Su-Mei Thompson

CEO, Media Trust


Following a successful 20 year career at Linklaters, Disney, the FT, Christie’s and The Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong, since relocating to the UK in September 2017, Su-Mei has been running Media Trust, a dynamic social enterprise dedicated to connecting the media & creative sectors in the UK with charities, community organisations and young people to ensure under-represented causes and communities have a stronger voice.

1. Best piece of advice you’ve been given

When I was at the FT, I got to meet the wonderful Peter Jovanovich who was Head of Pearson Education who gave me some advise which I really took to heart. He said, “I can remember every one of my kids’ birthdays, matches and concerts that I missed but I can’t now recall why and what was happening at work that was so important that I had to put it first which suggests maybe I got my priorities wrong.”

This was 20 years ago and while my career has always been important to me, I’ve also made time to be with my kids – I took a whole year off work when my girls were very young. I’ve also made time to get involved in other things. Currently, besides running Media Trust, I’m loving being a trustee of my alma mater Cheltenham Ladies College, serving on the board of the Orwell Foundation and being an Advisory Board member of the ENO.

What I tell the young people I mentor is my own version of Peter’s advice which is “Don’t build a life in the context of a career but rather, build a career in the context of a life.” I think it’s vitally important to have outside interests – whether it’s a charity or sports or a hobby or your faith – to bring more dimension and meaning to your life. It’s also important to have people in your life from outside of work – you really need this to maintain perspective and you’ll appreciate what a consolation they are when things aren’t going well in the office, which happens from time to time even to the best us.

2. Worst piece of advice you’ve been given

On the parenting front, the worst thing I did was to read and listen to conventional parenting books and well-meaning friends. I don’t know if it’s changed much but back when we had our first daughter 15 years ago, the conventional wisdom was to let babies “cry it out” and co-sleeping and attachment parenting were discouraged so children would learn to embrace independence early on. It was only many years later when Tallulah was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety that the penny dropped about why she constantly craved attention as a baby and found it so hard to settle unless one of us was there. I felt so guilty when I realised we’d deprived her of the connectivity and support she needed and maybe by doing so, exacerbated her insecurity and anxiety in later life. I wish I hadn’t listened to all that advice and that I’d realised earlier on that you can’t take a one size fits all approach to parenting, as indeed you can’t with most things in life.

3. What would you tell your younger self?

I would say take heart in the fact that someday someone is going to write about you (as the CFO of the company I was working for at the time did in my reference for business school) “The great thing about Su-Mei is that nothing is beneath her and nothing is beyond her.” If you

just carry on the way you are, it’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter how small or how menial a task seems, if it has to be done — just do it. And one day you’ll look back and see that your whole career has been a series of little steps of ‘Oh, I did that. And I did that. And that too.” The little steps are all paving the way for the moment of disbelief down the road when you’ll go “Wow, I did that?!’

4. What excites you most about the future of your industry?

We know that advertising is hugely aspirational which means it has the potential to create massive shifts in societal attitudes and behaviours. We’ve started to see brands taking steps towards campaigns that are more inclusive, that recognise the world is multi-racial and multi-cultural and have used their brand power to encourage girls to have broader horizons when it comes to careers. But there’s still so much more to be done to promote a more level playing field for other marginalised groups and advertising can play a huge part in this. How is it that 20% of us have a disability and yet disabled people are still largely invisible when it comes to advertising? What does that do for the self-esteem and agency of disabled people? And what does that say to potential employers not enough of whom are currently recognising the talent of disabled people?

I’m optimistic that the Covid-19 pandemic has created a greater consciousness about divisions and differences in our society and seemingly, a much greater will to do something about it. The crisis has laid bare how poor our social safety net is for the most vulnerable in society while serving up a compelling reminder that all our lives are inter-connected. For years, the number of homeless people in the UK has been rising but with the fear of infections spreading from the homeless to the rest of the population, in the space of a few weeks, we’ve managed to clear 90% of homeless people off the streets. We don’t know if this shift to a more humane and accepting society will endure beyond the virus but if we move quickly to seize the moment, we might just come out of the crisis with permanent solutions for the homeless, better wage protection for low-income and gig economy workers, more accessible transport and other services for the disabled, and a greater tolerance and acceptance of people of all races and faiths.

5. Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

I’ve been inspired by lots of people who’ve made me want to be a better version of me! One is my Mother who spent 17 years as General Counsel at a leading development bank that was involved in creating a lot of the infrastructure of modern Malaysia at a time when most women didn’t even work. She taught me not to see glass ceilings and how fulfilling it can be to work in the public sector.

Another person I’ve been lucky enough to have as a mentor is Anson Chan, the former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong. She’s one of the cleverest and bravest people I know – she’s unflinching in her principles and attachment to equality and democracy despite having to withstand a lot of personal abuse for what she believes.

I’d also like to mention David Eldon, the former Chairman of HSBC, who treated everyone from tycoons to the doorman with the same unfailingly courtesy, humour and humility. I’ve tried my best to emulate him but I think people find it more remarkable coming from him and the heights of what he achieved than from me!

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