WOMEN OF INFLUENCE - 14th Annual Women of Influence Conference & Awards


Conference sponsors, speakers, panelists and award winners pose for a photo

Top Executives in Hong Kong Weigh in on Disruption

Left to right: Tara Joseph, Sanjeev Chatrath, Brian Henderson, Lâle Kesebi, David Thomas, Shirley Xie


  • Sanjeev Chatrath, Managing Director, Region Head, Asia, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters & AmCham Governor
  • Brian Henderson, Chief Operating Officer, Baker & McKenzie
  • Lâle Kesebi, Chief Communications Officer / Head, Strategic Engagement, Li & Fung
  • David Thomas, Senior Vice President, HR Asia, Manulife Financial Asia Ltd.
  • Shirley Xie, Consulting Leader, PwC China and Hong Kong
  • Tara Joseph, President, The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (Moderator)

What’s disrupting your companies and your industries and what are you doing about it?

Chatrath: Disruption has always been there. The difference today is the speed at which it has been happening. The same cannot be said for gender disruption. All the more pressing given the following statistics: for every new job that’s created by technology in a male-dominated area, 3 traditional jobs are taken out, and for every new job that’s created in a female-dominated area, 5 jobs are taken out.

Xie: A lot of the talk on innovation revolves around technology, but technology is just a tool. If you look at Uber and AirBnB, it’s not the technology that is innovative but the ideas behind it. So how do you find people with innovative ideas but also the skills to market them to a mass audience? It takes a certain kind of person, what I call a “super connector.” These super connectors have innovative ideas, but they also have a business mindset, an understanding of technology and people, can think outside the box and can connect various things. I think a lot of women fall into this category.

Henderson: As Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest of the species or the most intelligent that survive, but the most adaptable.” One of our challenges is that law firms are actually relatively small, with limited budgets for investing in tech. We get pressure from clients who want everything done quicker and cheaper; pressure from our people who want different lifestyles and career tracks, who want to use technology in the way they use it at home. Tech is even changing the practice. Right now in China you can now submit documents to a judge online and attend a hearing via video call. Our research has revealed that a lot of our female partners are the most connected and in fact driving the most growth - they do that intuitively. From this we have gleaned much insight on how to grow our business model. We have no choice but to adapt, as clients and staff will vote with their feet.

Kesebi: The shift to online buying is having a knock-on effect within the supply chain. What used to be a 9-month lead time to produce a good in a factory is shrinking to 5 days. In the future it will shrink to minutes with the commercialization of 3D printing.

On embracing disruption

Chatrath: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. It isn’t necessarily getting harder to find the best talent, but we make it harder for ourselves because there are biases that exist at every level of the organization.

Xie:  I don’t believe in such a thing as the “best” talent. There is a place for everybody. In the past, in Asia, there has been a culture of “you can’t fail.” But going forward, need to let people be who they are, especially if they are going to be the workforce of the future. We can’t be fighting to change people into Type As. There’s nothing wrong with a Type B personality – they do as exceedingly well as a Type A when put in the right environment. You need different personas to bring an ecosystem together.

Thomas: We need to avoid complacency, especially organizations that have been successful for a while. We should be prioritizing inclusion and diversity in the workforce now because one day there will be no choice. Culture is important, the ability to bring a genuine self to work, embracing the individual is necessary for retention in 2018, as the best talent has choices.

Kesebi: Everyone in the organization is an innovator, every human being has a great idea and will participate when aligned with a much bigger idea than themselves that they want to be a part of. The key is knowing what that is, knowing what that success looks like and then enabling the workforce to find their way towards that.

How Technology is Disrupting Consumers’ Lives

Technology-driven changes in consumer behavior are forcing businesses to adapt or fall behind. Leaders in telecoms, publishing, software tech and finance share how this disruption has impacted their industries 

Left to right: Cat Rust, Elsie Cheung, Cally Chan, Leonie Valentine (moderator), Ian Stone

As General Manager of Microsoft in Hong Kong and Macau, Cally Chan is in a good position to remark on innovation and technology trends in the Greater China region.

