Welcome the The Glass Hammer’s “Spotlight on Asia” week! We will be highlighting successful women working in Asia all week long!

Karen Loon, recently appointed as PwC Singapore’s Banking and Capital Markets Leader, knows that making assumptions based on someone’s gender is a mistake. Assumptions based on appearance are often equally misleading. That’s because while some might assume that Loon was born in Asia, she’s actually a fourth-generation, Australian-born Chinese.

That’s why her interest in diversity runs deeper than just gender. “I am passionate about ensuring that both women and those from culturally diverse backgrounds are given the right opportunities to thrive within their organizations,” she says, which makes her the ideal fit to be PwC Singapore’s Territory Diversity Leader.

A Career in Accounting Added up for Loon

Loon began her career after graduating from Sydney University. Her parents were business owners who had business acquaintances who were accountants and encouraged her to consider it as a career.

She participated in vacation internships with other accounting firms, and decided she liked the culture of PwC, which she joined in 1990. She was seconded to PwC Singapore in 1994 when a one-week training in the Netherlands opened her eyes to the possibility of working outside of Australia, coupled with her growing conviction that Singapore was ripe for a booming economy, and decided to stay for the longer term.

The move was less conventional than one would guess, because as Loon says, “Most Australians have a strong affinity for the U.K.” Furthermore, though she is ethnically Chinese, Loon doesn’t speak Chinese. “It’s very difficult to feel like an outsider. I was fortunate to be coached and mentored by supportive people.”

Climbing the Ladder as a Woman

Becoming a partner was not easy to achieve and certainly ranks as one of her proudest professional achievements. In fact she says that though she didn’t realize it at the time, she had never met a female audit partner when she started in Sydney.

“Women partners were few and far between in Sydney,” she says, adding that Singapore was more progressive in this area with some of the women partners having kids. “There is more family support in Asia. The values in Sydney tend toward mothers staying home.”

During a recent two-year return to Australia, Loon reflected on her values and how she had changed — and how other aspects of the firm had changed. “There are now more women partners, but we are still clearly the minority. It made me more passionate about making sure there are opportunities for everyone.”

Diversity Committee Feeds Her Passion

That’s why she finds her work with her Singapore diversity committee to be so satisfying. In addition to her recent appointment as a Territory Diversity Leader, she is also the East Cluster Financial Services People Leader, East Cluster Diversity Coordinator and a member of the Global Financial Services Diversity Steering Committee.

“Being open to diversity is how businesses can retain talent,” she says, adding that the broader issue facing all organizations is how cultural diversity, not just gender diversity, will continue to dominate the discussion.

“Companies have to be cognizant of culture and open to accepting that people come with different values and backgrounds. Companies that continue to focus with a just a western lens will be at a disadvantage. Those who understand different types of clients and environments will be the successful ones. Otherwise it’s so easy to offend someone without even realizing it.”

Advice from the Top: Sticking with the Status Quo Won’t Yield Success

For younger women entering the industry, Loon recommends that they be open to whatever opportunities present themselves. “The best work I’ve done was when I had projects where I didn’t necessarily have all the experience or skills. Sticking with the status quo is never the best route.”

Citing agility as a key path to success, she says that in the 12 years she’s been a partner she’s continued to learn through a wide variety of types of work – audits, transactions, and internal and global initiatives.

She says that though her parents had never been in the corporate world, they taught her that results were hers to achieve. However, she says, “At that time I didn’t understand that working hard didn’t always translate to success. As you become a more senior practitioner, you realize that soft skills and relationships are as important as just working hard.”

Loon has also come to realize that it’s vital to find opportunities that truly excite you. “When you’re younger, you don’t realize how long your career is. You need to continue to find new work that will leverage your skills and keep you interested and motivated in your role.

For Loon, part of that excitement comes from a large client she is working with in a senior leadership role. And while she relishes these client challenges, she loves to be able to give back to society and the firm through her work on diversity. “Personal branding becomes very important as you ascend in your career.”

Outside of work

Loon continues her passion for women’s issues as an Executive Committee member of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, and was previously a committee member of Financial Women’s Association (Singapore). Recently married, she and her husband love fine dining and travel. They take a number of trips each year, highlighted by an annual African safari.

Her travel for work has taken her throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. “My travel for work and pleasure has opened my horizons, and I can see my fellow colleagues also benefitting from the culture and opportunities that I am fortunate enough to enjoy.”

By Cathie Ericson. 


First published by The Glass Hammer on 28 August 2014.