How to Decide Which University to Apply For: 5 Questions
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In the StudyAdvantage “Alumni Stories” interview series, we meet former international students now passionately embarking on global careers in business, politics, media, arts, technology and science. We ask them how their international educational journeys have shaped their outlook…and what they would do in an unconstrained version of life.
Former TV show host, career woman and thought leader within women’s empowerment – Sarah Chen boasts an impressive resume for such a quick professional stint. Starting her career at age 9, Sarah Chen developed an appetite for the professional life early on. As a child TV show host, she learned to juggle school, work and friends at a time when most of us barely had a concept of career. With such a head start and a natural curiosity and drive, Sarah looked beyond her native Malaysia for her next challenge after high school. We sat down with Sarah to find out more about her time as a Law student at King’s College London and how this experience has helped her navigate her career and involvement in women’s empowerment.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood in Malaysia; what was it like growing up there, and what were you like as a kid?
I look back on my childhood very fondly – I grew up as a child of the multi-cultural city in Kuala Lumpur, rooted in traditional Asian values but with very forward-thinking and supportive parents who worked hard to really give me the best of everything.
I suppose what made my journey a little bit more unique was the fact that I started working at a very young age. At nine years old I was selected as a national TV host for an edutainment program that ran every Sunday morning – which meant that I was juggling homework, friends and shoots simultaneously. The investors behind the TV show used the platform to educate young leaders – so whilst we were budding media personalities, part of the deal was that we were to keep our grades up and involve ourselves in society-building causes. This meant that I learned the value of discipline early on and developed a strong sense of community responsibility, which has really carried on to where I am today.
As a kid, I was always competitive (and stubborn) – one of my favorite memories of my late father was how I called him in his office in the middle of the day and convinced him to return home early to practice ping pong with me for a tournament that was going to happen the very next day. I had never played a day of ping pong before then, nor owned any ping pong bats, but was adamant on at least gaining participation points for the sports team which I was captain of. Lo and behold, I emerged (I think), at least in second place!
Drawn to the competitive and bustling environment of a metropolitan city, Sarah enrolled in the Law program at King’s College London following high school graduation. This proved an excellent fit, and her experience as an international student shaped her future outlook in many ways.
What was it that inspired you to apply to university abroad? Why did the UK, and King’s College in particular, appeal to you?
I was said to be a bit of a chatterbox when I was a little girl, and even from a young age I was able to put together strategic arguments on why I would deserve that extra cookie! So naturally my early school years involved public speaking, debating competitions and the like, and my fascination with law began to grow.
Malaysia as an ex-British colony adopted the British education system, and I was drawn to the UK as the “dream” for a young Malaysian girl to pursue further education. I chose the best-ranked law schools in London as I wanted to experience the big city while receiving a first class education, so King’s was truly a perfect fit. Beyond the prestige of King’s College, I was equally (if not more) keen on being on the doorstep of the top firms in a bustling city of opportunities.
Did you enjoy your time at King’s? In addition to a stellar academic degree, what do you take away from your years as a student at King’s?
Absolutely loved my time at King’s! The truth is the moment you get into a good university – you are among the crème de la crème, which means that to stand out and truly succeed you needed to be focused in your endeavors. Whilst truthfully against a conservative Asian backdrop, I was often told off for being “too ambitious”, My competitive fire was fueled in London. I found like-minded peers who were as ambitious as I was and we worked together to build the Business Club at King’s which was an experience that I would say defined my university experience to a great extent. Here, whilst we were building blocks of a student society, the push for student entrepreneurship was strong and we seized multiple opportunities, which gave me room to truly grow as a leader and nurture my passion for business. By the time I left the club in my Presidential year, we had almost 2000 members, I had strong relationships with top multinational firms, VCs and industry leaders. We were named Best Society of the Year by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE) and we even initiated our first international “mission” to Dubai! That entire experience made me realize that if you care about something and if you work hard on something, with the right team you can run far and fast. Importantly on a personal level coming from a smaller country, I believed that I could compete at a global scale if I fought for it – and that the only limit to what I could do was myself.
Additionally, I remember skipping meals so I could save up to travel – London truly is the heart of the world (in that it was only a couple of hours to get anywhere!) and some of the best experiences for me was travelling to unknown places I’d only dreamt of before. In my university years, I saw the pyramids as I turned 21, I skydived in Cambridge, I chased sunsets as I backpacked throughout Spain with a broken arm, stood in the cold of Berlin winter to experience New Year at Bradenburg Gate! Those experiences are takeaways I will always remember.
Like many international students, Sarah enjoyed the ability to travel Europe during her time in the UK. However, protectionist undertones in politics suggest a delicate future for the international community and there is a growing uncertainty surrounding free movement in Europe. We wanted to explore what an actual recent international student had to say about this.
The recent political discourse here in the UK has partially been plagued by an anti-immigration sentiment. As a Southeast Asian girl having studied in the UK relatively recently, what was your experience like?
