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She left her high-flying career of 28 years in corporate banking and joined the social service sector to help the needy and vulnerable.
It was a leap of faith, Chief Executive Officer of Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) Ms Junie Foo says of the decision she made three years ago.
Foo tells The Pride: “In my whole life, every time I moved, it was always for something better, according to the world view. A better job, a better paycheck.”
“But this time I wanted to do something more socially impactful to benefit more people, and not just shareholders,” she laughs.
“In the bank you have CSR (corporate social responsibility), but I wasn’t able to fully give to the community… At a spiritual level, there was also a calling for me. I literally left without a job and just waited for God to call me to MWS.”
Taking the leap
Before taking on the role at MWS, Foo was head of corporate banking and head of global subsidiary banking of Asia Oceania at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (now known as MUFG Bank). Breaking even more barriers, she was the first woman and non-Japanese at the senior management level of the corporate banking division.
But her move into the social sector almost didn’t happen.
Foo says that she received a call from a headhunter just before she was going to tender her resignation from MUFG. He said: “This European bank is looking for a head of Asia. You tick all the boxes. Why don’t you go and check it out?”
Foo went for the interview, but something else clicked.
She says: “When the global head said we were going to do a one billion dollar franchise business for the whole Asia, I was not very excited. There was no more fire in my belly. So I knew that I needed to leave the industry.”
Two days later, she tendered.
While many may see what she did — giving up a high-paying banking job for one in the social service sector — a sacrifice, Foo sees it as trading her job for something more meaningful to her.
Through engaging and interacting with MWS’s 8,400 beneficiaries through its nursing homes and programs — the charity organisation has 20 centres and programmes all over Singapore that serve disadvantaged seniors, families and youths — Foo says that her life is fuller and richer.
“Recently, I spent the day co-creating paintings with the residents at the nursing home… There’s this uncle who loves to paint! Because it’s Covid, I could only paint with one or two of them… Money cannot buy all these experiences,” Foo says.
Foo, who took the helm as Chairperson of the Singapore Kindness Movement in July, hopes to transform the social service landscape.
She says that many successful men are linked to a certain position or organisation, and when they retire find themselves unfulfilled and empty.
Instead, Foo hopes to leave a legacy of kindness that has made a difference in the lives of others, and says that every encounter is an opportunity to share love, joy and peace.
She says: “Why do people know me as Junie the banker? Why can’t people know me as Junie the Christian, an ambassador for Christ?”
“I believe all religions practice kindness; kindness transcends all religions. Now, especially with technology being so prevalent, kindness is still needed in terms of touching people’s hearts. So SKM was something I wanted to put my time into.”
Looking for more women leaders
Foo is also passionate about advocating for more women in leadership.
Among the many hats she wears is being President of Singapore Council of Women’s organisations (SCWO).
She is also the Founding Co-Chair of BoardAgender, an initiative of SWCO that facilitates gender diversity in the workplace and pushes to have more women in leadership positions.
Foo says: “We are not in a hunter-gatherer economy any more where a physical advantage will push you to the forefront… As more women get educated, it should be natural (to have more women in leadership positions). But somehow we just drop off.”
She shares that in Singapore, women take up a third of senior management positions, but added that more needs to be done to have more women serve on boards of directors.
How can we encourage having more women to take up senior leadership positions, even as the role of women and the challenges they face become more complex, having to balance responsibilities at home and in the workplace?
Foo says that organisations can enable women to succeed through flexi-working hours and having mentors to look out for them and guide them on their career path.
“I’m not saying that all women should go onto boards but that they should get an opportunity and a level playing field,” she explains.
“There’s nothing wrong if someone decides to go full-time and look after the children,” Foo says. “If you know your female colleague has young children and needs to take a couple of hours off, let them do that.”
Although she stresses that work standards regardless of gender must always be maintained.
“I believe that when women take time off, they will give much more in return. It’s a natural sense of responsibility. I feel women should be kind to other women as well… more often than not, it’s the women criticising. We must try to affirm each other.”
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Men have an important part to play as well in supporting their spouses. Whether it is doing their part to share the responsibilities at home, or simply being present to listen and to give good advice, Foo says.
She is thankful that her husband Tan Wee Hiong has been very supportive of her career choices. Foo says she had received several offers while waiting for MWS’s confirmation, and it was her husband who kept her steady and put things in perspective for her.
Foo says: “He said if I join the banks again, it’s vanity. But if you join MWS, you are working for God and I will support you. I knew I married a wise man!”
Helping young female professionals succeed
Having climbed the corporate ladder and broken a glass ceiling in the banking industry, Foo is ready to help other young women break ground on their own.
She currently mentors eight young female professionals as part of a group called Young Women’s Leadership Connect (YWLC).
She has one new mentee every year but continues to meet up with all of them.
Foo says: “My very first mentee is already a mother of two. I mentored her from the time she was single, attended her wedding, now she’s got two kids! Recently, she decided to be a stay-at-home mum because she feels these times (with her kids) are precious.”
“Another mentee is thinking of starting her own line of athleisure wear.”
One of the reasons Foo is doing this is that when she was starting out on her own career journey, there were no mentoring programmes for young women like herself. Her family members were not in the finance industry and didn’t understand the challenges she was going through.
“But I did seek out more senior women to share some of my work challenges. They would guide me, and let me bounce ideas off them,” Foo says.
For someone who has accomplished all that she has, what other goals does Foo have?
“Outside of work, I want to do a course in dementia to prepare myself so that I can help other people better. I’m trying to read up and attend courses and workshops on social work.”
“I also want to learn tap dancing!” she laughs.
In her spare time, Foo enjoys painting, going for walks and listening to music. She likes to read (physical books not e-books, she says, admitting with her distinctive laugh that she is old school).
She says that time is a challenge, though.
“I have a finite 24 hours. Time is a commodity I don’t have a lot of. So I give time to anyone who comes to me,” she says.
To young female professionals just starting out on their careers, Foo says: “Learn as much as you can. And don’t stop learning. Don’t be too comfortable. Always try to step out of your comfort zone because that’s where you are challenged.”
She adds that she is still a work in progress and that she doesn’t know what success is, but she knows it is important to finish well.
“I sometimes describe myself as a gymnast doing the floor exercise. You do somersaults and splits. You wave the scarves and you throw up the ball. But you need to catch it and land properly. It’s always about landing properly. It’s always about balance.”