The COO of Taiwanese AI company Appier on the role of science in her success, the meaning of true inclusion and how she’s helping to further female workforce participation and entrepreneurship

Appier is in the business of using Artificial Intelligence to help companies understand their customers better, anticipate their actions, and ultimately make better business decisions and solve problems. In March 2021, the software-as-a-service (SaaS) company also became Taiwan’s first digital unicorn to list on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and the first Taiwanese company to list in Japan in over 23 years. In a continuation of the company’s success, Appier co-founder and chief operating officer Winnie Lee was named Woman of the Year at the Women in IT Asia Awards 2022.

From humble beginnings with three friends in a living room in 2012 to a listed company with over 600 employees across 17 markets today, the 10-year journey of Appier hasn’t been easy. In its early days, the company pivoted from eight failed business models in a row—one product being an AI engine to help gamers intuitively keep their progress running even while offline—before it found its current footing. The goal has always been to find answers to questions, says Lee, but finding what the right questions were was the key.

According to Lee, Appier’s DNA for optimising technology and people is key to its success, and a direct result of the founding team’s background in scientific research.

Born and raised in Taiwan, Lee received a master’s in Biological Sciences from Stanford University, a doctorate in Immunology from Washington University in St. Louis, and served as a research technologist at Boston Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School. She met Appier co-founders Chih-han Yu (now her husband) and Joe Su initially when they were college roommates. Having spent 10 years in the United States, she was considering academia for the rest of her career when her father’s health took a turn, and she decided to return to Taiwan. “As much as I loved immunology and science, I wanted to make sure that if I looked back in 10, 20 years, I wouldn’t regret it,” she says.

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Appier co-founders Winnie Lee, Chih-han Yu and Joe Su
Above Appier co-founders Winnie Lee, Chih-han Yu and Joe Su

Serendipitously, Yu and Su were in the beginning stages of Appier at the time and jumped at the chance to recruit her. “These were the two smartest people I had known in my life, but I was not trained as a computer or AI scientist, so I had no picture of how I could actually contribute to their business,” Lee says. “But [Chih-han] continued to pitch me. As the entire team at the time was scientists and engineers, they needed someone who could speak a more ‘human’ language on the team and do the things that were not related to algorithms or coding.”

With no clear job scope at the beginning, Lee took up all the odd jobs in the office as well as leading human resources and was pivotal in growing the company to today’s scale. Now her days are filled with strategic meetings, constant communication and decision-making. But she always makes a point to head home to her daughters by 9pm.

Lee’s scientific training, combined with her readiness for healthy debate and constructive criticism, came in especially helpful when navigating an unfamiliar field, she says. “We were all scientists by training, so the good thing is that we can be very objective, and we can also face our own weaknesses very honestly.”

Looking back, Lee realises that she was well prepared to tackle the company’s early obstacles only thanks to this trained skill of trial and error. “If you look at startup life, it’s actually very similar to doing basic science. In order to do it well, you need to be familiar with a space so you can identify one very important question, or a need in the market that has not been answered yet. Then, you need to put 120 percent of dedication into answering that question the fastest, then publish or go to market quickly and strongly before anyone else.”

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The Appier co-founders with the company's SVP of Finance and Head of Japan Koji Tachibana after listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2021
Above The Appier co-founders with the company's SVP of Finance and Head of Japan Koji Tachibana after listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2021

In the world of tech, where gender is notoriously skewed towards males with less than 30 percent female employees in 2022, Appier boasts a higher-than-average composition with its 42 percent female workforce. However, Lee says Appier is more “gender insensitive for a lot of things,” prizing instead simply finding good talent with the right personality and expertise to solve problems. “In the future, this will be true inclusion, where you won’t look at anyone’s background or labels, and you just base [recruitment] on whether or not they are suitable employees.”

Growing up in Taiwan where the culture was more open-minded and less gender-biased, Lee was never pressured by family to pursue any path due to her gender, nor had she experienced discrimination during her studies in the US. “I was very fortunate,” she says. “But in my journey at Appier, what I used to think was normal, was not a norm for certain places.”

Lee continues: “If you asked me before, I would say we just need to treat everyone equally, and you shouldn’t need to prioritise females or specifically secure opportunities for females. However, my perspective has changed in the past few years. I started to see that in different countries there are so many different areas that females need to be helped, not just in education—and even in certain countries, education is still a privilege for females. We need to start from within our company; we need to show respect for everyone. There’s definitely more work to be done.”

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In 2022, Appier celebrated its 10th anniversary by hosting a family day for staff
Above In 2022, Appier celebrated its 10th anniversary by hosting a family day for staff

Last year, Lee was invited by Appier shareholder Sequoia to be a mentor in the Sequoia Spark Fellowship, a programme that works with investor advisors and founders from affiliated companies to grow female entrepreneurs, specifically by working with women in India and Southeast Asia to build their own businesses. “These types of initiatives need to be carried out more,” says Lee. “But other than that, it’s also how you shape the culture so that everyone can feel treated equally, no matter their gender.”

Company culture is a group consensus, says Lee, and making Appier a safe space for feedback and close-knit support was also one of Lee’s main aims. After the pandemic distanced offices and employees, she established the Global Employee Support Program for online and offline counselling. She also started Happier Hours, a regular virtual event to celebrate employee milestones and for cultural sharing to help build better trust beyond geographic borders.

For Lee, success happens when you rely on a support system. As a mother of two, she says she has been lucky to have strong support from her and Yu’s parents, as well as a nanny for domestic work and childcare. Professionally, she appreciates her colleagues: “smart, genuine people” who possess the expertise and “mindset of wanting to do the right thing, to become [their] better selves.”

As Appier navigates the next chapter of growth, Lee says she is most proud of the team they have built so far. “I hope we will become one of the greatest companies in AI, and my ultimate goal is to make people’s lives easier and happier,” she says. “We will continue to optimise and do better.”

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