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Empowered Women Empower Women: 5 Questions with Grace Park, Christina Teo, and Tjin Lee on International Women’s Day 2019

Today, on 8 March, we commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD) – a global event that celebrates the successes of women, particularly in challenging traditional gender expectations and norm. The event also symbolises an impetus of gender parity, which is a core theme that works in tandem with this year’s IWD core theme: Balance for Better.

We sat down with three women leaders: Co-Founder and President of DocDoc, Grace Park; Chief Builder of she1K, Christina Teo; and Founder of Mercury Marketing & Communications, Tjin Lee. We discussed how these leaders have embodied this year’s theme to tear down all gender expectations – especially one in a conservative culture like Singapore’s.

1. What does this year’s International Women’s Day slogan, Balance for Better, mean to you?

Grace Park
46-year-old Grace Park is the Co-founder and President of DocDoc. She has more than 20 years of leadership experience in the military and healthcare sectors.

Grace: For me, ‘Balance for Better’ is an emphasis on the opportunity to allow women to have an equal place at the start line, (and) for women to have a fair shot at these leadership positions. Women make up half of the world population, but only a small fraction within the entire population hold significant leadership positions where critical decisions are made. Regardless of race, religion, gender, and whatever you name it; (IWD is) for all of us to have a fair start at the start line and to have parity.

Tjin: Balance for Better, in my opinion, is how we as women juggle every aspect of our lives. We have a lot of balls in the air, and we are constantly juggling everything – from work, relationships, family – and to me, it is trying to keep everything moving in a good place as much as possible.

Christina: What it means for me is collective consciousness and collective action, leveraging each other and the community, and for the media to drive better actions to bring more balance to relationships – both personally and professionally.

2. How important is it for women to lift each other up?

Grace: It is imperative. From my previous experience as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, as an officer in the Army, and as a corporate executive in Fortune 500 companies, I personally experienced that the toughest critics were generally senior women in my organizations. What is interesting is that there is research that confirms women in more senior roles can be unduly tougher to junior women moving up the ranks.

Often, the intentions of these ‘hazing’ came from a place of fear or insecurity; these women are in roles in which they stand out more – only 10% of the military personnel were women in the military during then. Female senior cadets or officers felt obliged to make it tougher for women who made it past a certain point. My sense is that this behaviour may stem from fear and insecurity. Whatever the source may be, I believe that self-awareness is important in making progress for women helping other women. By lifting each other up and building supportive networks, many more unforeseen opportunities may open up.

Christina: When women are in the right place with the right mind, they can do so much for themselves, and for others. Being in the right place and mind means self-love and self-care. We need to first feel empowered before we can empower others. We need to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with each other. Women who are vulnerable or allow themselves to be vulnerable will find that they have the power to lift others – sharing not just about adversities but about how we rise above them. There is a particular resonance between women and women, and there lies the possibility of lifting each other. Having said that, it is also good to have a balanced view from our fellow men as well.

Tjin: I feel we have an obligation, or rather, a responsibility to help others if we are in a position to do so. If we all turn a blind eye, society will never get better. We can all remember a time when we needed a hand. As a young woman, if you had a mentor or someone to guide you or someone to open the door, you would have really appreciated it. So why not be that person today?

3. Was there ever a significant challenge that changed your life?

Grace: When I look back at my 20 something years of experience, a recurring theme pops up: I often put myself in environments in which I am out of my comfort zone. Whether it was in the corporate or military world, I have faced every type of challenge, be it operational or social challenges.

Each of my roles has always had clear performance targets, (and) hitting them was the measure of success. In the midst of hitting the targets, there will always be people who criticise you, and in these moments, I always focus on the things that I have control over and not on the chatter which I have no control over. One of my favourite speeches of all time is Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”, and in it, he shared that in the middle of the fight in a boxing ring, you might get blood and you might get beaten up, but that’s part of the journey: There will be people watching you from the ring, and they will criticise you. But the critics do not matter. Dissect and see if the feedback is constructive; but, if you follow through and digest it in a way you believe it, you become your own worst enemy. In life, a lot boils down to believing in yourself and muting the critics.

Everyone is going to have an opinion; someone who is doing something worthy of magnitude would inevitably face critics in their life: man or woman. The tallest poppy gets chopped off – take all this in as part of life.

Christina: Throughout my career, every job I have done has been something I have never done before. I love every piece of work, and when you are motivated, you do not even see this as a challenge. Two years ago when I returned to Singapore, I encountered the phenomenon of running a maritime startup accelerator for the first time. I had no knowledge of the industry or what accelerators do. I was uncertain, and my complacency did not help either, because I reached a stage in life where I thought, “It’s okay that the world has passed you by and that there is no need to keep up”.

However, the transition was tough because I needed to be plugged into my own home country again after leaving for three decades – with only two intermittent returns for IBM and Yahoo!. Hence, everything was back to basics as I had to re-establish friendships and I needed to ground myself in Singapore for my elderly mother.

Christina Teo
At the age of 55, Christina Teo is the Chief Builder of she1k and also the Director of PortXL – the world’s first Port & Maritime Accelerator.

