Empowering at-risk children in Hong Kong through the ChickenSoup Foundation, Cindy Chow, mama of two shares about how her role has made a difference in communities as well as impacted her own life.
Most of us parents aim to raise happy, compassionate, well-balanced and socially responsible children. Well, there’s no better way than to lead by example. This month’s That Mama does just that, and then some. We get the privilege of hearing from the inspiring Cindy Chow who runs the ChickenSoup Foundation which empowers at risk children in Hong Kong through services focusing on education, health and inspiration. The foundation works to give underprivileged students living in extreme poverty the tools, skills and confidence to go on and thrive as self-sufficient, productive adults.
Cindy shares with us how her role at ChickenSoup not only positively impacts the community but her personal life as well, her experience of leaving the finance sector to work at an NGO and her secrets to balancing work and family, as she does all this all while raising Hayden 6 and Mia 4. Some mums really can do it all.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself including how long you’ve been in Hong Kong?
I was born in Hong Kong, but left for boarding school in London at the age of 10. At the age of 17, I came back to HK for last two years of high school and university to study Business Administration. For most of my life I’ve lived in Hong Kong, but for the most critical teenage years I was in London.
I am married and a proud mother of two beautiful children, Hayden aged 6 and Mia aged 4. I personally believe I am definitely an awesome and cool mum, since I have the best assets of both eastern and western cultures within me, not too traditional and traditional.
Tell us about ChickenSoup Foundation.
The foundation was founded in 2013, and aims to empower students aged 5 – 19 who live in extreme poverty to be independent after graduating from high school. We have 10 programs in place to provide support to urgent and specific needs in education and healthcare; so they don’t fail the system. We want to provide them with at least one “inspirational activity” to give them a way to develop and to have hope for their own future. There are so many underprivileged children in Hong Kong, with over 290,000, where we are only serving 1100; most of them have little to no household disposable income and are living in a 6 x 8 square metre subdivided flat.
What is your role at the foundation?
I overlook the entire operation of the foundation. My team of four are mostly recent university grads with a strong passion for serving the deprived groups in Hong Kong. They have great minds and business sense on how to effectively run the operation. I manage the full-time team, train them, create donor engagement, manage relationships with other NGOs, as well regularly meeting up and understanding the needs of our beneficiaries so that we can better tailor our program. We also reach out to all schools and businesses in Hong Kong to seek for different collaboration opportunities. One big part of my role is to measure impact, both qualitative and quantitative, the true social impact. Basically my role consists of everything a business has, just that we are a small and dynamic team. We always emphasise on the importance of partnerships.
What was your career path before this?
I had never expected to work for a NGO, as I had always been in the commercial setting since graduation. My first job was a flight attendant with Cathay Pacific and then decided to leave the sky and got into marketing. After the birth of my first child, I joined an investment company to be a human resource and administration manager.
What’s it like working at an NGO as compared to working within the finance sector?
I had been looking for a job change and scenery for a while after working with the same company for five years. I was really looking at jobs similar to what I was doing, but never expected to work with a charity as most charitable jobs are way under market in terms of pay (I have a husband, two children and four parents to support!).
However, ChickenSoup Foundation is not exactly charity work but would be considered philanthropy instead. Philanthropy is all about long term and strategic structural change, while charity is more short term and tackles issues on a case to case basis. The difference being servicing out of emotional drive to tackle certain causes vs. using management skills to change the system to solve a bigger picture and root of the problem. Not only is this a far more meaningful job, but ChickenSoup also believes in investing in talents, therefore, unlike typical NGOs, its compensation is very competitive with many typical commercial positions.
ChickenSoup Foundation is somewhat similar to a business chain; we care about money for survival sake, but the actual operation gives you a lot more feedback and on-the-ground learning about the community in which we’re living in and relying on. Working here makes you open your eyes and makes you notice that there’s so much each of us can do. Many resources and manpower are needed to truly make an impact in the society we are living in.
Businesses needs to care more about the society, as currently the working class is highly unstable in terms of supply and cost. If we continue to ignore these severe problems, more problematic issues might arise in the society. We have been seeing quite a number of examples happening in the past few months, such as youth suicides, social unrest, small business closures to name a few. There are many ways where businesses or any individuals can help. Financial donation is a very useful factor, but any excess resources, from office venues, secondhand items like clothes and books are helpful too!
In my previous job, I never gave much thought to the numbers. In the past, I may have thought about how to spend my bonus, however I now understand the cost of items could equate to a child’s education. A pair of Roger Vivier heels are equivalent to a child’s annual academic coaching fee, or a classic Chanel handbag is equivalent to subsidising 10 children’s academic expense per annum. It hits me real hard that I have wasted quite a lot of money on unnecessary consumables, and I only have one pair of feet and two shoulders. I don’t need 20 bags and 100 pairs of shoes. This job not only transformed my career but also on my personal behaviour on so many levels.
How do you balance having a successful career and also being a mother?
It’s not easy, but I always try my best to find quality time with the family. I believe quality is far more important than quantity. Most importantly I have a very understanding husband as well as wonderful parents who have all helped me immensely in order for me to build my career. One thing I always insist is that my kids and family always come first no matter where I am at my career, I will step down if needed. Career can be rebuilt, but my kids’ childhood only happens once, I would not like to miss out and regret later. This new job helps a lot as I always bring my kids (and husband too) to my weekend servicing duties, which serves as a social education for them. The activities like sports, music, art and role model sharing can be quite entertaining.
