Graduation speech: Christina Law MBA’91D

At the INSEAD graduation ceremony on 20 December 2017 in Singapore, Christina delivered the following message to the Class of 2017D.

Dear Dean Mihov, dear Dean Peyer, dear faculty and staff members of INSEAD, dear alumni, and importantly, the Class of December 17, and your family and friends joining you at this important occasion.

First of all, thank you dean for inviting me to speak to this special class. I’m not going to give you a world summit type of business talk, but I want to relate to you as an alumna, to the-soon-to-be alumni on the personal journey and experience I had at and after INSEAD.

Twenty-seven years ago, at around this time in December, I flew to Fontainebleau from Hong Kong and there started an adventure that I would never have expected. To be clear, it was extremely challenging for me at the beginning. Plunging into the European cold, grey weather to an unknown school I have only heard by remote reputation back then, surrounded by strangers who seemed to be far more intelligent, confident, professionally and financially established.

Now, I came from a humble background. I was amongst the youngest in the class. And people were rapid-firing in English and in French, half of which I could not even catch. I thought I was a high flyer with solid corporate experience working across cultures before I came to INSEAD. Right after I arrived, I was very certain that the admission team, possibly after too much French wine, had made a huge mistake accepting me.

At the time, the school also has a very different profile—only 4% Asian. It’s very difficult to fathom now, but only 12% women. And I was the only one speaking Chinese as a mother tongue. I didn’t have a lot of obvious people I could immediately relate to. The classes were demanding, as you know. The work group, which had many different personalities, was constantly debating, arguing, re-arguing.

My own confidence was broken into tiny pieces. I could literally see them scattered in front of me on the floor. So it began a personal 10 months of moulding process like that in the crustaceans’ world—preparing, performing, and recovering from shedding my old self into hopefully a stronger and better version of me. A newfound confidence gradually returned and one built upon not only my own perspective and experience, but now enhanced and shaped by the diverse views and exchanges with the others.

My Asian female background plus the unique insights from working back then in the just-opened China economy hopefully have helped contributed to the learnings of the others. But that’s what the INSEAD magic is about: Challenging us, transforming us, opening up our mind, forcing us to build and rebuild confidence.

When I finished the programme like you’re sitting here now, I had a renewed sense of the world around me and the journey had really just begun. 1991 was an extremely challenging year from a job market standpoint, as it was when the Gulf War took place. Do you remember Desert Storm? That was when it was launched.

But somehow INSEAD enabled a triple change for me—a sector change from petroleum to consumer goods, a function change from supply trading to brand marketing, and a location change from Hong Kong to Geneva.

“What INSEAD prepared for me wasn’t so much the textbook knowledge or case studies, but truly the ability to work with and develop sound judgment, incorporating the brilliance of diverse minds.”

Read more

I’ve now been in the consumer sector for 26 years, having worked on all kinds of product categories from leading a function in a single market to leading the overall businesses with regional or global teams, coming from very different cultures and ethnicities. I’m enjoying every day—well, most of the days—and have probably more energy now than when I started. I am grateful for this amazing adventure and labelled by INSEAD and I’m even more excited about the new journey that you’re all going to embark on.

Before you take off though, I thought maybe I will be able to share a few of my personal reflections which might be of use to you. So on a recent company meeting, I asked my top 80 leaders the following questions as we think about our careers and our lives: Am I making a difference? Am I doing the right things? Am I enjoying myself?

So let me start with, am I making a difference? It’s not really about saving the world, or saving lives, it is amazing though if you can and you are. But in whatever industries and functions that we choose to be in, will we be making a positive difference as a result of the work that we do?

Now the consumer goods industries are not as sexy compared to the tech world, or the start-ups, but

“I am so motivated every day knowing that the brands and products that I’ve worked on over the years are in millions of homes, solving a problem or bringing delight to families every single day.”