“China’s approach to innovation is ‘growth first, regulate later.’ In Hong Kong, we regulate before allowing growth. It is difficult to comment on which approach is better because the maturity of both locations is different,” she says.

Chan acknowledges the general feeling of pessimism around Hong Kong’s future progression and seeks to reassure us with a couple of motivating statistics.

“Data from 2016 shows that market capitalization in Hong Kong is 10 times its GDP. Around 66 percent is from Chinese enterprises. Hong Kong is also the world’s second largest recipient of FDI. Cross-border e-commerce between HK and China is forecast to grow to US$14 trillion by 2018, that’s 130 percent up from 2015,” she says.

The data speaks loud and clear: China still sees Hong Kong as a valuable gateway to growth and foreign investment.

“HK still has a role to play, it’s just a matter of whether it can equip itself fast enough to capture the opportunities. We aren’t quite there, but the ship hasn’t left the harbor yet. There is still time if we act fast.”

Impact to operations

If anyone knows how technology can disrupt an entire industry its Elsie Cheung. As Chief Operating Officer of the South China Morning Post newspaper, Cheung saw the changes coming from a mile away.

“Publishers everywhere face an uphill battle against the wave of digital. We are all struggling with a decline in print revenue and how to make it up from the digital economy.”

Changing consumer behavior is not only forcing publishers to rethink their type of content but also their advertising sales strategy.

“Social media platforms and new-age news sites like Buzzfeed are already using data technology to filter out the most relevant content for users based on their past views and browsing behavior. An abundant supply of web traffic ensures that the digital space remains an appealing option for advertisers.”

Behavior monitoring technology is helpful in guiding the viewer to similar and relevant content, but there is a risk of creating what’s called an “echo chamber.” The onus is on the consumer to seek out multiple sources of information.

Changing culture

Cat Rust, Head of Innovation Technologies, WM Greater China, UBS, feels that Hong Kong’s potential for innovation is being stunted by its culture and a fear of failure.

The city has everything it needs to be a leader in innovation tech – world-class academic and research capabilities, dedicated science & tech spaces and platforms – yet Hong Kong only sits at 27th place globally for its innovation output.

“Change needs to take place not just in our organizations but in our culture. This is difficult in Hong Kong where people have made all their money in property and stocks. You are asking them to take a big risk to invest in technology.”

It comes down to what is an acceptable level of risk, how to create culture of experimentation that its ok to fail but always learning things along the way.

In an organization for example, change starts with the hiring process and embracing diversity of thought. “How can you change when you’re hiring the exact same type of person?”

Government intervention

With a 27-year career in telecoms, including a post as Independent Non-Executive Director at Tencent Holdings Limited since 2004, Ian Stone has had a front row seat to the rise of technology.

“The 1990s was a decade of disruption for telecoms. Mobile phones went viral, the Octopus card and Netvigator broadband were introduced, not to mention the handover to China, the Asian financial crisis and the dot-com bubble,” he says.

But businesses and ideas won’t grow past a certain point without support at the highest levels of society. From his extensive career in the telecoms and internet technology industries, Stone has gleaned that successful tech adoption is driven by investment in telecoms infrastructure, and support from governments.

“Today the smartphone is fundamental to most things. It has revolutionized consumer behavior everywhere from browsing to cashless payment, and nowhere more so than in China. This must in part be attributed to government and regulators.

“Sure, everything is regulated in China - certainly anything new Alibaba or Tencent come up with is regulated - but it’s a positive, enabling action.”

Millennials: Is the Next Generation Already Disrupting the Workforce?

