By Kenny Lau

Teresa Ko is a legal professional who has achieved a one-of-a-kind resume of accomplishment, having been awarded AmCham’s WOI Professional of the Year, selected as one of 25 Women of Our Time by SCMP, named an Outstanding Practitioner by Asian Women in Business Law and voted Best Capital Markets Lawyer by Asian Women in Business Law. As China chairman of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, she has advised on many high-profile M&A and IPO transactions involving Hong Kong companies, MNCs, Chinese SOEs and privately-owned enterprises.

Throughout her journey of personal and professional development, Ko has undergone quite a few phases of change in circumstances – be it by design or simply out of fate – under which she did one deal at a time, tackled challenges to the best of her ability, and reached where she is today as an inspirational leader. “Too often we talk about our history, our success, and our failure without references to those around us,” she says. “Our efforts would only go a long way but are only part of the equation.”

“I am always grateful for the support I get from my husband and my two children,” she adds. “Having a family brings all sorts of change that you are never quite prepared for. What I learned when my children arrived is this: sometimes change is forced upon you even when you are not quite ready for it. Juggling home and work is not without challenges, and I still remember the day when I couldn’t go on our family skiing trip and stayed behind to negotiate a multi-billion deal with clients in our boardroom.”

The Path to Success

Ko experienced her “first real change” in life when she was sent to the UK by her mother who decided a boarding school was a better alternative to keep her daughter in line. “I embraced the experience and learned to be quiet; I worked hard but probably played even harder,” she recalls. “I dropped the idea of a degree in fashion design as my father didn’t think it was a serious enough profession; I studied law, graduated and got qualified. After four years in London, I felt a change within me.”

The change was: returning to Hong Kong, joining a small Freshfields office with three partners and five lawyers, and becoming the only Chinese associate. “I needed to give a speech in Beijing when I couldn’t really speak Mandarin, so I learned Mandarin,” Ko says. “I didn’t think it was a real change at the time; but it has changed my life. What followed was my first Chinese IPO with a petrochemical plant outside Shanghai.”

“In our hotel, I had to stand in line every night for the one phone with international dialing access,” she continues. “Through the years, I swapped my paper notebook for a Blackberry, then an iPhone, and then a mini iPad; and now I have a Blackberry, an iPhone, and an iPad Pro. It can be so hard to keep up with change. But it means I can speak to my daughter in real time face-to-face.”

“Change can no doubt be difficult. But our ability to deal with change is second only to our potential,” she adds. “With that, I ask you to remember that change is great and challenge you to be inspired by change. In fact, we should all spend more time thinking about the sort of change we want and sharing our wisdom to make sure change happens for the better.”

What Change Means

The notion that people crave for change has taken a somewhat different level of meaning. “Change feels more like a reaction now,” Ko notes. “The economy is changing, so we have to react; the job market is changing, so we have to react. Change isn’t just about reacting but also about progress and thinking forward, and we should embrace it. The truth is that we do it every day because our personal circumstances change, our family changes, our job changes, and that is a good thing.”

It is also about seizing the opportunity brought upon by change. Eastman Kodak had been reluctant to move from photographic film to digital technology commercially despite its very own invention of the world’s first digital camera in 1975 by a young engineer named Steven Sasson, she points out. “Kodak enjoyed lucrative patent rights for a limited period but ultimately filed for bankruptcy five years after those rights expired. Kodak had an inside track on something but chose to retreat from change.”

The lesson here is: Hong Kong’s equity capital market has been the envy of many other markets over the last 20 years, with countless success stories of businesses going public on the stock exchange, but cannot afford to be complacent, Ko cautions. “We’ve attracted market leaders and high-profile international brands onto our exchange, but those game-changing listings will be much harder to come by as the world embraces Fintech, Biotech, Bitcoin, Big Data, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and next-generation technologies.”

“We should look beneath the top IPOs, which gave us the ranking, to see if we have the depth, breadth and quality of companies we want to attract to help our market grow in profile quality and depth of liquidity,” she stresses. “Unless we act now and capture the corporate icons of tomorrow, and unless we re-discover the appetite for innovation and evolution, we risk being put aside as not being competitive, or worse, irrelevant.”

“Ultimately, we want a diverse market attracting not only Chinese companies but other thriving businesses regionally and globally,” she adds. “And we want a market that is a quality market for institutional as well as retail investors. We also want Hong Kong to play a crucial role as the Belt and Road initiatives are implemented. A dynamic market requires change. We either create the path for ourselves, or we will lose our relevance.”

The Progress of Change

On gender equality, Hong Kong has a long way to go, Ko believes. With only 11.6 percent of women on corporate boards, “it is simply terrible and absolutely not good enough. In the whole of last year, we have only gotten five additional women and one from Hong Kong. One of the things we can all do is to use our influence to raise awareness, the fun, the importance and the learning that you can get out of putting yourself forward as potential board members. That’s something all of us can do, and we don’t have to wait.”

“You may not believe it, but every single person from all walks of life has influence,” she suggests. “If you are in a corporate position and when there is a vacancy, don’t just reach out to the usual suspects, ask for alternatives. If every company that comes to our stock exchange each year had at least one woman on their board, we would have 200 women a year. And it is not just at the board level; it is even more important at the management level where you create a pipeline. This is a responsibility that everyone who works for a company needs to pay attention.”

Moreover, young people are increasingly looking for meaning and a purpose in their life, Ko notes. “We have to inspire them and encourage that there is something in what they do. It is not just the paycheck. We need to create the connectivity to help make them feel there is something beyond the piece of work they do on a day-to-day basis, and it includes things like CSR, sustainable businesses, or something which contributes to the community. Although I don’t have the magic bullet, it is something I believe is important.”

“And I am a firm believer that people should be able to develop at different paces in an environment whereby people can be assessed depending on their ability and their development. It doesn’t have to be everybody being in the legal profession or becoming something in three years,” she says. “I went into law not because I was passionate about it; I came back to Hong Kong and joined a firm nobody had heard of. It is opportunity in front of you.”

“If you concentrate hard enough, you’ll succeed and get a lot of satisfaction because you can make things happen,” she believes. “Being at the right place at the right time helps, but at the time, you can create your own luck. You just carry on, and there will be more opportunities. I did my first IPO project when no one else could speak Mandarin, and I didn’t even speak Mandarin. Doing one is like an accident, but if you do two, you start to build a track record.”