What do you enjoy most about what you do (your job)?
This job has changed my personal behaviour at every level, even my husband jokes about it that he wished I had joined ChickenSoup sooner. I take it as a compliment. It’s quite amazing that I can merge my family outings with my job, as some of the weekend activities are very much suitable for my kids to participate. I love seeing the changes in my kids as well the kids that we serve. My four year old daughter, Mia told me one day that she wants to share all her toys with other children, as she knows many kids don’t have any, while my six year old son, Hayden, says he can share his birthday gifts with other kids too. I feel overwhelmed with joy as the job I am doing not only benefits the people we serve, but also benefits my family members.
My kids receive pro-bono social education, an education that they can never get at school, playgroups or clubs they attend. And personally, being able to give that to my kids through my job, makes my daily grind at work so much more meaningful, as I know this is not really a job, but actually something more worthwhile.
Any advice for other working mums in Hong Kong?
“Prepare them for the worst while we are around, rather than giving them the best.”
The world is changing, we are no longer living in a world where university is a must or working in corporate jobs in Central is the best. It has changed so much to the point where many jobs existing today will no longer be around in 20 years when they graduate. Don’t try to help them to decide their path but rather prepare them for today. What we think is best might not be best for them, on a flip side we might be adding pressure to their lives by setting too high of an expectation. The best is to let them explore, prepare them for failure, but to learn from mistakes to improve.
The world we live in now is too consumption base and materialistic. Don’t indulge them too much in the luxuries we enjoy, have rules and don’t be afraid to let them try and let them be the decision maker.
The best skills I personally think is essential for a person is empathy and humility. This is about connecting with people, to understand and appreciate the differences. You can learn skills on Google, but empathy you cannot… you have to have the experience in life to truly understand the meaning of empathy. Empathy is best learned through community service. I want my kids to understand the world they are living in is not what they are seeing daily, and most importantly they need to understand through experience. No matter how smart or how successful they might be in the future, without empathy and being humble, these successes will get them nowhere.
How do you save time? Can you share any organisational tips and tricks?
Working smart vs. working hard. There can be so many things on my plate and everybody wants me to make a decision or would like my attention, but to be honest it is very difficult to split myself. But setting priorities and marking down what I have to do is always the number one rule.
I try to set priorities on both my personal and work life, I write out the top three most urgent things that need to be done, and check them off whenever I complete them. What’s most important for me is delegating to team and trusting their ability to get the job done. If I have to check every minute on what they’re doing, this is just a waste of my time.
What do you do to get in that “me” time?
My “me” time usually happens when I’m commuting from place to place. This is the time I can take out a book or watch a Korean drama. Once I am home, there’s no way I can find quiet me time until my kids get to bed.
What’s your favourite thing to do with your kids in Hong Kong?
I enjoy bringing them to different parks, so that they can run and move around. Playing in the sand on beaches and eating is one of our favourite things to do.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of parenting?
No one can really teach you about parenting at all. Not even your parents, as each kid is so unique in their own way.
Favourite family holiday spot?
Somewhere hot and a place where the kids can play by themselves safely. Mummy and daddy time is important too! Club Med is always a good one for the family. Singapore is another location where I always bring my kids. We love going to Lego Land is just two hours drive away from Singapore.
Read more: Travel to Club Med Sanya for the Weekend
What are your favourite spots to eat at with your family in Hong Kong?
Both of my kids love eating chicken and dim sum, so really any place with good chicken and dim sum is a win for us. We are not very fussy about food, and I always prefer to have my kids to try everything, healthy or not healthy.
Can you tell us about how your career was pre-baby as compared to post-baby?
To be honest, pre-baby I was pretty jumpy at work, and really have no clue where I would like my career to be, but really I got married at 23 and had my first kid at 24, so I was pretty young, and like any early 20s person, still looking for the right path. But having baby had really changed my mindset, first of all I felt I have a big responsibility now, therefore have to be stable.
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a parent?
Hands off and let your kids try to do things on their own.
That my kids have to learn a musical instrument to get into a good primary school, I was so angry!
What has been your most humbling moment as a mum?
When I saw my son teaching my daughter about less privileged children in Hong Kong. While I knew he didn’t really understand the situation completely, but to copy word from word of what I told him gave me a very humbling feeling. For me, it’s not how successful they are at school or what they’ve achieved. Having a kind and empathetic heart is more important than any achievement they might attain in the future. They are really good kids.
How do you keep the romance between you and your husband alive with such a busy work and family life?
We insist one date per week, no matter if it’s a dinner or a movie. We also try to go on short trips (3 to 4 days) once a year.
Favorite date spot in Hong Kong?
Cinemas, or even home especially when the kids are asleep.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Cooking and art, as I can’t do either!
I wake up in the middle of night thinking about…
Why my kids are growing up so fast, and what they’ll be like in 10 years time.
Bedtime is always smoother when…
I know my kids are sound asleep.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When I first step into home, and I hear “Mummy, Mummy”, they run towards me and give me a big hug.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
I will continue to drink and have fun once in a while, as I am also wife and a woman, not only a mama.
I always feel saner after…
A hot bath. Sometimes a good cry in the shower helps. But every time after a tearful shower, I always feel so much better after as if something has been released.
I wish I had more time for…
Even when my kids are grown and has a family of his own, I’ll still…
Be the cool mama that has always been there. I will always love them, but will still give discipline them if they need it!