Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of the non-profit organisation – The Women’s Foundation
If you’ve ever wanted to meet a real life wonder woman, we’ve got one coming right up! Su-Mei Thompson grew up in Malaysia, went to boarding school in the UK and read law at Cambridge and Oxford. She now lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two children. She started her career as a lawyer and worked at Disney, the Financial Times and Christie’s before becoming CEO of the non-profit organisation – The Women’s Foundation. We discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a career break, how The Women’s Foundation is encouraging women and girls to “lean in” and how she combines a demanding career with raising a family.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and your career? Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-babies?
I was born and brought up in Malaysia. My parents sent me to boarding school in the UK (The Cheltenham Ladies College) at the age of 12. I went on to study law as an undergraduate at Cambridge and as a masters student at Oxford. I loved my university days – Cambridge was great fun after being cloistered in all girls boarding school for five years! Oxford was more serious, and I really knuckled down and worked hard to earn my First class degree which was something I am still incredibly proud of.
My father was a senior executive in an oil company while my mother was general counsel of a development bank in Malaysia at a time when very few women worked. I had quite a strict upbringing with very little molly-coddling or extravagance – my mother didn’t believe in wasting money on toys or Christmas presents. Instead, my parents saved up and invested their savings to provide me with the best education they possibly could. My mum instilled in me the importance of hard work and having the biggest boldest vision of what I could be.
After Oxford, I joined Linklaters and they posted me to Hong Kong in 1993. I met my husband, Marcus, at a dinner party in Po Shan Road, which is the road where we’ve ended up living. We got married in 1996 and had our first daughter, Tallulah, in 2005 and our second daughter, Allegra, in 2007.
As I mentioned, my first job was with Linklaters in London and they posted me to Hong Kong in 1993. I then joined The Walt Disney Company in Asia in their TV division. I moved from Disney to join a dotcom and we IPO’d on NASDAQ which was very exciting. I then decided it was a good time to do my MBA so I spent a year at IMD in Lausanne. In 2003, the Financial Times appointed me as their Managing Director for Asia, and my last corporate role was with Christie’s, the auction house and the world’s leading art business, where I was one of their co-heads for Asia.
When I decided to join Christie’s, my older daughter Tallulah was not even 2 and I was pregnant with Allegra. I had a massive job at Christie’s with oversight for Christie’s network of 13 regional offices. I had to immediately hire new market heads for China, India, Indonesia and Singapore, and come up with Christie’s business plans for Asia, for China, for India and Indian art and for wine sales in Asia. I was on the road virtually every week and most weekends, and I ended up feeling I wasn’t doing anything well – I wanted to spend more time in all the local markets I was responsible for and, at the same time, I was feeling guilty about being away from home so much. So I decided to step off the corporate ladder to spend more time with my girls and to reflect on what was really important to me, how was I going to measure my success, and how was I going to balance competing priorities in future.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having children and taking a year out?
Taking a career break year helped me understand why so many accomplished women who decide to take a career break feel unnerved by the experience and how much confidence, courage and determination it takes to get back into the saddle. I also realised how women who have taken a break are disadvantaged when it comes to returning to work and how few employers and search firms are focused on changing the status quo and the mindset of hiring managers. This was a key motivation for me to join The Women’s Foundation in 2009, to dedicate my energies to NGO life and ensure barriers to women achieving their full potential are being discussed and addressed.
I was also drawn to TWF for a couple of other reasons – first, the quality of its research. High calibre, independent and incisive content is something that has always been very important to me as you would expect given my years at the Financial Times.
Secondly, its pioneering approach to designing and implementing impactful programmes which basically marries global best practice and innovative ideas with local knowledge and the local context.
Thirdly, obviously its focus on women’s empowerment which really resonated, particularly having two daughters! That was seven years ago now and I’ve never looked back and what is really touching is my girls are so proud and encouraging of what I do.
Top interview tips?
