lessen the burden, Jessica started juggling “odd jobs” on campus, from research work for professors to manning the dormitory’s reception desk during the holidays.

“My highest paying job was with the IT help desk, where I assisted students and professors with computer problems. I started at US$10 an hour, but as I became more experienced, I got US$13 an hour,” she smiles at the memory.

The pressure from paying her school fees meant she had to make the most of her time at MIT and earn good grades. At the end of four years, she graduated with double Bachelor of Science degrees in electrical engineering and economics, as well as a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science. For the latter, she even got a perfect GPA (Grade Point Average) score.

In league with the big fish

After graduation, Jessica joined McKinsey & Company, starting at its Chicago office. She returned to Singapore in mid-2002 when she got married, and Ping An was her very first client in China.

That first encounter in 2003 was a memorable lesson in leadership. McKinsey had been tasked to help Ping An streamline its operations across the whole of China, affecting tens of thousands of staff. Naturally, there was a lot of debate on how it could be done, or whether it was even sensible. One day, however, Ping An founder and chairman Peter Ma showed up to a meeting of senior executives and the McKinsey team, and told everyone the debate was no longer whether Ping An should centralise, but rather how to get on with the transformation despite the clear challenges.

“And he left after making that single statement!” Jessica recalls. “He had the foresight to know the right course of action, and more importantly, the courage to do the right thing even if it was unpopular. And I admire that strength in his leadership.”

That trust in his leadership subsequently led her to join Ping An 10 years later, working full-time in China. She commuted weekly to China, coming back only on weekends to spend time with her family, who had remained in Singapore.

She knew the transition would not be easy, language and culture barriers aside. “But it offered me access to resources, people and money. And if you want to achieve your goals, you must have resources,” she says.

The first few years were especially challenging as she had to shut 77 neighbourhood branches as they realised that they were not making money. “That was very painful. I had to go to each of our companies to beg them to hire the 400 to 500 staff from these branches,” she adds.

However, three years later, she brought back the concept and incorporated it as part of a regular bank branch. “You know, the cliche is true after all: ‘Failure is the mother of success’,” she smiles.

She says she has also become more open now, and has a better grasp and understanding of social nuances after having unwittingly broken some social norms. “I think sometimes people forget I’m not mainland Chinese because I speak Mandarin fluently,” she says. “Most people here are really friendly and receptive. I’m beginning to understand the different characteristics of, say, Hunan vs Hubei, and it’s been fulfilling for me to discover that their character is very much shaped by their culture.”

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Jessica with the child beneficiaries of Ping An Rural Communities Support program.
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Tan

Jessica hopes her experience can encourage other Singaporeans to take bigger professional risks – as they are better positioned for professional opportunities overseas because of their educational backgrounds, facility in the English language plus a second language.

Driven by positive impact

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Jessica Tan hard at work – planning the next impact.
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Tan

Throughout the course of our conversation, Jessica constantly talks about “impact” – eight times, to be precise. This harks back to her days with McKinsey, which seeks to measure the value of a business through its impact. As she says: “We spend most of our time at work and away from our families, so I would like to make this time meaningful.”

Case in point: Ping An’s healthcare business, which she concedes “doesn’t make much money, but creates impact”. Innovations by its 300 scientists include management of chronic diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) using data prediction. In Chongqing, 17 per cent of people above the age of 40 are said to have COPD, which is likely due to pollution, smoking and other factors. Explains Jessica: “At stage 1 of COPD, people don’t care because you only get a bit of cough and phlegm. But at stages 2 and 3, as the lungs get weaker, you become easily infected by viruses, pneumonia and even lung cancer. Using our strong data science, we built models to find these people and get them protected.”

There’s also AskBob, which uses AI to assist doctors with diagnoses and treatment decisions. The latter, which aims to support more than 90 per cent of 3.8 million doctors in China, will help prevent misdiagnosis.

Jessica also wants to create impact through developing exceptional talent. “Mentoring is very much part of the work itself,” she states. “My job isn’t just about getting the work done; it’s also about getting the right people and motivating them.”

To that end, she prefers to work with staff who are two levels her junior, rather than rely on the traditional one-on-one mentoring, In addition to offering individual advice and post-meeting feedback, she rotates them through different roles to enable them to develop relevant skills.

