Women in Leadership: Lessons from Finance, Technology, and Higher Education

As part of International Women's Day 2023 celebrations, a panel discussion on “Women in Leadership: Lessons in Finance, Technology and Higher Education” was held at the Singapore Management University (SMU) on 15 March 2023.

Co-organised by SMU, BlackRock, and Singapore Computer Society, the event was an opportunity to encourage young women and men to act on gender equity issues at school and at work, and advise future women leaders on taking charge of their development and career.

Women leaders on the panel comprised Prof Lily Kong, President and Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences, SMU; Deborah Ho, Country Head of Singapore and Head of Southeast Asia, BlackRock; Elena Okorochenko, MD and Head of Asia-Pacific, S&P Global Ratings; and, Mihoko Matsubara, Chief Cybersecurity Strategist, NTT Corporation. The session was moderated by Prof Lim Sun Sun, Vice President, Partnerships & Engagement, and Professor of Communication & Technology, SMU.

The panel from different industries – technology, finance and education – shared inspiring and heartfelt stories on their professional experiences, important leadership lessons, and how they addressed and overcame gender inequity at their respective workplaces.

For Ms Matsubara, she graduated with a degree in Renaissance history but was interested in contributing to the security of her country and thus joined the Japanese Defence Ministry. She then became more interested in International security and decided to pursue a Masters degree in Cybersecurity in the United States. This forced her to write and present in English, even though it has never been her first language, and eventually, she could think, analyse, speak, write and give her take on cybersecurity from the Asian perspective. She says, “Nothing should stop you from pursuing your career path, in tech or cybersecurity, as long as you have aspirations and also you are adventurous to try something new. Be brave to ask for help and push yourself further.

Ms Okorochenko, she found her way to Singapore after working in Moscow and London, and moved from analytical/technical roles into commercial roles. She feels it is important to be open minded to assignments, particularly overseas ones (especially when young and have fewer obligations at home), as experiencing and living in different parts of the world broadens one’s mindset. The other thing she advises is for one to develop a passion – “if you have a passion for your job, that energy around you will be contagious such that people around you will want to follow you and you will become a natural leader (even if you are not an appointed one). It doesn’t have to be the entire job, but just one aspect of it. Establish your brand and people will feel your energy and be inspired by you.” For her, she enjoys mentoring people and helping women grow their potential and today, she hopes to influence people beyond her direct reports.

Despite being a leader in the finance industry, Ms Ho never chose to study finance. It was only when she attended lectures at the University of Washington that she felt the energy and passion of her lecturer that it opened her mind and piqued her curiosity in finance. She added that “connecting the dots with people” is what drives her. “For all of us that are operating in society, especially for women – we are mothers, sisters, workers, citizens and friends – what are we? We are connectors, and in order to do what we do well, we need to be able to learn how to join the dots.” To her at this stage of her career, she also feels that it is so important for her to do everything she can to help and equip succeeding generations, to ensure that they can perform their tasks well and succeed in society. 

For Prof Kong, she had always been inspired to teach and wanted to be a teacher. She was grateful to be offered a job in academia upon graduation and seized the opportunity to do her PhD and later teach and do research. She realised she enjoyed being in a classroom as the most innocent or fundamental questions asked by students make her think deeper about things that she may have taken for granted. She says, “That questioning keeps the mind alive, and if there is nothing else you do, I hope that you will always carry it with you in whatever work it is that you are in.” She feels that this is the fundamental premise of research, as one is asking a question and looking for a different perspective and this is what drives her. Prof Kong is also grateful for the opportunity to move into management roles as she had to learn so many aspects such as finance, investment and cyber security in order to run a university and feels that “the beauty of being in management is to be able to bring teams together to make a difference that is actually going to influence the next generation. It is a dream job!”

Summing up the session, Prof Lim shared these key takeaways for growing one’s career:

  1. Find that passion to energise yourself and others.
  2. Stay curious, to always enjoy learning, to give you that sense of purpose and bring you peace of mind.
  3. Be a connector – join the dots for people and work towards building your own network to support you throughout the highs and lows of your career.
  4. Setbacks are ok. Just believe in yourself, don’t take setbacks personally as sometimes things are beyond your control.
  5. Look out for mentors/sponsors who can help you. Be unafraid to ask for help if you need it
  6. Be prepared to take risks.
  7. Always overprepare.

The event ended with a networking session, where students and guests had the opportunity to engage with industry leaders and representatives from BlackRock.