Remember: first impressions are like ink stains – they are quick to form and take a long time to fade, so make sure you have a couple of good opening lines ready.
Also, if you are someone who has taken a career break and are looking to rejoin the workforce, don’t feel the need to apologise for taking time off and don’t be too defensive either. Focus on your skills, previous work experience and past accomplishments. Happily, we’re witnessing more and more companies introducing returnship programmes to encourage women who have taken a career break to get back into the game which I think is really amazing and also very smart because there are some seriously well qualified women out there who have so much to offer if you can re-engage them.
Can you tell us about the Women’s Foundation and your main goals for the non-profit organisation?
The Women’s Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong. We aspire to conduct groundbreaking research, to run innovative and impactful community programmes, and we engage in education and advocacy in the pursuit of three main goals: challenging gender stereotypes, increasing the number of women in policy and decision-making positions and empowering women in poverty to achieve a better quality of life for themselves and their families.
By way of a quick update on the three strands of our work: In terms of research, we are midway through a study on the burden of elderly care on working women in Hong Kong. Given Hong Kong’ rapidly aging population, we envisage mounting physical, mental and financial pressure on women (and men) who have to care for elderly relatives while trying to hold down jobs – our study will examine best practices in other countries to tackle this issue. Looking at our grassroots programmes, over the last few years, these have significantly expanded in their breadth and depth. We’re helping 300 low income women to be more financially literate and employable, we’ve touched the lives of 7,000 local teen girls and boys through our Life Skills programme and the 640 student, teacher and parent workshops we organised last year.
Looking at our work to build the female talent pipeline, we’ve placed over 500 professional women in mentoring relationships and helped them to lean in. This December, we introduced coding workshops at under-privileged girls’ schools as part of a campaign to demonstrate that STEM subjects and careers are viable and attractive choices for women and we’ll be launching a ground breaking study on why it is that girls in HK aren’t opting to pursue STEM subjects at school and university.
Meanwhile, TWF’s scholarship programmes support deserving HK students to attend leading institutions from HKUST to Tsinghua, from the Ivey Business School to Cambridge. It’s very heartening to hear from our scholarship recipients how their horizons have been widened and their curiosity has been sharpened through their studies but most heartening of all is that almost without fail, they tell us how much they look forward to giving back, to using their newfound knowledge and skills to make the world a better place.
TWF is also making a documentary called She Objects which we hope to complete in Q1 next year which will look at how so much of the media industry negatively depicts women. 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. Advertising sets unrealistic airbrushed standards of physical perfection which has implications for anorexia and body image issues for women and girls. All too often, news reports unduly scrutinise women leaders for their appearance instead of judging the substance of their actions. And we’ve all read pieces which implicitly shift the blame to female victims of harassment by commenting on what they were wearing or whether they were drinking instead of focusing on the really important question of why in the 21st century men and boys continue to perpetrate violence against women. She Objects will examine all of these issues and suggest that it is time all of us take a stand and object to media content that objectifies, sexualizes and diminishes women.
The mentorship programme has been a huge success how does it work and what type of candidates can join?
We launched our mentorship programme in 2009 and over the past six years, it has gone from strength to strength. Every year we match 50 seasoned female mentors who are leaders in their fields with 50 aspiring female leaders. Over the course of the 12-month highly structured programme cycle, mentors and protégés enjoy a one on one mentoring relationship, inspirational speaker events, skills workshops and networking gatherings. We have had so many touching stories of protégés who tell us how their mentor opened doors for them that led to opportunities they never imagined or how their mentor helped them get through a difficult personal or professional challenge and emerge stronger on the other side.
Protégés should have a minimum of five years’ full-time work experience. Protégés should be open and willing to learn from others and highly motivated to achieve professional success. We are looking for candidates who are motivated to improve themselves and eager to learn and share.
Our mentors should have attained professional success from spending at least 10 years in a leadership position. We are looking for mentors who are motivated by a strong desire to see the next generation of women achieve their full potential .
