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Cady Liang
Portrait of Cady Liang
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Cady Liang is a proud Chinese-Australian. She grew up in Jiangmen 江门 in the Guangdong province of Southern China and moved to Sydney when she was 11 years old. She is a staunch leader in the sustainability space, passionate about the climate, food and social justice, and currently serves as the APAC Regional Director of Sustainability at Compass Group, the largest global player in the B2B food services industry.

Prior to her current role, Cady co-founded GoFar, an IoT company using machine learning to help drivers optimise driving behaviour & fuel efficiency (winner at SydStart (now StartCon), SeedStars Sydney, Startup Nations), spent 3 years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and did a secondment in social impact non-for-profit Delterra where she set up new recycling systems in Indonesia and Argentina - including building local sorting centres, training local communities and setting up market infrastructure.
From witnessing Cady’s continual drive to do her part in climate action, it’s clear that Cady lives deeply according to her values. I find it rare in this day and age to find people who firstly have clear values and passions, and secondly live by them well. Another reason why I reached out to Cady, is because it’s rare to see young Asian-Australians in such senior leadership roles, an inspiring feat in itself.

I also believe that hearing about Cady’s story and seeing where she is now, after being a part of the professional services industry as a consultant, will be a shared touchpoint for many others. I see a lot of Asian-Australians enter the professional services industry as an accountant, consultant, lawyer or engineer etc (whether they’ve always dreamt of entering this industry, or were strongly encouraged to due to familial pressure is another story in itself). As someone who is entering the industry myself, at the same firm, it’s personally encouraging to see someone else who was in a similar position to me, find her own way and dream job afterwards.

My respect for Cady and everything she has worked hard towards has only deepened, from learning more about her experience growing up as a 1.5 generation kid in Australia from mastering a new language in a new country from the age of 11 years old, to never quite fitting into either the white or 2nd generation Asian-Australian community and consistently being reminded of it.

I hope Cady’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
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. 
on culture and identity
You moved to Australia from China when you were 11 years old. What were your experiences like growing up as a 1.5 generation kid?
At a very high level, I felt like I didn’t fit in at all in the first five years of high school. I didn't fit in with the white kids, nor with the ABCs (Australian born Chinese). Even in uni, when I joined the Chinese Student Association, with international Chinese students, I never felt like I fit in either. But over time I’ve flipped the narrative where I’ve realised that I actually can fit into all of these groups and access these communities - they’re all parts of my identity and it’s very empowering. But it’s definitely taken a long time to get comfortable with each of these identities. I would say, I’m comfortably different now.  

Growing up, the language barrier was the hardest thing for me. And small things - for example a core memory are those initial years of bringing in school lunches - where my mum would pack me fried rice wrapped with five layers of newspaper, and people would make small hurtful comments which made me very hyper-aware of my culture. It made me so conscious of my culture to the point that I wanted to erase that part of me in order to fit in. But it’s impossible because of how different I looked and sounded. But there’s been so much social progress on this front - people are much more accepting now and have been embracing diversity a lot more in the past 5-10 years. Society becoming a much more inclusive and diverse place has helped a lot - the words ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ are becoming a part of our common language now, even for kids in primary school. 

Being in the startup world and working at McKinsey also helped me a lot in accepting my identity, because so many people came from overseas. Everyone spoke with an accent, which helped me feel like I didn’t ‘stick out’ per se and that my differences were actually an asset. Seeing how the Europeans operated was so empowering - I would meet these French and Italian people who spoke with an accent and just expected you to understand them. That empowered me a lot to accept my own accent. And back in Fishburners, I was the only Asian woman there, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Instead, I realised how much I needed to be there and represent other people like me. 
How did your experience growing up as a 1.5 generation child in Australia shape you as a person?
Back in China, I was quite a confident child - I would be the class captain each year and be able to make a lot of impromptu speeches. I would say this confidence was hammered out of me in Australia, which sounds really brutal, just because I was so self-conscious about myself and how I sounded. I couldn’t do anything involving public speaking for the longest time. I’ve been slowly rebuilding my confidence over time, but I think this experience has made me much more humble, empathetic and compassionate as a person. It’s really only in the past 4-5 years, from joining the startup world and getting challenged at McKinsey, where I feel like I’m getting much closer to my younger self back in China.

What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
It’s funny. When I first came to Australia I lived in Adelaide. When I look back on my diaries, I can see how I really felt like Adelaide was my second home because I felt like I was really participating in the act of establishing a new life here. I was born as a Chinese person. But when I moved here, I actively participated in building out my Australian identity. 

I really treasure my time in Adelaide because it’s where I learned most of my English. It’s where I shaped my core identity, and made the most of the situation of being transplanted in a new and completely foreign country. I remember, I was auditioning for a music school scholarship and the examiner asked me how long I had been in Australia for. I told him that I had been here for around 1-2 years, and he responded saying how I sounded really Australian already. That had a huge impact on me - I was very very happy, especially considering how I really wanted to feel like I belonged here. But at the same time, I had some teachers who would still ask me everyday if I spoke English yet... Despite that, I still had a good time growing up in Adelaide. A lot of people treated me with kindness.

Over time, I’ve witnessed more and more people who are different, but still see themselves as Australian. This has made me realise that I can be different to the norm, and still be Australian.    

What is your favourite food from your culture?
It’s either egg fried rice or tomato and egg (note from Abby: the English translation never sounds as appetising as it does in real life). Just simple wholesome comfort food. 

These foods are associated with my mum and grandma. My time growing up in China. Things that really anchor me. When I’m super hungover, I guarantee you, I’ll make egg fried rice. And double down on the ginger.

I also love tomato and egg because it’s such a cultural thing. I feel like every culture has its own version of tomato and eggs. For example your Australian big breakfast always comes with eggs and grilled tomatoes. In the middle East they have Shakshouka which is eggs poached in tomatoes and a bunch of other ingredients. Tomato and eggs is just such a classic combination where it's a comfort food in all these different cultures. 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Penny Wong, enough said.

Also some amazing Asian Australian women I'm proud to call friends. Just a few to start with:

Marlene and Eezu who are also interviewed.

Cynthia Yuan who is another passionate climate champion leading the green economy trade negotiations for the Australian government with other nations.

Nina Oyama - in my completely objective opinion - one of the best comedians and TV writers of our generation in Australia. We did music together back in high school during which she was part-timing as a clown, and now she is an Australian TV icon. It's so awe-inspiring to see her career progress and so uplifting to see Asian representation in Australian arts and media.

Also he's not Asian Australian but Yo Yo Ma is one of my personal heroes for his philanthropy, humility, and changing the Western perception of Asians in the arts and high achieving Asians in general.