At six years old, when other children were perfecting their ABCs, Wendy Chen was learning about data structures from her father. He wasn’t intentionally grooming her into a tech wunderkind. Rather, it was his creative solution to help her learn English. (The family had just uprooted from China to Canada.)
“He used to write computer programs to teach me things. So my relationship with computer programming and artificial intelligence has always been very personal,” shares 33-year-old Wendy. “My dad (who has a PhD in computer science) always talked about coding in terms of algorithms and the design of the systems rather than as a language itself. That’s something I now take for granted.”
The exposure paid off in spades. Wendy eventually took what she learnt at home, and later at university, to work on Wall Street as a quant trader dealing with complex algorithms and trading strategies (just like in the Billions TV series.)
In 2013, she set up Omnistream, a retail data analytics start-up that raised a seven-figure US dollar amount in seed money, co-led by C31 Ventures, the venture capital arm of Capitaland.
In 2018, she moved her company’s headquarters from Hong Kong to Singapore, a strategic move into Southeast Asia.
“We help emerging market retailers turn data into profits by automating operational assortment and marketing decisions. (That means automating details like where items should be positioned on shelves, for instance.) Other markets would have given us higher revenue, but we see South-east Asia as deeply important for our long-term strategy,” she says.
“This was never an easy decision. When we went out to raise money, venture capitalists would ask us ‘why not target Western countries with higher revenue?’. It took effort to find the right investors and board who would support our long-term vision,” she adds.
Angled as an “outcome-as-a-service” company, Omnistream works with brands like 7-Eleven, Watsons and Osim across Southeast Asia and offers its software at no upfront cost. Instead, it takes a share of the profits and thus is incentivised to derive a successful outcome. To ensure this, Omnistream crunches retail data into simple actionable insights presented in a digestible Excel spreadsheet of things to do (for example, where to stock certain types of merchandise in different stores with different needs).
The software also generates a customised assortment of products every fortnight, thus saving large amounts of man-hours that would otherwise be spent on strategising visual merchandising displays. In the process, it learns more about the evolving tastes of customers across Asia.
Wendy, who wrote the first version of Omnistream’s code and still signs off on its fundamental maths, isn’t just the face of the company – she travels extensively to be on the ground with clients. Even as we speak, she’s preparing for a trip to Manila to help run a simulated 7-Eleven store to better understand its hyper-localised needs. From the get-go, she’s been crystal clear about her focus on emerging markets.