The power of role models

Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore

Deborah Ho, the managing director and head of Southeast Asia for BlackRock, witnessed first-hand how powerful networks of support between women could be. Growing up, her nanny was part of a sisterhood from China whose mission was to work overseas to support their families back home. That exposed her to the idea of women being self-reliant and helping each other from a young age.

Today, in her leadership role at the global investment management company, Ho strives to build a workplace culture that empowers women as well as advances diversity, equity and inclusion. With data now confirming that globally, women have been hit by greater negative social and economic impacts than men during the Covid-19 pandemic, removing gender barriers becomes even more urgent.

BlackRock has 15 employee, professional and social impact networks connecting employees across the globe. Which of these networks have impacted you the most and which do you champion?
I have been the executive sponsor of the BlackRock Women’s Initiative Network in APAC (WIN APAC) since 2019 and I cannot begin to describe how proud and how grateful I am to have such an empowering community for women and allies within BlackRock. Our mission is to create an environment where women can thrive and our vision is to become the employer of choice for women in financial services.

From mentoring and sponsorship programs for early-career female colleagues to executive development workshops for emerging mid-level and senior talent and programmes to engage Male Allies, it has been very encouraging to be able to pay forward everything I have learned in my career to new generations of talent.

I am a firm believer in sponsorship and never take the impact and influence I have as a senior female leader for granted. I have been on the other side of the coin and understand the agony and frustration of not having a role model, not having any representation at the table across the industry.

Who has been your inspiration in your journey to financial sector leadership?
One of my heroines is my Cantonese nanny. She is one of the most resilient women I have ever met in my life. She came to Singapore by herself to work for my mother’s family and stayed with my family for many years. Even though she didn’t have the opportunity for education, she made use of what she had and equipped herself for a better future. I remember vividly gathering around the TV with my nanny and my siblings and we would watch the news together, financial news no less. Over the years, she would say to us to buy property and buy gold — these are some of the safest investments there are. She knew early on she couldn’t just keep her savings in the bank or rely on just her wages, and that investment would be her best ‘safety net’.

Her spirit of self-reliance and independence was a very powerful example for me. It ingrained in me the image of a strong woman, a positive role model, that I aspire to be in my own journey.

How do you hope to inspire those around you?
My nanny inspired me to be self-reliant and financially independent and my career in the investment industry has emphasised how important this is. I equate financial independence with empowerment and confidence: It means that I’m able to make choices that feel right for me because I have taken the steps I need to be financially secure today and in my retirement.

So, if I can inspire anyone reading this, I hope it is to take one step towards securing your own financial independence. Taking control of your finances allows you to take control of your life. Many people have not yet started saving or investing for their retirement and many who have started are still very concerned they will outlive their savings during retirement.

This is not only the case for Singaporeans but for people everywhere, as we have found in our People & Money survey, a piece of research that we commission globally to understand mindsets towards money and investing.

Do women and men differ when it comes to investing and if so, what are some implications from this?
Our People & Money survey shows that while men and women are equally confident when it comes to saving, men are much more confident when it comes to investing. Over time, we’ve recognised the importance of both saving and investing for your financial needs. Investing is particularly important for retirement to ensure you can continue to live comfortably and not outlive savings.

We continue to look critically at what can be done to improve women’s access to investing: Examining the barriers that may hold women and other groups back, making investing more accessible for everyone and ensuring that there is education and content to allow people to better understand their options.