Millennials today are synonymous with disruption in the workplace. Both praised and blamed for change, the spotlight is firmly on the next generation. Panelists who identify on both sides of the gap exchange perspectives

Left to right: Gregor Miller, Cassie Mak, Brenda Haitema, George Chen, Elaine Cheung (moderator)

Cassie Mak could be described as a typical Hong Kong millennial. Following a traditional Chinese upbringing and the practical advice of her parents, she began a career in finance shortly after graduating.

Throughout the years she harbored a growing fascination for the digital world and startups, never imagining that one day she would be an entrepreneur.

Today, Mak is the founder of several successful ventures, her most recent being Off Menu, a website that gives members exclusive access to secret dishes and drinks at Hong Kong’s most popular bars and restaurants.

But she admits the journey hasn’t been an easy one. The first hurdle was convincing her family. Then came the steep learning curve of the startup world, especially having to manage the human aspect of the business.

“It is always a challenge to hire good people and keep them motivated. In my experience, this means not micromanaging and trusting them to deliver,” she says.

Making an impact

Brenda Haitema made a similar leap when she left her cushy corporate job to work in supply chain operations at Thread International, a startup that transforms trash from Haiti into fabric for responsible fashion.

What lured her over was the opportunity to make a difference, not just out in the world but in her immediate surroundings, with her colleagues and superiors.

“It is easier to do this in a startup environment than in a heritage company where there is a long history of how things are meant to be done. Plus, I want to feel good about I’m doing on a daily basis,” she says.

Haitema understands moving to a startup isn’t an option for everyone, but believes that new thinking and working styles can be just as easily introduced in a traditional company. The key is starting small.

“Begin with pilot programs to create an environment with a startup feel. All it takes is a few small wins before other people begin to take notice. This is how change is implemented,” she says.  

Staying on top of things in a flexible startup-like work environment can be challenging at times, so there needs to be a level of trust that your team will meet their goals in their own ways.

“As a manager, you must have very clear deliverables from your team of what needs to be accomplished by X deadline.”

A shared vision

George Chen, Head of Public Policy HK & Taiwan Facebook, can attest the need for mutual trust in the workplace. A focus on outcomes and setting common goals is what drives success at his company.

“At Facebook, everyone is focused on building a product that contributes to society. Where you are when you are working towards that goal isn’t really relevant,” he says.

This is the kind of entrepreneurial mindset that the company looks for in new recruits. Each year, the social media giant receives hundreds of thousands of job applications. But Chen is careful to hire the right people and the recruitment process is a long one. “It’s not just about their CV but whether they share the same vision as us.”

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s education system isn’t designed to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. For far too long, it has focused on teaching the more “traditional” subjects to set graduates up for a traditional career.

“If everybody is a doctor or a lawyer, what about the rest of society?”

No excuses

Millennials may have a reputation as serial job hoppers, but are they inherently to blame, or is this behavior a response to something lacking within companies?

Gregor Miller, founder and Managing Director of Visions Learning, thinks the latter. “People who aren’t being developed simply won’t stay, and it’s not just a millennial thing.”

Big companies in particular find it difficult instigating change, especially in Hong Kong where job hopping is rife, and many employers have the mindset that it’s not worth developing people who will move on in few years’ time anyway.

But businesses fighting for the same people will need to get creative in order to retain them. Miller, who coaches executives for a living, suggests tailoring opportunities to different types of worker. For instance, opportunities for secondment are likely to appeal to millennial workers.

Whatever the strategy, adapting to change is inevitable if businesses are to stay relevant with their customers. This is the reality, with or without millennials.

“Millennials have given us another excuse to change. So don’t make them the why, make the customers and the purpose of the organization the why.”

When Life Gets in the Way: What to do with Personal Disruption

Sometimes the suffering of others puts your own into perspective. Four Hong Kong women share their life-changing experiences with personal disruption and what got them through

 Left to right: Fermi Wong, Phyllis Marwah, Lieny Jang, Patricia Ho, Shalini Mahtani (moderator)

From a young age, Patricia Ho was afflicted with a burning desire to “see things set right.” This conviction led her on the path to law school where, upon graduation, she would be forced to choose between a stable, financially secure career at a Magic Circle law firm or to follow her heart into human rights law.

