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Leaving an indelible mark on the international stage

More Singapore women are taking on overseas work assignments. We speak to three senior female executives on their journeys.

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"Contributing to the success of Sulzer and making my teams get excited with their work and development are what gives me fun and fulfilment. I enjoy "planting seeds and growing trees" when cultivating talents; perhaps that's my DNA from having grown up in the garden city of Singapore." - Jill Lee

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"As a Singaporean abroad, we learn to appreciate many of the things we often take for granted, like public housing, CPF... In terms of gender diversity, I find that both markets have moved quite rapidly towards embracing diversity, not just gender but age, race and ethnicity." - Pearlyn Phau

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"I learnt that it is possible to not only survive but thrive with the right level of creativity, focus, resilience and courage. Most of all, I now fully appreciate the immigrant "can-do" attitude that our forefathers had when they left their homes to build their new homes and fortunes in Singapore many years ago." - Jenny Lee

JILL LEE
Chief Financial Officer, Sulzer
(Based in Switzerland)

EARLIER this year, Jill Lee was appointed Chief Financial Officer and a member of the executive committee at Sulzer, a Swiss-listed global industrial company founded in 1834. She had been a board member of Sulzer since 2011, and Chair of the Audit Committee since 2016.

Prior to joining Sulzer, Ms Lee was the Group Senior Vice-President and Head of Next Level Program Management at ABB. She has also held senior finance and other executive positions at Neptune Orient Lines and Siemens.

What have been some of the highlights of your experiences working abroad?

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I have spent a total of 13 years outside of Singapore, having worked in China, Germany and Switzerland, where I still reside. Looking back, I would not have imagined myself having an international career.

It all began when my former company, Siemens, presented me the opportunity in 2004 to relocate to Beijing to become the first woman and Asian CFO for their China country organisation.

Encouraged by my husband, we moved to Beijing with our then 12-year-old son. This marked the start of my exciting overseas career, as well as an incredibly enriching and enjoyable experience for my family living abroad.

My husband switched roles to become a homemaker, and I am absolutely convinced that he is the stabilising force for my successful career and our fulfilling family life abroad. Living abroad has helped our family grow closer, and broadened our perspectives.

What do you hope to accomplish as CFO of Sulzer?

Sulzer is a very global company, also present in Singapore, and has an executive committee comprising four different nationalities. Prior to taking this position, I had been a member of the Board of Directors for Sulzer since 2011. This is quite an unusual career development. I see this to be an exciting opportunity to be operationally engaged in the realisation of the company's growth strategies.

Sulzer has a dynamic finance team with whom I am delighted to work. Contributing to the success of the company and making my teams get excited with their work and development are what gives me fun and fulfilment.

I enjoy "planting seeds and growing trees" when cultivating talents; perhaps that's my DNA from having grown up in the garden city of Singapore.

What are some of the challenges you face as a woman working overseas?

In my exchanges with other women executives, I think a major challenge for the married executives is the difficulty for their spouses to find an equivalent job abroad and to adjust to a new lifestyle. The latter seems less challenging for accompanying wives, who will typically also find it easier to build a new network of friends abroad.

It becomes even more challenging if the move is to a country outside Asia and where there is a language barrier.

How do you think Singapore compares to other countries in terms of gender equality in the corporate world?

As I am on the supervisory board of Signify (new name for Philips Lighting), I have also gained impressions of the Dutch working environment. Let me make the comparison of Singapore with Switzerland and the Netherlands, all being countries of smaller populations and market-based economies.

I observed that there is greater diversity in terms of nationalities on the senior leadership teams in the headquarters of Swiss and Dutch companies, with many coming from different European countries, Asia and the Americas. English is typically the working language in the global companies, and many of my colleagues are multilingual. Most of the management executives also have experience working in different countries. Large global companies are also consciously increasing gender diversity in their boardrooms and on the executive committee level.

For instance, the Netherlands and Switzerland are moving to enforce a soft rule to require companies to set targets on the presence of women on the board and at the management level.

