International Women’s Day – Transcending Boundaries

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    There will be a lot written and said on International Women’s Day (IWD) about women who are role models, more women on Boards, equality and opportunity. All very worthy topics, but it is also an opportunity to look more broadly at the paths available to each of us.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to serve at board level within a large global investment company. I’m an analyst and fund manager. I’m a homemaker too. These days, I’m also the first woman to sit on the Board of Olam International. Yet, at the risk of cutting across IWD’s core purpose, I hope no-one sees my path as the ‘right’ one.  Mine is but one of many possible paths.

    I believe real equality comes from each of us – men and women, having the freedom to make our own tracks knowing no boundaries apply. We should each believe our horizons are limitless.

    I’m only slightly younger than Singapore. I was brought up in what was then an emerging economy, by a grandmother who was a homemaker, and a mother who is a gynaecologist – one of the first assisted and in vitro fertility specialists in Singapore.

    I was taught the right opportunities would come if I put in an honest effort, faced uncertainties with courage, and was determined to do the best I could. I don’t think any of my convent school friends thought in terms of boundaries; we were exhorted to strive for excellence in everything we did.

    Of course, each of us must make choices and learn to prioritise along the way. We are all unique, different. There is no single ideal model for a meaningful life. Our time is finite so we should use it well and derive pleasure from the journey and the learning process, not just from the result.

    Along the way, we can learn a lot from those around us. My grandmother was one of the few women of her generation to be educated – yet excelled in all the homemaking skills of her culture. Her life followed the traditional path. She brought stepchildren previously fostered out back into the family, kept the family together during the war. She gave birth to two children, but had twelve who saw her as mother. It brought her joy and fulfillment. My mother, in contrast, did not have much time for homemaking – she was often away overseas training. She worked long hours in the hospital, but her every moment of free time was with us. My mother’s career is a passion that has brought her great fulfillment, yet she remained devoted to her family.

    The fact is, these women in my life chose their own paths with pride. It’s been their biggest influence on me but their paths have not, in the end, defined mine.

    It may sound more purposeful to say I had a plan; that is simply not true. Anathema as it is in today’s goal-oriented world, I must admit that serendipity has played an enormous role in shaping my life. I found my way into Oxford by happenstance. My profession as a fund manager came from an impromptu decision to attend a presentation by The Capital Group Companies.

    What that’s taught me is that at each junction in life, we should be open to the unexpected. Sometimes, the turns we take in life’s path only make sense when viewed with hindsight.

    When I stepped back from the cut and thrust of full time corporate life and focused on being a homemaker, many questioned my sanity. After all, these were professional achievements many strive hard for. But I saw being a mother and homemaker as no less significant – in fact, more so. In the end, that move has given me time to focus on family and community, and the opportunity to take stock and tackle corporate responsibilities where I could contribute in different ways.

    Luck plays a part too. I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful mentors – both men and women – without whom my lack of a grand plan may have proven a greater drawback. These include my university tutor who believed in a callow youth and remains a friend to this day, managers who allowed me to make investment mistakes and learn from them, Olam for welcoming me on to the Board when it was a first for me and a first for them.

    I’ve learned that leaping onto life’s chances is so much more fulfilling when accompanied by friends. I’ve learned that giving due consideration to those who have helped us along begets valuable, yet true and enduring friendships. In turn, nurturing talent and mentoring younger people gives something back but is equally rewarding.

    Each new step we take into the unknown increases the arsenal of knowledge and experience we can deploy in the future. Grabbing the opportunities life throws into your path sometimes requires taking risks. Have courage.  If the journey is worth embarking on, don’t be hung up over outcomes. Some things may not come easily – yet perseverance overcomes much. We all thrive when each of us does something meaningful and does it well – whatever we choose to do.

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