20 June 2009 ~ 0 Comments

PEPY in Hong Kong

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the International Women’s Forum event in Hong Kong. I not only got to speak about PEPY and the lessons we’ve learned, but also to meet many amazing women making changes all over the world.

A friend of mine, who is the founder of the M restaurant group in China and an IMF board member in Hong Kong, had recommended me as a speaker — lucky me! The panel I was invited to was called “Social Entrepreneurship in a World Without Borders” and included Katharina, a German woman doing work in North Korea you wouldn’t believe possible, and Jennifer, who works in senior management at the Grameen Bank. Ann, our moderator, made sure that the panel became a success. She started out by saying, “If any of you talk for too long, I’m hitting you over the head with my microphone”, and even though her 5′-nothing stature seeemed to imply that it wouldn’t hurt too much, we did indeed believe that she was serious. Ann kept us in line and was fabulous at figuring out the flow she wanted from the panel and at asking just the right questions to get it.
She steered the discussion towards successful development work and the issues we have confronted while working on our various projects here in Asia. We all talked about community involvement and ownership and the importance of knowing the communities we are working in, or at least getting community feedback, in order to improve our work. Jennifer talked about the lessons she has learned at Grameen and how it is ASKING the people who are receiving loans and listening to their stories that helps them to make changes, not just research and numbers. She said it is important that even a “CEO of Asia” like herself talks directly to the end users of loans to understand the realities of the work they are doing.

Katharina spoke about starting a North Korean business school and building trust to open doors and be allowed to do the work she is doing. She has been working on projects in North Korea for 14 years and sounds as if she is one of the more trusted “outsiders” in that country. Did you know that there was an Italian restaurant in North Korea? Well, now there is. Soon after the restaurant opened Katharina took her team there to try pizza for the first time, but just as we have done during similar outings with our staff, at the end the question always is, “So are we going to get rice now?”

Throughout the conference I was impressed by the speakers. I kept finding synergies between the messages being talked about in other lines of work and the development lessons we have learned at PEPY: a women working in financial markets talking about the mortgage crisis said, “If you don’t know anything about it, don’t touch it”; another woman who is developing casinos in Macau said, “You have to know and respect the local culture and customs, not just come in and think you know all of the answers because you have done it successfully somewhere else.” And a Russian lady with so much passionate expressiveness that I could have listened to her for hours (even though she was speaking in Russian) talked about how, if you don’t respect the work you do and put love into your team and your work, you won’t succeed. Love in a finance presentation? Only at an international women’s conference :-)

I was so impressed with the IWF and the women I met there that I hope to meet some of them again in New York City when I go home to visit my family soon. Here’s to being passionate about our work, knowing the communities we are working in, making changes when they are needed, and investing in people.