What led to your passion and interest in sustainability and climate action?
I grew up in a period of time in China where there was massive economic growth, but that came at a very visible cost to our natural environment and everyday life. For example, when I was really young I used to be able to catch fish and shrimp in the rivers. But later when I was about 9 or 10 years old, it wasn’t safe for us to do that anymore because the rivers were so contaminated by the factory pollution. Another example is when this beautiful 10km long row of fir trees on the way to my grandparents village, were knocked down to expand the road. Seeing plastic and pollution everywhere, and witnessing the clear physical changes to my environment was very saddening for me. Even as a child, I knew that this wasn’t sustainable. And back then I didn't know the word sustainability. I just knew that we couldn't continue depleting our natural resources just for the sake of economic development.
Growing up in this kind of environment really planted a seed in me early on, in wanting to figure out how we could create better livelihoods for ourselves, but in a way that doesn’t hurt the planet. At university, I focussed my studies on sustainable energy law, environmental law and energy policy. I’ve always had this interest in sustainability, and I’m very lucky that I get this opportunity at my current job to do my part in the cause.
How do you translate your passion in sustainability outside of your day job?
This is semi-job-related, but back when I used to work at McKinsey I ran the McKinsey Sustainability Startup Club where I did pro bono consulting for climate-tech startups. It was a great way to engage with the emerging technology and community - it felt like I was giving back to the community, but I also just learned so much from them.
In my day to day, I just love learning more about this area - climate, food systems, everything. I'm also starting to be a bit more vocal about sharing my learnings on platforms like LinkedIn. In the past few years, I’ve been starting the practice of book-gifting. Last year at my birthday, I bought 30 books for 30 friends - including around 10 copies of Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard which chronicled the company’s journey to be one that is truly socially and environmentally responsible. After reading Regenesis: How to Feed the World without Devouring the Planet last year, I was so excited to share it with friends and my broader network that I bought another 20 copies and have since gifted them to friends, business leaders, startup founders etc. many of whom have in turn bought copies for their friends. There was this exponential effect to this book gifting and insight sharing which really warmed my heart.
I also just try to live what I preach to my company. That manifests in the way I buy, cook and eat my food and handle waste. I always critically think about the food I buy - I’m the kind of person who will read absolutely everything on the label before I buy it, and get into pretty nerdy details like understanding the ingredients, and what processing system was followed. For example if it's free range eggs, how many chickens per hectare do they actually mean? And then I’ll translate some of my findings back to the people around me.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in reshaping the food system as it stands right now?
The biggest problem with the global food system is that it isn’t resilient enough - it’s an idea that I learnt from Regenesis. Our global food system is complex, and for a complex system to be resilient, ideally small changes in one part of the system should not have a ripple effect across the whole system. And, there should always be spare capacity in the system. But in the past few decades, our individual food systems per geography have become so enmeshed. So many countries are relying on food importations. For example, Russia and Ukraine jointly account for nearly a quarterof global wheat supplies. The continuing war has evidently had a huge effect on our entire global supply of wheat. The interdependency between key players creates a very non-resilient system. But from the perspective of one single player, it’s always better to source from different places and diversify your sources. As single players strengthen themselves, the whole system actually weakens.
Also for obvious reasons we are continuously try to maximise outputs and yields from our food production, so that there is limited redundancy in the system. We’re always operating at maximum capacity, but if maximum capacity doesn’t meet demands then nothing will... By the end of the century we will need to feed 10 billion people.
That’s the supply lens of overall trends. Looking from a demand-perspective, it’s going to be a huge challenge to change people's consumption habits. Especially when food is not just sustenance. Food ties so closely to culture and identity. You simply cannot take away your average Aussie’s enthusiasm for a backyard barbecue, steak and a burger with a real juicy beef patty. But the science is clear that the most impactful thing we can do as individuals is to switch to more plant-based foods. One of my favourite stats on this is: if you compare 1 kg of dried peas to 1 kg of local beef, you have to ship that 1 kg of dried peas 100 times around the world for it to match the footprint of a kg of local beef. Having a more plant-forward diet is important moving forward, but it’s hard to implement everywhere and anywhere you go.