A gentle bath wash or baby oil to help young parents looking after their new-borns; a discreet sanitary napkin for girls or effective acne gel that you have all used I’m sure, to navigate the awkward puberty; or serving people with food that they love. What keeps me and my organisation motivated and excited is the impact we create for our consumers, our customers, our farmers, our suppliers, to the broader community that we serve and support with our CSR and sustainability programme.

Now, some time ago, I remember packing my bag one long, long, long evening years ago for a business trip and I brought along a sleeping bag. So my husband was a bit worried he said, “Your company is under financial distress; they can’t even afford your hotel?” and then he became even more concerned when I told him that, no it wasn’t about that. I was actually planning to sleep with a consumer in the Philippines.

I did, and she was a new mother from a mid, low-income household. I was there to understand her night-time routine with her baby. In that family, the husband slept in the only small bedroom they have in the house. The mother slept separately on the floor outside with a baby so her husband would not be disturbed as he needed to get up very early for work. I lay in my sleeping bag next to the mom and child. It was a rough night. A street rat came in and made his trips above our heads, searching for food.

After a while the baby woke up, crying. The cloth diaper was soaked. She needed to stop the baby crying right away so dad won’t be awakened. A strategy was to put a bottle in his mouth so he would drift back to sleep after sucking for a while. This cycle repeated itself two times that night. He was feeding and wetting; we were tired and exhausted. What she really needed in that family was an affordable but quality diaper. She tried some before didn’t work. She couldn’t afford more expensive versions. But with the right diaper her baby could have slept through the night.

It’s actually very important to know for very young parents, if you are out there, that uninterrupted sleep for babies are critical. It’s actually important to know that it has a direct relationship to neuroplasticity, which is a structural and functional change in a brain brought on by training and experience. What it means is that baby process what they learn and saw in the day at night-time—that’s part of brain development. With the right help the family could also sleep on the same bed instead away from the wandering rats.

So these consumer learnings drove the team, drove me, it resulted in development at the time of a low-cost diaper which would last up to eight hours. And they are designed for emerging market consumers.

I can go on and on, whether it’s the development of the best sunscreen that can prevent skin cancer and other UVA, UVB damages, that is not greasy for use. The healthy snacks that kids and parents both want because they are both nutritious and delicious. But even today, I make time visiting homes, talking to consumers when I travel to different parts of the world. I’ll be going to Brazil soon—I just came back from India—to learn about their aspiration, their evolving needs, figuring out then with my cross-functional teams ideas or technologies or solution that can help make their daily lives better.

What about you? What difference do you want to make? What norm are you challenging? What status quo will you be pushing? How will you be able to positively impact the people that you’re going to serve?

Now, am I doing the right thing? That’s the second question I asked. In September ’92 in London, I had the opportunity to watch a play I don’t know whether anyone of you have watched that, it’s called “An Inspector Calls.” It’s written by English dramatist J. B. Priestley. The story was about a family being called on by an inspector regarding a suicide. So it was to review upon interrogation that each of the family member who didn’t seem to be initially related to the young woman was in fact responsible for her eventual death. The play made a huge impression on me, reminding me that my words and actions every day can have a lasting impact to someone I may be directly or indirectly linked with.

We are in a particular challenging world today. It’s uncertain, sometimes frightening, these heightened issues, given the divisive political landscape across the world. Business model changes being brought on by technology and digital revolution, real versus fake information, connectivity versus privacy, pollution, climate changes. The recent string of sexual harassment scandals and #metoo movement reviewed the deep-seated problem across sectors and across the world.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked with companies with extremely strong values and ethical standards. It’s so strong as part of a DNA that I would never accept any other way or move to another company which displays anything less stringent than that. But having said that, people even in these companies and elsewhere will make mistakes. Corruption, fraud, forgery, misrepresentation, harassment, still happen.

As leaders, we need to make sure that we establish the ethical, moral and value comforts that our organisation can use to guide their behaviour and decision-making, and with a needed training governance and control in place. And females in business can be more vulnerable. Apart from the potential of harassment and assaults, there exists also intimidation that are shaped by a broader cultural norm of a country apart from what’s in a company’s own workplace.

