Lunch with Jenny Chiam

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The Head of Institutions and Corporates at Singapore Exchange Limited (SGX) shares with ShuQi Liu about the millennial generation, practicalities and women in finance.

By ShuQi Liu

“Self-pity is a very soul-destroying trait. It’s very important that people support each other, because that downside tailspin is terrible.”

A week away from launching Doyenne.sg, I met with Jenny Chiam, Head of Institutions and Corporates at SGX for an interview. As we eased into the breezy lunch setting, examining the set menu at Xperience Restaurant & Bar, the doyenne quizzed me on the e-magazine, how it works and why I did it.

There is something about Jenny that makes a millennial sit a little taller and think a bit wiser. And it is not simply because she is one of Asia’s finest women in finance. In measured tones, I share a publicist’s pain points – it is difficult to get female success stories out in the media, so I changed things by starting an online publication.

Nodding, Jenny considers my answers and reflects on today’s realities. “I actually think we’re going back in time. The ability to fuel economic growth with global interest rates is harder now. Expectations are much higher, but I see great potential in the future. A lot of baby boomers have cars and homes, but what makes millennials happy today? You have to be very confident in yourself to take advantage of the flexibility in doing what you want.”

After placing our orders with an eager wait staff, Jenny drifts on, “But I must separate the word confidence and courage. You already have courage. Confidence comes with practice. As you become more familiar with your work, confidence grows. Self-pity is a very soul-destroying trait. It’s very important that people support each other, because that downside tailspin is terrible.”

Is it because millennials grew up without truly knowing hardship, and we haven’t gone through the war and tough times? I asked. “Wars don’t have to be in the physical sense, they can be those within yourself. And I would say there are a lot of challenges nowadays, and life has become more complex.

When I see young people in countries like Africa, Middle East, Indochina, they are prepared to take risks and they aren’t so afraid,” she tilts her head to scan the air, then looks me in the eye, as if to say that being entrepreneurial is a good idea.

Before joining SGX, Jenny travelled across the world and held several executive positions at renowned financial institutions. She is no stranger to how fast the world is changing today.

When the starters arrive, Jenny elegantly tucks into a salmon tataki, set in a bed of apple and radish shaving, laced with ponzu and seaweed tempura. I on the other hand have a cute serving of crispy beef cheek gyoza, which crackled with every mouthful of deep fried dumpling skins falling awkwardly into a bowl of crunchy greens.  

Embarrassed, I quickly regained my composure and delved into Jenny’s place in the financial markets. “I’ve always had a science background, been fascinated with it all my life, and I thought I would end up in research. But sometimes, circumstances and other people know you better than you do yourself,” she lets on.

Two things happened. When Jenny graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Genetics from the University of Melbourne in 1985, 50 percent of graduates could not get a job. “It didn’t matter what you did, the market was really bad. So practicalities set in,” she says in a pragmatic voice.

“My grandfather suggested I look at the financial world. He said, I don’t know what you’re going to be good at, but you’ll learn a lot in that area. You’re an immensely impatient person, Jenny. Ask yourself, how do you think you’re going to succeed in research? You like to drive things and get them done, I’m not so sure that’s what you’ll be good at.”

And this is where Jenny appreciates the wisdom of others. It is often the people who care about you most who know you best, she says.

27 years later, Jenny went from knocking on doors, making coffee, delivering mails and poking her head around, to working in top financial cities like Sydney, London, New York and Singapore.

As her late grandfather pointed out accurately, Jenny’s love for the industry stemmed from an innate ability to be self-sufficient, independent and entrepreneurial in spirit. Impatience, and the drive to move things forward had steered Jenny’s career in a remarkable direction.

If her 25 year old self could see her now, Jenny could not have imagined the opportunities she was given. “In my view, I’ve always seen it as I’m young and I should take the risk. But I never thought I’d even leave Singapore. If you told me about the journey I’d taken, I’d never believe it.

