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Women of our time - Janet De Silva

Published on Wednesday, 22 Oct 2014
Photos: Nora Tam / SCMP

Dean of Ivey Asia shatters the myth of a Western woman in China.

For Janet De Silva, the initial challenges of being a young business executive in a male-dominated corporate sector were not what she imagined them to be. 

"When I joined Sun Life in Canada as vice-president of agency, I was the first woman in North America to be running an agency sales system of any life insurance company," says De Silva, who is the dean of Ivey Asia. Some of the wives of the agents would say: "A lady running agency, how can that be?" 

She adds: "Interestingly, the guys would say, 'I've got daughters older than you', so there were some adjustments when they first met me but, over time, when we got going, people would just focus on what we were trying to achieve with the business." 

De Silva rose to become CEO of Canadian Sun Life Financial's business in Hong Kong and then its mainland joint venture. 

"A lot of people have asked me, what is it like being a woman in China. And I have to say, it's not about being a woman in China, it was about being a Western woman in China," she says. "I was in running a joint venture for a Canadian insurance company and the chairwoman of the Chinese partner was saying that it had really shattered all of their preconceptions of the glass ceiling that poor Western women faced - the fact that a Fortune 500 company would send a woman in to run a joint venture in China." 

Her notion of women in the West was that they are held back, "which I did not feel in China", De Silva says. "I have experienced in my career that being a woman quite often has been an opportunity for me. In meetings, there's a curiosity factor, but once you've established that first meeting, you establish your credibility and are able to move forward on things." 

It was when she was living in China that the work-life balance became a challenge.

"When I was transferred to China with Sun Life, I was living in another city from my family," De Silva says. "My son was three years old when we moved up to Beijing - my husband and son lived in Beijing and I worked and lived during the week in Tianjin and, at that point, they didn't have the high-speed trains. I would just live there during the week and then I'd come home on the weekends. My son would be so happy to see me and then on Sunday night when my suitcase came out for the week, he'd take my clothes out and crawl into my suitcase wanting to come with me. I was so grateful that my husband kept everything going."

De Silva decided to find a career where she could spend more time with her family, "so silly me, I went from a corporate career to getting involved with a private equity group". 

"We bought a company in China and we created this new business called Retail China. I was travelling internationally a lot, but once we were two-and-a-half-years through, a Singaporean company acquired us, so the eight months between the sale being completed and the work-out period, I took five weeks off and my son and I travelled across Canada coast to coast and now, every summer, we go on holiday together." 

De Silva came back to Hong Kong in 2011 when she took up the role of dean of the Canadian business school, Ivey Asia, and it has been a busy few years.

"We have aggressively expanded on the mainland," De Silva says. "We've brought a new executive MBA programme and that's starting up in November. We will be the first international business school to be offering an EMBA course in China taught in the Chinese language, so the faculty will be using simultaneous interpretation. 

"We are also the first business school, either Chinese or international, to offer an executive MBA for health care management in China, so it's very much focused on hospital precedence in China. 

"There is a lot of excitement about the fact that it's a very unique way of bringing a very important commercial acumen experience to the hospital presidents who are going through a lot of change right now," she says. 

"Another partnership over the past 12 months is that we have partnered with The Women's Foundation, [and] we've created some scholarships for women to come into our executive MBA programme."

She believes Hong Kong is a great place for women to achieve their goals. 

"Set the bar really high for yourself and push yourself with a continuing education, but also with taking on tough and challenging assignments to build your skills and capabilities," she says. 


2000 to 2007: Vice-president of agency, Sun Life Financial - the first woman in North America to be running an agency sales system of any life insurance company. She rose to become the CEO in Canada and then the China joint venture.

2007: Buys a company in China and creates and co-founds Retail China, which was later acquired by a Singaporean company.

2011: Returns to Hong Kong and takes up the role of dean of the Canadian business school, Ivey Asia 

Tracey Furniss

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