Karen Ho, Head of Corporate and Community Sustainability at WWF-Hong Kong

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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 Karen Ho, Head of Corporate and Community Sustainability at WWF-Hong Kong. She works on climate and energy issues in Hong Kong and mainland China, engaging with businesses and industries to initiate, lead and oversee the development of climate programs. She previously held senior management positions in several Fortune 500 companies.

How would you describe your work? 

WWF is an international conservation organization. We have activities in over 100 countries, and Hong Kong is a network office. We fundraise for our own activities in Hong Kong, but since we are part of a global organization, we also support a lot of global initiatives. Globally, climate change, forests, fresh water, food, wildlife and ocean conservation are the main themes we devote our efforts to.

Hong Kong is a small city, so we are a little bit different in terms of our focus areas here, but a lot of them are aligned with our global themes. We manage wetlands like the Mai Po Nature Reserve, which we manage for the government. As Hong Kong is an island and we’re surrounded by ocean, ocean conservation is also a very important issue for us, especially recently with the trend of people reclaiming land from the sea for development. This is an area we’re very concerned about.

A lot of people know us as an animal organization. A group of our staff are working diligently on this area as Hong Kong is a trading hub, and a lot of illegal wildlife trade passes through here, or some of the financing is from Hong Kong. We want to stop the wildlife trade and regulate it. And then of course climate change is a very important issue. We also have a strong education team reaching out to schools and trying to put environmental concerns, issues and our philosophies into their curriculums.

What made you join the NGO sector?

I trained in business studies and worked for a multinational for many years. While working there, I watched a film called “An Inconvenient Truth”, which follows Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of global warming. That really showed me that climate change is real, and we need to do something about it.

At that time, I was a corporate executive, and I decided to explore opportunities within my organization to push this agenda. I did some work in internal sustainability, but it didn’t have a big impact. This was in the very early days of corporate social responsibility and my role wasn’t truly focused on sustainability, because I was the business development and marketing director.

One day I was looking at job listings and I came across this WWF HK opening as a business engagement leader. I submitted my application and the head of climate at the time told me that if I wanted to work for WWF HK, then we would need to develop two programs: the Low-Carbon Office Operation Program and the Low Carbon Manufacturing Program. We wanted to use these programs to engage the business sector and increase their awareness of climate change.

At that point in time, no one talked about climate change in the business world, but I knew the programs would be successful because they gave businesses all the tools they needed to measure, monitor and reduce their carbon emissions. It also taught them that tackling climate change from a business standpoint helps to reduce their costs.

What are the three biggest challenges causing climate-related problems in Hong Kong?

The three primary challenges we’ve identified that we must tackle are climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological footprint. These are also interrelated. Climate affects animals’ habitats and the biodiversity of places, although there are other drivers for biodiversity loss. Illegal trading in wildlife can also cause it, as can deforestation. According to a report we published last year, the monitored population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have declined an average of 68% since the 1970s – in the last 50 years, we’ve lost 68% of wildlife species.

Our ecological footprint, or the quantity of natural resources we consume to support our daily living, is another issue. Globally, we are currently consuming the equivalent of 1.7 Earths worth of natural resources. Hong Kong is even worse, at 4.2 Earths. And we all understand that we don’t have more than one Earth. How do we reduce our consumption of natural resources, or use them more smartly?

These three issues are all very interrelated.

What are the biggest challenges facing women working in your sector?

 I don’t think there are many challenges for women working in our sector, it’s already very inclusive.

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

I used to work in the corporate sector, which was very male dominated. I would always try and work like a man – to work in their style and be very rationale, as I believed that only by doing that could you really win their trust and walk on equal ground with them.

Since I began working for an NGO, I’ve realized the value that women can bring to organizations, such as attention to detail, views on aesthetics, passion, care, emotion, and communication skills. These traits can be very valuable in helping to deliver a program or making it a success. I started feeling that having a more inclusive environment benefits organizations, giving them views from different backgrounds and competencies. It makes decisions less one-sided. It’s hard to compare because the business world and the NGO world are two different worlds. But in the NGO world you can still behave in a feminine way and deliver on your work, unlike in the business world, where you really need to behave like a man.

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

I was very lucky. I worked for foreign-owned companies and later for multinational companies, and I climbed up the career ladder at a very early stage. I was already Asia-Pacific director for marketing and sales before the age of 30. My managing director at the time helped me a lot and was willing to give me a chance to perform that role. He empowered me a lot. He trained me up and I learned a lot from him.

At one point, my company really wanted to enter the Japanese market. You understand Japanese culture. The first time we met the procurement director of a client in Japan, the table was full of men, except for myself and my manager. They seemed uneasy and uncertain whether they wanted to talk business with two women. We ended up getting the second-largest burger chain in Japan to buy their paper cups from Hong Kong.

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

You really need to carefully look at your working environment, whether you’re in the finance sector, the business sector, the social welfare sector or in an NGO, look at how your sector evaluates performance. Whether you’re male or female, especially in Hong Kong, people trust performance. If you can deliver that performance, I do believe that you’ll be rated equally. Once you’ve built your credibility, then you can expand your circle of influence. That’s the point where you’ll really thrive professionally.