Do you think enough women are prepared to take up overseas positions, and what are the benefits of doing so?

I don't have statistics on this point, but the opportunities for women to take on senior leadership roles are certainly improving in many countries. So there is a growing demand for women to take up overseas positions. Many Singaporean women, being well-educated, confident and eloquent, will certainly be fitting candidates. I do believe women are increasingly more prepared to accept overseas posting when these present attractive career moves, especially the ones who have gone abroad for their tertiary education.

Working abroad can open new horizons professionally and personally for women executives, as well as for their accompanying families.

What advice do you have for women hoping to venture abroad for work?

It's important to keep an open mindset and be prepared that the overseas posting can lead them to a longer than foreseen time abroad. If they are married, it has to be a family decision as it will be difficult to enjoy a happy and good career if they do not have the support of their loved ones.

I also recommend that the women remember to show appreciation to their spouses, particularly if they have had to switch roles to become homemakers.

PEARLYN PHAU
Deputy Group Head, Consumer Banking Group and Wealth Management,
DBS BANK (Formerly based in Hong Kong)

IN HER capacity as Deputy Group Head, Pearlyn has direct management oversight in the six markets that the DBS consumer bank operates. She joined DBS in 2003 and has assumed numerous leadership roles within DBS Group. Most recently, she was Head of Consumer Banking Group and Wealth Management, Hong Kong and before that, Regional Head of DBS Treasures and Treasures Private Client.

Ms Phau has more than 20 years of experience in the consumer banking industry. Prior to joining DBS Bank, she held various senior positions at Citibank in Singapore.

What were some of the highlights of working in Hong Kong?

After spending some years based out of Singapore in a regional role, I was offered the opportunity to head up the consumer banking business for DBS in Hong Kong in 2012. My son was then turning seven and about to start Primary 1 and my husband was in a regional role working for an MNC.

I was lucky as my husband was very supportive; in fact, he was the one who was more keen on me taking up the challenge initially. From a career point of view, I had been in several regional functional roles and it was about time to take an end-to-end in-country business role.

Going to DBS Hong Kong was not an entirely alien assignment though, as I had covered Hong Kong as part of my regional duties. Still, at a daily operational level, it required a different mindset and approach.

When we went, we told ourselves to embrace all that Hong Kong has to offer: the good, the bad and the ugly. To constantly compare with home is not constructive nor relevant. With that mindset, it opened up our eyes to Hong Kong as a locale. What impressed me was the willingness of the Hong Kongers to experiment, their ability to bounce back swiftly from setbacks and the creativity teeming all around me.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a woman and a Singaporean working in Hong Kong?

One of the biggest challenges was the speed at which you have to adjust. As a woman, you're usually also responsible for helping your family to adjust as well.

You have to re-learn a new work routine; at the same time you have to help your son re-learn a new school routine. You're setting up a new household at the same time you're adjusting to a new job.

At work, it's not just a new job, it's a new country. There are cultural differences. It means you need to have an open mind, and not claim to know it all. Listen first, don't assume it's exactly like Singapore.

You need to build a whole new set of connections and, importantly, to build trust with people with whom you do not share a common history.

How does working abroad compare to working in Singapore?

As a Singaporean abroad, we learn to appreciate many of the things we often take for granted, like public housing, CPF, the school system and urban planning. My Hong Kong colleagues often marvel at how well Singaporeans are taken care of while they have to learn to be extra nimble and self-reliant.

In terms of gender diversity, I find that both markets have moved quite rapidly towards embracing diversity, not just gender but age, race and ethnicity.

Maybe because I am in the financial industry, and in particular, consumer banking, I do find the ratio to be fair and representative. But perhaps because Hong Kong has a large international transient community, it does seem as if Hong Kong is ahead in achieving greater diversity.

Do you think enough women are prepared to take up overseas positions?