I was looking for reasons to leave again, but my mother was more or less under my sole care. In finding that purpose, I did everything that was out of my comfort zone; even being so enthralled in “women” kind of work or community was so unlike me. It would have been easy to stick to my comfort zone. But it was through meeting enough kind people in the start-up world who were spontaneous in sharing information and connections that truly uplifted me. The moral of the story is, “it is never too late.

Tjin: No entrepreneur ever got to success without a struggle, period. Without struggling, you do not grow. I feel (that) failing and learning is what makes you wiser and that if you go through life without a struggle, you never really learn.

I don’t think you could ever quantify a challenge as the most significant. There will be multiple challenges in every phase of your life where different things are important. Every year you’ll think to yourself, “If I could just achieve this milestone, I would have made it”, and every time you get to that new milestone, you will realise that it opens the doors for new challenges. So in that sense, you continuously grow, and there will never be one biggest challenge.

Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg spoke when she came to Singapore for our Fashion Week, and she told us exactly that. She kept saying to herself, “If I could get just ten people in my team, it would be good since they can help me with my work”. But once Diane got the ten people, new issues arose, like taking care of her employees’ welfare and other logistical matters. She began thinking that fifty people in her team would help her better. She got the fifty people and new issues came up again – finding an office big enough to house everyone, the staff benefits, etc. The challenges will always get bigger as we all evolve, whether it be in our personal (life) or in our career progression.

4. With the recent waves of feminist movements, which ones have moved you?

Grace: The Time’s Up movement. Kudos to the courageous women who set a domino in motion that dislodged and defamed the group of men who were once powerful and elite, and have used their positions to prey on young vulnerable women seeking career advancement.

With all these in momentum, unfortunately, the movements can become diluted because women limited in integrity can use this for their own political game. The movement’s intention is noble, and it is needed – but just because you are a woman and you have a case does not mean you join the bandwagon. There is an accountability that is required, and some of these women are not being honest. Making claims also comes with great accountability.

Tjin: I can’t say any specifically because there are flip sides and dangers to many of these campaigns. I think the movements are worthy for what they represent and what they stand for; they certainly are empowering for women.

Tjin Lee
Founder of Mercury Marketing & Communications, Tjin Lee, 45, strikes a charming smile to the camera as she demonstrates the “Balance for Better” IWD 2019 pose

But I also feel we should work with men when it comes to women’s empowerment rather than alienating men from these campaigns. We need to realise that 90% of policymakers are men, and we should be having these conversations with men. (While) I think that the #MeToo movement had its good and authenticity, it did get to the point where male CEOs (feel intimidated and) said, ” I don’t even dare to casually ask my female employees what they are doing after work anymore.” Then it becomes a disadvantage hiring women versus hiring men because, with men, you can slap their backs and say, “Hey, well done bro!” But when it comes to a woman, you might be apprehensive with the physical contact because you might get worried she feels like you are overstepping your boundaries.

So while the (intentions) are good and we have to address it, let’s not take it too far. Anything that is excessive can be harmful.

Christina: I do not talk about women as victims. I love to position women in strength in all my activities and initiatives. And, it is difficult to separate noise versus reality. Often the message gets thwarted and only exacerbates the messages and the messenger.

5. Any advice for girls and women out there?

Grace: I would give the same advice I give to my daughter: number one, work hard – because there’s no substitute for hard work, focused discipline, and persistence. Number 2 is to find your authentic self and to forge your values. Otherwise, the world will test you, and if that is not solid, then there could be a lot more challenges. Number 3 is to love yourself. There are two different kinds of motivations – fear or love. Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it is short-lived. When you do something based out of love, however, you tap into something much greater that will sustain you through the long run.

Christina: Be strong! Celebrate strength. Empower others.

If you are an accomplished corporate woman, you do not need to quit your job to start an enterprise. You can angel invest and leverage your expertise and support younger entrepreneurs. If you are thinking of exploring entrepreneurship, be clear on what your business model is, know how you would want the enterprise to look like in the future, and be sure that you have a decent addressable market. If you are fresh from school, I would still vote for joining an enterprise before dabbling on your own. The strategic thinking and experience you gain from that is an excellent asset to entrepreneurship that schools don’t teach you.

Tjin: Never be afraid to try. If you try and fail, you can try again. If you never try, you will never succeed. The fear of failure keeps many of us from trying, but in life, we have to lose some.

It is all about perseverance and resilience because it is what takes you through in life. It is easy to start a business – anyone can do that – but making it past the three to five-year mark requires that grit and resilience which is the difference between succeeding and failing.  

We tend to compare ourselves to that perfect benchmark, and we all feel like we are falling short of that benchmark – we all do. It is getting tough for young people to understand this because they grew up with this; to always think that they have fallen short. That is the greatest shame: we do not realise that social media might be a big part of our lives, but we need to stop comparing ourselves to others and live our own life.

Photos by Brandon Neo and Goh Jing Wen of the DANAMIC team, and courtesy of Christina Teo.

Hwong Wei Chua

That unfunny, untalented dude who tells self-deprecating jokes of himself. A pretty damn good bottle-flipper too.

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