So I recalled when I was a young brand manager, taking over a business in South Korea, I flew over from Geneva to Seoul with my two European male colleagues, who were my predecessor as well as my finance manager. And we were there to meet our business partner, a large Korean company. I walked into the big long meeting room, I still remember that so vividly with at least 10 men sitting on one side and I sit in the middle opposite to them on the other side.

The head of the company, a male in his late 50s or early 60s, started off my first meeting with him with, “Are you married?” If I was surprised, I try my best not to show. I slowly said, “I am not. How about you?” He did not answer my question and continued, “How old are you?” I then look straight in his eyes with a slight polite smile, “It’s really not nice to as a woman her age in front of everybody else. Maybe I’ll tell you later.” He then backed off after some more exchanges and we were able to see each other eye to eye from that day forward.

I’ve had similar situations in other countries. Some men might not even look at you when they talk.

“I learned the importance of carrying myself with confidence, professionalism and authenticity, and to convey in no lack of clarity when needed that you will not be intimidated no matter how important that individual, that meeting or that deal was.”

Today, I still, too often, find myself in many external senior leaders industry forums where I will be the only, or at most, amongst a handful of female present. So there’s still a long way to go when it comes to much more diverse senior executives make up. In our company, we have a Women in Leadership initiative where we create a platform for women to exchange ideas, to get training and support, and to remove or at least pre-empt gender-related barriers that could prevent women to excel.

When I travel, I will meet with the female colleagues in the company there that share my own experience and support. And will also involve our male colleagues when their awareness or contribution to create a right working environment will be required.

So as we think about competing in this complex world, ever-changing world today, will you commit to holding yourself first to the highest value standard so you can in turn set the right tone at the top to hold your teams to the same?

Now, am I enjoying myself? Are you enjoying yourself? Are we having fun? What makes you happy? Beyond making a difference in whatever you have passion in, choose to do, do the right thing, what I still need to get that true inner happiness. Each of us is a different human being, and motivated by different things. But for me, it’s first the ability to continue to learn and grow. New knowledge, experiences and skills, enabled by an intense curiosity and learning agility give me joy and energy.

Secondly, and but even more importantly, is a love and relationship with families and friends. So I’ve often been asked by both genders, actually, but certainly working women,

“Can we have it all?” I think we can, but there’s a big but here. The but is that the ‘all’ is defined by you, for you, and not by someone else.”

So if the “all” is having a great career while caring for your kids, not missing any of their firsts, join every parties and performance that they have, every single parent-teacher conference, or taking the elderly to every doctor appointment, I can’t have it all. But I tried my best to give or I have for my work and for my family in what I can add value. I can’t and shouldn’t do everything. And we try to not let guilt feelings creep in when I did miss something even with my best effort. And you need also a partner who not only understands but also shares your aspiration.

So the “all” must be defined by what is essential to me and my family, but not a summation of what a perfect mother and wife or husband and dad for that matter, as well as what a working professional will each accomplish together. Is that hard? Sure. But life too easy is not too exciting either, right?

And lastly, the importance of friends, certainly the INSEAD friends, and they are the diamond grade of friendship. Strong, sparkling, very valuable, and their value appreciates over time and you can even pass it on to the next generation. So we had a post-Singapore Marathon dinner earlier this month with an INSEAD friend to celebrate finishing the run, two days from now we go together onto the plane and fly to Japan for a week-long ski trip with another INSEAD family who lives there. You know what? It’s our kids and theirs snapchatting each other to set that up.

So treasure each other. All these amazing people that you’ve spend a precious 10 months with, that have so much diversity in culture, in perspectives and in gender. And while the female representation of your class has gone up to 38%, from 12% my time, they are still precious. So treat them and all the other women you meet in your lives with utter respect and love. They will give you back so much more in return.

And treasure the school. Come back often to keep that connection alive. And give back often, in any small or big ways you can. Now, off to your exciting adventure class.

“Make a difference. Do the right thing. Enjoy yourself. And let your business be a force for good.”

Congratulations, and best of luck.

 

 

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email