This post is part of Baby Hero’s series of profiles for International Women’s Month, celebrating women who #MakeItHappen. Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women’s Foundation, an non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong. Su-Mei is a mother to two girls and an inspiring leader who has become the city’s most influential voice on equal opportunities for women.
I was born and brought up in Malaysia. My parents were pretty humble and they had always drilled into me that as an Asian, and as a girl, I was at a disadvantage, so I would need to work harder just to keep up. I am enormously grateful to my mother for how she shaped who I am. I had a strict upbringing with very little molly coddling or extravagance. No money was wasted on toys or Christmas presents. My mother worked really hard and spent her savings on giving me the best education she possibly afford. She instilled in me the importance of hard work and having the biggest boldest vision of what I could be.
I went to boarding school in the UK (Cheltenham Ladies College), earned an Undergraduate degree at Cambridge and a Masters at Oxford. I loved my university days – Cambridge was great fun after being cloistered in all girls boarding school for five years! At Oxford I knuckled down to earn my First class degree, something I am still incredibly proud of.
It might sound feeble but I chose law because my parents wanted me to and in those days, children listened to their parents! (Try telling that to my daughters now, Ha!). I was a classical pianist and accepted to the Performers’ Course at Dartington College of Music (UK). They wanted to shelter me from the pressure and competition of life as a career musician and in the end I bent to my parents' will and applied to read law at Cambridge. We also had a tradition of lawyers in the family; both my paternal grandfather and both my parents were UK qualified barristers.
One particular experience in my early career cast a very long arc over the rest of my life. At Linklaters – as a first year associate, I was part of a very small team working on a massive transaction. Our client was acquiring assets from a big mining company, these assets being mines across the whole of South America. It was a male dominated, chauvinistic environment and there I was, this young 24 Asian female traveling the globe and doing extensive due diligence. When I arrived back in London, I went straight from the airport to a meeting with our clients and advisors from all parties - all who were older experienced men. I delivered my findings but also raised some red flags in the deal that made everyone sit up and listen. It was a baptism by fire. That experience has served as a constant reminder to stay fearless even if I am in the minority.
"If working and being a new mom is making you feel miserable and conflicted, then know it IS possible to take a career break and to get back into the game."
From Linklaters to Walt Disney, The Financial Times and then to Christie’s, there are takeaways that apply to whatever sector one’s in. First of all, don’t just run after successful people. I’ve always gone out of my way to reach out to someone who has experienced a setback. People who are down and out have a way of boomeranging back and they remember who stuck with them through the bad times. Secondly, build a deep connection by meeting people in person, particularly over a meal. I am naturally shy and would rather have lunch at my desk but instead I have breakfast and lunch meetings 4-5 days a week. Thirdly, keep in touch with people particularly when you don’t need anything from them. If you maintain contact when you don’t have an ulterior motive, it makes it so much easier when you actually need a favor.
At The Women's Foundation, I am responsible for raising awareness and mobilizing action for the challenges women and young girls continue to face. This involves speaking at local and international conferences, researching and publishing opinion pieces, and joining the dots with the work of other organizations in a way that is transformational so that the sum is greater than the parts. The speaking engagements can be nerve-wracking but I’ve been fortunate to meet some truly inspirational women from Au Sung Suu Kyi to Christine Lagarde to President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.
TWF is also making a documentary called ‘She Objects’, which focuses on gender stereotyping by the media. We know from our work that media has the power to create or exacerbate gender stereotypes which are the root cause of so many challenges which women face in the workplace and in the broader community.
"Don’t build a life in the context of a career but rather, build a career in the context of a life."
If working and being a new mom is making you feel miserable and conflicted, then know it IS possible to take a career break and to get back into the game. I see so many women hesitate to take a break, and those who take a break lose their self-confidence and rule out getting back into the job market in a significant way. It needn’t be that way.
Having my two daughters Tallulah (9 Years) and Allegra (7 Years) made me stop to reflect on what was really important, how was I going to measure my success, and how was I going to balance competing priorities in future. While they were little, I decided to step off the corporate ladder. When I was ready to jump back into the workforce, the right opportunity came along at The Women’s Foundation.
When they get a bit older, the two things I’m going to be telling my daughters are – firstly, it is important to do something you enjoy with people you like. If you add it all up, we spend a significant part of our lives at work and with our colleagues, so ask yourself, “Is this the right career path for me? Is this the company where I want to build my career?”
Secondly, don’t build a life in the context of a career but rather, to build a career in the context of a life. It is vitally important to have outside interests, a sport or a hobby and equally important to have people in your life outside the office - they will help you maintain perspective in times when things aren’t going well at work.
Women tend to be less explicit about their ambitions and face the challenges of balancing family life with a demanding career, all these factors along with discriminatory practices and entrenched old boy’s networks continue to impede the progress of women into the C-suite and boardrooms. Sheryl Sandberg articulates the barriers very well in ‘Lean In’ – she talks about the Leadership Ambition Gap whereby women expect less of their careers than men and how women start to lean back in their careers in anticipation that they are going to be looking after their husband or a family much earlier than they really need to. I completely agree with Sheryl that the single most important career choice a woman makes (if she marries) is her choice of a spouse. In this, she is saying something we’ve said all along at TWF, that we won’t have equality in the workplace until we have greater equality at home.
It’s hard to believe that in this shiny metropolis that is Hong Kong, one in five people is living at the poverty line and among them, women are particularly vulnerable.
I really admire Alicia Wieser and Samar Shahreyar, the founders of Baby Hero, for getting Baby Hero off the ground and being so clear and principled about their values and objectives for the business. Yes it’s a business but they are really concerned about social impact. In this, they are incredible role models for other entrepreneurs. At TWF, we want more women to found and grow companies. Entrepreneurship is vital to allowing women to become more economically self-reliant and the great thing is that it's possible to be an entrepreneur regardless of age and social background. Extensive studies show that when women are given the right resources in developing countries, their families and communities also benefit.
TWF’s emotional heartland is in its grassroots community and leadership programmes -