With her oversized hoodie, jeans and make up free face, she could easily pass off as a college student. Her energy is infectious, at times frenetic. She speaks animatedly in between giggles, dancing through a carousel of stories – from the music she loves to running a marathon in North Korea, and competing in hackathons.
Then there was the time she performed with a circus, spinning plates and juggling (yes, you read that right). Mention tech, and her face lights up. She dives into the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) with such astute understanding that it leaves one spellbound. Little wonder that Annabelle Kwok – Her World Young Woman Achiever 2019 – is slaying it on the world stage.
She is the fresh faced 21st-century tech girl who has gone on to the big league on her own, in an industry traditionally reserved for brash, fast-fingered men twice her 26 years.
The whizz-kid even owns the playground: Creating innovative technology, flying the Singapore flag, globetrotting to give talks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, joining the who’s who of the global tech industry. And she’s just getting started.
The spunky #girlboss aka chief executive of AI firm Neuralbay added another feather to her cap in January: a workshop to help the Obama Foundation design its future Leaders programme in the Asia-Pacific region. Annabelle was one of the young leaders – from 16 countries and territories across the Asia-Pacific region – who took part in the workshop, where participants engaged with former US president Barack Obama as part of their design work.
Despite her stellar resume, Annabelle brushes off any ovations. “I was just there at the right place and the right time, when the AI scene was starting to grow. I was thrust into the limelight very quickly, especially since I was a young Singaporean woman with something tangible to show.”
She adds: “With AI, I want to make it cheap and accessible for those who don’t have the know-how, and for the greater good.”
Her strong sense of social consciousness stems from her upbringing: Her mother sent the then 13-yearold on a Girl Guides trip to Phuket in 2005 to help tsunami victims. She recalls: “The truth only sinks in when you’re there. And once you’ve seen something, you cannot unsee it.” At 16, she volunteered with the Bethesda Care and Counselling Service, tutoring more than 30 primary school children from less privileged backgrounds.
Four years later, Annabelle packed her bags for a six-week programme in Togo, West Africa, travelling to rural villages and working with non-governmental organisations.
Of life lessons, she says: “I realised that if someone’s spirit is broken, it no longer matters how much food or how many goods you give. (What matters more is) the feeling of someone spreading joy.”
A modest start
I run a business. I create tech. I have hobbies to maintain my sanity.
The younger of two siblings, Annabelle lives with her parents in Simei. Her media-shy mum and dad, who are in their 50s, work in the financial sector. Her childhood, she says, was nothing out of the ordinary.
The former student of St Anthony’s Canossian Primary School quips: “I only had one Barbie given to me by a relative.”
She adds gleefully: “My parents got us encyclopaedias, science kits, IQ games, a fully functioning microscope and telescope. And, oh yes, the first edition of Lego Mindstorms, where you can link Lego bricks with electric cables and build robots.”
Musically inclined (she plays the piano, harmonica, drums, saxophone and guitar), she was given ample space to discover and develop her interests, at her own pace. She credits her mother for her independence, as she sometimes threw her into the deep end. On Annabelle’s first day of primary school, her mum told her she would be on her own. “
She told me to take the school bus by myself, but if I needed anything, to look to the back of the bus, because she would be driving behind.”
She excelled academically. At 14, she got into Temasek Junior College’s (TJC’s) integrated programme, which allows highperforming secondary school students to skip the O levels and proceed to junior college for the A levels.
At TJC, she studied software programming. It was there that she pulled her first “stunt”. “I went to school and they blocked my Neopets!” Annabelle says, recoiling in horror as she recounts how she was barred from accessing the virtualpet website. She started looking for ways to bypass the firewall, searching for solutions online and speaking to another techie classmate before cracking it.
From TJC, Annabelle went on to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to major in mathematics with a minor in entrepreneurship, completing her modules in over three years instead of four. A bookworm she was not. She participated in musical theatre as an undergraduate, taking dance and singing lessons.
She later went on an exchange programme at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for more than 10 weeks to study method acting, harbouring aspirations at one point to be a Broadway musical performer. Annabelle enthuses: “The exchange trip to UCLA gave me a deeper understanding of American culture.
I had the greatest fun singing The Sound of Music with a nun on the hill in Berkeley, dancing with locals I’d just met at the Chicago Blues Festival, and making lifelong friends.”
Raised as an expressive child, Annabelle remembers: “My mum let me argue and debate with her, so my mind would start to question things, like ‘why can’t I do this?’, and all the why nots.”
It honed her razor sharp ability to analyse a situation, break it apart, and understand the rationale behind it – and helped her develop an intellectual range and confidence belying her age.
Today, Annabelle puts it into practice: “If you look at any system and don’t agree with it, there are ways to oppose it: Actively rebel or create a parallel system and go your own way. There is always another path that you can try.”