Earlier this month, we sat down with Sarah Cottee, who is Head of Partnerships at Firetree, a NGO dedicated to creating lasting solutions to the basic needs of marginalised children and youth in Asia. Aside from learning more about her background in education and work for various charitable causes throughout her career so far, we also discussed the issue of feminism, and what it means to be a female professional in the workplace today.
Sarah is also organising an event series at Garage Academy called That’s What She… INSPIRES, which is «a meetup for kick-ass feminists» to share inspirational stories of women who embody the need to support one another to create impact. The first session will be held on July 25th at Garage Society QRC.
Read on to get to know Sarah, as we explore the challenges and highlights of working for NGOs, strategies for generating systematic changes in communities, and how to best facilitate initiatives to empower women.
Q&AYENA SHIN: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself?
SARAH COTTEE: I was actually born in Canada and I moved to UK when I was four. I moved to Asia eight years ago and have been jumping around ever since.
YS: Was Hong Kong the first city in Asia you lived in?
SC: No, I was at Nottingham University and they have a campus in China, so I went there for a semester. It was such an incredible experience living there and meeting people who came from all over the world. I finished my degree and applied for a language course in Shanghai, and moved there the Summer after I graduated. After the course was over, I moved back home and worked at a local fish restaurant. It was kind of depressing after such an adventure to go back to serving salmon and potatoes, so I saved up for about eight months, and I applied to be an English teacher in Shandong Province.
I was teaching and learning the language as much as I could, and experiencing everything I could. I lived in a small city, but small in China terms — so millions of people. After six months, I moved to Shanghai for a year and a half teaching English as well. I loved it, but it was getting to a point where I wanted a change. So I went back to my main interest in political activism and applied for an internship with Amnesty International in HK, and moved here.
YS: Continuing with the story of your internship with Amnesty, how was that like and how did it eventually lead to Firetree?
SC: It was an interesting project. Unlike in Europe and America, where you often see students handing out petitions, Amnesty has very little youth presence in Asia, so they created Asia Pacific Youth Network and paired a mentor up with a youth activist for 12 months. You would work with your mentor on a Human Rights issue that was relevant to you in your country, and build an action of what you wanted to achieve. It was really about providing the activists with hard skills, and looking at the issue strategically, thinking about how can we plan effective interventions that will make a lasting change.
I met some of the best people during my time at Amnesty, but it was never a full-time job. The Amnesty project and the kind of work we do at Firetree is similar in a way. Both are looking at systemic change and how we can work long term within these communities to make an impact.
YS: You mentioned that Firetree works on systemic changes. Based on research of Firetree, the organisation «provides funding as well as technical assistance to support and create lasting solutions to the basic needs of children and youth in Asia». What does this really mean and what are the ways in which Firetree help them?
SC: Broadly speaking it’s children and youth, but we take a very holistic approach, as it’s difficult to make a real impact if you don’t work with the family unit as a whole. The ways in which we provide technical support differs. For some organisations, we will join the board, others we will dedicate 60−70% of our time to working with them to achieve specific goals.
Some of these organisations need a lot of support that it’s difficult to work with them remotely. For us, if we don’t work to strengthen the organisation, our money would be going to waste. Our view is that we really need to work with the organisation to ensure it has really strong foundations and systems in place, so that it can scale up its programs. In that sense, we’re quite different from traditional donors and look both internally and externally to provide funding and human support. This means we don’t work with many organisations because we simply don’t have enough time. However, we are very hands on with the organisations we do work with.
When there’s a new organisation, we’ll spend one to two weeks with them really understanding what the organisation is about and getting to know the community. Then, we’ll normally provide a short-term grant to start, and see how the relationship unfolds. If everything is working well, then we enter into a long-term partnership with clear goals that we both agree on and work towards that.
YS: What are some of the challenges and highlights you face working for Firetree?
SC: There are a lot of challenges in terms of the sector itself. When you’re in this sector, so much depends on what other people are doing. A non-profit often fills in the gap of what the government should be providing, but is missing. Essentially, our view is that nonprofits shouldn’t exist forever because they should be working within the system. Ideally, the end goal is for the government to support these vulnerable communities.
For highlights, it’s just a really amazing feeling to see a plan unfold in real life. For example, the area of Manila we’re working in is called Tondo, where there is a squatter community with around 60,000 residents. Last year, we bought a building nearby. There is no government support for early education in the Philippines, so this building is meant to educate three to four-year-olds.
