Inspirational Woman Interview: Karen Seymour
Karen Seymour is the Executive Director at the Li & Fung Foundation, the corporate foundation of Li & Fung Limited with a mission to make a difference along the supply chain and in the communities where they live and work. The Foundation is focused on embracing the power of innovation and collaboration to create exponential impact to improve the lives of a billion people. Raised in Toronto, Karen has resided in Hong Kong for the past 24 years. Having previously worked for 15 years in sales, marketing and account management in the financial markets before joining Li & Fung, Karen held positions at Manulife Financial in Toronto and Hong Kong, Primark (acquired by Thomson Financial), Morgan Stanley Capital International and State Street Global Advisors in Hong Kong. She has also worked for 7 years on three entrepreneurial stints in financial data, education and publishing. Karen has a long history of volunteer service, is a Chapter Member and former Chapter Leader of Room to Read in Hong Kong, and a Volunteer Consultant at Asian Charity Services. She served on the parent’s board of the Canadian International School and held a number of positions on nonprofit committees. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree with majors in Economics and Geography from Wilfred Laurier University.
How did you first come to join Li & Fung and can you share your experience transitioning from Li & Fung Limited to Li & Fung Foundation?
Karen Seymour: I joined Li & Fung through my network and under the guidance of our visionary leader, Lâle Kesebi, who believed the company could create further impact with a more strategic community focus. At the time I joined I was looking to use my strengths from the business world to make a difference in communities.
In the past five years we transitioned from community engagement being an extension of global grass-roots activities to aligning our community impact more closely with the business and starting the Li & Fung Foundation in 2016. It’s been an exceptionally exciting journey the past year, with Li & Fung launching purpose to improve the lives of a billion people along the supply chain. Our senior leaders and colleagues worldwide have led and backed efforts to enhance our community impact, and we’re now tapping our convening power and networks to make exponential, large-scale positive change.
What are some programs that the Li & Fung Foundation has run?
Karen Seymour: The Li & Fung Foundation supports Li & Fung colleagues worldwide to get out and make a difference. We’ve got 22,000 people in 40 markets, and helping our communities is part of our DNA. We also have exciting ways we want to create exponential impact going forward, using new technologies and finding ways to scale initiatives to make big impact.
Li & Fung has been part of the economic development equation worldwide since we were founded 110 years ago and our values have always been rooted in building a better future. We are an organization that thrives on change and embraces innovation and a forward-thinking mindset.
The Li & Fung Foundation is focused on activating communities, convening partners and networks across the supply chain for impact, and looking at how we can make exponential impact.
We activate communities by supporting our people globally to use their expertise, time and talent to raise awareness and take action to solve social and environmental issues. We have annual campaigns around healthy and sustainable lifestyles and caring for the environment, as well as hundreds of impactful programs across 40 markets worldwide, ranging from mentoring youth and women to addressing issues like social inclusion, education, the needs of elderly and disaster relief. We empower our colleagues to look at the needs in their local communities and take action, inviting in partners to help enhance impact. In 2016 we had almost 400 community initiatives globally, across 72 locations with our people volunteering over 16,000 times.
Going forward, how might the Li & Fung Foundation help address some of the challenges ahead in the supply chain?
Karen Seymour: We’re at a really exciting turning point in the company, introducing purpose and supported by our newly formed Li & Fung Foundation. We’re really looking closely at how we can use our key strength as a natural “convener” in our industry to improve the lives of a billion people along the supply chain. From our own employees to our factory partners that we work with, the community of people who work at those factories, to the brands and retailers that we serve, to the end consumer who buys those products and our community partners. Our reach is so vast and we have set our ambitions high to leverage our networks, people and partnerships to create more shared value and build a better world. We know that collaboration across our industry will be key, so we aim to build more links with industry stakeholders to address the development challenges our industry faces together
Looking ahead, we think that technology will be key to getting the scale we want in order for our positive impact to reach the many markets and people across the supply chain. We are tapping the ideas of Singularity University in that solutions can be scaled exponentially and that abundance for all, not just for the few lucky ones, is possible in the near future. We are looking at social innovation, democratized information, networks and passionate people as the levers that can create great change in the world. It’s an exciting time and there are amazing advances to tap into.
Can you also tell us about your involvement with Room to Read in Hong Kong?
Karen Seymour: I’ve been a supporter of Room to Read since 2006 when I read John Wood’s book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Room to Read appealed to me not only because of the focus on education and literacy, but also because it’s a nonprofit that’s run like a business. The people I met at that time who also were helping to launch the HK Chapter were diverse, brilliant people with whom I still have a close connection.
I have always loved Room to Read’s intense focus on results, how programs are evaluated and iterated to maximize effectiveness and the “Get Stuff Done” attitude of its people. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from being involved with this organization and from some of its great leaders along the way including John Wood and Erin Ganju. It’s been incredible raising awareness at schools for girls’ education and literacy, fundraising, and especially seeing projects first-hand and meeting a number of the scholarship girls who have completed secondary school thanks to RTR. Hearing the girls’ stories and seeing their will to succeed and desire to change their lives and that of their families and communities makes all the hours of volunteering worth it.
Opportunities are not universal and it’s a gift to be able to give back and share the abundance so many of us are fortunate to have.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Karen Seymour: I am in awe of my mom who worked in the Public Relations industry in Detroit back in the 1960’s. She thrived in a “Mad Men” type environment. If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you’ll know that working women of that era had to overcome so many barriers just to be respected, heard and valued at work, no matter what their education or abilities were. My mom was also a working mom and later ran her own business. That not only set the bar for my sister and me, but also enabled us to be independent, resourceful and always have a can-do attitude. People have told me that my mom is the warmest person they’ve ever met. She’s smart, kind and uber-resourceful. And she chose a great partner in my dad. She has definitely helped prepare me for a fulfilling life.
I also have been fortunate to meet a number of impressive young women who are studying or have graduated from the Asian University for Women (AUW). Many of these students are from rural or marginalized communities, are the first in their families to achieve higher education, and are determined to make their mark in the world. I’ve been truly Inspired and impacted by their tenacity and ability to overcome many obstacles to lead change. It’s been an honor to build bonds with these women, both mentoring them and learning from them in equal measure.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources related to leadership, nonprofits, and/or supply chain management?
Karen Seymour: I can’t get enough of TED talks on a range of topics from artificial intelligence to happiness to living a life of adventure. I’m also obsessed about how rapidly technology is changing the world right now and I think Elon Musk is such a monumental change maker.
I follow a number of influencers and organizations on LinkedIn including Paul Polman of Unilever, and Singularity University for their thought leadership on building a sustainable future.
One of the key themes I love to explore is how people overcome tremendous adversity to create a better future for themselves and for those around them. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn features women thriving after being through unimaginable hardship. It is unforgettable and covers issues affecting women that most of us may not even know about. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and Seabiscuit: An American Legend, are books by Laura Hillenbrand which both became blockbuster films. They are based on true stories of unbelievable grit.
The recent movie Hidden Figures also highlights societal injustices and the incredible bravery and brilliance of a few women who fought to be recognized for their talent.
John Wood’s books Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and Creating Room to Read are two excellent books about the formation of Room to Read which taught me to seek out the “yes” people in life and to live by the mantra of “Get Stuff Done”.
On leadership, Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail helps demystify the fact that achieving ten times the impact is not impossible. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg highlights the importance for women to not be self-limiting, to seek advice and mentors and to expect true partnership in caring for children and the home.
Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie of is another inspiring read, encouraging people to follow their passions and to be resourceful without resources.