Olivia Parker
Mar 1, 2019

"Dad wanted me to be a tai tai, have kids... I did none of that"

Amy Ho of Integral Ad Science shares her career path, some of the challenges she's encountered as a woman—and how it felt to be called "bossy" and "intense" during a review.

Amy Ho from IAS
Amy Ho from IAS

Amy Ho’s 17-year career has taken her from senior roles at Microsoft and Facebook to running marketing for her friend’s tourism company, Hong Kong Foodie Tours. She is now business development director at ad-tech firm Integral Ad Science (IAS) in Hong Kong, a position she’s held for the last three years.

In this interview to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, Ho discusses her career path in the region, her conscious decision not to have children despite her parents’ wishes, and some of the hurdles women still face in the workplace.

Tell us about how you got to where you are today?

I got into this industry by coincidence. My brother was working for hongkong.com, one of the biggest internet portal companies in Hong Kong and China, and they needed English speakers. I started as a sales coordinator for the company’s digital ad agency, 24-7 Media, and later worked in business development.

Then I got an offer at Microsoft, who were trying to expand their MSN business in Asia. I spent more than 10 years there in different roles and it was one of best companies I’ve ever worked for. They really value every single employee and give you a lot of opportunities.

From there I moved to Singapore to join the global accounts team at Facebook, which was also trying to expand their regional presence. Facebook was an up and coming company and the culture was completely different from Microsoft, a very established business. At Facebook everything was new, and everyone was young and energetic and passionate about the industry. We all worked long hours but we knew we were making a difference and we had a lot of fun working there.

I still remember my first review at Facebook, which wasn't good. I was called ‘intense’, and ‘bossy’, and I was very upset about it.

After three years I moved back to Hong Kong, mainly because my parents were getting older and I wanted be closer to my family. I also wanted a new opportunity so I quit Facebook and took a bit of a time out to enrich myself and get a different perspective. I helped my friend with her tourism business, Hong Kong Foodie Tours, and got my tour guide licence for Hong Kong, which I really enjoyed.

I was very happy doing that for a while but then came an opportunity to do something different again, with PayPal, which I joined as ‘head of vertical solutions’ for a few months. That was a very different culture again to what I was used to: it was a very corporate, banking, finance-like business and I felt like I didn’t fit in. So I left, and joined Integral Ad Science in 2015.

What do you do in your current job?

I am the business development director, which basically means that the company wants me to help them identify the next opportunity: so who are some of the tech companies, platforms or publishers that we need to work with, or what are some of the products we need to consider to develop in order for us to really grow as a global and international business.

What would you say is the biggest failure or learning in your career?

Over a decade ago, when I was a mid-managerial professional at Microsoft and was driven and ambitious, up for taking on bigger responsibilities, my department head put me in charge of organising an offsite for 80 senior executives in Bali. I was thrilled and determined to make it a big success. The theme of the offsite was “The Amazing Race” and the entire logistics and execution of the offsite were to be managed by my colleague and me.

I assumed that the theme translated only to the presentations, learning sessions, Q&A etc., which would take place in different parts of the hotel during the entire offsite. A week before the event, I presented the final update on all planned activities and I still remember the confusion and the silence that took over the meeting: it was palpable.

I truly believe when we talk about equality, it’s not just about promoting women but it’s also about men as well. You can't just keep talking about how good or strong women are. You also need to acknowledge that men can do a lot of the same things.

I was then told that all the participants were expecting an actual “Amazing Race” to happen in Bali. They expected to be deducing clues, navigating themselves in foreign areas, interacting with locals, and performing physical and mental challenges—you get the picture.

It was a disaster and I left the meeting room feeling badgered and panicky. I didn’t even have enough time to throw myself a pity party. I was focused on making the offsite a success and I only had a few days to arrange for the “Amazing Race” for 80 people in Bali. Full of passion, my colleague and I quickly got into action, ignored the naysayers and found the right people to help us find solutions in the least amount of time possible. I still remember those happy 80 faces running around the hotel periphery, lobby, rooms, halls and having a grand time. The offsite turned out to be a success and if you were wondering, no—I didn't lose my job!

What I did gain because of this temporary challenge was a huge amount of learning and insight into decision making, team dynamics and leadership and these have stood with me ever since.

How much thought have you given to your gender and gender equality during your career? Have you had different experiences in different companies?

I think the concept of gender really started coming up when I was at Microsoft. They were always promoting gender equality and had groups, which I was part of, encouraging females in the company to speak up or take charge. I was also really fortunate to have good managers. Even in my first role, when I was still relatively fresh out of university, my manager was a man and he would always ask for my opinion and value it.