Working overseas was a phenomenal experience, and you just have to embrace it when opportunities come. I took it because of practicalities. Even as things may be bad in one place, it doesn’t mean they’re bad elsewhere.

And that’s happening in Europe now, people can’t get jobs. You look at China, you see Africans working there, and you never saw that years ago. And they speak Mandarin! They’re learning. It’s about the practicalities.”

“Change your language, change your action. It could be as simple as asking. Men have no problem asking. You have to put yourself out there and ask for opportunities.”

The wait staff clears our starters and serves up the mains. This time, Jenny and I both order the market fish adorned with a side of ginger cauliflower mousse, steamed broccolini, fennel and apple batons. I make a mental note to order this healthy, refined and balanced dish for future lunch interviews.

After checking in on Jenny’s appetite, I move on to address the white elephant in the room. “Do you see many women in finance?” I inquired.

Mid-way through a forked sea bass, Jenny responds, “It’s changing now. There were a lot of glass ceilings and challenges in the past, but things are shifting. Ask yourself, what can I do differently? How do I change my language and actions? Language can be how you talk, write and handle yourself. Be open to change and thrive in it. Focus on being capable.”

So what are the challenges facing women in particular? I probed. “I think women themselves, which is probably not the right thing to say. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, you’re so busy trying to get there, but if I really want to get there, what can I do to stand out?” Jenny says. “Change your language, change your action. It could be as simple as asking. Men have no problem asking. You have to put yourself out there and ask for opportunities.”

In terms of glass ceilings, are women seen as risks? I go straight for it. Jenny said, “Could be, especially if people are comfortable. It’s like the old adage: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Sometimes it’s easier to take risks if your strategy isn’t working. I think that’s why you see more female entrepreneurs these days.

If you look at SMEs, the biggest driver of growth, they’ve created businesses and solutions because they couldn’t find that elsewhere. You’ve got to keep investing in the future, and sometimes that means investing in different people to achieve diversity. But that mindset takes time to change, and I’ve seen a lot of improvements in the last ten years.”

Without hesitation, Jenny dishes out advice for women. “No matter what you feel inside, when you’re trying to engage and push forward, you must always walk with certainty and dignity, be undaunted. Even when things aren’t going easy, the hard times define you. When things are good, you must be graceful about it. Either way, there’s humility required.”

The forward-thinking executive emphasises that succeeding in a male-dominated environment is all about being the best you can be. While solely focusing on success has its limitations, thinking about how to make things better and detecting a change in approach will eventually lead to getting things right.

Describing her relationship with the financial markets, Jenny says, “If you can have a career that you can be proud of, one that you can perform with dignity even when it’s not so good, but also gives you enough ambition to achieve more. That’s what the financial industry has been for me.”

We have long since finished our main course, and Jenny wraps up her meal with a long black – the purest, unedited version of coffee available. “To be frank, the financial markets did very well in the last 30 years,” begins Jenny. “It attracted the smartest people in the world because it generated good profits.

But you have to reflect on your focus too. People always say ‘I need X amount to retire’ when one billion people don’t even earn a dollar each day. We have been extremely privileged and that comes with responsibilities.”

“Even when things aren’t going easy, the hard times define you. When things are good, you must be graceful about it. Either way, there’s humility required.”

Looking at the millennial generation, Jenny points out that things are changing, as almost all of them come from families where both parents work. Increasingly, marriages are seen as partnerships, where couples work together and help each other out with finances, maternity and paternity leave. If people are not learning and studying more, they are working longer hours. As such, the world will change much more than we realize, in say, five to ten years.

I end by asking Jenny about her earliest ambition in life. She pauses. “I thought I was going to be an astronaut at one stage. If someone said to me that I had an opportunity to explore space, I’d probably take it up because I’ve always had a passion for exploration and new frontiers. That was why genetics was so interesting to me.

Although I didn’t do what I thought I would do when I was younger, everything came good in the end. I’m sure the next 50 years will bring lots of new adventures.”

Image: Asia Next Bank Conference


ShuQi Liu is the Editor and brainchild of Doyenne.sg.

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