People who have worked with Jessica attest to her undaunted perseverance. Tan Binru, Oneconnect’s South-east Asia CEO, recalls the time she sought out Jessica because she felt dejected by continual rejections. Jessica reminded her that as long as she didn’t accept no for an answer, she would always make progress.

“Her words pushed me through those difficult times to accomplish my goals. I have always prided myself as determined, but her level of grit gave me a different perspective on effort and achievement,” says Binru.

Oneconnect, a fintech that provides digital solutions to banks and insurance firms, was the first company Jessica incubated. It listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 with a valuation of US$7 billion (about S$9.5 billion) within four years. But when it became offered as a platform for competitor banks, many eyebrows were raised. This was especially since technology was perceived as Ping An’s competitive advantage – the conglomerate spends about US$5 billion (about S$6.8 billion) here every year. Oneconnect now serves 14 clients across South-east Asia, and more than 600 banks and 3,000 non-banking financial institutions in China.

Artfully juggling work and family

Jessica is also a pro when it comes to treading the tricky balance between family and career. Pre-Covid, the 44-year-old shuttled between China and Singapore – every weekend, she returned to Singapore to spend time with her husband of 18 years Choy Dawen and their two teenage daughters. This was a juggling act her team found indelible.

Geoff Kau, co-president of Ping An Smart City, recalls a cross-city journey where Jessica squeezed in a Facetime session to help her daughter with homework. “It was a side of her I had never seen before. She knew exactly what topics her daughter struggled with and was patiently coaching her through the problems,” he says.

There will always be trade-offs that we have to make… it doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother if you’re not there to check her homework.

Jessica Tan

The key to balancing family and career is to set boundaries, says Jessica. “It may cause a stir initially, but people will learn to respect and trust that even without being physically present, you’ll still get things done. It took me years to build this respect and trust too.”

If she suffered any working-mother’s guilt, Dawen certainly didn’t allow it to linger. She says with a chuckle: “He told me to stop exaggerating my influence [even if I were home every day].” On weekdays, with the girls’ study schedule and her work, the family spent limited time together anyway. The family always makes up for it on weekends.

Quality time usually involves cycling trips, yoga lessons, or walks. And since the Covid-19 outbreak, as with many Singaporean families, staycations have replaced overseas vacations. “The last time I was back in May, we went to Raffles Hotel and spent the weekend watching movies and stuff,” she shares.

We spend most of our time at work, away from our families, so I would like to make this time meaningful.

Jessica Tan

Polar opposites, but a pillar of support

Jessica and Dawen met when they were studying at MIT – they stayed several doors away from each other in the dormitory and he tutored her in physics. Although she found him “geeky” at first, she now admits that “opposites really do attract”.

“He was behind every important decision I have made,” she says. “He gave me the courage to do things I otherwise wouldn’t have done.” He was the one who suggested she apply for a Microsoft scholarship, which she got, to ease her financial worries in school. He supported her decision to join McKinsey instead of pursuing a PhD, despite her father’s annoyance, and last but not least, he affirmed her choice to join Ping An.

Dawen, who founded Antarctica Labs, a start-up that focuses on research and development on sustainability technologies, downplays his role in his wife’s success. “The really tough part of those decisions is actually doing it,” the 44-year-old says loyally.

Dawen goes on to explain his modus operandi, which sounds like a well-thought through formula for a scientific experiment. First, weigh the pros and cons, but focus on the former since “risks and downsides are typically clear”. Then, provide her the support for making the decision, he explains. Like any regular couple, they have their share of arguments too. “But because we only get to see each other on weekends, we cherish the little time we have, which minimises the opportunities for friction,” he jokes.

The couple also divides responsibilities between themselves: She decides on the children’s education, while he handles everything at home. They often consult each other, but also trust each other to know that the decision is made in the family’s best interests.

“There will always be trade-offs that we have to make,” muses Jessica, but her guiding principle of measuring value based on impact has tided her through. “I think one mistake a lot of people make is that they constantly feel guilty and beat themselves up about it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother if you’re not there to check her homework. You can be meaningful in other ways.”

Do the girls know how influential Mum is? “They keep me humbled. Recently, I made it to Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders List. After reading all the profiles, they told me how great they thought Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand [who was No 1] was!”