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Breaking Barriers: Finance and humanitarian work do not naturally go hand in hand, yet this leader makes it possible

Breaking Barriers: Finance and humanitarian work do not naturally go hand in hand, yet this leader makes it possible


Meet René Lim, Project Finance Manager, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), and our interviewee for this edition of Breaking Barriers.

As a little girl, Lim dreamt of being anything that did not require her to study or do Math — like a princess, she tells us. But growing up with a 'Tiger Mum' who wanted her children to excel, that obviously wasn't an option. That, coupled with Lim's humanitarian desire to work with a purpose other than money, led her to take a blend of both worlds.

Lim started her career in audit and compliance roles with US MNCs such as Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and Intel. In 2007, she joined a US-listed hotel management company where she steadily progressed through finance functions. She was first based in Singapore as a business analyst for Southeast Asia, and subsequently moved to Hong Kong as the director of financial and operations analysis for the Asia Pacific region; before being transferred to Miami as the regional director of finance for Latin America and the Caribbean.

A chartered accountant and a certified fraud examiner, she sits on the advisory board of EGBOK Mission, an organisation with roots in Chicago and Cambodia, and the goal of alleviating poverty and preventing trafficking by providing hospitality training and jobs to underprivileged Cambodian youths.

On the personal front, Lim's travel to all seven continents of the world was what sparked a sense of adventure that led her to work with MSF — where she did a nine-month mission in Afghanistan with MSF in 2018-2019 as a project finance manager.

In this interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra, Lim shares all about her experience overcoming gender stereotypes in her field, the most important lesson she's learnt through her travels and her personal diversity milestones in her nine-month mission in Afghanistan.

Q What did you dream of becoming as a little girl? What attracted you to first finance and then the humanitarian sector?

As a little girl? Silly stuff. Like being a princess, if such an aspiration exists. As long as I don't have to study and do Math.

Finance and humanitarian work do not naturally go hand in hand. The Tiger Mum wanted her children to excel in academics and produce economic gains — that's the finance part of my life. The dreamer in me wanted to do things with a purpose other than money — that's the humanitarian desire.

Q What it was like starting out as a woman in these sectors? Did you come across gender stereotypes, and how did you tackle them?

In Singapore where I grew up, it is quite usual to have three-quarters of the accountancy faculty be made up of females. And when we graduated, most of us went into audit firms. So, discrimination, if any, was less obvious. The boys did have it better at the client's place though, since the client's accounting staff were mostly women and hence would have a softer spot for the boys and give them what they wanted faster.

But in the multinational corporations where I spent most of my working life, I had to work triply hard to be even considered as good as a mediocre male and earn my stripes. Or, if you were a good-looking female, then you could climb with lesser effort too. I did not politick, fight, nor ask for promotions; I just slogged 70 to 80 hours a week. "Real" life is tough. And when I got my stripes and got transferred to be a regional director in different regional offices abroad, I felt that I not only represented Singapore in what I had achieved, but also represented women.

I recall an incident when I was asked what other roles I might consider in the organisation and I said to be a general manager (GM). Probably in an effort to show acceptance of diversity, I was told that I could be a GM of a limited-service hotel, the second female in Asia Pacific to do so. I did not pursue it. I believe women, like a man in the same industry, can be the GM of a full-service hotel, without having to go through "national service" in a limited-service hotel first, and I would rather not take the GM-ship than to consecrate the notion that women must take the longer route.

Gender stereotypes exist, even in the most "developed" of countries. It is worse in certain industries as well. In fairness, in my time with MSF, compared to prior experiences, I did not feel that I had to do more than my fair share of work, or was not allowed to do certain roles, just because I was a woman. From my perspective, it does a fair job of living up to its principles of neutrality and impartiality.

Q Having travelled to all seven continents in this world, what are the most important lessons you've learnt about diversity that you'd like everyone to keep in mind?

Having travelled to all seven continents and worked in four regions, I've found that there are cultural similarities even with people from the opposite side of the world.

After all, 250mn years ago, there was only one continent, Pangaea, and only one ocean, Panthalassa. We are one. We've always been. We are different, but we are from the same source.

I am no saint. I have biases and make judgments too. But I work at keeping my mind open. You don't have to accept something or someone if you really can't, but you can live and let live. I also do not believe in "if you can't beat them, join them". There may be no fairness in this world, but you don't have to make it worse by doing the same unfair and unjust things that others do. If I see discrimination or non-inclusive behaviour, I might not necessarily fight against it (pick your battles), but I do not have to condone or exacerbate it either.

Q Having completed a nine-month mission in Afghanistan, what are some diversity milestones you'd love to share about, as we take baby steps to overcoming challenges across these nations?

It's important to make the locals feel that you do not think of yourself as a higher being, be it in terms of race, nationality, or position. If you have an elitist attitude, it is a slippery slope. In Afghanistan, I gave ang pows to my staff during Eid Al-Fitr (yes, I actually brought ang pows to Afghanistan). In return, they brought back homemade dhal and crackers! On another occasion, one of them also brought homemade naan made by his wife for me. Life can be simple and it is a joy to be able to exchange whatever we have. My staff in the Bahamas also all wore red/pink shirts or dresses on Lunar New Year Day one. I'd like to think that because I respected their festivals and culture, they chose to embrace mine too.

Q If you could call out the actions of the most inspirational person you've worked with, who would it be, and why?

Wow, this is a hard one. I've had too many bad bosses. That's a form of inspiration too — to not mimic them ever. But if I were to choose a positive example, it would be a female boss who came from our US headquarters to be a vice president of finance in our Asia Pacific office. The way and the tone in which she talks, makes people willing to listen. I have learnt that you don't have to sound aggressive or (over) confident to get a point across. And how you treat someone outside of the work environment can make them feel included and loyal.

And lastly, don't just sit there and wait for people to come and shake your hand just because you are bigger in title.

ALSO READ: Top 14 DEIA challenges business leaders are dealing with

In this brand-new series of interviews, titled Breaking BarriersHRO speaks to women leaders globally who have forged their paths and made a mark in their career of choice, doing what they love best — living out their passions and uplifting others to go further and faster. Read all our Breaking Barriers interviews here

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