#IWD2021: Women in Hong Kong Building a Better Future for Asia – Pat Dwyer, The Purpose Business

March 6, 2021
President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

As a business and finance hub, Hong Kong is also becoming an important center for talented individuals who are dedicating their careers to sustainability, an agenda that is becoming increasingly critical to business success. Sustainability as an industry has attracted more women than many others, and the sector in Hong Kong is no exception. To celebrate #IWD2021, IFC has launched a series of interviews with women in the Fragrant Harbour who are championing the sustainability agenda in Asia. 

Our first interview is with Pat Dwyer, Founder and Director of The Purpose Business, a Hong Kong-based consultancy launched in 2015 that helps organizations in the region embed purpose and sustainability into their business strategy and operations. She previously led teams at Shangri-La Hotels and Ayala Land, setting standards in corporate sustainability, with firsts such as a shark’s fin ban, Dow Jones Sustainability Index listing and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design developments.

How would you describe your work?

I set up The Purpose Business after leaving my in-house role heading sustainability at Shangri-La. Our purpose is to help businesses in Asia to be a force for good, both bottom-line good and social and environmental good. We wanted to be a network of people with different individual expertise who live and breathe sustainability, and we bring that expertise to companies depending on the stage of their journey. That could be assistance in ESG investor disclosures or a single use plastics audit. Our biggest differentiator is we want to start from a place of purpose to help businesses to be more responsible, fair and stakeholder-engaging rather than shareholder exclusive. 

We have 26 core consultants, and my job is making sure I continue to have the best people around me. They have a depth of expertise on environmental and social issues that is best in class and that’s why our model works. Everyone brings in that level of knowledge and passion, and my job is to keep that each and every time we work with clients. 

From a sustainability standpoint, what are the three biggest challenges facing your clients right now?

Sustainability itself is the most challenging. Everyone knows they have to address it, and everyone still has valid and invalid reasons for delaying or not addressing it. 

So, the number one challenge is acceleration of the response and the way sustainability risks are managed. Climate risk isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s in health, it’s in economics, it’s in environment.

As Larry Fink says, “climate risk is investment risk”. Accelerating that change and making it top priority really requires understanding where your business is going, and this means that if you are purely writing reports for the Hong Kong exchange out of compliance, then you really need to start looking at the impact of your business, whether that’s your resource use, your talent, your development plan, the way you look at your supply chain. You just can’t hide from these issues anymore. 

A lot of the work we’re doing has to do with elevating sustainability at the board level, so board ownership, because this isn’t an investor-relations or an HR issue. Yes, the CEO is driving change, but who are the folks who look at vision? Who are the folks who look at where the company is going to be in 10 or 20 years from now? And if we are going to be living in this 1.5-degree scenario, you need boards to be talking about it, and Asian boards need to build out this expertise.

Lastly, purpose wins! Purpose isn’t about where you’re going because that’s the vision. It’s not the what you do or what you sell, because that’s the mission. It’s about the why. Why are you trading coffee? Why are you building more buildings? Why do you sell cement? What’s the fundamental reason you keep coming to work? With changes in workflows, particularly post-COVID, purpose means activation, and that’s a real thing that we can latch on to, not just in Hong Kong but in Asia more broadly as well. 

The sustainability sector attracts a lot of women. Why do you think that is?

There are more women working in sustainability than most other industries. Are women just generally more caring and nurturing and therefore lend themselves easily to sustainability? I don’t believe that’s an absolute truth for one second. In the past, value, particularly for business, was seen in terms of your bottom line and shareholder return, and therefore you think very short term, whereas women tend to invest in longer-term things: relationships, empowerment, training. I suppose now that we are learning to value that more, women are now more recognised. 

There’s a reason they say that if we achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and empowerment of women, we would unlock so much more value across the ecosystem. Women unlock development across issues. How do we now accelerate that? It’s not through a board quota or an affirmative action for women in leadership roles. You don’t want to sit on a board because you tick a box on gender. If that’s the case, I’d rather have 100% men, where one is a an ex-chef, one is a nutritionist and one is a lawyer. 

What challenges do women working in the sectors you advise face?

Breaking through the traditional setup and structure. In Asia, board members sit on various other boards and they all tend to be men of a particular age group and experience and work in a handful of professions, such as law, banking or audit. And if you’re trying to single-handedly create change and it’s the board you’re trying to convince, then you’re going to have a very, very difficult job. 

When I was at Shangri-La, I was a non-hotelier under 40 Filipina making the business case for sustainability in one of the most male-dominated industries. Back then, in the industry, you didn’t even have female general managers walking the lobby in a hotel! So, breaking through that is tough. 

We really need to debate challenges in Asian businesses and how culturally deep-seated it is that having a woman in a senior leadership role is still far from the norm.

We see that across sectors, whether in industrial or manufacturing, banking and finance, even in most customer-facing sectors such as food and beverage. These are the sort of barriers that ought to be broken. 

The Purpose Business predominantly employs women. Was that intentional?

No. Some of my clients have asked me the same question. I had a male chairman and CEO once ask me if I only hired women, and I said if you’re willing to retire and you want to join us, you’re more than welcome. So, no we don’t only hire women. I would love to see more men working in sustainability. Sustainability is in no way gender-driven, it is everyone’ business and everyone’s challenge to take up.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your career?

Breaking through the glass ceiling was one. To this day, I could still rock up to a prospect meeting where many are surprised that I am the founder and CEO - and not there to take notes.

With Shangri La, taking shark’s fin off the menu in 2010 and eventually banning it in 2012 was a truly seismic cultural change. That was a big gamble for me. I thought I would either get fired the day we announced it or get promoted. Neither happened, but I certainly got email kudos and a call to the executive suite.

When you were young, what did you think about women’s leadership and women’s empowerment? How have your views changed?

I was raised by a single mum and never with a dad, so to me there was no question that my mum ruled the world. She did everything. We’re very close. It wasn’t until I saw what my friends had that I looked at mum and I thought “How could you do all that, and all of it by yourself? So, I always thought that women’s leadership was going to be a concept that was ten-times harder, because you’ve got to go at it alone.

What I did find out was that of course it’s ten-times harder, but that women were more predisposed to sharing the burden and asking for help, and that’s just intuitive, no ego. If you don’t know something, you don’t go off saying “It’s this, it’s that”. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know but let me find out for you”. And you do. You do it within minutes, or even seconds. You don’t forget about it. So that has been a sort of leadership mantra for me as well.

What advice would you give other women looking to forge a similar career path?

Ask! This is my favorite piece of advice, just ask. You don’t know if you don’t ask. This is even more true in sustainability, because every day, things change. If you don’t know how to set a decarbonization target, go get educated, go ask, and you’ll find out. If you’re in marketing, you care so much about sustainability and you want to expand your remit, ask for the opportunity. I reported to a male CEO and this was our mantra. I would ask to his annoyance, but if I didn’t ask, it was also something that was never raised. You don’t know if you don’t ask, and if you get a no, that no is a yes somewhere else!