2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Helen Lam, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Helen Lam

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management and Hong Kong University School of Science and Technology

Age: 40

Mostly grit and passion. My values are openness, honesty, and vulnerability, which represents my parenting approach to be passionate, be vulnerable and always be learning.” 

Hometown: Living in Singapore (from Sydney, Australia)

Family Members: Hugo, Hannah, Harry Cooke (3 children)

Fun fact about yourself: I climbed Mount Everest Base Camp whilst breast pumping. I was a female motorcycle and motor car racer and won a trophy drag racing.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Master’s in Development, University of Technology Sydney

Where are you currently working? Global Head of Urbanization Practice & Head of Innovation, Asia at Lendlease

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Key Sponsor of Young Talent Graduate programmes
  • Key mentor for Women in Construction programmes
  • Honored for Global Leader for Women in Proptech Awards and Global Vision awards by Industry Associations
  • Serves on several panel and advisory for Diversity & Inclusion boards

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? When I started business school, I had 3 kids under 5 years of age. At the time, my youngest was a few weeks old and my job was very demanding, requiring me to run a global team working across 6 time zones.

I believe that my primary achievement was that, with a newborn, I nursed her, brought her to every (never missing one!) class and did not miss an assignment or an exam. I never made an excuse no matter what challenges I was faced with, such as my newborn being hospitalized for eight nights, and I persevered to submit my assignments and contributions during these tough times.

I reflect on this as my commitment to personal development and that anything is possible if focus is applied. The achievement beyond this, are the connections and network that I have made in the process, despite the challenges. My fondest memory is leading half the class and winning the debate in Professor David Schonthal’s New Venture Discovery class on the BabbaCo case.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? After several years of studying law and working 5 years on a full-term internship in a prestigious law firm, I made a risky and difficult decision to pivot careers and shift into another male-dominated industry: construction and real estate. When I was promoted 10 years later to a Project Director overseeing a $3B project, I was responsible for leading a team of more than 10,000 construction workers on site. Leading this large team, we delivered the project successfully despite many challenges. This was both a professional and personal achievement and milestone for me. To date, I am proud of myself that I was brave enough to make a change in career and push the boundaries of women leadership in a male dominated role.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? SO difficult!! I have so many.

Professor Karl Schmedders for making me not only overcome my anxiety about statistics and mathematic equations but I really enjoyed the module.

And Professor David Schonthal for his really inspiring but tangible and practical way of teaching. I have used his applications and references frequently to date.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? It’s a personal and financial investment. Therefore, I wanted the best. Kellogg-HKUST was ranked No. 1 in the world by the Financial Times in 2020, and I had friends who had already participated in the program and highly recommended it. It was a no brainer.

Additionally, the diversity and global footprint of the cohort was important to me. Nearly 50% of my cohort traveled from 19 countries and represented over 20 nationalities. Combine this with a mixture of business expertise from entrepreneurship to corporate leaders. The network built, the mixture of hard and soft skills learned, and the global lens were huge takeaways from my decision.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? No matter what background or experience you come from, diversity of learning and decision-making adds value. Through such an intensive programme, you’re able to connect and form relationships with people you never thought possible.

From Kellogg, I found the leadership and branding lessons to be highly impactful. I always remind myself that how you tell your story, share your brand, expand your impact, and how you influence is important to your network in your personal and professional relationships. I often use the ‘High Impact Questions’ from Professor Craig Wortmann’s class ‘Selling Yourself’ in my discussions to get to know people better and to push conversations to a deeper place.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? There are so many stories. The one mentioned above with my newborn daughter in hospital was one of them.

However, one of the most intense memories I had was during my Financial Accounting module. I had been up two nights in a row. My three kids were sick at home and I was also finalizing a big transaction for work which meant very late nights. I always bring my daughter on flights (as I was still nursing her) to travel to class in Hong Kong from Singapore or sometimes Australia (due to my HQ and family being in there). There was a take home exam that was due before arriving to class which I hadn’t had a chance to do but planned to do it on the 4-hour flight. During the flight, however, my daughter was very sick, so I was constantly nursing her to sooth her non-stop, incessant crying.  As I was finishing scribbling the messy financial accounting worksheet, my daughter who was on my chest at the same time, started vomiting and hence, my exam paper was drenched full of vomited breastmilk. I almost cried (I think I did), and when I landed, I rushed to the restroom and tried to hand-dry the exam paper.

As I was in the taxi on the way from the airport to my class, I managed to salvage some of the answers and re-worked the rest. I handed in my assignment right on time, and my professor was gracious (or tolerable) with the legibility of my handwriting and quality of paper (no I did not put an explanatory note on why it was half wet and smelt of vomit). Luckily, I passed the exam. It was certainly a touch and go moment and one I will never forget.

I know some students may often try to move and defer deadlines due to work pressure or family.  But for me, I made a commitment to myself, I knew what these pressures were at the time of making this commitment, I did not want to make any excuse for myself to not deliver.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Have an open mind. Life is a long-life learning journey, embrace it and make that investment for yourself. Be organized and ensure that you have the right support from your family to pursue it.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? I am not sure about if this is a myth, as I have been studying for more than half of my life while working full time. I think the biggest difference with business school is that you can have so much more fun. You add more value as you have a richer outlook and input and more mature experience to apply the learnings.

And because sometimes, it is respite from the normal grind (work and family), you appreciate the journey and to make the most of it.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I wish I had been able to do more electives earlier before the pandemic shut us down from travel! I managed to experience Miami and Lisbon which is amazing already, but I also signed up for Tel Aviv, London and Vallendar which I am sad I missed.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Davina Yeo, Chief of Staff of Microsoft. She is another woman of grit and passion. She is the only other mother of 3 in the programme. She also is in a demanding corporate job and so I have a lot of affinity for her.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives?  I chose an executive MBA over an online program because there are aspects of the physical experience that can’t be replaced, including real-life experience, physical learning on site, and having dedicated bonding time with classmates. I was lucky enough to experience these aspects prior to Covid-19, but will say that the shift to virtual provided a robust experience for students nonetheless.

My professors were engaging, the live presentations and small group feedback allowed us to connect virtually and bond more than we could have ever imagined. It was a raw, authentic experience getting to know my classmates during the pandemic.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I work in urban development and construction and strive to make a lasting impression through my industry to make an impact on world issues such as housing affordability, climate change, social equity, and justice.

Personally, I want to ensure that every young woman has a chance to be successful and achieve their career aspirations, while at the same not having to compromise or sacrifice their aspirations as a mother, daughter, and partner. That goal motivates me in my work every day.

What made Helen such an invaluable addition to the class of 2021?

“Helen Lam is a woman with true grit.

It is never easy to be a leader, let alone being a female leader in a construction company. From the way she aims to transform the stereotype of male-only careers in the industry, to hosting a female-only motorcycle competition – Helen is constantly challenging the status-quo.

What I admire the most about Helen is she puts her family above all else while still managing her career and studies. I can never forget seeing Helen and her infant daughter on campus every module for the first 6 months; nor can I forget the story of how she studied traditional Chinese medicine for the sake of keeping her grandfather’s business alive in Australia. A mother of three, Helen never missed a class or an assignment deadline. She made a commitment to the program and never once made an excuse for herself.

It has been truly humbling to see Helen overcoming obstacles one after another. From taking care of her sick kids in between classes to getting through two courses while suffering from food poisoning, her perseverance knows no bounds.”

Judy Au
Program Director, Kellogg-HKUST EMBA program


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