She took the road less travelled, eventually becoming a human rights lawyer at Daly, Ho & Associates.

She is doing what she loves now, but her work isn’t without its struggles. While a noble pursuit, human rights isn’t the most lucrative area of the law. Ho is married to a Christian pastor and together they have two children. As the main breadwinner in her family, Ho sometimes struggles with the uncomfortable thought that prioritizing her career fulfilment might be selfish. 

“It is a struggle to stay true to why I chose this path to begin with. But I fight to stay on it through the concern of family and friends over my financial stability and ability to support myself and my family.”

Learning to trust

Lieny Jang didn’t realize how hard she would find readjusting to the workplace after being a stay-at-home mum for some time. An engineer by profession now working in Marketing, Commercial & Residential Solutions at Emerson Asia-Pacific, Jang was always a capable and self-sufficient employee.

As a new mother, she was no different. Jang was extremely hands-on in raising her children, seeing to their every need on her own. For her, the biggest challenge of eventually going back to work was not being able to keep an eye on her children 24/7.

Her biggest lesson? Learning to delegate.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to share parenting responsibilities with my husband and to trust my support system – parents, tutors – to look out for my kids when I can’t be there.”

Being your own best friend

Phyllis Marwah has endured divorce, the death of a child and a cancer scare. A veteran of heartbreak and suffering, she could’ve let these excruciating experiences define her, but instead chose patience, kindness and love.

Compassionate from a young age, Marwah moved to Hong Kong over 30 years ago and co-founded Mother’s Choice, an orphanage and home for unmarried mothers. For many years, she and her ex-husband worked purposefully to support this segment of the local community.

So when her youngest son tragically passed away, Marwah felt lost. “Growing up I was always taught to do what is right, but I was never taught about what to do when bad things happen,” she says.

Thanks to the unwavering love and support of her family, Marwah withstood the cruel blow life had dealt her, coming out stronger and wiser on the other side. If suffering has taught her anything, it’s the importance of relationships and the value of self-care.

As she regularly tells her children: “Relationships – garner them, feed them, take the time for them – as they are what will get you through. Take care of yourself. Be as encouraging and forgiving with yourself as you would with your best friend.”

Defining moments

Social worker Fermi Wong is no stranger to hardship or hard work. At just 11 years old, she immigrated to Hong Kong from Mainland China with her family where they had a less-than-ideal transition.

Living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet in the slum community around them, Wong’s family of seven depended on her, her sibling and her mother, the three of them the only ones capable of work. The rest of her family, including her father, suffered from mental disabilities.

Life was hard, and school wasn’t any better. Bullied and discriminated against for being poor and an outsider, Wong became unhappy, regularly questioning what was wrong with her family. As a Christian, she questioned her faith.

The future looked bleak until the democracy protests of June 4, 1989 would change her life forever.

“I was inspired by the young people who lost their lives fighting for a meaningful cause. That was the day I started examining my life and seriously contemplating the kind of person I wanted to be.”

Wong found her calling in social work and went on to found Hong Kong Unison, the first not-for-profit organization in Hong Kong to fight for the rights of the local non-Chinese population. Unfortunately, her mission wasn’t very well received by the Chinese community.

“Back then society was extremely conservative. Not much was known about South Asians and there was no NGO serving the specific needs of ethnic minorities. I was always met with heated opposition from colleagues, who suggested that as Chinese we should serve the local Chinese first, then, if there was time and energy left, new arrivals from Mainland China. Of least priority should be ethnic minorities.”

Forged by adversity, Wong hasn’t let the pushback stop her fighting for equal rights of all Hong Kong citizens. She still persists, driven forward by a personal conviction that “Suffering is necessary, but misery is optional.”

