Interview with Rita Ching by Inspirational Women Series
Rita Ching is the Deputy CEO of The Women’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to the full and equal participation of women in Hong Kong society. She is mainly responsible for program design, development and community outreach. Programs and initiatives she has spearheaded include TWF’s Life Skills Program, Financial Literacy Program and T.E.E.N. Program. Moreover, she is the Founder and Principal of a social enterprise called Above and Beyond Education – an education centre in Sham Shui Po that instructs on positive education to support students and their parents. Rita is also an organizing member of the ‘2013-16 Family-Friendly Employers Award Scheme’ and the Advisory Group Member for the ‘Financial Education Programmes for Grassroots’ and the Working Group Member for the ‘Financial Literacy Framework for Hong Kong’ under the Investor Education Centre, a subsidiary of the Securities & Futures Commission. She has been awarded “Hong Kong Outstanding Women Volunteer” of Hong Kong YWCA. Rita holds a Masters in Social Policy from the University of York, UK.
You are the Deputy CEO of The Women’s Foundation (TWF) in Hong Kong, an organization dedicated to the full and equal participation of women in Hong Kong society. What inspired you to join The Women’s Foundation, and can you discuss some of your favorite memories with TWF?
Because of my background, I worked in the government (or you could say statutory body) before. I also worked in commercial companies. Yet, I wanted a change and so gave myself a career break. During this break, I spent half a year to think about what I really wanted to do and I heard about The Women’s Foundation. I was invited to start as a volunteer, then a part-timer, and finally a full-timer.
Su-Mei Thompson and I joined TWF at the same time and when we joined, there were very few staff members. They only had one junior executive and she was leaving by the time we met her. We started from scratch and we had to do everything; TWF is very different now. When I worked for the government, the government provided a lot of structure and support but when TWF started out I had to roll out my hands and work on every aspect of the organization, including all the dirty work. TWF has 21 staff members now and and we grew from nothing to our current positions now. We reach out to grassroots marginalized women to senior executives to students. TWF gave me the freedom to grow and develop programs that are different from other traditional projects. Our model is very different as we start everything from research, try to identify social gaps and try to borrow best practices from overseas programs and localize them. Our programs are innovative and groundbreaking as a result.
At TWF, you currently oversee the Life Skills Program, which aims to equip adolescent girls and boys with financial literacy training. Can you tell us more about the Life Skills Program and its impact?
The Life Skills Program also developed from nothing. Many people in Hong Kong talk about life skills but we lack a program with a holistic approach. After doing intensive research, the TWF team and I developed the whole structure and curriculum of Life Skills Program, which is a program that made reference to many best practices and overseas programs including JP Morgan’s Life Skills Program. Usually there are programs in Hong Kong talking about financial literacy, relationships or careers, but they are in piecemeal and there is no program connecting the three.
We started from scratch and worked in focus groups; students in focus groups told us that the biggest problems were not academic problems but relationship ones. In our discussion, we started from relationships and talked about how relationships affected daily life. Also, relationships affected their futures and careers; for example, if they had stereotypes about other people, they would likely have stereotypes about themselves. We explored how relationships affected careers; we also looked at career from a gender perspective and whether gender would limit their career choices. We integrated positive psychology elements into the program; on the career front, we tried to bring students to consider their career strengths using surveys developed by local Hong Kong professors and Martin Seligman. Then, we asked them whether they can relate their career strengths to their future goals. Once they developed their career or life goal, we told them to use hopeful thinking to plan how they can achieve this goal – an approach that also uses positive psychology elements. Finally, we talked about financial literacy because you need financial support to pursue your dreams. We talked about how to use money wisely and how to incorporate finances in your plan to achieve your goals.
You also founded Above and Beyond Education, an educational center in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, that imparts the values of positive education to students and their parents. Can you talk a little about Above and Beyond Education?
My experience in TWF – with the Life Skills Program and the T.E.E.N. Program – inspired my choice to found Above and Beyond Education. In the T.E.E.N. Program, I worked closely with the students and saw their transformation through the years as they became T.E.E.N. alumni. This program inspired me to do more for the youth and be dedicated to make change. All of these students are deprived in some way and each day, they have struggles in their lives. The Life Skills program’s elements of positive psychology and social learning helped them greatly. I tried to use these elements in my future experiences with children.
Above and Beyond Education serves another target group. Most of these students are primary school students; I wanted to transform children’s lives when they were even younger. I wanted to reach out to parents as well. If parents saw the changes of their child, they would more convinced to change themselves. Through Above and Beyond Education, I met more parents and I also started to run my own workshop for them. The education center actually is a tool for me to reach parents and impact them positively.
In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers to women’s empowerment in Hong Kong?
I work with many deprived people, and they have different mindsets – which are difficult to change. Often times, we think we need an open mind and you must change something, but it is difficult to change someone’s mind. Even if a program is free of charge, and you think someone should learn a skill, people don’t always want to learn those skills. A lot of women in Hong Kong think that they don’t want to change and a lot of people think that their status is very good. Some of them hold a different will that women must be a certain way and that there isn’t much possibility.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Women are very important – to change society, you must change the status of women first. There is a study discussing how when you invest an amount of money in women, the return to society as a whole is much more for women than for men. Women will choose to spend most of the money on future goals, usually health or children’s future education. The study also showed that men will choose to spend money on short-term pleasures like investments, gambling, alcohol, etc. Women really hold up the whole sky; if you can empower a woman, they can change the whole family. One of our programs, the Financial Literacy Program, empowers women to change the way they look at money, spend money, and negotiate. They start to have more confidence and show their husbands that they are capable of money management. They become involved with planning for their family’s goals and their whole family changes for the better. If you want to start changing society for the better, you must change women first and through this, change the family unit. You save the society, and save many social costs.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, influenced me a lot. I changed a lot through being in TWF; when I worked in the government, everything was about politics and authority. I managed my team using authority. In TWF, Su-Mei and I worked like partners and discussed everything, were mirrors of each other, and built teams through open dialogue. We respect each other. The whole working atmosphere is very different than it was before. We’ve had our ups and downs, but the most important thing is that we change ourselves to be better people. Positive psychology also changed myself a lot as well; the whole process is organic.
What advice do you have for people interested in getting involved with women’s empowerment, social advocacy, and nonprofit leadership?
Try to be open-minded and listen to different people. When I worked in the government before, I thought I had an open mind but that is not really true compared to who I am right now. I understand that if you are really open-minded, you will be humble to listen to people’s advice, especially if you hear criticism about yourself. After joining TWF, I met a lot of youth who were very honest with me. You may not like what they have to say but they can provide an opportunity for you to reflect. If what they’re saying is not true, then forget about it; but sometimes it’s a good way to reflect on how to change. For the first few years, I worked with university students and I felt like I gave all the best things to these students but one day they told me that “your approach is too strong and forceful.” I didn’t realize this and I felt very hurt the first time I heard about it. But because of that day, I learned that there is much room for me to change. My tone may be too strong not just to the youth but maybe for my colleagues, and I asked other people for feedback. Now, I talk to many people and they don’t have the same impression of me because I worked on changing myself.
What books, films and websites about gender equality, women’s empowerment, and education have inspired you?
Films that impressed me particular on education include The Blind Side (Sandra Bullock) and Alphabet (Ken Robinson). Miss Representation – which inspired us to produce She Objects – is also a good film.