Joanna Catalano
Mar 8, 2017

Mother or mentor? How about both?

On International Women's day, iProspect APAC CEO Joanna Catalano asks women to reflect on a powerful opportunity to support and inspire future leaders.

Joanna Catalano
Joanna Catalano

Nine months ago I volunteered at the weekly ‘cooking session’ for my 6-year-old daughter’s class. While it bothered me to see 95 percent female names against the signup sheet, I chose to view this as an opportunity to share one of my passions with my daughter and her classmates.

As I left the classroom, a group of little girls asked me, “Are you leaving to go back to work?” I replied yes, which they followed with, “Oh, our mommies don’t need to work.”

My reaction was two-fold. First, I clarified that although I am aware of how fortunate I am and that I didn’t “need” to work, I still chose to work, and I told them why. Second, I felt gratitude toward being a role model for my daughter. It turns out role models matter—a lot. In May 2015, Harvard Business School launched its Gender Initiative research, which claims: “In the United States, adult daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than those whose mothers had not worked during their daughters’ childhoods, earning an annual average income of $35,474 compared to $28,894. Over 33 percent held supervisory positions, compared to roughly 25 percent of their counterparts from more traditional households.”

But what about Asia? The same spring, in 2015, I joined the board of Female Founders, a social movement to support gender balance in entrepreneurship and leadership. We seek to achieve 20 percent female-founded, tech-enabled startups by 2020 in Singapore. Despite better commercial success (greater sales volumes, better valuations at first and last funding), female entrepreneurs remain underrepresented, specifically in mainstream, VC-backed investment.

Surveys of the local ecosystem indicate two critical success factors: 1) improved access to funding; 2) connection to mentors and role models who coach through the lifecycle of entrepreneurship, most importantly the introduction and preparation for pitches to investors. Female Founders built the beginnings of a groundswell on both since launch, but much work remains. 

Fast forward one year: Ruth Stubbs [now global president of iProspect] rang while I was (coincidentally) attending Forbes Asia's 30 Under 30 Summit, listening to stories and challenges faced by the region’s bright young entrepreneurs. We’d agreed to debate the Hear Her Voice research at Cannes, but Ruth said, “We need to do more”. Of course we did. One week later Female Foundry was born, with two key factors at its core: access to VCs and mentorship.

At the October kick-off, I chose to mentor an entrepreneur, Krystal Choo. I’d met her recently at Spikes Asia where after introducing myself, she chastised me for not driving Female Founders harder, explaining we’d yet to galvanise Singaporean women—we were running lukewarm. Intrigue led me to see what Krystal was made of. While mentorship and role modelling differ, both yield a common outcome for the mentor/model: pure joy and unforeseen abundance. On the day of Krystal’s pitch I felt the pride of a mother who watched her child work so hard to do her best, to conquer her task at hand. It was a joy not dissimilar from the pride I felt leaving my daughter’s classroom.

Today, let’s reflect on where we can do more.

I'll leave you with these words from Krystal, now founder and CEO of Wander:

I went in not quite knowing how this mentorship would work. But within the first meeting I was a complete convert. I’ve never had somebody truly take me under their wing and so deeply and purposefully invest in me all my life. I want to express how profound this is to me, but I can’t. All I can say is that I’m inspired to one day be able to do the same with another young person building their dream, because I’ve experienced first-hand how impactful this can be, not just for business, but my worldview. It is incredibly empowering to have someone so insightful, intelligent, and sympathetic root for your cause, with nothing in it for them. This mentorship was life-changing for me.

Joanna Catalano is CEO of iProspect APAC


Campaign Asia-Pacific celebrates International Women’s Day and the call to #BeBoldForChange. In an effort to ignite change and drive gender equality within the industry, on 22 March we are delighted to present Campaign360, an invitation-only, one-day event gathering key decision-makers of leading brands and agencies who believe in the importance of equal opportunity and women leadership.

Following the event programme, the Women Leading Change Awards will celebrate the contributions of female talent to the across the industry. Interested in joining? There are still a few VIP places available for senior brand marketers – apply here


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