This mama saves lives!
Born in Canada, Estella Huang Lung has lived in Hong Kong for 25 years. She fell in love with the city and couldn’t call any other place home, and it’s where she now raises her three children, aged 6, 8 and 10 years. She is the CEO of the Children’s Medical Foundation (CMF) and her kids are very proud of her and that their mummy saves lives! But she wasn’t always involved with the non-profit sector. She started her career in finance as an equity analyst and investment advisor at US and Canadian investments banks. We find out more about her journey into motherhood and work.
Was it always your intention to settle down in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is where my parents met and after a memorable visit in 1991, it has always had special meaning for me. I intended to move here after university graduation and made the journey even without a job in hand, but never planned to stay 25 years. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
What is your educational qualification and what was your field of work prior to getting into the non-profit sector?
I am the least educated person amongst my friends with a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Geography from Western University in Canada! With a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and a love for investing, I found myself in equity research before running a nonprofit, which is much like a start-up.
How did you and your husband meet? What role does he play in your work?
Cliff and I met through friends. He is a champion at CMF through our Golf committee and never complains or denies work demands that often take me to rural China for the weekend.
Can you tell us about The Women’s Foundation – why you founded it and in what capacity you worked there?
The Women’s Foundation (TWF) began when a group of like-minded women unified to research and implement strategies to address inequities for women and girls in Hong Kong. I served as a Board Governor from 2004 where I chaired various committees, and then as Board Chair from 2007 to 2011. TWF is led by adept and hugely capable leadership. I still join its events and support as an Honorary Trustee.
When was the Children’s Medical Foundation set up and why?
25 years ago, the quality of child healthcare in Asia was weak, and in China in particular, quite dire. Neonatal care in rural China was nonexistent. Our founders including Mr CC Tung, Mr WH Chou and Mr JS Lee, recognised the obvious gap in child healthcare in Asia compelling them to establish Project HOPE Hong Kong, the precursor to Children’s Medical Foundation (CMF). Through their vision, a world-class paediatric hospital in Shanghai was created. Today, Shanghai Children’s Medical Centre continues to be one of China’s leading national children’s hospitals and has been an important partner for the past 25 years.
What have been CMF’s major achievements?
Leveraging existing infrastructure, CMF partnered with hospitals to establish 30 neonatal intensive care units across 12 provinces in China. These are sustainable and they continue to treat six babies each hour. 4,500 doctors and nurses were trained in paediatrics, neonatology and emergency baby care. They are from 1,700 rural medical facilities, now connected through a CMF emergency referral system, which has provided safe transport to 1,600 critically-ill newborns requiring intensive care. 556 families living below the poverty line received financial assistance for life-saving intensive care treatment for their newborns. To continue medical education, CMF doctors and nurses convene every two years for CMF’s National Neonatal Network conference to learn new techniques and enhance medical expertise.
What motivated you to move into the non-profit sector?
My official move to the nonprofit sector was not planned. I was always involved in nonprofit, even as Vice President Fundraising in high school. Since we had only a few staff members at TWF, my Board role at TWF consumed a meaningful amount of my time. Learning by doing, this later equipped me to naturally transition into a nonprofit career.
It is tough having such a demanding job with three young children. How do you manage?
It’s very difficult! Not unlike other mums in the city and around the world that work and take care of children, I multi-task and try to maintain focus. I am only successful because of my husband’s patience and partnership and because of my three incredible domestic helpers and staff teams.
I’m proud to say that my husband takes the lead role in the management of child extracurriculars and transport logistics. I manage the helper team and property investments and after 25 years, we are a pretty good team. It is a luxury to have help in Hong Kong; but after 10 years with us and really clear schedules, they are a well-oiled machine.
How do you use your work and experiences when it comes to teaching your children about responsibility, community, etc?
It’s the simple things. We do our best to teach empathy and to think about and give to others who have needs. We encourage our children to contribute to the community early by giving them opportunities to donate, volunteer and witness need and impact.
Are your children involved in your work in any way?
Our children donate their birthday money to CMF through TwoPresents (fortunately, they have not yet selected another beneficiary!). Each has travelled to rural China, seen the babies whom their donations and mummy’s work supports, and visited and played with children whose lives have been improved through CMF.
