Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Christine Ma-Lau is the Founder and Principal of JEMS Learning House, a school in Hong Kong with the mission of raising the next generation of leaders through character education for children aged 3 to 12. She founded the school out of her passion for educating young people in character and values. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration on child development and has taught students aged 6-16 years in different educational institutions in Hong Kong. In addition, Christine holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Philosophy from the London School of Economics and prior to that attended Wycombe Abbey School in England. She was raised in Hong Kong and educated internationally.
She desires to see children enjoy learning and becoming the best that they can be. Her passion for educating children goes beyond her work at JEMS. Christine also serves as a Director at Plan International Hong Kong, which promotes education to underprivileged children globally and is also their ambassador for their Because I Am A Girl campaign, which aims to promote education and opportunities for underprivileged girls worldwide. Christine is also one of the Founding Directors of GeneroCity, a Hong Kong-based philanthropy fund that channels needed funds to local education and welfare projects.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Christine Ma-Lau: I was born in Canada, raised in Hong Kong and studied in the UK and the US. I first started my education not knowing what I wanted to do and it wasn’t until the final year of college when I was doing summer internship at a school when I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in education. With that, I started taking on teaching jobs at schools and education centres as well as work as the youth pastor of a church. 6 years ago, I took some time to think about my life plans and decided to establish JEMS.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder and Principal of JEMS Learning House in Hong Kong, an organization with the mission of nurturing the next generation of leaders through educating children. Can you tell us more about JEMS Learning House, its impact, and what inspired you to found it?
Christine Ma-Lau: Having had experience in teaching in schools, education centers, and doing youth counseling, I’ve realized that a couple things about Hong Kong that were there when I was growing up but stood out to me as an educator. The first thing is that there is a real focus on academics and I think that’s pretty prevalent not only in Hong Kong, but throughout the world. The second thing is that a lot of the issues teenagers were facing were really there because there were issues that were not dealt with at an earlier age, e.g. struggling with self-worth, knowing how to make certain choices and decisions, knowing how to deal with their emotions. When I worked with older kids and youth, I realized that a lot of things could be prevented if they had been handled earlier. What then inspired me to found JEMS was that my belief is that education isn’t just about academics and having head knowledge and skills. Educating a person is about providing a person with what they need to succeed in the future, preparing them to face life. What enables you to face life in the future is so often comprised of character: knowing your identity, who you are, what your values are and what you stand for. The second part is your relationships: knowing how to interact with others, how to deal with conflict, etc. The third part of a successful person is knowing how to contribute to the community – to engage with different groups of people and to help others with compassion. I wanted to create a platform for children to learn core values, to know how to deal with right from wrong, deal with bullies, showing compassion and much more.
That’s why I founded JEMS. I wasn’t trying to take away anything that is offered from education, but to add to it. Say you’re learning piano, it’s great and do it to the best of your ability. But think about how learning piano can help other people. Would you think of hosting a charity concert to help other people? So much of learning nowadays is focused on helping ourselves, about getting the most awards, trophies, and highest scores. I wanted to take what to take what you do and use it for the good of ourselves and for others. One example I like to use is how if you are a medical student, you are very bright, will soon be a doctor, and if your character is good, you will use that skill to help and heal people. Yet, there have been cases of doctors who have killed their patients so they have more patients to come into hospitals – that really boils down to character choices. I want to mold young people to change their values early on because their values are something that will make their mark on their life. I want to set them up to be the next generation of leaders with solid character.
Women LEAD: You are also a Director of Plan International Hong Kong, and an Ambassador for Plan’s Because I Am A Girl Campaign, which aims to improve access to educational opportunities for underprivileged girls worldwide. Can you tell us more about your roles in Plan?
Christine Ma-Lau: My role as the Director is to brainstorm the rest of the ideas with the rest of the Board, helping people learn what Plan International does, and encouraging people to take part in our events. That role is a strategic role, it’s for strategies for the next year, so we will talk about how Plan will evolve in Hong Kong, how we can engage the public, and to show others why it’s relevant. As an Ambassador for the Because I Am a Girl Campaign, I often speak out about gender equality and ending child marriage, children’s rights and girls’ rights. We talked about why it’s important. As an educator, I want to educate our children in Hong Kong number one what a privilege it is to have equality, and because we have been privileged to have that, how can we help others to have that too? I want them to be aware of what goes on in the world and for them to know they can make a difference. We organized a “Donate a Pencil” campaign to engage youth in this campaign by donating a pencil but to tell them that they have the privilege to go to school, but a lot of girls in the world don’t. If we equip girls with a pencil and an education, it can change the girl’s life, a family’s livelihood, and the community. Plan has conducted a lot of studies about what they do; Because I Am a Girl arose after research positing that women and girls invest more of their income back into their family and community, more than men and boys.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Christine Ma-Lau: I want everyone to know how unique everyone is, and how everyone can reach their full potential. We can tell girls that they are fully capable of what they want to do. I think our Hong Kong education system has put us on par with men, but the hard part is for a woman to ‘choose’ between work and family in older years. I think it’s important that girls and women are given opportunities to pursue what they want to and believing that their capacity and potential is on par with a man. In developing countries, it’s not the same and if that message isn’t brought across in those countries, it should be.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Christine Ma-Lau: I would have to say my mother. I’ve realized the older I get, there are things I would say to other people and I realize “I sound like my mother!” My mom is an amazing woman, full of grace, full of love and full of passion. Over the years, she has shared so many of her insights and passions with me. It has slowly trickled into my being and I’ve noticed that even when I write lesson plans, there are things that I will innately talk about or have a belief system in, and a lot of that is, besides from God, from my mom. I have a lot of admiration for her and still have a lot to learn from her.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders and social entrepreneurs?
Christine Ma-Lau: Hold on to your vision and just don’t give up because you are capable of more than you think you are. I think as women sometimes we’re hard on ourselves; men seem to have a more “I can do it” mentality and I think women sometimes think that they are less than what they are capable of. I hope women realize that they are capable of all they can do and be, and to not give up, especially as an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur myself, I know it’s a difficult journey and challenging journey. If you believe in what you do, then don’t give up, especially if what you do helps others!
Women LEAD: Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, girls’ education and women’s empowerment?
Christine Ma-Lau: One book I really enjoyed is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I especially loved the part about where she talked about sharing responsibility with men. If women are to have a family and career, we need our husbands and counterparts to make these things possible. We cannot be a full-time mother and have a full-time career, and we need help to juggle the things they have to juggle. We, as women, need men around us to support us, believe in us and partner with us and I think Sheryl describes it well.