April 17, 2020

Musician to Multi-Hyphenate: Lunch with Su-Yen Wong

Podcast Episode


Welcome back to another episode of Lunch with Aunty. In this episode, I interview Su-Yen Wong who is an absolute inspiration. She is a professional speaker, a strategic advisor and a board director. We chatted about how she did her degree in music and computer science, gender inequity on boards and the struggles she went through in her career. 

To through it right back to when you were my age. How did you decide to go to America for university and decide on a liberal arts decree etc?

Back in the day, to study music one had to go overseas because there were not really the options in Singapore. When I decided on music it was clear that I would be going overseas. 

Liberal Arts was quite a natural choice. I have always had a curiosity for a broad range of subjects. In a liberal arts degree, I could explore everything from philosophy to computer science to economics. I really found it extremely valuable to learn about a large range of subjects. 

Music and computer science? Did they complement each other? 

Computer science was not even on my radar when I arrived at university. But in retrospect when you look at some of the research that has been done, there is research to suggest links between mathematics and music, so I suppose innately there may be some links between computer science and music. For me, it was about balancing the right hand and the left-hand brain. I tried to explicitly find links between the two. My thesis was actually around developing a computing programme to help with music theory. I always tried to bridge two seemingly different subjects. The beauty of a liberal arts degree allows you to structure your own major. I could be creative about designing where you wanted to spend your time. 

Much later you went into speaking and now you’ve spoken to a very impressive list of people, how did you get into that? 

I didn’t start like that. In one sense I went full circle. When you are a musician you are performing, you are trying to communicate with your voice or instrument to make your audience feel something. Speaking to audiences is also about how you make them feel. How you want to make them think, inspire change, so in a funny way its performing in a different domain. While I know longer perform with an instrument but the skills are still innate within what I do today. I am a huge believer that if you choose to utilise what you learn there is always a way to make it relevant. 

I love hearing someone say that something I learn in college or university is actually going to be useful in real life. 

Although I can’t remember a historical fact or a mathematical formula I can’t, it’s not that linear, but it exercises the muscle around learning and drawing inferences. Those have served me well in the long term. We need to keep reinventing ourselves as the world is changing so rapidly. We need to develop those adaptability and flexibility muscles. Education is never a waste, it’s not about the content it’s about the ‘how’. 

You’re an active member of ‘Women corporate directors’, could you speak a little about that?

I also am a director of boards around the world. What this involves is deciding the direction of a company, providing guidance at a senior level. Some organisations are small companies some are large some are charities. But one of the challenges is how do we get a better representation of women on boards. The percentage of women on boards varies from the low single digits to the twenty per cent. I think that if you look at how the workforce has evolved then look at how senior management has evolved you have to think about an appropriate mix, and that’s where gender comes in. 

Companies cannot just focus on one type of diversity, they have to focus on many layers of diversity dimensions that they ought to consider. 

For example, a board with 50% men and 50% women, and all are from country A. So they have gender diversity in comparison to the diversity that they need to expand into other regions besides country A. 

So quotas? 

Quotas are the bluntest way of achieving diversity, for sure, but actually it is really hard to have quotas for the multidimensional diversity. Quotas are too simplistic for all the dimensions of diversity. Ensuring that boards actually have a structured process when bringing on new board members rather than relying on ‘who do you know’ style recruitment is crucial to manifesting diversity. 

For women who want to go down the path of being on boards I would recumbent education and training but also to build relationships and networks with people who are in the space they want to go into. On one hand, build a structured process. On the other hand, you want to be in peoples pool of people at the back of their head. 

What has been your greatest struggle? What was difficult? 

We often learn more from challenges than from successes. One anecdote I will share is when I was a strategy consultant. I faced a triple whammy of being or at least looking young, Asian and female. If one of those dimensions were different it would have changed (and increased) my level of credibility. I had this trifecta that was working against my credibility. My pragmatic approach was showing them my value. I asked myself how I could add value to them. I realised this was most effective when building relationships individually with my client. So I always spent time with clients individually so they could see what I was doing. Once that was established it became easier. I also never disclosed my age, they could only ever guess on my age. I didn’t want that to be a mental barrier. 

What is your favourite part of your job? 

I don’t really have one job, and that’s probably my favourite thing. Every day is so different. Speaking to different people, everything is so different. It is really the diversity of issues and challenges and environment of issues that I really enjoy the most. 

Different careers all at once? 

It wasn’t all like that. For a number of years, I spent time developing depth. Having built that depth is what allowed me to now build breath. I often think of careers as looking like an hourglass. Early on have a broad base, in order to develop expertise narrow down and build depth, and then later on in one’s career broaden back out. 

Do you have any advice for people my age? 

I think that it is important to stay humble and that no matter where one is there will always be those who are ahead and always be those who are behind. Here is my commencement address: 

fundamentally I think that it is about developing a deep curiosity about the world. The world is evolving at such a great pace and its important that you must keep evolving as well. A lot of that has to do with having an open mindset to life and learning. 

Su-Yen’s website: