Grace Hui, Managing Director and Head of Green and Sustainable Finance at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX).

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 on March 8 launched a series of interviews with women in the Fragrant Harbour who are championing the sustainability agenda in Asia. 

Our next interview is with Grace Hui, Managing Director and Head of Green and Sustainable Finance at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX), operator of the Hong Kong stock exchange. Prior to joining HKEX in 2013, Grace was with investment bank UBS in various roles, including Chief of Staff and Global Chief Operating Officer of UBS Legal and Compliance Department. She also co-chairs the Market Development Work Stream of the Green and Sustainable Finance Cross-Agencies Steering Group, which was established by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) and the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC).

How would you describe your work?

I head HKEX’s green and sustainable finance development program. HKEX is both a market operator and regulator, and we play a pivotal role in bringing together issuers and investors, so we can drive the development of sustainable market-based solutions.  In December, we launched a new platform called the Sustainable & Green Exchange (STAGE), Asia’s first multi-asset sustainable investment product platform. STAGE helps to increase the flow of ESG information across the financial and investment community. Given Hong Kong’s role as a leading international fundraising venue, I look at how we can help mobilize capital for the non-green to green transition and other sustainable economic activities. 

How did the idea for STAGE come about? 

As international efforts combating climate change have gathered momentum, and as climate change considerations have begun to feature more prominently in investment decisions, we saw the opportunity to help fuel the growth of sustainable finance for corporates committed to tackle the effects of climate change and other ESG issues. Sustainable and green finance facilitates financial investment into projects, products or services that support the development of a more sustainable, low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. 

To support the growing interest in this, we created an easy-to-use platform for the region’s fast growing green and sustainable finance sector. Issuers included on STAGE must provide additional voluntary disclosures on their sustainable investment products, such as use of proceeds and annual post issuance reports. STAGE is also an online repository of green and sustainable finance resources, promoting market education, knowledge sharing and stakeholder engagement in sustainable finance. The trust in the HKEX brand, and our role as a global regulator and market, have meant STAGE has got off to a great start. We are looking forward to making it the go-to sustainable finance hub in Asia. 

What does your day-to-day job look like? 

I am always looking at ways to promote STAGE, to bring more issuers to list green, social, sustainable and sustainability-linked bonds on the exchange, and to educate the market about sustainable finance. I believe it is critical that we invest in building an ESG ecosystem, helping to raise awareness amongst retail and institutional investors and society more widely. 

A large part of my job is about stakeholder engagement: issuers, financial institutions, asset managers, benchmark providers, rating agencies, market participants and practitioners and NGOs – all of these play a vital role in promoting and shaping our commitment to sustainability. 

Coordination among regulators and other agencies on Hong Kong green and sustainable strategy is essential. As such, I am pleased to spend time working on initiatives under the Cross-Agencies Steering Group set up by the SFC and the HKMA, and I co-chair two of the three working groups with HKMA and the SFC to pursue market development and carbon market development respectively. 

From a sustainability standpoint, what are the three biggest challenges facing stock exchanges right now? 

Building investors’ awareness and understanding of ESG and green finance, the availability of quality ESG data from issuers, and the applicable standards for disclosure are the three biggest challenges.

The goal of sustainable investing is to mobilize capital to meet, for example, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, to make sure that the money is going where it is needed most and to ensure that capital is being used in the most effective way. To do so, we need to raise awareness of the importance and benefit of sustainable investing, to provide transparent, credible and useful data to investors for their sustainable investments, and to get the boards of issuers involved in ESG risks and opportunity considerations. 

HKEX has over 2,500 listed companies listed on its market: this is an area where we can make a big difference, as a market regulator we have a big role to play. We require all HKEX listed companies to publish ESG reports, and last year we amended our rules to require a mandatory statement from boards that sets out their considerations on ESG matters. We want boards to incorporate ESG strategy into their own corporate strategy. 

We also want people to focus on the irreversible issue of climate change, so we now require a new disclosure on climate-related issues. But disclosure alone isn’t good enough. We want companies to look at setting targets in relation to environmental key performance indicators. We have also upgraded all social KPIs, from voluntary to a “comply or explain” disclosure standard. 

What are the biggest challenges facing women working in the financial services sector? 

The biggest challenge is about how we get more women into leadership roles. That requires change. And it can be a challenge to any organization, not just the financial services sector. As data shows, only 8.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and in Hong Kong around 14 percent of board positions are occupied by women. There is still so much that needs to be done. 

As a very visible listed company, as well as a market operator and regulator, HKEX is committed to helping to facilitate that change. We are encouraging and supporting the more than 2,500 companies listed on our exchange to disclose more about their board diversity.  We also require them to have a diversity policy and disclose it along with their gender ratio in their corporate governance report. 

Further, we encourage companies to improve gender diversity in the workplace, particularly among senior leadership. As a company ourselves, we want to lead by example in gender diversity and use our position to influence. For example, more than 40 percent of our employees are women, and around 38 percent of our management committee members are women.  

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

Being a woman working in the finance industry is not always easy, especially when it involves traveling to countries which are not used to dealing with senior women. However, you have to be prepared to see beyond this and look to garner respect from your skills and experience you deserve. In Asia, we have come a long way on the journey towards gender equality, but certainly there is still much further to go.  

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

I was raised in a traditional Chiuchow family.  It is quite well-known that the community of this eastern part of Guangzhou province tends to favor boys and some held a belief that women need not prioritize their education. 

Luckily, I grew up in Hong Kong and education was compulsory for all children until 15.  At school, I got to learn about women leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa and saw how they were committed to serving a cause greater than themselves and leading in their own way in their respective fields. I wanted to go to a good school, like my brothers and I know I had to push harder for the opportunity than they did, but it was an opportunity that I relished. Since entering the world of finance, I have come to admire some of the industry’s female leaders, such as Christine Lagarde, and Angela Merkel, knowing their journey to their current positions will not always have been easy. 

I continue to think that gender should have no bearing on your ambitions or your capabilities, and in the area of sustainable finance, in particular, I think women have the potential to really thrive. 

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

Be confident, work hard to become knowledgeable in your chosen field, and put yourself forward. Be proactive and look for mentors, male and female, to guide you. In return, you must pay back, helping younger people on their journey too, and do the same and mentor young associates. Mentorship is very important. Consider getting an executive coach when the time is right, it can be well worth the money. Finally, have passion, learn every day, and believe in yourself!