International Women’s Day 2021: Learn to overcome challenges with tips from 4 persevering Hong Kong women

We’ve come a long way when it comes to gender equality, but we may never see true parity in our lifetime. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, the world is still 99.5 years away from attaining gender equality.

Women account for just 25 per cent of parliamentary positions and 20.6 per cent of board director seats globally. What’s more, just 55 per cent of working-age women take part in the labour market, and women are prohibited from opening bank accounts  in 72 countries.

It’s time to challenge gender bias and inequality, celebrate women’s achievements, question stereotypes, and work together to cultivate more opportunities around the world.

To inspire you to overcome your next challenge, we caught up with four unstoppable women from Hong Kong who have broken new ground in their area of expertise – be that human rights law, environmental issues or humanitarian pursuits.

Here’s what they #ChoosetoChallenge this International Women’s Day 2021:

Patricia Ho, a Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer. Credit: Anthony Kwan

Patricia Ho

Principal lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong; founder of Patricia Ho & Associates; founder of Hong Kong Dignity Institute

As a Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer and the founder of Patricia Ho & Associates, Patricia Ho has made it her mission to defend minorities and the marginalised who are often overlooked by society.

She has won several landmark cases for asylum seekers, transgender individuals, sex workers and victims of human trafficking victims and made the city a more equitable place in the process.

We caught up with Ho to hear about the greatest curveballs her career has thrown her way – and how she rose to meet them.

Ariana: How did you come to be a human rights lawyer?

Patricia Ho: I wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember. I think my dad saw a legal spark in me and I believed him when he encouraged me to pursue law as a career. But when I actually started studying the different fields of law, I honestly didn’t find anything but human rights law interesting. I suppose I had a deep desire to support the underdogs. I feel lucky enough to be able to do what I love.

What was the hardest thing about breaking into your industry?

PH: At the outset, I was impassioned to tackle the problem of human trafficking. When I started out, people told me that human trafficking was not an issue in Hong Kong and there were no job opportunities for me here. It’s not that human trafficking wasn’t a problem; it just wasn’t well understood or reported.

After seven years working as a lawyer, my first trafficking case finally came along. It took a long time because the cases were in the shadows – no victims came forward. After coming across the first case, I started sharing news about human trafficking and what it looks like to others working in related fields. Soon, more NGOs were able to identify victims and refer them to me.

From that point onwards, there was no stopping. I was determined to make human rights law my focus. The other major issue I faced was that all the big-shots in my space were pretty macho. I would say that I have a relatively gentle demeanour, so it took quite a long time before I was taken seriously.

“Staying focused on seeing lives restored helps me care less about my temporary struggles. That also keeps my dedication going.”

Patricia Ho

Ariana: As your career advanced, did you encounter any major moments that put you to the test?

PH: The focus of my work has always been on my clients. I struggled a lot with drawing boundaries when it comes to the support I would provide them. One early case was when I was representing a teenage refugee who was homeless with a tragic history – I just wanted to offer him sofa space!

A wise counsel suggested that I think carefully about what my clients needed from me – good legal representation – and that I should draw clear boundaries to ensure my work is not compromised. Sorting that out early on really helped me to maintain my mental health.

Ariana: Your work must take a toll on you. How do you cope?

PH: When I first started out, I felt a lot lighter as a person! I believed that I would  just do my best and help as many lives as possible. I still have that mindset in my DNA, but I think I carry more weight around now. It’s not necessarily bad, since this weight helps build wisdom, but I just need to consciously work on lessening that load.

I have to constantly remind myself about the cause I’m working for. Staying focused on seeing lives restored help me care less about my temporary struggles. That also keeps my dedication going.  At the end of the day, loving what I do gets me going!

PH: Know yourself and your value – that’s even more important than the work you do. If you know your value, the rest will follow.

Bonnie Chiu

Founder, Lensational 

Hongkonger Bonnie Chiu has been involved in several social impact projects over the years, including award-winning social enterprise Lensational, Humanity Data Systems, and The Social Investment Consultancy, among others.

Chiu, who was named a Forbes’ 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs for 2017, established Lensational in 2013 to arm women from marginalised communities with valuable photography skills. The organisation now partners with companies like Getty Images and Standard Chartered Bank, which hire photographers to create content.

She shares her experience starting a social enterprise – and persevering when advisors told her it was time to give up.

Ariana: What motivated you to start Lensational?

Bonnie Chiu: It was an encounter with four Turkish girls during my travels to Istanbul in 2011 that planted the seed for Lensational. I went to Turkey during my university exchange to Denmark. Like any tourist, I was taking pictures and I taught them to take pictures quite informally.

