Tell us a bit about your background Kat
I was born in Hackney in East London, to parents from a very modest background. My mum comes from China, and had a very rural upbringing working on a farm looking after goats and sheep. She lost her father from a young age and was in a family of 4, so she’d always experienced hardship growing up as a child, and my dad, though slightly better off didn’t fare much better. My mum was determined to come to this country to have a better life for herself and her children.
My parents had me, and for the first few years of my life it was very tough for my family. They really started from the bottom. I watched my parents, through sheer hard work and grit, build this family from nothing in to something and that gave me a real appreciation for the importance of hard work. It also showed me that there are so many issues in society, and the whole inequality thing has been top of my mind since. Why are some people at the top in society and others at the bottom? Why do the ones at the bottom always seem to be the ones struggling the most?
You spent some time in the private sector before coming to work for Charityworks, what were your motivations for transitioning to the non-profit sector?
After I graduated from university, there was kind of like a tug of war inside of me. My parents really wanted me ideally to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I clearly didn’t have the skills or desire to be any of those things! So the second best option for me was to go in to the corporate sector as a management consultant or something that required me to work in a flash, big shiny office – preferably somewhere in central London so that they could show off to all the friends and family that they had!
My mum was always saying, “try and make it to the top rung of the ladder in whatever organisation you go to”. Inside, what I really wanted to do was something that would better society – and I mean very tangibly better society. A corporation’s CSR programme was never enough for me, although for a time I was involved in that.
So I worked at a big research company, starting out in a graduate-level role and was one of the first among my peers to be promoted into a role with more responsibility. I was there for a while, working my way up the career ladder until I experienced a pretty challenging period in my life.
That really put things in to perspective for me. The plan was always to go in to the non-profit sector, but I always thought that could come later – “I’m going to build my career in the private sector and the charity sector will follow at a later date”. The salary and the benefits were so amazing, so it was something really difficult to give up. But I thought to myself, if you’re going to be working 9-5 in a job that you don’t love, it isn’t worth it. You need to believe in what you’re doing, and that’s ultimately what led me to move across.
Does your family understand the professional role you play in the non-profit sector?
Let’s put it this way. I speak fluent Cantonese with my parents because my mum can’t speak English at all. It probably says something that I don’t know how to say ‘non-profit sector’ or ‘charity sector’ in Cantonese! I know how to say ‘corporate sector’ or ‘government sector’, but initially when I was trying to tell them what I did I would just say ‘charity…’ in Cantonese, then wrack my brain for a way to say it. I think that says something culturally!
If I try to explain to them what I do they’re like “you’re a charity worker – you’re a volunteer”. In their minds, that’s it! I don’t think that they realise actually it can work like a business or corporation – in fact it does, it has all these different components and departments, all these functions in order to make the organisation work well. I think I’ve broadened their minds a little bit, at least now they realise I get paid!
So do you think your ethnicity or upbringing has an impact on how you work? Do you even notice being an ethnic minority?
Most people genuinely don’t notice that I’m an ethnic minority! I’ve heard that a few times.
In fact, the only time I’ve ever felt some prejudice was actually when I was in the private sector. There was this perception that Asian girls especially, tend to be meek, quiet and less assertive – the kind of stereotype of the quiet Chinese girl sitting in the corner.
99% of the time I genuinely don’t see a difference, but perhaps there’s that 1% where I walk in to a room and it becomes apparent very quickly that I’m the only non-white person there! I think the fact that occurs so little is a big testament to how far the sector, and British society has come. Perhaps the fact I’m in London influences my opinion, I don’t know.
As a programme manager in a leadership position, do you feel that the non-profit sector reflects the diversity of the communities that it serves? If not, why do you think that is, what barriers are preventing that from happening?
I always think that there’s more work to be done. I’ve been out on visits to Charityworks clients and round the offices and I think it varies from organisation to organisation. Some have a very diverse workforce that definitely reflects the community that they serve, but loads of organisations want to do more.
In terms of barriers for people wanting to join the charity sector, I think particularly for ethnic minorities there are some of the kind of challenges I went through with family and upbringing – expecting to take specific or more traditional routes in my career. My hope is that as first generation immigrant parents become second and third generation, that it will start to fade away. I think another barrier is that, if the perception from ethnic minorities is that charity organisations are made of mostly non-ethnic groups, it might put some people off. It certainly didn’t put me off, but it could do for others.
If I was from a similar background to yourself, facing similar issues, but I was really passionate about a career that had a social impact, what advice would you give to me?
I would say have courage! Trust what you’re interested in, and trust that you know what you want to do. Have that courageous conversation with family or friends sooner rather than later – because it becomes harder the longer you drag it out. The longer you stay in a job which you don’t like, but you feel like you have to stay there, the harder it is to make the decision to leave. I wish I had done that in hindsight.
And why Charityworks as an entry point in to the sector?
For one, the majority of people who apply to Charityworks are starting out fairly early in their careers and I think that is the best time as a graduate to experiment. If you feel like the non-profit sector is where you belong, but you’re not quite sure, or not sure about specifically what you want to do, the programme is absolutely fantastic for you to tap in to that network. The best thing about it, and what all the trainees tell us is that there are like-minded people. People who are diverse in their way of thinking and who are able to see things from a variety of perspectives
If you’re that type of person, open-minded in the way you think and you really care about where society is going and how the non-profit sector can play a role in that – that’s what Charityworks is there for.