There are so many more challenges – sustainability in food is not just about climate, but about solving for a complex set of objectives which also include biodiversity, nutrition need, food security, and the livelihood of farmers. It’s an extremely challenging and dynamic problem space and not enough people are talking about it or working on it, which is why I chose to be in it. I can definitely see myself dedicating the next four, five decades of my career on this and it will still be interesting and unsolved.
What resources would you recommend for someone who wants to get deeper into the climate action space?
Community wise, if people are in Sydney they should definitely join Eezu and Marlene’s climate-letter writing sessions (who are also featured in this project).
My favourite podcast is Outrage + Optimism: Climate Change Podcast, which goes through the politics, investments and actions heading on the climate crisis.
Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a very good introduction into the general climate space.
If people want to learn more about food systems, you should definitely read Regenesis. Also, anything that Michael Pollan writes - from The Omnivore’s Dilemma to In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. He’s just such a fantastic food journalist.
Project Drawdown is a great organisation to check out - they review all the possible climate solutions out in the world right now.
A great Australian documentary is ‘2040’, which looks at the effects of climate change over the next 20 years and what technologies that exist today that can reverse the effects. The same team also created a short film called ‘Regenerating Australia’. It’s only around 20 minutes long, and it interviews a diverse group of Australians who share their hopes and dreams for the country's future - it’s really uplifting.
What was it like reaching such a senior leadership position, at 27 years old? What is it like now, since you’ve been in this role for more than a year now?
I definitely had some impostor syndrome coming into my current role. I never revealed my age to anyone and did little things to try to minimise concepts of my age at work so that people wouldn’t think about it, such as dressing a bit more formally.
At the same time I was really proud of myself for having made it this far as someone who is young and has fought uphill battles along the way being an ethnic minority, immigrant and female. I look very different to the other leaders in my companies and corporate leaders in Australia in general, and that motivated me to do the best I can, set an example of what a leader who looks like me can do, and be a role model for others.
Balancing this motivation and my imposter syndrome initially wasn’t easy, but people in this organisation have been very supportive, trusting and open-minded, which allowed me in the first few months to achieve everything I’ve wanted to achieve and more – including aligning the whole region on a sustainability strategy, building a sustainability team and kicking off a food waste transformation program. At that point I knew I was doing a great job, and the narrative I told myself became that even if it was someone 20 years my senior in the same position they wouldn’t necessarily be doing a better job than what I was doing. I also got over the concept of me being different and really embraced the learnings from my unique upbringing and identity to be a better, more caring people leader – doing more listening than talking, having humility, and connecting deeply with people at all levels of the organisation.
I also stopped caring about my age as much and became much more relaxed. Again, I don't think people noticed - it was much more of an internal psychological dialogue that I dealt with. But now I’m very comfortable with who I am and what I can bring as a leader.
Could you tell me more about your experience in the startup world. How did you get into it and what learnings did you take away?
So back in 2014, one of my friends invited me to go check out StartCon (Australia’s largest startup and growth conference). At the time, I had never heard of the word ‘startup’ before. When I went, I absolutely loved the innovation, ambition and sense of community there. Everybody was so young and full of energy. It was such a huge contrast to my experience in my law degree.
GoFar, the company I ended up joining and being a co-founder of later, pitched at StartCon and won. I went up to their stall and volunteered to help out, citing my law background. They were actually filing a lot of IP patents at the time, so I ended up helping out initially as a legal intern. But very quickly, within two weeks, I ended up doing much more - from refining the product concept to building Facebook ads and making the company website. Within three months I was running the B2C side of the business. I started their Kickstarter campaign which became one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in Australia.
Being in such an unstructured startup environment actually gave me more opportunities to get my hands dirty and do things compared to a structured corporate environment which oftentimes just boxes you in. I kept on adding value, to the point where I was running our consumer-side business and representing the company as a co-founderr. From that experience, I became extremely comfortable in learning anything from scratch and doing things myself. It gave me a lot of autonomy, and I became really resourceful.
Ultimately, I decided to leave GoFar because it was only one product. At my then life-stage, I wanted to try something else.