It was so refreshing to see things through their eyes, since the media portrays Muslim girls a certain way. It was interesting to see things from a different perspective, which was somewhat contradictory to these misconceptions. We connected deeply through photography and this common experience.

I was also raised by my grandmother, who fled Indonesia as a refugee. She couldn’t read or write and that’s why she loves photography, it made me realise that photography was a universal language that transcends all barriers.

This ultimately inspired me to set up Lensational on the International Women’s day of 2013, initially as a Facebook page. I was only 20 years old and did not anticipate how the idea gained so much resonance with people across the world.

I wanted to bring the power of photography to different corners of the world, to give marginalised women a way of expressing themselves without the need for words. Through photography, they have a voice, a source of income, and a base of strength.

Ariana: What was the hardest thing about starting up Lensational?

BC: I almost didn’t start it at all. After the encounter in 2011, it took around a year for that experience to translate into a business idea. With the help of some classmates, we worked on the business plan and submitted it to many business plan competitions, hoping to get seed funding to get started.

We were turned down so many times. And in the final blow to my confidence, there was a social enterprise competition in Hong Kong and one of the judges, who was also a professor, told me not to waste my time on this idea as it wouldn’t go anywhere. That happened a few days before I started the Facebook page on 8 March 2013.

At first, I didn’t have the confidence and belief in myself as a young woman. I also did not have the support from institutions that were supposed to be nurturing entrepreneurship. Luckily, I had support from my family, friends and secondary school to pursue Lensational.

Ariana: And as Lensational hit its stride, what put you to the test?

BC: Funding for social enterprises is less straightforward than traditional businesses or charities. Our business model is to sell images and stories, but in order to start producing these images and stories, we’d need some funding to support our programme activities. Funding has continued to be a challenge and hence I’ve been a volunteer CEO for eight years, since the founding of Lensational!

We tried to overcome our funding challenge by mobilising volunteers – those who are willing to give their time to further our cause. Through this model, we have been able to scale with very limited capital. We also benefited from a group of advisors across the world who introduced us to different potential clients to build our credibility.

“Growing up, my father always said to me: everything happens for a reason. This is the mindset I try to have when I encounter challenges.”

Bonnie Chiu

BC: Growing up, my father always said to me: everything happens for a reason. This is the mindset I try to have when I encounter challenges – I may feel frustrated, sad, and angry but challenges happen for a reason, and the reason will be revealed to me at the right time. So, just keep going.

Ariana: Any tips for young women who may be facing their own obstacles?

BC: Believe in yourself. It is especially hard for young women to do so as we are socialised to seek validation or advice from others. But trust yourself and you have the answers inside you to face any challenge that comes your way.

Peggy Chan

Founder, Grassroots Initiatives

As one of Hong Kong’s top chefs and a leader in the plant-based food movement, Peggy Chan has raised awareness about food sourcing, sustainability and eco-friendly dining habits for the past two decades and counting. The Hong Kong-born, Montreal-raised chef also helmed Grassroots Pantry for 2012, before establishing Grassroots Initiatives in 2020.

With her new company, Chan develops sustainable dining concepts for hotels, restaurants and schools; consults on sustainable operations; trains aspiring plant-based chefs, funds local regenerative farms and waste reduction projects, and shares her passion for plant-based nutrition.

She is also gearing up to release a digital cookbook, “Provenance (譜珍譜法)”, with more than 80 plant-based recipes, many of which have been adapted from classic Hong Kong dishes.

Chan shares her best advice for young women, the biggest obstacles in her career and what keeps her motivated in and out of the kitchen:

Ariana: You’ve been a chef, restaurant owner, speaker and consultant. How would you describe your journey?

Peggy Chan: I founded Grassroots Pantry in 2012 to use the restaurant platform as a way to inform, educate and share knowledge about the inequities of our food system. By the end of 2019, when we saw the increase in interest and normalisation of plant-based dining in the region, we felt it was time for us to move on to bigger things.

Before then I had already been approached to consult for both private and public institutions, so it was only a natural progression to use the 20 years of experience I have gained in F&B, sustainability, nutrition and entrepreneurship to help other food-service companies achieve their sustainability goals.

Ariana: You’re a plant-based, female chef in a meat- and male-heavy profession. What have been the biggest challenges?

PC: I think it’s important to re-tune the perception of ourselves as women – or in my case, as a woman and a plant-based chef – to understand that we actually do not have to conform to the status quo, or act ‘just like them’ in order to achieve success.

Even as women, we’re conditioned to act obnoxious, masculine and sometimes borderline vulgar in the food industry just to be taken seriously by men or our bosses, which I think is absurd!

