ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia – Life is changing rapidly in Mongolia. It’s true that more than a quarter of Mongolians lead pastoral livelihoods – mainly raising horses, cattle, goats, sheep, camels and yaks. But today nearly half the population of over 3 million lives in the bustling capital of Ulaanbaatar, where a burgeoning tech industry is taking off.
“Mongolians are very technology savvy,” said Munkhtsetseg Baasandorj, CEO of GrapeCity, an Ulaanbaatar-based I.T. company that provides software for the country’s banking sector. “There are startups popping up everywhere.”
Baasandorj, 37, studied applications development at the University of Technology Sydney. Shortly after returning home to Ulaanbaatar in 2006, she joined GrapeCity and worked her way into the company’s top leadership position.
But she is one of only a few women to make it in the burgeoning tech sector. This is unusual in a country that is considered by many to have a “reverse gender gap.”
Since the transition from Soviet-era socialism to democracy, families in the countryside have been more likely to send their daughters to study or work in urban areas. Girls are seen as more dispensable than boys, who are required to help with the intensive labor of herding. As a result, more than 60 percent of university students are female, which is reflected in most of the workforce. But not in tech.
“It’s a fact that there are more men in the field than women,” says Gereltuya Bayanmunkh, 22, a software developer in Ulaanbaatar.
Having just graduated from the National University of Mongolia with a degree in mathematics, Bayanmunkh is one of less than 3 percent of recent graduates from her alma mater working in the information and communications technology sector. She is currently helping to develop an e-learning platform for the Mongolian market at Aplus, an online marketing platform for Mongolian MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses).
“I wish girls who are into tech had no problems when applying for jobs instead of having to think of work environments and worry about being the only girl in the room.”
An entrepreneur as well as a UI/UX developer, she has become involved in many fledgling tech startups, often as side projects. In March 2017, she started Nomadic Method, a digital advertising and marketing startup based in Ulaanbaatar.
“I competed with mostly boys in school and in university, being a math student, and I didn’t think much of it. But when I was looking for a job, it was quite hard to find [a] fitting environment or not-sexist work culture.”
She says she is sometimes discouraged by the lack of visible female role models in her chosen industry. “The lack of women’s leadership in the tech industry means that there’s so much space to fulfill,” she said. “I wish girls who are into tech had no problems when applying for jobs instead of having to think of work environments and worry about being the only girl in the room.”
Seeking the Wonder Women of the Tech World
The Mongolian economy is just beginning to rebound after a four-year slump, but it is still largely dependent on its underground resources, including an abundance of coal, copper, gold and other precious minerals and metals. Many hope that the knowledge economy will offer opportunities for more sustainable, less volatile growth away from the rocky commodities markets.
The tech sector has grown to include a variety of coworking spaces, advisory and funding organizations, entrepreneurship education programs and angel investors. Across a wide variety of government bodies and in the private sector, new programs or departments emphasizing “innovation” have become the norm.
But this new landscape poses structural problems for women wanting to get into the tech workforce. Despite being favored for education opportunities, they are often tasked with the dual burden of child-rearing on top of expectations to provide for their extended families.
“I didn’t feel that there were such deep issues like pay gap of genders, bad pregnancy-leave policies of organizations … until I got my first job.”
“In family life, the responsibilities are higher for women,” said Baasandorj, CEO of GrapeCity.
Diving into a startup requires a lot of time and effort that they often can’t afford. “I didn’t feel that there were such deep issues like pay gap of genders, bad pregnancy-leave policies of organizations … until I got my first job,” Bayanmunkh said.
That’s where Enkhbolor Gantulga, cofounder of Wonder Women Academy, comes in. Her nonprofit organization aims to create a supportive community of female entrepreneurs, including a special cohort whom she calls “mompreneurs.”
Gantulga helped forge much of Mongolia’s initial startup ecosystem through her early support of the pivotal NGO Startup Mongolia. An entrepreneur and World Bank consultant, she hopes her initiative will help women form lasting, trusting relationships with one another within the startup space. Her curriculum aims to boost confidence and help women battle feelings of inadequacy and even impostor syndrome.
“You need women that can understand you, from a similar environment,” she said.
Gantulga is creating an all-female support group of women entrepreneurs. The program curriculum begins with supporting women’s personal development and emotional and physical well-being; for example, eating healthily, getting good family support and developing skills in time management. Later, once the foundation is established, the training focuses on “the hard skills required for business development” tailored to the needs and business ideas of the participants.
Enkhbolor aims to plug her organization into her larger entrepreneurial network so Wonder Women Academy’s participants – many of them college students or recent university graduates – will have a place to go for meetings, training and networking. She will connect her mentees to other local groups she takes part in, including the Lean in Community Ulaanbaatar, the Google Business Group network and the Mongolian Young Leaders Network.
There’s a long way to go before the tech industry reflects Mongolian society at large. And while Baasandorj acknowledges that role models are currently thin on the ground, she insists there is a future for women in her industry.
“As long as the women themselves want it and aim for it, the path is open for them,” she said.