Jung Chang: How I Became a Writer

Jung Chang, best-selling author of Wild Swans, captivates conference attendees with her incredible life story

Jung Chang holds up her late grandmother's lotus shoe

After a heartfelt thank you on the WOI conference stage, Jung Chang starts right from the beginning.

"When I was a child I loved to write. I liked to stare at the clouds in the sky trying to imagine what was going on behind them," she says poetically. But for a child growing up in Mao’s China, the dream of becoming a writer was one that needed to remain “firmly imprisoned in the subconscious.”

During the Cultural Revolution, books were burned and writers were persecuted. Even writing for oneself could be dangerous. “Mao had said that the more books you read the more stupid you become. That was the guideline for health and education in those years,” she says.

Chang recalls her first literary venture on her 16th birthday which ended as quickly as it began. “I was writing my first poem in bed when I heard a loud banging on the door. “My father's persecutors had come to raid our flat and I knew that if they saw my poem my family would get into trouble. So I quickly tore up my poem and rushed to the toilet to flush it away,” she says exasperated.

In the years that followed, Chang was exiled to the edge of the Himalayas where she worked a number of backbreaking jobs (“Peasant, barefoot doctor, steel worker, electrician”) that should’ve crushed any desire she had to write out of her. But childhood dreams die hard.

“As I spread manure in the paddy fields and checked the top of electricity poles, I never stopped writing in my head. I just couldn't put pen to paper,” she says.

A turning point

Mao died in the fall of 1976. As China began to change, so did Chang’s life. “For the first time in 1978, scholarships for going abroad were awarded on an academic basis, and I became part of the first group to leave China for an education in Britain,” she says, smiling with pride.

Another significant first would come her way when, in 1982, Chang completed a PhD in linguistics from the University of York in England, becoming the first person from Communist China to get a doctorate from a British university.

Determined that the audience understand the magnitude of this achievement, she says, “I never saw a foreigner until I was 23, when as an English language student my classmates and I were sent to a port somewhere near Hong Kong to practice our English with the foreign sailors.”

Surely now Chang’s literary career could begin? “Coming from an isolated China to London was like being in an incredible a new world where I could write whatever, whenever. But by then my desire to write had left me, because writing required looking inward and backward into a past which I wanted to forget all about,” she says.

Though the horror of Mao’s tyranny was over, the painful memories had an iron grip on Chang. “My father spoke publicly against the Cultural Revolution and was arrested, tortured, driven insane and exiled to a camp where he died prematurely as a result. My grandmother, who was really the person that brought us up, also died in the Cultural Revolution, and their deaths were painful spots in my heart that I didn't want to revisit.”

Fulfilling a lifelong dream

It was only after Chang’s mother came from China to stay with her in London ten years later that she once again felt the familiar pinch of her childhood ambition. “For the first time in our lives she told me the stories of her life, of my grandmother and of her relationship with my father.

“And as I listened to my mother I kept saying to myself ‘I want to write all this down!’ Then I realized: I wanted to be a writer, I always wanted to be a writer. And it felt like my mother was helping me to fulfill this unspoken dream by telling me these stories,” she says, with a hint of emotion in her voice.

By the time Chang’s mother left London six months later, she had left Chang with 60 hours of tape recorded memoirs. And Wild Swans was born.

“Just before the book was about to be published I started to agonize over how it would be received as all writers probably do. Then my mother wrote me a letter saying the book might not do well, but she was not worried because she could feel that writing it had brought us closer together. She said I had made her a happy woman and that was enough,” she says.

So without the pressure of worrying about how the book might do, Wild Swans was published. The award-winning book, which portrays over 100 years of Chinese history through the lives of three generations of women – Chang’s grandmother, Chang’s mother and Chang – has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

“My mother, who only wanted understanding from her daughter, now has understanding from tens of millions of readers all over the world. And I, at last, have become a writer.”