I grew up overseas, in Canada—my parents emigrated from China to Hong Kong, and then to Canada, in 1984, because my father was worried that in 1997, the Hong Kong handover, the world would come crashing down. He’d lived through the Chinese revolution period so he knew how hard that was. They later moved back to Hong Kong but I always tell my dad I am so grateful he brought the family over to Canada because I was able to get a very good education, as well as a different perspective on everything. I grew up in an environment where they encouraged little boys and girls to do the same things, whether playing hockey or taking dancing classes. So I was never afraid to speak up, in the working environment.

Amy and her three brothers

When I first joined Facebook it was a culture shock, to be honest. They approach things very differently to Microsoft. I still remember my first review, which wasn't good. I was called ‘intense’, and ‘bossy’, and I was very upset about it. They weren't used to the fact someone was outspoken and productive—at Microsoft you are taught to work very efficiently, so that was the mentality I brought with me. I would go into meetings saying ‘chop chop, let's get these topics discussed, let’s get it done’ and they were very uncomfortable, at the beginning. It took time for me to relax in a way that they felt was acceptable, and that I felt was still efficient for me.

But eventually, Facebook grew to the point where they were also trying to promote and push for gender equality so they developed women’s groups as well. It was the time when Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook’s COO], was promoting her book about women in the workplace, ‘Lean In’, and I started leading a Lean In group at Facebook in Singapore, trying to get my colleagues to join in and speak up and be more vocal about things.

Where is there still work to be done before we achieve equality?

I think in the industry as a whole there's still room to grow. I've seen cases where in different parts of Asia—not particularly Hong Kong—a lot of senior leadership roles are still being held by men. They would also do things or say things that can be considered borderline sexual harassment.

I truly believe when we talk about equality, it’s not just about promoting women but it’s also about men as well. You can't just keep talking about how good or strong women are. You also need to acknowledge that men can do a lot of the same things.

For example, there's a preconception that a lot of technical engineering jobs need to be done by men but it's not true, they can be done by women as well. At the same time I think we need to acknowledge that a lot of administrative or other roles that people have always seen as being related to females can be done by men as well, sometimes better. There's no line to draw between what men and women can or cannot do.

Why are more senior leadership roles still being held by men?

I think there are a few reasons. In Asia, as I see it, sometimes it can be due to the person themselves. I sometimes feel like this. Women tend to speak up less. Maybe they know they can do the job as good as a man or even better but then I think women have a tendency to only speak up when they have done the job and have the results to prove it to management. Men tend to speak up and say ‘I can do it’, when they haven’t even proven themselves yet. Sometimes women are harder on themselves than men.

Does background have an important role to play in this?

Yes, the cultural perspective is interesting. I grew up in Canada but it was still a very Asian or Hong Kong-Chinese environment. I’ve been taught all my life to be humble, to not be too flashy or to talk nonsense until I can prove it, until I can show people I have done it.

What advice would you give your younger self now?

I was very lucky that throughout my career I had different mentors along the way who were able to give me a lot of guidance, so I would give myself similar advice, which is not to be afraid to ask for the things you think you deserve. If there is something bothering you, speak up—you don't need to worry about whether it looks good or bad to other people because I’m pretty sure that if you have that question in your mind, someone else will also have thought it. And also, really believe in yourself. Throughout my career I made choices that I wasn't sure about but I told myself I can’t just sit around and think about it, I need to take a leap of faith and see how it goes.

Does that thinking apply to your decision not to have children?

Yes. I made a conscious decision to not do that, because I wanted to have more time to myself to enjoy travelling and doing stuff on my own, and also to be more flexible in terms of what choices I could make with my job decisions. My long-term boyfriend was very supportive too—he and I discuss everything, including every role change I make. I tell myself not to regret any decisions I made because that’s going to make me feel like shit!

Did it take a lot of courage to make that decision?

Yes—but I would say to any woman: ‘Don’t be afraid, believe in yourself. If that's what you feel you should trust yourself and make that decision’. Although obviously you do, to a certain extent, need your family and friends’ support as well.

In a way I have been very lucky in that sense. I was always very rebellious when I was a kid and whenever my parents told me to do one thing, I always did the other and there were never any repercussions on those choices I made.

At graduation, with her parents

Being Asian and from a Chinese family, it’s not easy. There’s always a lot of expectation, especially on the daughters. When I was much younger, my father wanted to set me up with a Chinese man, hoping I could get married, have a very nice tai tai (lady of leisure) life, have kids and go shopping. He didn’t have any expectations of me graduating from university. I did nothing of that!

With my choice of not getting married to my long term boyfriend or not having kids, I can tell you, I have heard a lot of things from my parents and they weren't happy about it. But it was a choice I made and I just told myself I have to believe in myself. And I was very lucky—my parents supported me in the end even though they wanted me to do different things.


Campaign's Women Leading Change 

We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June, 2019.

Register your interest and find out more about entering our Women Leading Change Awards (early bird entry deadline: 8 March) at www.womenleadingchange.asia.

 

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