Dr Violet Lo: social innovator

28 January 2016

It might seem like an unlikely career choice to swap investment banking for inclusive business and social innovation, as the two seem a world apart, but this is exactly what Dr Lo Suet Fan Violet (Croucher Scholarship 1995) has done. 

After more than thirteen years in the investment banking world, working for well-known companies including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank, Lo had a change of heart, deciding to move into charity work, something she had always planned to do after retirement. In 2014 she established Inclusive Business Lab, which aims to provide inclusive business models in order to address systematic poverty. She is also an honorary principal of Jiangsu Province Dagang High School. However, Lo has faced many changes in her life, and her adaptable nature means that she takes them in stride.

Lo grew up in Hong Kong, in a family that was not particularly affluent, and struggled with the loss of her father at a young age. Despite this, she enjoyed her studies and developed an interest in and talent for art, which she intended to pursue. Despite having never been abroad before, after completing her O-Levels she was presented with an unexpected opportunity: the chance to study abroad. Initially struggling with the change in location and the language barrier, coming to England would prove hugely influential to Lo’s career, as it was there that she discovered a passion for something she had no previous interest in: mathematics. Lo had not studied mathematics in depth before because, “in Hong Kong, at the time, it was generally believed that women should stick with arts subjects, because women just couldn’t do science or maths.” This caused her to take A-Levels in single mathematics, geography, and art. However, in England, it was suggested that she study mathematics, as she might find the subject easier with her somewhat limited English language skills, and she quickly took to the subject. Lo attributes her success in mathematics to her artistic talent: “In the way that when in artwork there are a lot of patterns, when I see mathematics I see the patterns of art there, and it’s just beautiful.” This also helped her engage with and become passionate about the subject. In fact, she flourished in mathematics, soon becoming top of her class, and deciding to take more advanced mathematical A-Levels: single mathematics, further mathematics, and economics.

Still, doing well at mathematics at A-Level and studying the subject at university was viewed as something completely different, particularly for a foreign, female student, yet Lo thrived there as well, achieving her undergraduate degree from the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Cambridge, where she completed her PhD with a Croucher Scholarship. Afterwards, she returned to Manchester to lecture at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and it was quite by chance that she found herself working in investment banking, particularly as she was enjoying teaching. She was offered and accepted a job in the banking industry without enquiring what her own salary might be. The challenging nature of the job drew her to it, and she worked as an investment banker for fourteen years.

The most dramatic change in Lo’s career was again unintentional. She had always been interested in charity work and had volunteered on the weekends while working at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, which made her aware of the rich-poor gap. Lo always intended to pursue this kind of work after an early retirement, but after being encouraged by friends to take the plunge, she moved into charity work, initially becoming an advisor on corporate social responsibility.She pointed out that advising on charitable work was similar to investment banking, as both roles pay heavy focus on the most effective way of spending money.

Then, in 2014, Lo created Inclusive Business Lab, which aims to tackle poverty in several different ways, primarily through establishing inclusive businesses. Inclusive business is the practice of a sustainable business that incorporates low income communities into its value chain to tackle poverty and bridge the rich-poor gap, which Inclusive Business Lab strives to do on a global scale. Lo believes that minimum wage is not a solution to poverty, but that instead people need to have the opportunity to grow their own businesses and receive a fair share for their work, and furthermore that the whole community needs to be involved in production to rise out of the poverty trap. Another aspect of the organisation is leadership training. Lo is an experienced leadership coach, and hopes to train people to be effective and, most importantly, inclusive leaders who are ethical and principled. This is seen as the key method targeting poverty and making sure that the idea of inclusive business expands across the globe.

Although now working full-time in philanthropy, Lo still volunteers, recently taking up a post as honorary principal for a school in rural China, where many of the students come from impoverished backgrounds. She says that the central aim is to build up the children’s self-esteem, and one of the biggest confidence issues was the students’ concern that their English was not advanced enough to converse with native English speakers. In order to combat this, Lo arranged for a nearby international school to visit the local school to learn about Chinese culture. Making the students organise the day themselves, they were pushed to use teamwork skills alongside language skills, and the day’s success boosted their confidence. For Lo, working with young people is important, as she attributes much of her current success to the kindness she was shown by teachers while studying for her A-Levels, and tutors at university, and hopes that she might be able to offer students the same support, thereby helping them get to where she is today.

In 2016, Lo also founded a charitable organisation, Inclusive Business Foundation, which together with Inclusive Business Lab to build a diversified ecosystem for creating inclusive opportunities and developing the next generation of purpose-driven, ethical & global minded leaders. Since its inception in the fall of 2014, the program has impacted more than fifteen thousand young people, and has been working with more than fifty partnering schools, universities and colleges globally.

Dr Lo Suet Fan Violet undertook her undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Manchester from 1991-1993, where she won an award usually given to Master’s students. She received her MSc in mathematics and statistics (1994-1995) and PhD in mathematics (1995-1997) from the University of Cambridge with the support of a Croucher Scholarship. Subsequently, Lo lectured in mathematics and statistics at the University of Manchester (formerly University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) from 1997-1998, before moving into investment banking. She was a vice president of Deutsche Bank, 2000-2005, and then vice president of Merrill Lynch, 2005-2009, going on to work for Barclays Investment Bank and Goldman Sachs. Since 2012, she has been an advisor on corporate social responsibility. She established her own Inclusive Business Lab and Inclusive Business Foundation. Between 2012-2013 she was a guest professor at Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy. She is currently guest professor at Lushan Mount Bailudong Sinology Academy and honorary principal for Jiangsu Province Dagang High School in China.

To view Violet’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.