In general, we are looking for women who demonstrate a strong commitment to the Programme, through actively engaging with their mentor/protégé and with the other Programme participants, participating in Programme events and providing regular feedback to TWF. We are also looking for candidates who expect to be based in Hong Kong for at least the next 18 months.
Do you have a morning routine and if so how does it help you start your day on the right foot?
I wake up pretty early and have breakfast with my girls before they jump on the school bus at 6.50am. I then walk our latest rescue dog (we have four) – Vulcan – around the Peak. While Vulcan leads the way, I set my priorities for the day. This is extremely useful because by the time I reach the office, I already know what I have to tackle first.
Do you have some favourite family-friendly restaurants in Hong Kong?
I love Grassroots Pantry, helmed by sustainable eating guru Peggy Chan – tell them in advance if your kids are fussy eaters and Peggy is fantastic about making something that they’ll like. For a special occasion and if the weather is nice at weekends, the poolside barbecue at the Grand Hyatt is hard to beat.
What advice would you give to moms who want to give back to the Hong Kong community?
There are so many ways to engage! The key thing is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and reach out to an organisation or cause that interests you and take it from there…
Top tips for women who want to reach their full potential and ‘have it all’?
I would say don’t build a life in the context of a career but rather, they should build a career in the context of a life. It is vitally important to have outside interests – whether it is a sport or other hobby or your Church or a charity, and it is important to have people in your life who are outside of work – they will help you maintain perspective and provide you with support and will be an important consolation when things aren’t going well at work, which happens from time to time to even the best us.
Where do you love spending time with your family in Hong Kong that’s fun for everyone?
Our weekend house in Sai Kung. The kids can swim in the pool and play swingball, my husband does the cooking – which is how he relaxes – and I walk the dogs a couple of times a day and catch up on reading.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spots in Asia?
Australia – especially the beaches to the north of Sydney – with their rockpools and great beach restaurants.
What’s on your reading list this year?
Tallulah is hoping to take part in The Battle of the Books – an inter-school book quiz competition – so Marcus and I have been reading some of the books to give her some encouragement and so we can discuss them as a family. It’s been a revelation to discover there are so many more authors writing amazing literature for children and tweens since my childhood anyway! Some of the fantastic books on the Year 6 list that we’ve been enjoying include The Thief Lord (our favourite!), Rain Reign, From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, Tall Story, Tuck Everlasting, The Thing About Luck and The Boy on the Porch.
What do you do when you need some ‘me’ time?
Life is crazily busy but I am actually really happy and very rarely feel the need to switch off from my work or my family.
How do you keep the spark alive in your relationship?
Always start planning your next holiday before the last one finishes!
Favourite date night spots in Hong Kong?
Chino’s in Kennedy Town for Mexican fusion cuisine and a humming atmosphere – Eric Idos is an incredibly talented chef and his team of wonderful servers are really warm and friendly and passionate about food.
Where do you buy practical but fashionable professional clothing in Hong Kong?
My go to brand whether it’s for everyday stylish wear or an “occasion” piece is Escada – their clothes are beautifully designed and work well for shall we say the more “mature” woman without looking matronly! I have a couple of their all in one jumpsuits which make me feel like Bond girl – ha ha!
My favourite moment of the day is…
Reading to Allegra in the evening until she falls asleep – I often nod off with her and find her lying on top of me hours later. I love listening to her breathing and the warmth of having her snuggled up to me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Mrs Porter, head of Primary at CIS, always reminds us of the importance of creating and maintaining family traditions. Marcus and I have taken this advice to heart. We have Saturday family dinners when we often play board games as a family, we have Sunday family hikes and we cherish our skiing holidays when we always ski in the same place in Italy (the Dolomites) and stay at the same family run chalet. Tallulah and Allegra have taken to calling some of our traditions FFOs or Forced Family Outings but so far, they are still participating with a willing heart!