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A breath of fresh air

Published on Thursday, 11 Mar 2010
Joanne Ooi enjoys educating people about air pollution.
Photo: Dickson Lee

Singapore-born Joanne Ooi took a degree at the University of Pennsylvania's law school before learning the garment business in China and becoming sales and marketing director for a French shoe designer. She later launched her own upmarket fashion boutiques in Hong Kong. She now runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to improving air quality. 

How did you get into your role?

I never imagined working for an NGO, but I ended up at CAN [Clean Air Network] through a combination of serendipity and an enduring desire to influence people. Over the years, I had built up quite a Rolodex, credibility and relationships, and it seemed like a waste of my skills set just to keep on selling stuff. Attending the "Air We Breathe" conference last year, it dawned on me that Hong Kong really needed a comprehensive community platform focusing on the issue of greatest concern to ordinary people - health. I then got involved with founding the organisation that became CAN, wrote a lot of the launch website and the board asked me to head it up. After some hemming and hawing, I went with my gut and just said yes.

Have there been any doubts?  

Honestly, I've never been happier in my entire life. I'm one of those people who never get depressed - ever. Also, 95 per cent of the individuals and corporations we've approached have supported CAN, so how can I complain or feel low? Before making my decision, the issues I thought about were how to live on a drastically reduced salary and whether I was committing career suicide. But I resolved these questions to my satisfaction and quickly moved on with the job transition.

Has your experience in fashion, marketing and retail been useful?  

One of the reasons I'm effective for CAN is because I'm from the private sector. I don't talk like a tree-hugger. Secondly, my marketing background has been indispensable in terms of creating momentum and lots of noise. We have to stretch every dollar, which takes ingenuity and all kinds of guerrilla tactics to get results, but I have taken this as a challenge and a way to buff my skills set.

The main difference is that my output now is more about thought and influence. I have to observe and analyse facts, data and policy news about air pollution and health from all over the world and apply it to Hong Kong. When talking about clean air, health issues are really the weather vane for public concern, so we use that as the primary focus to inspire people and get them engaged.

 What do you like best about your present job?  

I love educating and inspiring people. That has always been my forte because, at heart, I'm a preacher. I also love communicating with younger people because they are still idealistic - like me. Working for an NGO, you can give full rein to your idealism, and there are not many jobs where you can do that without apology or compunction. Being the daughter of two Chinese immigrant doctors growing up in the Midwest of the United States, I was expected to choose a path that was obvious, prosaic and remunerative. Even now, I am surprised by the twists and turns my career has taken.


  • Galvanises public support by explaining the impact air pollution has on health
  • Stresses the importance of people believing they can make a difference
  • Wants the government to make real policy changes to improve air quality



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