Woman On A Mission: Emily Lam-Ho
From a young age, Emily Lam-Ho knew she had to walk her own path. Her parents, tycoon Peter Lam and Taiwan-born actress-turned-artist Lynn Hsieh, cast a long shadow, and it was always going to be difficult to get out into the light. She was determined to strike out on her own, to become independent and successful in her own right. She laid the foundation with not one but two degrees from the University of Southern California—the first in communications and the second in East Asian language and culture.
Emily then completed a master’s at New York’s Columbia University. When she returned to Hong Kong in 2009 ready to make her mark, her father hoped she would join one of the family businesses, which include Lai Sun Development, Lai Fung Holdings and Media Asia Group Holdings. But his strong-willed daughter stuck to her guns and instead took up a marketing position at investment bank CLSA.
The first week wasn’t easy. Emily overheard a group of young employees gossiping about her, calling her a rich little princess and predicting she wouldn’t last more than a week. “It really hurt my feelings,” she says as she sinks back into a cushion-laden window-seat in Caprice Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“They judged me on my family name without even trying to get to know me. I felt like walking out, but when I called Mum, she said, ‘You’re not a quitter. You’re my daughter; you are strong.’” Encouraged by her mother’s words, Emily made a vow.
“I set out to prove them wrong by working harder and faster and more diligently than anyone else.” Her dynamism paid off and the gossips were forced to eat their words. Impressed by Emily’s drive and determination, Helena Wai, then head of corporate broking at CLSA and now vice-chairman, took the young graduate under her wing as her right-hand woman.
Strength and resilience
Having Helena as a boss and mentor proved tough but rewarding. “It was like The Devil Wears Prada but in the finance industry. Helena, of course, was Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly. Working for her helped me gain respect from people, because they saw she didn’t treat me like a princess. Quite the opposite. If anything, she was tougher on me than anyone else. It was the hardest but the best training of my life. Helena made me strong and resilient. She gave me a chance, she had faith in me and that is what I appreciate the most.”
Emily rose through the ranks rapidly to become a sharp-shooting equity trader, then a hotshot in institutional sales, staying at CLSA for seven years before deciding to “move on to the next chapter of my life.” Of her star protégé, Helena says, “I’ve mentored and managed a lot of young women during my career, but Emily was the most remarkable. Her father was eager for her to join the family business and she could easily have taken a top job in one of his companies, but she was determined to succeed on her own terms and not take the easy route, and that impressed me a lot.”
Helena was also surprised to discover that this independent young woman, who would strut the trading floor in stylish Chanel suits and skyscraper heels, still embraced traditional values.
Traditional Chinese values
“To find a modern young Hong Kong woman with traditional Chinese values is rare these days and I think it’s what makes her so special. Emily always treated her elders with genuine respect and made kind gestures, not because she was trying to please or impress but because she is a naturally thoughtful person with a kind heart. She is also grateful to the people who have helped her along the way and never forgets the kindness they have shown.”
Over the course of her career, Emily has also benefited from the wisdom of another influential female figure—Alice Mong. The pair met when Emily worked under Alice at the Committee of 100, a New York-based NGO founded by architect IM Pei and cellist Yo-Yo Ma that promotes US-China relations. Alice is now the chief executive of the Asia Society, Hong Kong, and continues to offer Emily guidance as a mentor and a friend.
“When I first met Emily in New York, I found a hard-working young graduate eager to prove herself,” remembers Alice. “Although Emily was never shy, I think she was trying to find herself and wanted to be respected for her work and who she was. I reconnected with Emily when I returned to Hong Kong in 2011 and this time I found a confident young professional woman who has become a loving mother and a committed leader in her community, eager to build a better future for her kids and the next generation.”
But among the important influences on Emily, the standout will always be her mother, a woman she describes as “one of the most inspiring people in my life.” As a little girl, Emily would gather around the TV with her siblings (Lester, twins Elly and Lucas, and Evelyn) to watch screenings of her mother’s movies. “Seeing my mum as the star of a movie made me feel that anything was possible, that I could achieve anything I put my mind to.”
Emily learnt many of life’s lessons from her mother, who separated from her father back in 1995. “My mum was a child star and her family was not well-off. It was her earnings that supported the family and funded the education of her younger brother and sisters. My mum has taught me to be self-sufficient. She also warned us everything can be lost or fade away, but knowledge and experience are the most important qualities as they can never be taken away from you.”
Lynn remembers Emily as a tenacious little girl who was always determined to prove herself. “In a large family, sometimes you have to fight to be heard,” Lynn says. “Especially if you are a girl with brothers and traditional grandparents. Emily was always strong. She was never afraid to voice her opinion. She fought for her status and I think that earned her people’s respect.”
