Joleen Soo merges motherhood, charity-work and style with inspiring results



Hong Kong-based Joleen Soo gives new meaning to the word “inspiring”. Leaving a high-flying corporate job for her role as development director of the Cambodia Children’s Fund, the mother of four-year-old Gabriel and two-year-old Olympia now focuses her time on family and increasing awareness and funding for the non-profit organisation...

So what inspired such a dramatic career change? “I’ve worked in media, travel, F&B and PR with some amazing companies like National Geographic and Moët Hennessy Diageo – always with a sales and marketing angle.  If I hadn’t had such a diverse career background I don’t think I would be able to bring as much to my role as I do now.  I always wanted to work for a non-profit, but it took me a long time to find one that was the right fit with what I was passionate about, and run dynamically and efficiently… The Cambodian Children’s Fund transforms the country’s most impoverished kids into tomorrow’s leaders by delivering education, family support and community development programs into the heart of Cambodia’s most impoverished communities,” says Joleen.

We caught up with the stylish and philanthropic mum to talk post-birth rituals (“we follow quite a strict regimen of healing soups, a special diet, post-natal massages and belly binding and only washing our bodies with ginger infused water,” she says), living in Hong Kong and juggling work with the demands of two kids. Read on to find out more.

Photography: http://www.ohwhataluckyfish.com/photography-in-motion.htmlJenna Louise Potter | Words: Marisa Remond | Go to www.cambodianchildrensfund.org


How would you describe yourself in three words?

Particular, friendly, quirky.


What has motherhood taught you?

You will willing put yourself through all kinds of pain and discomfort for the happiness of a child.


So far, what has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?

Motherhood has brought out the most intense feelings of happiness and fear for me. I think one of the most unexpected feelings you experience as a parent is uncontrollable, heart-stopping panic when your child is sick or hurt. My daughter was born with an intestinal condition (which is now thankfully controlled and treated), which had us in the emergency room and NICU for almost a month after she was born. Nothing you ever go through in your life can prepare you for seeing your child fight for their life.  My little warrior has taught me about taking the small wins in life, celebrating them and looking at the glorious big picture that they paint.


How was pregnancy for you?

I think I was lucky (or as my husband said “but we just started trying!”). After being quite resistant for the first few years of our marriage to children, I was able to conceive less than three months from the “OK YES” decision to “Guess what…!”. It was surprising for me because I had actually been on oral contraceptives for many years and I truly believed that it would be a longer journey. My second baby was a surprise but the timing actually ended up being perfect as Olympia was born when Gabriel was two years and three months – just old enough for him to understand and control himself with the baby but also young enough to be flexible.

Pregnancy itself was manageable for me as I was conscious about nutrition and exercise. Prenatal yoga and walking everywhere was key in keeping my body comfortable and limber. The most difficult thing for me was giving up sushi and wine (ok fine there was some cheating).

Post-birth is unique for Chinese/Southeast Asian people. We follow quite a strict regimen of healing soups, a special diet, post-natal massages and belly binding and only washing our bodies with ginger infused water. All of this is meant to renew and recharge the woman’s body after pregnancy and birth. The soups deliver an easily absorbed stream of nutrition for both your body and breastfeeding the baby while the “heat” of the ginger water is meant to nourish your muscle and bones to eliminate aches and pain (especially as you age). We have a specially trained “confinement nanny” to help us with the process and also with the baby. It’s supposed to last one month but most of us extend it for a couple.


How did you handle any sleep deprivation/getting up in the night?

Ah, this is the real benefit living in Hong Kong. It is such a privilege to have a lady help me with the children at home. This is a bit of an Ivanka Trump answer isn’t it – but most Hong Kong-based women will have this same response. I switch out the nights with our nanny – especially if I’m expecting a long day at work. I have to say we were a lot better with establishing a bedtime and sleep regiment with my second one. It involves our bedtime routine, turning off the lights and ignoring her till morning (works 70% of the time). My first one was a lot harder because we were a lot softer.


What’s your approach to health and wellbeing?

I’m just pulling myself back onto the health train! Every week I do one stress-busting, arm sculpting body combat class as well as one circuit with a fun group of girls. The fun group dynamic has really inspired me to keep going back. I used to love yoga but have found that all that inner quietness is not really motivating me at this point – I need to roar and laugh out loud! I’ve also recently bought a Vitamix and found it quite life changing. We drink so much fun stuff now – that doesn’t involve wine.


Tell us about the work you do and how the Cambodian Children’s Fund helps children?

The Cambodian Children’s Fund transforms the country’s most impoverished kids into tomorrow’s leaders, by delivering education, family support and community development programs into the heart of Cambodia’s most impoverished communities. We concentrate most of our services is Steang Meanchuy which used to be a huge dump site, and where most of our families used to scavenge garbage for a living. It has been grassed over for the past few years but is still where most of the cities poorest families live.

We believe that with quality education and leadership, one child has the potential to lift an entire family out of poverty and a generation of educated children has the power to change a society. By investing in the health, education and well-being of impoverished children and youth, we are building the skills, confidence and integrity they need to become leaders of positive change in their communities.

As the Development Director in Hong Kong, my role is to manage donor relations on both an individual and corporate level, grow awareness and in general be the local representative for the organization. I spend most of my time sharing the CCF story, communicating our needs and planning fundraising events.


What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

As a Cambodia-based charity people sometimes don’t feel a connection.  Sometimes I get asked why I don’t work for a local charity – to me it’s about the organization and the children. All charities need help and they all have different support bases.


Can you tell us about some memorable trips to Cambodia and the children you’ve worked with?