What does a typical workday or week look like?
Every day is different at CMF. Some months, I make three trips to China, sometimes I don’t travel for three months. The CMF leadership is great at encouraging work-life balance, which has made life more manageable, but nonprofits are like startups, so when it’s busy I sleep, wake and dream CMF.
How similar or different are your children?
My beautiful children all look like my husband! Although all quite different, they are all outgoing, energetic and athletic.
You had a tough few months with COVID-19 scares after your in-laws were aboard the Diamond Princess. What happened and how did you recover as a family?
My in-laws were aboard the Diamond Princess and disembarked on 25 January because my father-in-law was ill and not eating. After a week, he was admitted to hospital in Hong Kong for bacterial pneumonia and recovered. Upon his return to the US, he was re-admitted for bacterial pneumonia, underwent lung surgery and now recovering at home. While he hadn’t caught the novel coronavirus, it was a worrying time because of the news that a man with COVID-19 also disembarked on 25 January. Sadly for many on the ship, by that time, the virus had spread to hundreds on the Diamond Princess and caused many ship delays (we all know what followed). We learned the importance of following instinct and difficult decision-making. This saved my father-in-law’s life.
COVID and the last few months of homeschooling, lockdowns, etc. have had an impact on many families across the world. How has it affected yours?
After my in-laws left Hong Kong, we travelled to Vancouver, Canada, where we stayed for three months. Homeschooling tested our patience and pushed us outside our comfort zones, but we finally had a chance to pause, understand where our children were in their learning goals and enjoy a lot of time with our family. Each day, after homeschooling, we would take our children to the park, where parking lots were closed; they would ride bikes, climb trees and get lots of scabs and splinters. We enjoyed the sunshine and socially distanced on picnic mats with friends. From 6pm to 3am, we would work Hong Kong hours and then do it all again the next day from 10am. Hong Kong has seen unique freedom from the pandemic, which we also fully enjoyed, until recently.
What has been the impact of this pandemic on the children in China who are helped by CMF?
Under the grip of COVID-19, families were not comfortable bringing their newborns to the hospitals for neonatal intensive care treatment. Rural doctors and parents did not call the emergency mobile transport unit to bring their babies to intensive care. Our NICUs were empty with low occupancy rates. We don’t have the numbers to reveal the full picture, but we are really sad and certain that many newborns were not able to be saved.
Can you explain how you have changed over the years (as a working woman, in your interests, work and as a mother)?
One of my mentors shared a couple of gems of advice which I still carry with me today.
- Always remember to work on your marriage.
- Your kids will not be what you plan for them; love and support them with their dreams.
As life comes with no handbook, I continue to grow and learn through family counselling, parenting workshops and executive coaching. I share this because there should be no stigma or embarrassment around self-improvement. Most importantly, I try to learn from my husband, children, staff team and accomplished network of friends.
What is the toughest part of your job?
Work-life balance and fundraising pressure remain challenging.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
Personally, I’m proud of my family for their sacrifices, resilience and strong family bond. I’m proud professionally for our perseverance, accomplishments and for the impact we’ve made.
What are the plans for the future of CMF?
My role is to make the CMF Board’s vision a reality. Their future plan is to scale our comprehensive neonatal programme model in rural China, to ensure quality and accessible healthcare. And then focus on India, where there is a great need for improvement in newborn healthcare.
What legacy would you like to leave for your children?
I hope to leave my children with the importance of family, of loving your life’s work, and contribution to the community.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong and bringing up your kids here?
I love that help in Hong Kong is affordable, which enables me to work and for our family to experience more. Its small size makes transport efficient. And the city is safe; removing a layer of danger makes life a little easier.
Who has most influenced your parenting style?
What do you enjoy most about being a mum and what is most challenging?
The relentless physical and emotional love and attention from my children is the best part. On the other hand, managing all the unique requests is the toughest bit!
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
A glass of wine with my husband and putting my children to sleep.
What are your top three tips or advice for those looking at working in and setting up a non-profit firm in the city?
- Passion for your cause goes a long way.
- Anything is achievable – be persistent!
- As I said earlier, starting a nonprofit is a lot like a start-up. Get ready to leverage all your skills and resources, those you know you have and those you never knew you had!