SMU alumna Cheryl Chen (BSc(Econ) & BBM, 2007; MTSC, 2015) isn't your typical banker. Eschewing the daily grind expected from professionals in the banking and finance industries, Cheryl chose to make a difference, wanting instead to promote financial literacy and other social causes she holds dear to her heart. She has since contributed to that -- and more. Currently heading Citi Singapore's Corporate Citizenship, Cheryl plays an important role in the CSR initiatives that Citi embarks upon, from managing the Citi Foundation grants and programmes on financial literacy and youth development, community partnerships, employee volunteerism, to philanthropic giving and sustainability. Beyond her work at the bank, she even helps out at the National Youth Council & South East CDC, and still juggles the demands of being a mum to two boys, demonstrating that Cheryl has more than 24 hours a day compared to mere mortals (Editor's note: we kid). This incredible person has accomplished much in her career, yet has a heart for the community. We are proud to present Cheryl as our Inspiring Alumna for the month of May 2018; read on to find out more about her story!
Hi Cheryl! You graduated with a double degree from SMU in 2007 – what was your SMU experience like?
The four years at SMU were filled with treasured memories – playing with Samba Masala at the Istana for then-President Nathan and seeing Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the lawn as part of his daily evening walk; training and testing of the mind, body and spirit with the Kendo Club and the late nights of studying and project work which usually started with serious discussions before ending with jokes and conversations over supper.
Of course, I also remember the terrible experience of failing almost every Economics module in the first year! We were the pioneer batch of BSc (Economics) students in 2003 and except for a few bright ones amongst us, we thought we were going to be the first in the history of Singapore to flunk out of college. We “signed a petition”, had a representative meeting with the Dean and we had our results re-calibrated. The administration then called for a review of the content of the modules for future cohorts. That’s when we know that we had chosen the right school with enlightened leadership who truly has a heart for the students.
How different is it compared to the MTSC programme you embarked on?
On a rating of 1 to 10, I would say a rating of 7 in terms of how different the experience was. I was in another season in my life, working full-time and expecting my first child during the one and a half-year MTSC programme.
I’m thankful that the timing was perfect as I was still able to travel being five months pregnant to join the overseas stint with the Brookings Institution in Washington. The baby was delivered during the term break and I was back again for the final modules during my maternity leave so I didn’t miss a beat, except for lunch breaks when I had to excuse myself to a meeting room for “motherly duties”. Much appreciation to the MTSC programme team for helping to find a room that didn’t have see-through glass panels.
However, the core experience stayed the same – the intellectual rigor of the modules, the active participation and debate in class along with professors who challenged us to think deeper.
(Cheryl with her two boys and hubby)
You are currently Head of Corporate Citizenship at Citi Singapore. How did you come into this position? Could you share your journey with us please?
It is a story of providence. In my penultimate year at SMU, I completed an internship stint with one of the banks and realised that most of us spend the majority of our day (and our lives) in a job and it was not a decision to be taken lightly if we want our lives to count. A book written by Po Bronson entitled What Should I Do With My Life? caused me to reflect that it would be apt for me to contribute in the area of financial literacy, from my personal experience of growing up in a seemingly “middle-class” family with its fair share of financial issues. A Google search revealed Citi Foundation’s efforts and commitment in this area. Back then in 2006, the concept of responsible business and corporate social responsibility wasn't as mainstream and prominent as it is today.
I then sent a carefully crafted email to the Director to ask for a job in her team. In the email, I specifically highlighted my admiration of Citi’s work and her own achievements in this area, which I managed to research online. To demonstrate my sincerity, I also sent a traditional snail-mail to the New York office with my CV and cover letter printed on 100gsm paper housed in the best quality envelope. Miraculously, I received a response from her a few days later and she connected me to the key decision makers in the Asia Pacific and Singapore team.
In 2007, I started in Citi as a Management Associate. After different rotations in Finance and Marketing, I expressed my interest to re-visit my original intention and spoke to my mentors in the bank. I am still grateful to the then-CEO for his support of my aspirations, with exceptional approval on headcount for me to join the Corporate Affairs (Public Affairs) team in 2009, reporting to the VP who covered Corporate Citizenship, media relations and corporate events.
By another stroke of providence, she took a career sabbatical and the role was re-organised into two different portfolios with a standalone Corporate Citizenship role. True to their philosophy and belief in developing young leaders, the senior management took a leap of faith to entrust the role to me at 26 years of age. It has been a wonderful privilege to serve in this capacity, managing the Citi Foundation grants and programmes on financial literacy and youth development, community partnerships, employee volunteerism, philanthropic giving and sustainability for Citi Singapore.
