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From adventure to inclusivity

18 Jun 2014

Charlotte Park in Singapore

Charlotte Park with daughter

Business School alumna Charlotte Park says she has always been "curious, a risk taker, and definitely a bit crazy". She now heads up Mercer consulting in Singapore.

Before disappearing into the African desert, 18-year-old Charlotte Park sent her father in far off New Zealand a postcard. "Wild and free in '93," it read. "I am on my way to Morocco."

Yet the dry heat of the Sahara almost claimed the teenager's life.

"I was suffering from sunstroke and lying down," Park recalls of the moment when she was convinced she was about to die. "A Berber tribesman made me get to my feet. He made me walk with him and the camel caravan as he chanted. I don't know how but I went from death's door to feeling euphoric."

So, what did the Moroccan experience say about the young Park? "I was curious, an adventurer, a risk taker and definitely a bit crazy," she replies.

More than 20 years on, the University of Sydney Business School alumna and Singapore Managing Director of global consulting firm Mercer, is still all of the above. Indeed, Park owes a great deal of her success to her "crazy" belief that a single mother with a hearing impediment who left school at 16 could take on the challenges of a male-dominated corporate world and win. "I have always been massively driven," she says. "I had ideas and solutions that leaders who listened to me valued."

Park adopts an optimistic outlook on those aspects of her life that others may regard as drawbacks. When asked about the progressive hearing loss she has suffered since her teenage years, she refers to the "great technological developments" that are helping her to overcome her disability, although she admits to sometimes missing the punchline of a joke.

Nor is she fazed by the challenges of single-handedly raising her young daughter, Amelie, while dealing with the rigours of corporate life. "Having a baby on my own in an Asia-Pacific leadership role certainly didn't present a hurdle for me," Park says. "It was actually one of the happiest times of my life."

Balancing motherhood and her corporate role is important to Park. "I am able to tell people that I am leaving the office at 5.30 because my priority is being with my daughter and they accept it, Park says. "But many men in my position feel they have to be seen in the office until 7 or 8 pm."

She says that to achieve gender equality in the workplace, men need encouragement and help to take on more responsibilities at home.

Park had studied and worked in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Sweden before her second Singapore posting. "I love adventure and the romanticism of throwing myself into foreign cultures and integrating in other worlds," she says.

Before her first move to Singapore in 2004, a New Zealand colleague warned Park that she was being "set up for failure" because Asian men don't accept women in leadership positions. "That just made me want to succeed in the opportunity even more, but I also found his words were untrue," Park says. "In fact, I feel more respect from my Asian colleagues and clients than I do from some European and Pacific male colleagues at times."

Leaving school at 16 to become an aerobics instructor was far from the end of Park's formal education. Driven initially by a desire to make a difference to the lives of women in the developing world, she graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Auckland University in 1998.

In 2012, Park joined the University of Sydney Business School's Global Executive MBA program, Australia's highest ranked program of its kind. "It looked too good to be true," she says. "It offered real, hands-on strategic learning with a group of leaders across a number of countries, companies and industries."

Park says one of the program's overarching themes was diversity and inclusion. "I realised that the impact I could have on diversity and inclusion in the company I worked for was as great as any impact I could have working for a not-for-profit in the developing world," she says.

"I want to change unconscious bias and norms in organisations and I believe this will have a flow-on effect on society. For example, organisations that can harness and develop local talent in developing countries will provide job opportunities for poor communities. I also believe that educating girls can end poverty. This is what motivates me."