No, I don't think enough women make the move. Despite all the progress made by women in the workforce, the cultural expectations still tip towards attitudes that the woman follows the man overseas, rather than vice versa.

When I first started telling my friends that we were relocating, the usual response was "Oh great, has your husband been relocated?". The stereotypes make it that little bit tougher for women to take the leap. I think it's starting to change, but not quickly enough.

I think women need to step up to the plate more and I think companies need to help as well, and to have the policies that help women re-locate, to provide the support and to not assume that women won't move.

JENNY LEE
Managing Partner, GGV Capital
(Based in China)

JENNY LEE has made a name for herself as one of the world's top venture capitalists. Since 2011, she has been recognised by the Forbes Global 100 VC Midas List of top venture capitalists, ranking as the No 1 woman and 10th overall in 2015. In 2016, she was on the Vanity Fair New Establishment list, Fast Company Most Creative People in Business list and was recognised by The New York Times and CB Insights as one of the top 100 venture capital investors worldwide, ranking No 17, and one of only two selected from Mainland China.

Ms Lee joined GGV Capital in 2005 as a managing partner and was instrumental in setting up the firm's presence in China. She had previously worked at Singapore Technologies Aerospace, Morgan Stanley and JAFCO Asia.

As a woman working in China, what has been your experience?

I have been abroad for half my life, having spent six years in the United States and 17 years in China. It has been a humbling experience to live and compete with over 300 million Americans in the US and over 1.4 billion Chinese in China; the world's two largest markets. It has also been a wake-up call that it is a different, less protected world out there with new challenges, new fears and new opportunities every day.

I learnt that it is possible to not only survive but thrive with the right level of creativity, focus, resilience and courage. Most of all, I now fully appreciate the immigrant "can-do" attitude that our forefathers had when they left their homes to build their new homes and fortunes in Singapore many years ago.

What excites you most about your job as a venture capitalist, and what do you hope to achieve in this role over the long haul?

My job as a venture investor allows me to work with entrepreneurs with a passion to change the world via new products, services and technologies. The sparkle in their eyes, the passion in their belief and the opportunity to share that mission and dream gets me excited every day. My goal is simple; to continue to find visionary entrepreneurs and leverage capital, the experience, the pattern recognition and network I have accumulated over the years to make a difference in the markets I operate in.

What are some of the challenges you face as a woman and a Singaporean working overseas?

I have experienced many challenges that a typical entrepreneur faces when setting up a first office in a new market like China. Making my first hire, my first investment, figuring out my first M&A deal, working through shutting down a failed investment and finally experiencing my first IPO. I have not considered these challenges that I have had to face because I am a woman or a Singaporean working overseas. Rather, I view them as the typical trials any good VC investor would have to go through to ace the sector. To me, a challenge is a puzzle or a problem to be solved hence they are not depressing moments for me.

How does working in China compare to working in Singapore?

My work in Singapore, which focused on design and engineering, was rather different from my job as a VC investor in global markets. Both offered me a very interesting but different perspective into the product design world and the entrepreneurial world. Both jobs required me to work with people from all walks of life, different genders, different personalities. If I were to highlight a difference, I would say that Singaporeans have better food options, have no need to worry about food safety or air pollution or sitting out five-hour traffic jams on six-lane roads!

In the corporate world, both the engineering and VC investor worlds have a lower female-to-male ratio. I think it's more industry-specific than country-specific. I hope to see this ratio get better over time with more women opting to take on these rewarding jobs and I believe the industry will benefit from more diverse and different perspectives.

Do you think enough women are prepared to take up overseas positions?

My personal belief is the path to learning lies not in geographic borders but in mental borders.

With information transparency and communication overload from the Internet and news outlets in our modern world, one can travel, work and interact with the world from any location. I would encourage women to trust in their own abilities, their own dreams, focus on positive energy and make things happen in their own ways, right there in their own backyards or homes.

We do not need to take up overseas positions to make a difference. We can start today by competing on our strengths and worry less about our shortcomings.