Beijing, 20 November 2015 — Meet Jessica Lam, an accountant with a passion for working with people who became an environmental advocate and then co-founded a start-up company producing air-quality technology. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Jessica was born in 1988 in Vancouver as the eldest of two children. Her parents migrated there from Hong Kong in the 1970s. She remembers feeling the responsibilities placed on her as the eldest, and growing up as a serious child who wanted to be taken seriously.
Her father and mother were both professionals and raised their children to strive for high standards. Her mother worked in early childhood education, and her father as an accountant.
“We were brought up with strong values, to strive to do our best, to try our hardest, no matter what came our way. Hard work, perseverance and tenacity characterized us, and being an immigrant family made this even more pronounced."
Her mother inspired her by being hands-on and nurturing. A Tiger Mom, she reminisced, always there to push her and support her to take action in a practical way.
Inspiration from her father took a longer time to be recognized. At first she saw him as conservative and straight-laced. Later on, she discovered how adhering to accounting rules and procedures added up to strength and trust for clients, and she also came to see his creative, adventurous and risk-taking side, including how he had established his own practice in his 30s.
Working with people
What impressed her most was how her father contributed value through his work with people and by giving back to the community through host of functions outside work, including volunteering for the Children’s Hospital and serving on the boards of charitable organizations.
“He was in meetings all day. That was the most hilarious part for me. I wanted to be so busy too, and help. I wanted to become like my Dad, and that’s how I developed a passion for working with people."
Putting that in practice, Jessica discovered at age 5 that she could run for class rep in grade one, and she got it by campaigning on a theme of being a responsible person.
“At a young age, I started thinking about fairness and equality, and about carrying things through so that they are done. My parents had a lot to do with why I felt that way."
Throughout her school, she joined in volunteering work when she could. At 16, she started working while pursuing her studies at school and later at the University of British Columbia, where she served in the Student Administrative Commission.
“I gained experience by working in retail, restaurants, tech start-ups, and in law and accounting firms. Vancouver is a multicultural city, and I was fascinated by how people work in different cultures and styles."
Feeling a drive to create an impact for other people, she ran for ombudsperson in her university. When she did not get that, she led the student elections committee.
She also developed her musical skills on piano, laying the foundation for becoming an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music later on.
In 2010, she graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in accounting, after joining a global exchange program at Singapore Management University in business administration and management.
“I always wanted to do business. I carried this with me from when I was a small girl. Getting things done, helping people, and working with people. My accounting study was competitive, and I liked that too. Like I always say, rather than ask why, my preferred question was ‘why not’?"
After graduation, she took an internship with Deloitte Canada, and stayed with them until she gained her Chartered Accountant certification in 2013. Meanwhile, she also pursued her family’s charitable tradition and supported PeaceGeeks, a nonprofit for human rights, as their marketing team leader.
“I helped them to look more professional and reach a larger audience. In my passion to work with people, marketing has a strong call for me. I like helping people in business as well as nonprofits to reach out, grow their team and expand their network."
Moving to China
Her next transition was unforeseen, and brought her to China to start a new chapter in her life together with her Swiss fiancé Liam Bates. When they decided to get married, she moved to join him in Beijing.
Jessica soon felt affected by the capital’s off-the-chart levels of air pollution.
“I had asthma as a kid, and being in Beijing triggered symptoms that I hadn’t felt since I was 8. When I visited Beijing, I felt awful. Knowing that I was going to make Beijing my home really made us start looking into viable options.”
Pulling their wits and ideas together, they took this as an opportunity and decided to start a company to help residents determine how pollution affected them, and to develop affordable technologies to improve their living conditions. That is how Origins Technology was born.
Bringing together cutting-edge expertise and smart technology from Switzerland, China and around the globe, their tech start-up developed its first two products in record time, aiming to dramatically improve air quality indoors and to increase awareness among a growing online community of residents.
As co-founder, Jessica took charge of the company’s operations.
“I now see myself as someone who is responsible for carrying on the business. Most days, this includes human resources, public relations, finance and customer service. And whatever else needs doing, she adds with a smile.”
Pointing to their intensive teamwork, she explains how her passion for working with people has been unleashed.
“What is most exciting for me is that I get to know all kinds of people here, and to understand what their life is like. This influences how we create products, communicate, and get feedback. We talk with our clients all the time. The city and its residents have become our living laboratory."
Moving from Vancouver to Beijing has drastically changed her way of working.
"In Canada, almost all my work was planned 2 to 3 months in advance. In contrast, a lot of change is happening here in China, at a rapid pace, and people expect a flexible mindset in business. In our team we are challenging ourselves all the time to deliver fast. It amazes me to see how creative and innovative we can be together when we work so fast and run to get things done within impossibly short deadlines. The flexibility mindset truly empowers us now—we no longer see firm boundaries of what we can and cannot do. In fact, we rarely use the words ‘but’ and ‘not’ in our conversation, going instead for ‘we can do it’ almost all the time."
Learning about change
She recommends young leaders to come to China and learn about change.
“China is a great place to be. People coming here are shocked to see what is possible. For every young person, this can be an exciting experience. We can make a change today and see the effect tomorrow. That is the most empowering part of working here. We can apply that elsewhere too."
Jessica goes on to describe how being naive can be one of the best qualities in business.
