Empowering Learning and Voices with Debbie Fang, Programme Director of Octava Foundation
We recently spoke to Debbie, who established Octava Foundation which seeks to provide access to education and opportunities for children and youth from economically disadvantaged families, to enable them to realise and achieve their aspirations. Debbie specialises in non-profit administration with a strong track record in teaching and education research. Prior to establishing Octava Foundation, she has held roles in administration, advocacy, and research at various Asia-Pacific organisations that focus on early childhood development as well as philanthropy.
Debbie is driven by a desire to empower society’s young and most vulnerable, and seeks to help these individuals acquire the best possible start in life. Armed with a Master of Teaching (Early Childhood) degree from The University of Melbourne and Master of Science in International and Comparative Education degree from the Institute of International Education at Stockholms Universitet.
In the past year, we’ve had to delve into funding some new ad-hoc projects that were not part of our regular focus areas (such as funding meals for migrant workers during the early days of COVID-19). However, in relation to our mainstay work in education, we’re focused on supporting those in Institutes of Higher Learning to complete their education through the provision of financial and other resources, and have funded a number of youth vocational training programmes to date (e.g. HCSA Culinary Academy, giving at-risk and under resourced youths a skill in the kitchen to embark on their careers in the F&B industry). The bottomline is that we’d like to enable under-resourced young people to have access to education and skills that will directly affect their social mobility.
In the coming year, I’ll be embarking on further developing my personal assets as I step into more leadership roles - taking on a one-year Executive Education programme called StanLead, run by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I’m really excited to embark on a personal coaching journey to be better enabled to serve the community I’m passionate about, and to learn from a stellar faculty on topics pertinent to contemporary leadership (e.g. change management), as well as from other respected peers in various industries and geographies - all of whom are keen to grow their leadership capabilities.
We are more than our appearance: It’s a common misconception that petite women who love a bit of girly TLC from time-to-time are all going to be demure, giggly types. If I could give you a dollar for every time someone told me I looked demure until I started speaking in my booming voice and laughing out real loud. I approach conversations with a candid and straightforward tone, and I hold opinions that can be rather strong - all of which can sometimes be quite a shock to others who have the perception that I may be more meek as matched with my physical exterior.
I’ve actually been in roles and industries which are largely dominated by women. However, as I move up to more senior positions, I realise that the industry which I work within can be rather biased - with more male representation in top management, and many more females represented in positions closer to the ground. I have been in awkward situations where male colleagues imply to other parties that I, as a lady, need to be treated more delicately or can only be given certain tasks because of my gender. In these instances, I do feel the need to come across more firmly in proving my ability to lead in the workplace. I believe that when the time comes to stand up for oneself, a woman should not let traditional labels of what it means to be a woman stop her from being a strong advocate for herself – if you’re not going to do it, who else will?
I believe not just in female empowerment, but in gender equality and fair representation of voices in different levels of management so that strategies and processes can be optimised to reflect diversity. As men and women bring about their natural strengths and leanings (e.g. softness or hardness when it comes to communication or execution of ideas, or even inclusion or exclusion of various angles of an issue), it’d be ideal if higher management could be reflect more equal representation of the sector (especially if there are more females in the industry).
A huge role model for me has been my adopted grandpa. He taught me the importance of being humble, and to always be open to lifelong learning. As a 8 or 9 year old, I would come home after school to have this Mandarin/dialect-speaking, recently retired old man come to me with his English worksheets from his classes at the Community Centre to ask me to help him to correct his grammar on his homework. This simple act of his has resonated with me to this day – that I can learn from anyone, anywhere, regardless of their status, age…and at any stage in my life. Because of this, I’ve instilled an appetite for curiosity and to seek constant self-improvement.
Over the years, I’ve learned that although my career is important, it’s equally important to seek balance. Work is only a facet of life. Therefore, I now make it a habit to draw boundaries between my work/personal life, and try not to make it a habit to do work after office-hours unless in peak periods or when certain projects require urgent attention. I have a fixed schedule of certain post-work weekday activities such as attending cell group to attend to my spiritual life more fervently or to fit-in workout sessions or friend catch-ups, where I really manage to plug out of this “rat race” life that is so commonplace in Singapore.
Plugging out for me involves plugging in: Good music lifts the spirits in a heartbeat, so I do a lot of that. Also, getting a mani/pedi done is always a nice guilty indulgence, or putting on a good face mask or foot mask at home!
When planning my outfits for work, I wear lots of simple classic cut tops with wrinkle free pants that have an elastic waist fitting (great for comfort), or dresses that are tailored or fit well. I pair my look with simple jewellery - usually a ring which is gifted to me from a family member, and a pair of studs that match the ring. For out of work wear, given the humidity of Singapore, you will find me in various combinations of shorts paired with a cute top - this is usually either a loose fitting t-shirt or a crop top...or one-piece outfits like jumpsuits (shorts version preferred), or casual summery dresses. I like to mix and match lots of patterns with block colours where possible!
I’m currently reading: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. This is a book that challenges the rich and powerful to consider how their well-intended “help” to resolve the world’s most pressing social issues can sometimes have the effect of perpetuating the status quo of inequality. In my work in philanthropy, where I come from a space of elevated power, this is something that we need to be constantly cognizant of - acknowledging that our voices are always going to be more privileged, and having to take on perspectives and bring to the table the lived experiences of those whom we claim to serve through our giving.
I would tell my 20-something year old self not to worry about SO MUCH…such as what others think of me, or why others have things that I don’t. We’re all fighting different battles, and you never know what one has to give in order to be where they are at in life – we always think the grass is greener on the other side and want what we don't have! There is simply no comparison, and we each have our own personal journeys. I'd remind myself to just keep learning, keep growing, and to always choose to do things in love...while keeping things as simple as possible.