After going back to CCF around five times, I’m starting to see remarkable differences in some of the kids. From the first visit where I met some of the newer students who looked pretty bad – very low BMI, filthy, no-confidence etc to seeing them in class with clean uniforms, haircuts and healthier bodies (and extremely exuberant in-class behavior!). This is very inspiring for me – and to also know their families are on board and taking pride in their children attending CCF!


Who are your role models?

There are so many different things I admire in different people. Hong Kong is unique in the sense that it’s quite common to have household help and so you see a really strong concentration of entrepreneurs who also have young families. Over the past few years I have met many of these people who have purposely moved to the region so that they can continue to pursue their career goals and balance a family. So it is these remarkable nannies and caretakers I admire – these women leave their families (mostly the Philippines and Indonesia) and raise our children. They do so with so much love, dedication and skill that we working parents can feel confident leaving our children, our homes and our elderly parents in their care.  Their work ethic and sacrifice cannot be compared, and for this I admire them completely.


What does the year ahead hold for you?

Travel, fundraising, my little one starting nursery, all wonderful things!  We will be spending a few weeks in Vancouver this summer. Vancouver is a city that I’ve only quite recently discovered and it’s just magnificent during summer. We always do a few days in Whistler and just lounge around the lakes, hike and admire the cool mountain biking kids.


What’s your approach to fashion? What kind of clothes do you love to wear?

I’m a “basic bitch who loves patterns”.  I’m also a bit married to the 90’s given that’s the decade that most defined me growing up. I never really stopped wearing slip dresses and boots. I do tend to gravitate towards a select few brands including Dries van Noten, J. Crew, Isabel Marant, Mary Katrantzou, Matter Prints and this newer brand that I love called Stella Jean.


What are some vivid memories of your childhood?

I was born in Singapore but spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong (with a stint in San Francisco) before returning for high school. Hong Kong has always been home for me and I love the intensity of life here.  Singapore however, was a wonderful place to be a teenager. It’s safe, wonderfully multicultural, a foodie capital and life revolved around swimming pools and beaches. Nothing can beat Hong Kong for the dynamic pace of everything here and as a young adult it was very exciting. Growing up in international schools, my friends came from all over the world and it was very interesting for me to meet all these different people. One of my very best friends moved to Singapore from the state of Georgia in the US and I had never met a Southern Belle like her before – it fascinated me! Another dear friend of mine was Hawaiian, grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore but was born in Iran – amazing!


“ Post-birth is unique for Chinese/Southeast Asian people. We follow quite a strict regimen of healing soups, a special diet, post-natal massages and belly binding and only washing our bodies with ginger infused water. All of this is meant to renew and recharge the woman’s body after pregnancy and birth. The soups deliver an easily absorbed stream of nutrition for both your body and breastfeeding the baby while the “heat” of the ginger water is meant to nourish your muscle and bones to eliminate aches and pain (especially as you age). We have a specially trained “confinement nanny” to help us with the process and also with the baby. It’s supposed to last one month but most of us extend it for a couple ”

Did your career change after you became a mother?

Post-motherhood is the first time I ever saw my salary decrease instead of increase! With that said it’s because I was very lucky and was always able to negotiate a flexible work schedule so I could be there for the kids. This was non-negotiable for me. I took three months of maternity leave with each child but by the 3rd month I was really looking forward to going back to work. It’s a personal choice but breastfeeding didn’t really work for me. It’s not the best choice for the baby and I realize that, but it allowed our family to have a bit more flexibility.


How do you divide your time between your two businesses?

I’ve learned how to “zone” my brain. It’s like a cartoon, I actually see the “work” part light up and I’m able to concentrate completely on that and I can actually work through kids laughing and screaming in the back. When I’m with the kids I try as hard as I can to “techno out” and not look at my phone. If you can master this – there’s almost no juggling to be done because you are quite focused. And again, this is all possible because of my incredible nanny and our housekeeper (who is one of the reasons I can’t lose any weight as she is an amazing cook). I don’t deny that life would be much more difficult without their help.


What’s life in Hong Kong like – what kind of things do you do together as a family?

Many people don’t realize that over 75% of Hong Kong land is actually countryside and beaches. We are a densely populated city concentrated in certain areas. Beyond that there is beautiful hiking, exploring and seaside fun. We love to enjoy Hong Kong’s special nature. Before we had kids Hong Kong life was all about new restaurants and going out in Lan Kwai Fong!  How life has changed.


How would you describe your approach to parenting?

There is a lot of pressure on families to get their kids into the best schools here. There are hundreds of tutoring centres and “interview” classes that train kids as young as two to perform. I’m all about a great education but I also refuse to force my children to be anything but their funny, curious selves. I let them explore what they like to do and let them run free with whatever interests them. Creativity and nurturing imagination are really important to me so we do a lot of ridiculous pretend games. I truly believe travel is one of the greatest experiences for kids and their develop exponentially when exposed to new environments. We just suck up the flight and the jet lag cause it’s always worth it!

When my kids throw tantrums, I just ignore them. I’m quite good at that – I just go into my “blank” zone. If we are in public, we leave.

I grew up in a family of three daughters and my mom raised us to be fairly girly. My dad however, raised us to be protective over ourselves. I’ll never forget his lecture to my four-year-old self: If the kid is bigger than you, use a weapon. Now this is not recommended. With both my children I try to be gender neutral. I do think love for vehicles, dinosaurs and killer animals is hard wired into little boys though. There was nothing I did to encourage his rabid excitement over seeing a construction site.


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