Kemmy Koh wears many hats. As Group CFO of Chinese Global Investors Group (CGI), a company listed on the Singapore Exchange Securities, engaging in financial and investment services, she is responsible for all financial activities of the Group’s twenty subsidiaries. A nominee by Fortune’s Most Powerful Women: Asia, Kemmy is considered one of the brightest young CFOs among corporate circles in Singapore.
With over twenty years of regional financial leadership experience and prior to joining CGI, she spent the bulk of her career focussing on fundraising, risk management, restructuring, IPO pre & post strategies planning. Kemmy is also the incubator of Kglow SkinLab, an aesthetics wellness clinic providing men and women with the best science-based treatment solutions. It is her personal belief that beauty and wellness should be made affordable to everyone.
Ahead of her presentation at the CFO Rising Summit this July 11 - 12 in Singapore, we sat down with Kemmy to discuss her experience as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
What is it like in your company? Do you feel there is gender equality in your workplace? Does your company do anything to promote gender equality?
Chinese Global Investors Group (CGI) is a company listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in the business of investment and fund management as well as a waterproofing business. Given the nature of the business we run, we are more a 95% male-dominated company. I would say there is a clear underrepresentation of women in leadership and managerial roles in my company, though I also believe things are slowly changing and companies are embracing more women in senior management roles and company boards.
As a listed company, it is not that my Board does not do anything to promote gender equality. I believe it is not easy to find suitable female leaders for us as all candidates go through very stringent due diligence check before they are appointed. This applies uniformly to all sexes not just towards female candidates.
What is the percentage of women in senior leadership roles at your company? How can your company get that number to increase?
CGI board is relatively small with me being the only female on the senior management position as the whole board and management are dominated by males.
CGI has shown vision for inclusion and diversity from the various structures and processes we have in place. I was fortunate that the hiring process was unbiased and this is what all organization should be in order to foster a culture of senior management women inclusion. Retaining and finding female talent with high career aspirations, experience, and skill to fill senior levels is a challenge. We manage this challenge by identifying female talent from educational programs and recruiting women who’ve left the workplace due to family needs or unfriendly work environments. We believe we can avoid losing promising leaders given the right retention efforts, policies and training programs.
Why are there so few women CFOs worldwide, especially when women make up a large degree of accounting graduates? What is your opinion? Is it any different in Singapore?
Though the number of CFOs in Singapore is relatively high compared to other countries, there are nevertheless challenges to women becoming CFOs here. As women move up the C-suite, we have to struggle to strike a work-life balance between work responsibilities and family responsibilities. This is the main reason behind the underrepresentation of women in the workplace.
Are there any women CFOs that you look up to? Who are they?
I always believe that every individual I have the chance to meet have their special quality for me to learn from, as such, I do not think I restrict myself to looking up to specifically women CFOs.
Did you have a strong female or male mentor who helped you in your career? How did they help your career?
I very much have the privilege of turning my professional relationships into very informal in the process of interactions with them. I connect easily with roles models who give me the platform to gain the experience necessary for me to succeed. I meet and work very closely with many outstanding men whose support, respect and confidence in me as their leader in our male-dominated industry have propelled me to be the best I can be. I take charge of my own career to find role models I can emulate and not so much as having a mentor.
What has your experience been like as a women in the C-suite? Do your male colleagues respect your opinions and treat you as an equal? If yes, why? If not, why not?
Women in leadership roles are still underrepresented in all industries, finance in particular. CFOs' roles have evolved to hold multiple hats. We are not just looked upon as operational experts, strategic partners to the CEO and the voice of the investors, we are also the driving force for business performance and providing proactively analysis and insight to decide on company’s important decisions.
I’ve worked with predominantly male teams, who have often been far more senior than I am, in terms of age, experience, and level within the organization. As such, I am used to being the only woman in the boardroom and so, being a minority is something I am very accustomed to. I personally feel that to be like one of my male colleagues is not important for I feel having the confidence and strength to succeed in a male-dominated field is more important.
Not just for being a woman, but to gain respect for my opinions and to be treated as an equal, it is always important to speak up for what’s right. Be confidence when making a decision and meeting challenges and never be afraid to questions and seize every experience and opportunity given to expanding our knowledge base. I always remind myself that I am hired for my experience and skill set, so it is important to be confident about who I am and what I can bring to the table.
Do you believe that in both the C-suite and in boards of directors that diversity of perspective and experience is beneficial? Why or why not?
Diversity of experience, international or global experience and experience expanding a business is definitely beneficial for C-suite and the boards of directors. Diversity aims in bringing distinct and vibrant streams of thought to the board as having many perspectives is becoming an essential requirement for board effectiveness.
Do you think women in the corporate world need to advocate more for themselves, especially, be more aggressive about putting themselves up for promotion? Why or why not? Do you think women are more likely than men to doubt their own abilities? Why or why not?
Corporate understanding of leadership traits and qualities are inherently masculine and are difficult to shake off. Qualities which are sought after in men such as being “assertive,” ”confident” or “ decisive” are interpreted differently when applied to women. As such, with these expectations and unconscious bias, women tend to have to constantly self-check their behavior. They strive to achieve their best and equal their counterparts, but need to do so without being labeled as “bossy” or “domineering”.
Women should not just wait for approval before putting themselves forward, they should just go for it. I learned that with whatever we do, we have to set our sights high and then do everything in our power to reach it, regardless of our gender. I do think some women do need more encouragement to take the first step on creating a path to the destination of a senior management role. In the course of my career, I have lived and worked in four different countries. I saw each role as an opportunity to prove myself. I constantly challenged myself because people will only believe in you, if you believe in yourself.
What would be three career tips you would give a mid-level female finance staffer who wants to ascend to the CFO position?
1. Step out of your comfort zone. Invest in a many experiential learning by putting emphasis on gaining the necessary experience to set up to future challenges.
2. Continuously reassess and build a career path for yourself by actively observing, creating, and managing relationships with role models to gain the expertise and resources required for your careers.
3. Dream big and never think that your vision is impossible to achieve. Aim high and just strive forward to make it happen.