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A Meaningful Life: Tan Le

10 March 2021 | Alumni Profile

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Everyone knows what happens when the going gets tough… 
Or do they? Because when you look at someone like Tan Le, a woman who has encountered more than her fair share of challenges in her lifetime, COVID-19 being merely the latest among them, tough isn’t the word that springs to mind. ‘Resilient’ is a far better descriptor. ‘Determined’ works well too.

Determined to succeed that is and, equally importantly, determined to give back. Tan is the former Freehills (legacy) alumnus who was featured in the 2017 Alumni Matters magazine ‘lawyer to founder’ section – the inspiring head of neuroinformatics company Emotiv, with a personal history that includes travelling from Vietnam to Australia on a boat as a four-year-old, threatened by pirates and storms on the journey, and becoming Young Australian of the Year in 1998. 

Today, Tan’s company is not only weathering the pandemic storm, but thriving, and she puts it all down to the lessons she learned as a child. “I had a lot of really good role models around how to face uncertainty,” she explains. “My mum faced down so much uncertainty throughout her life and I witnessed that first-hand growing up.”

The little girl who found dolls dull but was fascinated by cars and robots, and pulling them apart to see how they worked, grew up to found a company that supplies the hardware and software to support neuroscience research in over 120 countries. The goal is to provide a platform for research into how the brain functions, how it declines and how it can potentially be improved. Emotiv’s brainwear technology products include headsets that can monitor stress and focus, allowing researchers to analyse and understand brain data. Tan’s forward-thinking attitude has coloured her whole approach to life, both professionally and personally. “There is an embedded sense of resilience that you have when you’ve faced adversity growing up… and that was one of the strengths we had when it came to dealing with the pandemic.”

Her first consideration, however, was the well-being of Emotiv’s 100-plus employees. With staff operations in the US, Australia and Asia, it was clear that there was no unified global response to the crisis. “We took matters into our own hands and created an environment where our employees were offered a lot more flexibility to put their health and well-being and their family’s safety first... because unfortunately we did see very different responses and very different impacts as a result of a lack of leadership in some places.”

Tools for transformation
Tan’s determined approach includes a passion for creating opportunities for others to develop new applications based on brain-computer interfaces using the tools and software Emotiv has developed. The company has recently announced a million-dollar royalty-free threshold before any licensing fees need to be paid. Unsurprisingly, Tan cites Tim Berners-Lee as an inspiration. The inventor of the world wide web famously insisted on his technology being royalty free so that it could be used and adopted by anyone.

“If you have a situation where you are a massive behemoth that can have everything funnelled back to you, then there’s a very high risk that you will not be representative of the population of users and stakeholders that you’re supposed to represent. So it’s very important that we create a blueprint that allows the technology to have a life of its own, that will allow it to perpetuate long after we’re gone.” 

Future of work
The research insights will be fundamental to the way we work in the future, says Tan, citing a World Economic Forum report that suggests a billion people will need to have new skills by 2030 due to the pace of technological change. While investigating the mechanisms required to reskill or upskill, Emotiv is also facilitating research into the impact of stress and the high correlation between attention and memory. 

And some of the most compelling research is in the field of ABIs (acquired brain injuries) and other medical applications, such as type 2 diabetes, sleep apnoea, the development of early cognitive decline, autism and cerebral palsy and how Emotiv’s technology is helping to differentiate between cognitive and communication challenges. 

Outside in
Driving a desire to comprehend and embrace different perspectives is a constant awareness of her own background. “Whether it be as a woman in tech or someone from a migrant background, or someone who didn’t grow up with privilege or opportunity or a silver spoon... these things actually provide me with a different perspective to the people who have a seat at the table,” she explains, adding that this was behind her recent decision to join the board of insurance giant, QBE. “You have a collection of people at the table that’s open to your ideas and perspectives and you’re not just offering a contrarian view."

“It’s an industry that is looking to understand how digital technology can transform its operating model,” she adds, “and I saw an opportunity to bring my area of expertise to an industry that was ripe for transformation."

Also, as a mother to toddler Ai (which means ‘love’ in Vietnamese), QBE offered the chance to reconnect with Australia after having lived in the US for some time. Tan clearly takes nothing for granted, and despite all she has achieved so far and a list of goals too long to list, her definition of success is modest.

“I just want to live a meaningful life and contribute in ways that matter to society, to my community, to my family. Both my parents sacrificed a lot to give me the life and the opportunities that I have. And so I want to make sure that I don't waste it in any way.” 


* Tan Le's book, The NeuroGeneration, has been featured in our latest alumni recommended reading list here.