Personally, I never had a bad experience and would say that London is one of the best places to be as it is a melting pot of cultures. I lived with British girls and had friends from all across the world, some who were truly my family away from home – from Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Bulgaria! In my experience, my conversations with friends from different backgrounds opened up my eyes to how we can all understand each other’s unique plight and live better together as a diverse community. I believe that education is the best platform to continue to nurture cross-cultural understanding and the truth is, we all play a part in that. I for one, take it upon myself to always represent the best of Malaysia in all that I do.
Shortly after graduating from King’s College London, Sarah decided to move back to Malaysia to pursue a career in business. She ended up working at Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based, multi-national conglomerate involved in a wide range of key growth sectors such as plantation, industrial equipment, motors, property and logistics, where she’s made a rocket career.
Since graduating from King’s, you’ve had an impressive career. Firstly, tell us about your role at Sime Darby – what is your role all about, and how does your law degree help you in your work?
The last three years of my career was spent in the setup of a corporate venture capital unit where we invested in emerging bio-based technologies that were able to add value to our traditional product lines. This involved building strategy papers, investment memos, commercial negotiations, deal structuring, project financing and fundraising initiatives. From a single strategy paper, the unit is now officially “spun-off” into one of the Divisions with its own P&L.
I was recently recruited by the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of the group, where I’m now focused on a group-wide roll out in spurring corporate innovation via external ventures, incubation and acceleration at the company. This involves strategic development, venturing and scouting a network of co-investors and partners that are able to contribute to the ecosystem and investments evaluation and execution. I would say each step of the way my law degree comes in handy in deal- related work, ie contractual negotiations which I still manage, deal structuring where legal implications are a big part of the consideration, and in general, in thinking about approaching issues in a systematic way. I am also completing my CFA which gives me a strong foundation of law and finance which my role calls for.
After experiencing the challenges as a young woman in corporate roles, Sarah identified an opportunity to crate a support network for others like her. What started as a small support group quickly evolved into becoming Asia Women Circle.
Tell us about Asia Women Circle. What inspired you to get involved in the public dialogue around women’s empowerment? What do you think is the biggest challenge to ‘leveling the playing field’ across genders, and how is Asia Women Circle helping solve this?
Asia Women Circle is a Lean In Circle based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia established as part of Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org Foundation Circle framework, where women around the world are encouraged to build their own independent support networks. Inspired by Sheryl’s book “Lean In: Women, Work & the Will To Lead”, a group of us found ourselves coming together to form a circle of women from diverse backgrounds to create an ecosystem for ourselves to support our professional and personal ambitions. At a personal level, I think all of us related to the struggles that Sheryl spoke about quite bluntly and we also saw women around us – our colleagues, our friends “leaning back” and “leaving before they had to leave” and we thought that something must be done to get the conversation going, in order for Malaysia to have a truly progressive society.
I’ve always been a proponent of positive change and thought this was a great platform with women of the right caliber, networks and attitude to drive things forward! Having experienced the benefits of the circle, we wanted to do more beyond our monthly meets – this was where the idea of pocket talks, our “Circle Dialogues” was born. This initiative snowballed into a huge Lean In Summit in December 2015 in which YB Khairy Jamaluddin opened the 800- people strong conference. Last year we also launched Lean In Asia which boasts a community of 300,000 members across Asia.
With the support of top names like Google, CIMB, UEM, Uber and Talentcorp, Asia Women Circle is a full-fledged organisation serving as a platform to challenge the norm and raise the status of women in society by addressing two key issues in Malaysia – minimal representation of women in leadership and women dropping out of the workforce completely. We extend our cause to educate, enable & empower by:
– Creating a forum to address critical challenges and opportunities facing women. This is done via our monthly circle dialogues (read: talks) and yearly summit.
– Building a dynamic network of women leaders from around the country – a #leanincommunity influencing change for a more inclusive society. This is done via the Lean In Career Program which is a “career accelerator”, creating a funnel of women leaders who continue to #leanin.
To me, leveling the playing field is about building the ecosystem, and Asia Women Circle in the ways described above particularly targets that ecosystem for women to succeed. And yes – this is run part time, by a committee of dynamic women with full time careers!
Many would consider your journey awe-inspiring. What’s been the driving force behind your ambition, and ultimately your success?
Thanks for that! As mentioned, beyond my parents who were always supportive, I grew up in an environment where “ambitious” and “girl” is almost an unwelcomed juxtaposition and I suppose that fueled my fire to prove that I can do everything I set my mind to. My late father’s passing also gave me perspective on how short one’s life can be – which reminds me to always live life to the fullest and to make this world better than when I first came into it. I often ask myself, “if not you, then who, if not now, then when?” and that’s often given me perspective on the day-to-day stresses and challenges in favor of the bigger picture.
Final question: if your life was unconstrained, if you had no financial limitations and no immediate responsibilities, how would you choose spend your next year?
Travelling the world with my loved ones on a private jet of course! The dream year would be a balance between fighting and advocating for women in leadership, building businesses across the globe, tackling foreign policy issues and watching the sunrise in different exotic locations!
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