“If you have never done something, you can have expectations that are way too crazy for experts. Because we are naive and young, we still try. In our company, we still try. We created hardware and software in 7 months from conception to sales of our products. Everyone said it would be impossible. Not feeling limited by industry expectations is a boon. We work with a passion, and it doesn’t feel like work. We have never been so busy and happy at the same time. I can see now that this attitude can be applied to any kind of work."
She is deeply concerned about the need for environmental change and innovation.
“Our generation has to make huge changes, otherwise our world will no longer be as we know it. Environmentalism has become part of our life and work. Fortunately, there is a lot of room for innovation, supported by science and efficiency. Now, when people are interested in sustainability, we discover many ways in which we can do better. The challenge is now to show the leadership to make changes."
Listening comes first
When asked, Jessica readily shared her experiences with leadership in her career to date.
To develop leadership, she pointed to the importance of engaging in a variety of work experiences when you are young. Participate as much as you can in start-up groups with supportive cultures. The more work experience you can attract before moving to a full-time professional job, the better, she said.
And to make sure you learn the most from the experiences, she recommended using mentors.
“We can become our best when we are humble, inquisitive and open to suggestions. I asked many people for their views and their advice. Some became longer-term mentors to me, while others just took a moment to mentor me on the spot."
She explained that everyone can lead. You don’t have to be a manager or chair of a meeting to take a lead. After listening first, being aware, observing, you can make an important contribution, whatever your position, with effective communication.
"Making a powerful contribution, and saying it in an effective way, are equally important in my experience. When it comes down to it, we’re all communicating something. It is best to listen first. Then there will be space to share disruptive ideas for action that create greater value, which is what we need more of."
Her mentors also taught Jessica to reflect at the end of the day, on what she did well, and on what she could do better next time. Explaining that mentors can come from all kinds of connections, such as colleagues, teachers, and relatives and friends, she underlined that having mentors is a key to success.
“Mentors help us to be more aware of our surroundings and other people, and to make sense of what we observe. You can steer your career if someone tells you the truth. We can use mentors as sounding board, as we strive to become leaders in keeping with our values, so not to let people run over us."
Jessica is already giving back by creating opportunities for young leaders to learn through internships in the company.
“Our interns are involved in a very hands-on manner in the way the company is growing, and in exploring new directions forward. Engaged in client interaction and research, it all comes together to shape the way we grow. I am also practicing to give positive feedback using the skills I learned at Deloitte and Toastmasters."
For Jessica, leadership is about starting new things. And starting small can help.
"Every little thing you see will affect the bigger picture. We live in a global community now. When your mindset is open and aware, you can suggest things that improve process, efficiency, and client experience. Small things add up and help people to stand out. Leadership is not to keep the status quo. It’s about being different and being more aware. Real leadership comes from small things, and will help to bring out the best in others. Wherever you are."
She is positive about leading change in Asia.
"Asia changes so quickly. When you do something today you don’t have to wait so long to see the result. Developing more leaders in Asia will generate more results. Major leaps and bounds are already there. People aren’t so shocked about seeing more change happen."
To keep making such change, she tells aspiring leaders to keep going for it.
“There are so many people around us to take inspiration from. Just think of the many TED talks we can watch. Inspiration is at our fingertips. The more people feel supported, the better, and the more change we can create. In Asian societies, people still find it difficult to go against the status quo. What I found is that there is always something to be done, however small, that will make a difference."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders
So what are Jessica’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to use mentors, coaches, and peers, to surround yourself with great people who inspire you.
“Encountering troubles is a part of learning, everyone goes through that. Getting feedback is really important then. When coming up against troubles, mentors, coaches and our peers can advise and help us grow with a steadfast set of values and principles. They can cheer us on."
Second, to listen and learn to speak well. Public speaking is an extremely important experience and ability, to learn to speak in front of other people, argues Jessica.
“Go build your confidence and capability to get your point across. Including in leadership positions, but also one-on-one anytime. My toastmasters experience helped me a lot to start public speaking. I found it immensely helpful in all areas, even in my love life. Get out there and meet more people, and get to know more speaking styles. Make it a more creative process for problem solving."
Third, get out there and learn more about the world.
“If you cannot travel personally then use Wikipedia and read a lot. While physical travel experiences were most memorable for me, we can all do research on cultures, psychologies, policies and economics. The more you know about other people, the easier it is to work out good solutions. And it also helps to get your voice heard most effectively. For example, when you wave to strangers and observe what happens, it will become an entry point for learning, because cultures are different. Observe and learn."
As we spoke and Beijing received the first snows of the approaching winter, I asked Jessica what was coming up next.
She told me how her company is already exploring how to expand its services to countries in Southeast Asia that suffer from air pollution and haze, and to raise awareness there about pollution levels and remedial actions that improve the quality of life.
“Our vision is to continue building the company and its products to make the biggest impact in the world of air quality. A lot of people out there are passionate to make a change. We want our products to help them, individually and as a community with more awareness."
She argues that other countries in Asia need to start taking air pollution as seriously as China has started to do, supported by a lot of media coverage. We need more awareness, information and education, she said, mentioning the importance of TED talks.
“At Origins Technology, we are already looking forward to expand our team with more of our talented engineers to help us grow in this work."
As Jessica and her team keep innovating in leaps and bounds, they demonstrate how young entrepreneurs are becoming experts at rapidly changing without shock.
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