Former high-fliers shed the suit for higher calling

The Sunday Times speaks to former high-fliers who took a leap of faith and found fulfilment working at non-profit organisations

Success in the corporate world is hard-earned in a competitive environment, but having found it, some high-fliers are choosing to do what sounds like a counter-intuitive thing - ditch their jobs.

Instead, they turn to non-profit organisations and charities in search of a more fulfilling life.

Singapore-based American Richard Hartung, financial consultant and author of Changing Lanes, Changing Lives: How Leaders Made A Meaningful Career Switch From Corporates To Non-profits (2013), says he was struck by how those who made the move say their lives became more meaningful, often with a positive impact on their families as well.

He notes that each of them chose an area they are passionate about. Some spoke to a number of organisations in search of a cause to dedicate their efforts to, while others knew what they wanted to do.

While a relatively small number of people make the switch, he says "the number does seem to be growing and more people are interested".

To learn more about taking that leap, The Sunday Times speaks to lawyer turned Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) executive director Corinna Lim; Mr Edward Hoon, who switched to counselling after more than 30 years in the electronics and insurance industries; and Ms Evelyn Leong, who went from the petrochemical and desalination sectors to executive director at Girl Guides Singapore and is now corporate development and outreach director at Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds).

Former legal eagle now helps vulnerable women



Executive director, Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware)

Ms Lim was a legal eagle whose career took flight after she was called to the Singapore Bar in 1988. She worked in prestigious firms such as Allen & Gledhill and the former Khattar Wong & Partners. But she was not happy.

She recalls: "The hours were very long, which I didn't mind. But I felt that my work had to leave the place a little better than when I found it, and I didn't find that in my day job."

Instead, what she found more meaningful was doing pro bono work at Queenstown Community Centre, giving advice to women in difficult relationships and marriages who felt trapped. "I always felt that in that half an hour, I managed to bring some hope and shine a little light on some of their options."

She later helped draft the Family Violence Bill tabled by Dr Kanwaljit Soin, then a Nominated Member of Parliament, in 1995. While it was rejected, she says it led to changes in the Women's Charter and "real protection" against family violence.

Its key proposals - such as making it easier for domestic abuse victims to obtain personal protection orders - were adopted in amendments to the charter.

"It made me see that change at a structural level is possible so long as people care, which is inspiring because a lot of the time, we feel pretty powerless in Singapore."

Dr Soin was a founding member of Aware and Ms Lim found the organisation's work worthwhile and productive.

"When you do counselling, you're helping individuals. But when you actually make change at the systemic level, then you're really talking about change for many people's lives."

By the time Aware was looking to professionalise and appoint its first executive director in 2010, she had been volunteering with the organisation for 15 years and the timing felt right to her. If this had happened earlier, it would have been more difficult, she says.

"But having built up some financial security, I was in a position to make this choice."

Still, she describes the path she took as being quite low-risk. "I knew what I was interested in, I knew what I really cared about."

Ideally, the switch from a corporate to a non-profit should not be an "I woke up one day and really need to make this big change" snap decision, she says.

It helps to volunteer beforehand, she adds.

"You begin to find out more about possible organisations as non-governmental organisations come in all shapes and forms; it's all about people.

"You're not doing this for money. It's because of non-monetary priorities, in fact, that you're doing this, so you should get a good feel for the organisation you would like to work with."

Engineer inspired by special needs students


Evelyn Leong, 43 ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Director of corporate development and outreach, Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds)

In the 1980s, Ms Leong used to save up money to buy toys and books for the Sharity box. The box was part of a donation drive under the Sharity pink elephant campaign, which was introduced in 1984 to encourage young Singaporeans to give to the less fortunate.

That was her first encounter with active charity work.

Her parents are divorced and she was brought up by her two aunts, one a chef and the other a housewife.

She was influenced more by the latter, who always told her to help others if she could, and led by example by, say, donating to buskers or buying tissue paper from peddlers.

Trained as an engineer, Ms Leong later joined the oil and petrochemicals industry and, subsequently, the water treatment business.

But at some point, she found herself caught up in the corporate race and asked herself the big question: "Is this what I really want in life?"

As she was mulling over a career switch three or four years ago, a job opportunity at Girl Guides Singapore came up.

She took up the position of executive director - even though she had never been a guide. But she was drawn by the idea of reaching out to the community and empowering girls.

Moving to a Voluntary Welfare Organisation and uniform group required a change in mindset.

She says: "We are not into figure-crunching, but rather, we are looking at how we can transform lives, how programmes can nurture children and how we can help the less fortunate. I think that is something that's very exciting."

Through the Girl Guides unit in Fernvale Gardens School, she had several encounters with special needs students.

"They are quite inspiring. They are able to achieve more than what most people think."

Last year, she left the Guides to take up her current portfolio at Minds, which caters to the needs of the intellectually disabled in Singapore.

She is keen to empower the students to do more and is always looking for new collaborators.

For example, when the Ministry of Home Affairs expressed interest in working together but was limited by its budget, she proposed using its existing facilities, such as the Road Safety Community Park and fire stations, for the students to visit.

"We don't always have to do the usual things, like a picnic at the zoo," she points out.

For Ms Leong, who is married with no children and is now a certified Girl Guide, moving to the non-profit sector was not merely about switching jobs.

"It's more about what we can do to make that little difference and whether we can put others before ourselves."

Outside her work at Minds, she continues with acts of kindness by donating regularly through online portals.

"I can still do good even when I'm busy. This ties in with one of the key teachings of the Girl Guides, which is to do a good turn every day."

Picking up counselling in his 50s



Counsellor, Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities

When Mr Hoon decided to study counselling in his early 50s, his daughter asked jokingly: "Dad, will we be poor?"

Not only was he switching careers after more than 30 years in the electronics and insurance lines, but he was also going for a Bachelor of Counselling degree from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (Suss).

He started with night classes in 2014, but decided that to maximise learning, he had to quit his job as a senior customer operations manager and study full time.

His financial planning background came in handy in figuring out the sums this decision entailed.

He adds: "If anybody wants to make this move, talk to your loved ones because the journey is not going to involve you alone. Families and children (are part of it)."

His son, 26, and daughter, 22, are both studying and his wife is a housewife.

When he finally graduated earlier this month, he said his journey was "well worth it".

"My personal life was enriched as it helps in the relationship with my spouse and the children. On the professional front, when I apply the theories I've learnt, I can see the transformation in my clients."

His family was a major motivation for his career move.

In his 30s, he went through a challenging period. He was focused on his career while his wife was looking after their children and he did not spend enough time with them. Then his late mother had a stroke when he was 31.

While he did not undergo formal counselling, a close friend and his wife helped him through this tough stretch and he is happy to announce that "things are going well now" with his nearest and dearest.

Having gone through the tunnel and emerged on the other side, he decided he wanted to help others "to realise that this is all normal, we just have to manage our stress and learn about conflict resolution".

Since December last year, he has been a counsellor at the Thye Hua Kwan Centre for Family Harmony, one of four Divorce Support Specialist Agencies appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Apart from successfully making a late career switch, Mr Hoon could also be the poster boy for lifelong learning.

He intends to go for a graduate diploma in social work next year and a master's in counselling in 2019, both at Suss.

"We have to upgrade and commit to learning new knowledge and skills. Set medium-and long-term goals. Don't stop learning and enjoy the learning journey. Be teachable and persevere."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline Former high-fliers shed the suit for higher calling. Subscribe