Thankful for the aid she has received from a succession of determined females in reaching her potential, Emily is keen to give something back to the community. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had support, encouragement and motivation from the women around me. For many other women out there, their ability to fulfil their potential is so often overshadowed by a lack of support and resources. Now I’m looking for ways I can help other women.”
One way Emily helps is through her work with the Women’s Commission, advising the government on policies and initiatives relating to females in Hong Kong. She’s been a council member for more than two years, working on projects spanning education, healthcare and social welfare, to name a few.
“I felt so proud when [Hong Kong Chief Executive] Carrie Lam proposed increasing maternity leave from 10 to 14 weeks in her policy address last month. That was down to the hard work of the Women’s Commission. We pushed for that change. It felt so rewarding to be part of progress, to make a difference, to play a small part in making life better for women around you.”
Emily was also appointed to the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard University’s Kennedy School this year and will attend her first meeting in the US this month. She was nominated by American philanthropist Francine LeFrak, a filmmaker who focuses on social issues. “We’ll be looking at women’s issues globally and how collectively, as a leadership board, we can come together and improve situations through policymaking,” says Emily.
Saving the environment
As the interim CEO of environmental NGO EcoDrive, Emily gets involved with everything from publicity and marketing to beach clean-ups. “I’m not afraid to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in,” says Emily, who has a wealth of volunteering experience, including building a school in Gambia, running an orphanage in Grenada and working with Teach for China in Yunnan.
As vice-president of the Columbia University Alumni Association of Hong Kong (the university where Emily earned two master’s degrees), Emily has organised a series of women’s panel talks with guest speakers such as Camille Cheng, who represented Hong Kong in swimming at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and Amy Fong, the CEO of Save the Children Hong Kong.
Earlier this year she also launched Empact28, an investment company focused on funding women entrepreneurs and corporations making a positive social or environmental impact. The name is a playful melding of her own and “impact,” plus a numerical nod to S28, the early-stage venture capital company of her husband, Kent Ho.
One of her first investments was Yellow Leaf Hammocks, which trains women, in particular mothers, in impoverished communities in Thailand to weave hammocks from sustainable materials. Another was Mogul, a platform that connects women to stories, jobs and products that reflect their interests. Emily has also invested in several female-founded companies, including the British phone accessories brand Chaos and the next-gen tailoring startup Hemster, to name but a few.
“The investment world continues to be male-dominated and often sexist,” she says, “and many women still find it hard to get funding even though they have brilliant ideas. They often feel intimidated and judged. Women entrepreneurs have told me they are delighted to finally be pitching to a female investor who has experience in business but is also a mother, as many of them have children too. I want to invest in women and help level the playing field so that male and female entrepreneurs have equal opportunities to secure funding.
"That is my focus—empowering women and working towards gender equality in all aspects of life. While I don’t want to be regarded as a ‘rich little princess,’ I acknowledge I’ve benefited from a privileged upbringing and I’m proud to have successful, high-profile parents. I’m very thankful for these blessings. Now that I’ve established myself in business and philanthropy, I feel I can use my position in society to raise awareness, make an impact and help other woman who haven’t been as fortunate as me.”
As our interview draws to a close, Emily asks if there’s time for some special thank-yous. “I feel like I’m giving an Oscar speech,” she jokes. “Obviously this interview is more about my work with gender equality and the women who inspired me along the way, but I couldn’t have done it without the men in my life.”
First to be showered in praise is husband Kent, who she married in 2014 at a lavish ceremony at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the French Riviera. Emily sported gowns by Oscar de la Renta, Valentino and Dior, and dazzling jewels, and their first dance was serenaded by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. The couple have a three-year-old son and a daughter who is two.
“He’s my rock,” she says of Kent. “We share the same values, we equally support each other and we both have a clear vision of the positive change we want to see in the world, for our children, for ourselves and for the planet. And most importantly, he makes me laugh, he’s great fun to be around and he’s the ultimate travel partner.”
A quick scroll through her Instagram account, which has 121,000 followers, reveals photos of the couple Greek-island-hopping on a private yacht, wine tasting in the Napa Valley, skiing in Aspen and on safari in South Africa. “We both have wanderlust,” she says.
Her big brother Lester also gets a shout-out. “He’s not just my brother; he is my best friend. We always turn to each other for advice and he looks after me.” And she is very thankful to her father, the man she admires the most for letting her carve out her own career and supporting her every step of the way.
“Without him none of this would be possible; he’s the best businessman and there is so much that I have learnt, and am still learning, from him.” Before we venture back into the late afternoon sun, Emily raises her glass of pinot noir and says, “You know the saying, ‘Behind every great man, there’s a great woman’? Well, I think that should be updated. How about, ‘Behind every great woman is more great women—and some pretty great men too!’”