Inspirational Woman Interview: Elise Lee


Elise Lee is the Executive Director of Opportunity Hong Kong, a support member of the Opportunity International network. Elise leads our business development efforts for our work in China and provides strategic support to the local leadership team in China as a board liaison and member of the Opportunity China senior management team. Before joining Opportunity Elise was the Asia Regional Officer for EMpower – The Emerging markets foundation, a financial industry philanthropic organization that supports at-risk youth in emerging market countries. Elise earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Columbia University in New York, and an MBA from China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Can you tell us how you came to join Opportunity International and about some programs you have led there?

Elise Lee: I was contacted by a recruiter in the US, and I was impressed with the scope and scale of the operations. Opportunity International is a global development organization which has been serving the working poor, especially women, with the tools to work their way out of poverty. As the Executive Director of Hong Kong, my role is largely to support the many women and men who are starting or growing small businesses to create better futures for themselves, their children and their families.

I’ve helped to launch the education loan program in China, which was inspired by the Education finance program which reached 1.9 million children with access to quality education in their communities since 2008.

Can you tell us about some of Opportunity International’s programs on maternal health?

Elise Lee: Opportunity focuses on economic empowerment, but when people are unhealthy or lack healthcare, they are unable to work and therefore more vulnerable to poverty. Since the vast majority of our clients are women, we are helping to create better access to maternal and early childhood healthcare through education and access to care through midwives or trained community health advisors.

In some countries, this can happen through the dynamics of the trust groups, a group of women from the community whom access both financial and non-financial services together. In other countries, especially in harder to reach, rural areas, we use one-way targeted information to inform women of childbearing age on prenatal and maternal health through mobile phones.

You were also the Asia Regional Officer at The Emerging Markets Foundation. Can you tell us your key insights from this role?

Elise Lee: EMpower – The Emerging Markets Foundation made grants to emerging market country NGOs that improved the lives of at-risk youth, and I was deeply inspired by many of the people dedicated to serving the youth in high poverty areas across the region.

I had the privilege of meeting so many brave and bright-eyed young women and men who were born into abject poverty, but who believed that they could have a brighter future through hard work.

I also learned a lot about gender inequality, and the deeper hardships that women and girls still face, especially in situations of poverty. I learned that women’s rights are human rights.

What are the main challenges you’ve faced in your work and life, and how did you seek to overcome them?

Elise Lee: I love my work and I truly feel that it is a privilege to be able to support families to work their way out of poverty. I also have a lot of flexibility in my work, so I try to be present for my two young daughters, as much as I can. So, sometimes, I need to be reminded to take care of myself too. I am trying to be more intentional and more mindful to overcome these daily struggles.

Outside your work, what do you enjoy doing the most?

Elise Lee: I love to travel. I love to spend time outdoors. I love a good book or a good movie. I love yummy food with great company.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Elise Lee: There have been so many women who have impacted my life. Currently, I am so grateful for Ninfa, who is our helper. Ninfa lives with us and takes care of my girls and manages our home. I would not be able to do my work without her.

What is your advice for individuals interested in nonprofit management careers?

Elise Lee: Volunteer. Find a group that works with the community or kind of people that you have a heart for, and go serve them. Try to do it over the long term so that you can build relationships.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?

Elise Lee: I would like to recommend the movie Dangal, which is based on a true story about a father and his two daughters who become wrestling champions. I’m not doing the movie any justice by describing it like this, so please just go and watch it!

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