There are many studies that show the importance of early education, where kids who’ve had only one year of early education are much better off than those who don’t. It just opened last week and it was really cool to see what used to be a run-down building opposite the squatter community now an amazing space for kids to learn.
CHLOE MIAO: Thanks for sharing about Firetree. We’re also curious about the female initiatives you’ve been working on. You’re very active in creating a women’s community — can we ask what inspires you to do so?
SC: This will be our first event, so I really hope it’s the start of a strong community. I was a protégé of the Women’s Foundation Mentoring Program two years ago. It was very supportive, but at the same time very collaborative. It was kind of difficult when it was over, so two good friends I met on the programme, Rina Hiranand and Sunny Davis, and I starting thinking about what we can do as an offshoot that would not only be about the workplace, but life.
It was Rina who came up with the initial idea of wanting to have this space where people can freely talk about Beyonce or Zadie Smith — whoever they feel inspired by — challenging the perceptions of what a female role model looks like. Also, I feel like a lot of events in Hong Kong are focused on career, even if it’s not outrightly so, where all the attendants feel they have to act formal, so it was our goal that it would be open for everyone, no matter what your job title. Hence no business cards.
CM: As a female entrepreneur here in Hong Kong, do you feel like there are some special challenges? How does it feel like to navigate this identity of being both female in workspace?
SC: Most of my colleagues are male and I have great relationships with them, but of course there’s always preconceptions when you’re a young female going into a space and you’re asking bigger questions. Some people will ask «oh, where’s your boss?», or slide in a comment that you’re pretty sure they wouldn’t say to a man.
I don’t dwell on it, as long as it’s not really impacting the work itself, or mega-offensive. You choose your battles. I think that in the corporate world, it’s more ingrained, especially in more established institutions, so I definitely have it way easier than many of my friends do!
I think it’s really important that it’s not a woman-only thing, which is something we really want to highlight with these events. A man can talk about woman who inspires him just as much as woman can talk about a man who inspires her. It’s not gendered at all, so for me, bringing men into the conversation is super important. If possible, we would love to have men coming as well to celebrate women like how we celebrate men everyday.
CM: To facilitate those conversations between different genders, what do you think will be the ideal discourse to address these issues? What is needed from the society and what are the efforts needed from different parties?
SC: I think there’s a lot of awareness on this issue already, but it’s important to emphasise that being a feminist is not about preferring women to men — you just believe it should be an equal playing field. There’s the importance of diversity as well. If your company has a diverse audience, why does it make sense to have all one gender or race in your team? I think just bringing it to the forefront and not being afraid to talk about it is a good start.
At the same time, we don’t want to just cater to extroverted people because that’s not the point either. Yeah, outspoken females are brilliant, but also there are a lot of females who are quiet or don’t want to shout about it. We want to create a space that’s geared towards support and building inner confidence more than anything else.
CM: Well do you have any other suggestions for other female professionals who are like yourself?
SC: I would say join as many groups or support networks as possible. For me, when I applied to the Women’s Foundation, I had this thought that it was only going to be for corporate types, but one of my friends said «just try it and see what happens», and I got on it. So even if you think something’s not for you, give it a go.
I’d also say to test your friendships. Try bringing up stuff that you don’t talk about much. Everybody has these standard conversation topics, but why not challenge them? Challenge what they think about the workplace, or maybe something that’s happened to you at work, or an idea that you read about, anything.
You’ll have some friends who you’ll be able to talk openly and freely with, and there will be some who you can’t. For me personally, it’s been important to have a balance of friends I can go to with issues that are affecting my career, and friends who I can go on a night out with. Having such strong support networks and really nurturing that, for me, has been vital.
YS: We also found out that you used to write for SCMP for new designers and collections. Are you still interested in fashion?
SC: I’ve always been interested in clothes, rather than fashion. My Mum can sew really well, so she taught me how to sew from quite an early age. I remember bringing an old-school wind up sewing machine to university (not the coolest first impression…). I would spend my Saturdays rummaging through charity shops, taking things home, and cutting them up to make it into what I wanted.
YS: Where can we find you on the weekends?
SC: I really like the music room at Potato Head, or Club 71 for drinks. I also love dancing so I’ll try to go and see the DJs or bands in town. I live on Lamma Island, and am lucky to have a big, bright apartment. Right now, I’m really into leather, so I’m making little leather bags. That’s usually my Sunday — listening to music and podcasts, making something.