(Cheryl, pictured above extreme right, as a mentor to outstanding young social entrepreneurs participating in the Citi-United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Youth Co:Lab programme that seeks to elevate the role of young people and social entrepreneurs as development partners alongside government, private business and social movements in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals)
What do you enjoy most about this role?
I am thankful to be able to have my passion, profession, mission and vocation all rolled into one as my full-time job. When I have the opportunity to share with undergraduates or new graduates who join us at Citi, I always share about the sweet spot between “what you are good at”, “what you love”, “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for”.
My role in the Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability sector is one of the rare opportunities in the private sector that constantly pushes the boundaries of responsible business and how the private sector can thrive in the long term with sustainable development. Corporates and private institutions need to generate positive value-add to our clients and the communities who have entrusted us with the license to operate.
In addition to a close collaborative relationship with our Citi Foundation grant partners and the impact we generate through the grant programmes, I really enjoy working closely with various committees consisting of Citibankers passionate about community service in addition to their full-time jobs. Together, we curate a calendar of volunteering opportunities for employees across the bank to come together to serve the less fortunate and meet unmet social needs in Singapore. Last year, we had more than 6,000 volunteers who served in close to 100 volunteer events held throughout the year and around our annual Global Community Day in June.
I've also witnessed many touching moments at our volunteer events and Global Community Day initiatives, from how a Citi Volunteer has gone out of his or her way to bring joy to the elderly to the patience and creativity displayed as they taught low income kids the importance of saving.
Our response to the haze in 2013 left me with the deepest impression. We contacted YMCA if any groups required our help to cope with the haze and got to know that they were responding to SOS calls from a few Senior Activity Centers (SAC) trying to order and distribute N95 masks to the elderly living in 1-room units. Unfortunately, the masks were out of stock everywhere and the PSI reading had reached a high of 380. The team got together and we contacted our suppliers, got an ad-hoc budget approved by the CFO and assembled a team of 25 Citi Volunteers to distribute the masks - all within 2 days! Ironically, we had to postpone our Global Community Day marquee event due to the haze that year, but our institutional response to the crisis was a real demonstration of our heartbeat for the community.
(Cheryl amongst her fellow mentors and graduates from the Company of Good Fellowship program organized by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center. This program is meant to build a community of corporate leaders to strengthen the eco-system of corporate giving in Singapore, whereby Cheryl served as a mentor to journey alongside her counterparts in Nippon Paint, Singapore Post, Alpha Developments, Changi Airport Group, GIC, Credit Suisse and Greenpac)
How did SMU contribute to where you are today?
My key takeaway from SMU is the importance of both style and substance, hearts and minds. SMU, from the executive leadership, administration to members of the faculty, have this deep belief in the students that each of us can truly make a contribution and a difference. That higher calling was then ingrained in most of us, who were then inspired to bring the light to where we are called to serve.
You also spend precious time and energy at the National Youth Council & South East CDC. It’s truly quite inspiring to not be caught up with work especially in the industry you’re in, and to engage in volunteerism. What inspires you to do so?
Though I have been through tough patches, I am blessed by the tremendous opportunities that I don’t deserve, and the culture of meritocracy in Singapore that allows us to succeed based on individual merit and hard work, regardless of our family backgrounds. There are so many things to be grateful for that we take for granted, such as the opportunity to pursue quality education as girls in many developing parts of the world unfortunately still may not have access to education.
I remember the struggle as a student in SMU trying to work hard and play hard while holding on to three to four part-time jobs in earning my own pocket money for subsistence. Once, there was a delay in the paychecks and my account was left with $6.30 after withdrawing $20 as the minimal withdrawal at the ATM. I had to buy instant noodles and bread to survive for a week. That was my experience for a week, but it may be a daily experience for some of our poorest households in Singapore.
Hence, for those of us who were given the chance to succeed, we must always reach back and extend a hand to those who are still going through tough times. It is also to honour the role of being a good steward of what we have been given!
25% of our graduates enter the banking and finance industry. What advice would you give to your juniors who would like to follow in your footsteps? What tip might you also give them to achieve the success you've enjoyed?
I won’t encourage the “following of footsteps” per se. We all have our own race and journey to take. I’m no guru but I shall pass on the wisdom of my mentors “Be intentional in your life’s choices and understand that there are always opportunity costs in every decision. Choose significance over success and live a life that matters!”
If I can give a tip, it will be “Be bold in asking for what you want, but be genuine and sincere as that is what will move people to lend support to your cause. And of course, always be appreciative and humble. Your success is not your own but all of us are supported by people who have gone out of their way to lift us up.”
Last updated on 14 May 2018 .