Caroline Kong is the Managing Director Asia Pacific at Fenix Outdoor Asia Ltd. She is an expert in international brand development and sales within the Asia Pacific, and has extensive experience in supply chain management, production and sourcing with the fashion, lifestyle and sporting goods sectors.
Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?
I’d say it’s partially timing and partially by luck. I went to business school in France and have a double Master’s from Canada. I did an internship at the end of my studies and joined an MNC retailer afterwards, working in the apparel department. It was at that time when I realised the big demand for talent with Chinese language skills. After working in the apparel sector for several years, I found myself drawn to the sporting goods and lifestyle brands, which is why I joined Intersports as the Head of Buying, sourcing for private labels while also deepening my understanding on the Asia markets. As someone who likes to explore and be challenged, I moved to Hong Kong 8 years ago and joined the wholesale department at Lafuma, handling all the distribution channels within Asia. I am currently the Managing Director at Fenix, responsible for setting up the whole Asia operations, carrying a total of 6 sports brands across APAC.
Looking back at your career to date, can you pinpoint when you first noticed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion around you?
I think it has been there since I joined the industry because sporting goods is pretty male-dominated. The ratio is pretty balanced if you look at the lower levels, but when it comes to top management, it’d be mostly men. An example would be my experience at the global management meeting last year, with me being the only female there. With that being said, I wouldn’t say I feel neglected or discriminated against, I instead see it as an advantage as they’d be more open to listening, understanding that they would also need input from a female’s perspective to help the business grow.
You have worked in both France and Hong Kong; any differences in terms of culture and how did it affect your management style?
I would say Hong Kong people tend to work harder, like to follow instructions and seem less encouraged to be creative, but I think it all depends on what kind of culture the company wants to create. At Fenix, I aim to create a high trust level relationship where people feel they own the business and are driven by passion rather than sales. Everyone is a manager here who is accountable for something and they are trained to be good problem solvers who provide options for solutions. I also give them flexibilities to suit their personal and lifestyle needs.
What one factor has helped you the most throughout your career?
I would say my skills in managing relationships as I naturally bring people together and create comfortable environments that foster bonding. As a strong believer that everything is based on the people involved, it was after I undertook my EMBA when I discovered my ability. Back then, I was surrounded by classmates who were engineers, lawyers, bankers, etc., who all had strong financial and technical skills, which made me feel stressed as I didn’t seem to be smart enough to contribute. However, during one of the team projects, one of my fellows informed me of this natural ability I have, to bring everyone together, build a strong team spirit and encourage people to get out of their comfort zones. I attribute it to my background in the sports industry where people are all driven by passion, and that is something I see as my strength.
As a mentor, what advice would you give to your mentees?
Be humble, work hard, start building your network as early as you can and work on maintaining meaningful relationships. You’ll also have to be curious about people, events and ideas, and be open to know about different industries because you can learn a lot from each individual. I met different people via my EMBA and also the Fjällräven trekking event (with 600 participants spanning across over 31 nationalities). Putting yourself out there and meeting different people really helps expand your mind and knowledge, which eventually will help you grow in different aspects.
Do you think your gender has ever hindered you or blocked any personal progression?
Working in my industry, being a female sometimes comes off as a weakness or disadvantage in the beginning, but as soon as you deliver both in work and in sports, people will start to change their mind and respect you as you are. Therefore, you just need to embrace yourself as a female, know your strengths and be confident about it.
What’s your advice to leaders who want to create a more diverse and inclusive culture?
I think it should be a natural and fair selection in terms of both talent acquisition and retention. While some companies put in more effort to include female, I wouldn’t say that’s always the best approach. By giving them more benefits and advantages, you may make them feel inferior or they might just take these perks for granted. With that being said, I do believe that male and female should get paid equally for the same role and companies should consider providing additional services in their CSR programmes, for example babysitting services, partnering with schools to help women out on their workload, etc.
What do you think can be done to help remove some obstacles for future generations of women?
I think it will be down to education and the society at large, more specifically how we bring people up. Starting at schools, females are told that they should be a good wife and mom, getting married and having kids at a certain age, and to take good care of the family. These kinds of mindset really put a lot of pressure on females, especially career-driven females, and would need to change.
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