After a stellar corporate career, Fern Ngai is keen to work at helping others
When Fern Ngai was studying computer science at the University in Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, she and her fellow students would queue up to use a computer terminal and she was one of only a few women on the course.
Her love of computer science led to a 27-year career in technology, both in Canada and then later at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong.
“Having an IT background has helped me in my career and helps me today,” says Ngai, 56, who last year became the CEO of non-profit organisation (NPO) Community Business, which is dedicated to enhancing corporate social responsibility in Asia. “You have to be very logical, structured and organised, otherwise your systems are not going to work. You have to be able to solve problems.”
Looking back, Ngai, a self-confessed techie and mother of two, did not envisage life as a senior executive, but it was her people skills that propelled her to first head up human resources (HR) at Standard Chartered, and later on take on other corporate roles. Her lifelong passion for people, and diversity and inclusion (D&I), within the workplace, was also key to her decision-making in later career roles.
“As a senior leader in an organisation, there are things you have to consider from an organisational or a business standpoint,” Ngai says. “But [at Standard Chartered] it was natural for me, as part of the executive committee – which comprised the business and functional heads – to ask, ‘What about the impact on people? What are the staff going to think?’ Separately, I was also the D&I champion in Hong Kong, which helped to drive the bank’s D&I agenda.”
When Ngai was a child, her parents owned a grocery and a café. The second of four children, she was already helping out at the age of seven. Being raised in middle Canada, she and her siblings were the only ethnic Chinese at her school, but it was a tolerant community.
In 1987 she moved with her husband and their then two-year-old son to Hong Kong. Ngai had been a senior systems analyst with insurance corporation Saskatchewan Government Insurance before moving, and after a few months at Wing Lung Bank, she began her career at Standard Chartered.
Ngai cites former CEO Peter Sullivan and the former chairman of Standard Chartered PLC Mervyn Davies as being instrumental in her career, for the way in which they encouraged her out of her comfort zone and recognised her people skills. Until 2005, Ngai worked in various technology roles before rising to head of technology management, Hong Kong. But Sullivan had other plans for her.
“I had had almost a full career, 27 years, in IT,” she says. “Then Peter Sullivan … said, ‘You’d be a good HR person. You’re very passionate about people.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything else except technology. Besides, I like technology.’” But she was willing to be considered for the role of head of HR for Hong Kong.
“The number of employees at the time was almost 5,000 – not a small number that you can take a risk on,” Ngai says. “The HR community was understandably apprehensive. So I had to compete for the job. I was in the role for three and a half years and it was probably the most fun time I had in my career. The bank was recognised with people-related HR awards. It was pretty fulfilling. I was quite happy to stay there for the rest of my career.”
But instead, in 2009, the bank’s Asia CEO Jaspal Bindra asked Ngai to become head of governance and strategic initiatives for Asia. “That was a completely different role for me, but another great platform for learning. People have certain stereotypes about techies. But if you are working as a techie in business, you have to understand what the business wants. I guess people saw I wasn’t a typical techie. Maybe I had good skills interfacing with people.”
Ngai also recalls heading up Programme Care, Standard Chartered’s staff programme. “That was so rewarding, to see some of the things we did, how staff really enjoyed it and got involved with the organisation. A senior person was appointed director and a committee of volunteers organised sports, recreational and environmental events, family activities, employee volunteering – all sorts of things for the benefit of the staff.”
In 2010, Ngai took her final role at Standard Chartered, becoming head of corporate affairs, encompassing branding, sponsorships, media and public affairs. She recalls being involved in “some amazing programmes like the marathon, which had grown from a thousand participants in 1997 to over 70,000 people.”
Ngai had always wanted to take on a community role after her corporate career and admired Community Business as an NPO pushing the concepts of community investment and D&I. Becoming CEO at Community Business was, therefore, “a dream job”.
Ngai hadn’t anticipated leaving Standard Chartered so soon but Shalini Mahtani, the founder and former CEO of Community Business, was keen to get Ngai, a long-time volunteer, on board.
Leaving Standard Chartered, where she had been for most of her career, was a hard decision. But Ngai has relished pushing forward the goals of Community Business within Hong Kong and throughout Asia.
In Hong Kong, the NPO has nearly 40 corporate members, often multinationals with a few local large companies such as the MTR Corporation and CLP. It has another 40 partners globally. But one of Ngai’s visions is to work more with local Hong Kong firms as Community Business celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Current campaigns include creating inclusive workplaces for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees and employees with disabilities, and highlighting the critical link between diversity on a board of directors and the board’s effectiveness and enhanced corporate governance.
“We have been tracking women on boards since 2009,” Ngai says. “In 2009, 8.9 per cent of directors on [the boards of] Hang Seng Index companies were women. In 2010, it was 9 per cent. The latest study shows 9.4 per cent, so the needle has barely moved. Having a diversity of perspectives on a board leads to better corporate governance. A diverse team results in better decision-making, enhanced creativity, and increased customer loyalty. This year we will extend our research into other areas of diversity on boards, besides gender.”
Ngai is enjoying working with a much more intimate office of 18 staff and, due to her years in technology, describes herself as very self-sufficient, applying her years of corporate and software engineering experience to her new role.
“Whatever it is, I try to make it work. You have to see that everything you do every day is an opportunity to learn. I make a lot of mistakes but I try to look at things positively and then move on and try to learn from it,” she says.
Community Business’ latest innovation has just been launched in India and Singapore, and will kick off Hong Kong in mid-May. Called the DIAN (Diversity and Inclusion in Asia Network) Strategy Framework, it is an assessment tool for firms to look at the level of D&I within their own companies.
When she’s not in the office, Ngai enjoys keeping fit and also plays snooker, a love shared by her husband, who is a shareholder in several snooker clubs. They enjoy promoting the sport locally and have hosted events with snooker legends including Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White and local hero Marco Fu.
Ngai, who describes herself an “always busy multi-tasker”, smiles when asked whether she is achieving a work-life balance, but also says she hadn’t anticipated that working at this “amazing NGO” of 18 people would be quite so busy. She hasn’t quite yet managed to balance up her work and life – not that this D&I advocate is complaining.
Fern Ngai's diversity dreams
Five things Fern Ngai would like to see Hong Kong companies develop to ensure that they are inclusive and embrace diversity and inclusion (D&I)…
1. The understanding that D&I can give them a competitive advantage
“It’s not something that is just about mitigating risk or helping them become employers of choice.”
2. A strategic approach to D&I
“It needs to underpin the wider business strategy and be embedded in all aspects of the business and brand, with regular reviews and a plan identifying priorities.”
3. Leadership commitment
“Not just at the top but middle managers also need to commit – with resources and investment.”
4. Staff engagement
“Communicate throughout the organisation. Understand what is important to employees by asking and listening to them at all levels.”
5. Courage and persistence
“Above all, D&I is a journey.”