By not conforming, staying rebellious, creating our own workplace cultures, designing our own path to what we deem as success, and breaking glass ceilings along the way, that’s how we can recreate women’s representations in male-dominated professions.

Ariana: How have you managed to stay rebellious?

PC: I just ignore the noise, protect my bubble and keep trekking onwards! I think it helps that I’m extremely stubborn – a classic Taurus trait – have never been a follower of the general population, and won’t ever let anybody tell me that I can’t.

Ariana: How has your mindset changed from the early days of your career?

PC: I was so young, an absolute idealist, and had so much hope for the human race. Although I have experienced all sorts of let-down, frustrations, disappointments and betrayal but never have I felt that I didn’t do my best to stay positive and hopeful.

I also feel more heard now than I was starting out, so it helps because now you know you have a community of hopeful actionists who all just want to do their best for the planet.

I used to feel more alone but this community we’ve built now – made up of climate and environmental activists, sustainability experts, farmers, plant-based chefs – are now basically my anchor. Working together to achieve a similar goal is the best feeling in the world.

“I think it’s important to re-tune the perception of ourselves as women to understand that we actually do not have to conform to the status quo, or act ‘just like them’ in order to achieve success.”

Peggy Chan

Ariana: What’s the most important quality one can have?

PC: Integrity, integrity, integrity. I knew this before I went into business, and I still know this now. It takes years to build up trust, seconds to destroy it, but forever to repair.

Ariana: What piece of advice did you receive that’s stuck with you?

PC: Consider your weaknesses as a challenge. Work on them.

PC: Try to see challenges as opportunities, listen to your gut instincts and surround yourself with good people.

Grace Cheng

General Manager, Fair Employment Agency

Foreign domestic workers have long been vulnerable to forced labour and recruitment debt with little legal recourse in Hong Kong. Setting out to offer an ethical way to hire domestic workers by removing worker placement fees, Scott Stiles, David Bishop and Tammy Baltz founded non-profit Fair Employment Agency (FEA) in 2014.

Hongkonger Grace Cheng was one of the very first staff members they hired. Cheng worked as the agency’s recruitment manager for several years and was recently promoted to General Manager, now running FEA’s day-to-day operations, strategic development and regional expansion efforts.

Grace explains how the agency adapted to challenges posed by COVID-19, maintaining a growth mindset and why every little effort matters:

Ariana: When did you join the Fair Employment Agency?

Grace Cheng: I graduated from Hong Kong University in 2015 with a degree in sociology, then became one of Fair Employment Agency’s first-ever employees. It’s been a journey to grow with the organisation.

It was myself, our co-founders in those first few months with an ambitious goal to end the forced labour of migrant domestic workers by building an ethical domestic worker agency. We grew quickly within our first years showing that there had always been demand for a better way to hire domestic workers.

We now are a team of over 20 staff in two branch locations and one of the top 10 biggest agencies in Hong Kong placing Filipino domestic workers.

Ariana: What’s it like to run an ethical recruitment agency?

GC: The domestic worker recruitment business is a challenging one. Each job, household, employer, and worker is unique. That means, if we are to help make successful, long-lasting hires, we need to give each placement fresh and personalised attention.

On top of that, there are the complexities of visa processing. But while these things do make it harder to scale quickly, they’re what makes our job interesting and meaningful. Then, there’s the fact this is a very old industry with a history of problems – from indebting workers to misleading employers.

The good news is that our six years of operations is a testament to the fact that we can make domestic worker hiring better for everyone, and that’s what people want.

Ariana: How has FEA fared so far during the pandemic?

GC: 2020 was a challenging year globally, and migrant domestic workers were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Travel restrictions meant that timelines for workers to get to their jobs and employers were lengthened by months with costs adding on. Early on, policies were changing every week and our team really stepped up to make sure we could push through to get workers to their jobs safely.

For our workers and employers who were already working together, they needed our support to navigate the totally new situations for their working relationships with employers working from home, schools being closed, heightened concerns about hygiene.

Ariana: What keeps you going?

GC: Every day I come into an office of people who know that our services are more than just about doing business – it’s about setting a standard. We constantly come back to this and it’s what keeps us going.

Ariana: And what’s your philosophy when it comes to challenges?

GC:  Challenges often can also be opportunities for growth. Remember to take a long-view in the work that you do. Real, lasting change comes with many small actions over time. A challenge today may be a stepping stone for years down the road.

“Challenges can also be opportunities for growth. Remember to take a long-view in the work that you do. Real, lasting change comes with many small actions over time.”

Grace Cheng

Do you #ChoosetoChallenge this International Women’s Day? 

Strike a #ChoosetoChallenge pose with your hand high to show your commitment to choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world.

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