Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Wesa Chau

Wesa Chau is the Education sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

Since first commencing university, Wesa Chau has been committed to providing innovative initiatives to advance multiculturalism and cultural diversity in Australia. Advocating for international student peers provided the wellspring for the founding of her Melbourne-based specialist consulting firm, Cultural Intelligence Pty Ltd. As CEO she enables individuals and organisations to harness the power of cultural diversity and deal with its complexities both sensitively and strategically. Reaching broad audiences through media and communications, she is also a regular commentator on mainstream channels including The Age, The Guardian, ABC, SBS, plus commercial stations including 7, 9 and 10.

Wesa has held several senior managerial and governance positions over the course of her career and in 2016 was awarded  the Victoria International Education Award (internationalisation) in recognition of her work with international students for more than a decade. Last year, in addition to her recent appointment to the National Foundation of Australia-China Relations to provide advice to the Foreign Minister on issues in relation to the Australia-China relationship and engagement with Chinese-Australians living in Australia, she also became the Education sector winner of the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards. These awards address the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (under 40 years-old) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. Johnson Partners (JP) interviewed Wesa to discover what drives her fiercely empathetic and logical mind, discovering that her sense of fairness is one to be reckoned with.

JP  In 2002, you founded the Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS) whilst studying at Melbourne University to strengthen the support of their welfare and wellbeing by staff (administration and teaching). You grew the organisation to service 8000 foreign students during your tenure. One of your key achievements was working with the Victorian government to establish the International Students Care Service (superseded by Study Melbourne) – a well-funded and high-profile entity within the Victorian Government that provides regular policy and project support initiatives. What were some other positive changes that occurred?

AFIS was established to bridge the gap between international students and local students and is not just about racial integration, but the holistic integration of international students to Australia during their study. During that time, we were able to influence government on all levels (local, state and federal) to ensure policies included the perspectives of international students as the end users and preventing them being exploited in areas such as safety, racism, tenancy, work rights etc..

JP .Your work with international students was recognised through the Melbourne Award (Youth) 2005, the Victorian Multicultural Service Delivery Award (2006) for Excellence in Service Delivery to Multicultural Victoria, plus the Young Victorian of the Year Award (2010). Can you discuss AFIS’ infiltration amongst other university campuses and update us on the current status of its initiatives?

AFIS is now run by current students as they are in the best position to support other international students, however, in 2020 I launched Resilience Against Racism to support Asian-Australians and Asian international students who have experienced or witnessed racism and provided workshops to help them deal with the impact of the adversity and maintain personal optimism and community resilience.

JP You also developed key partnerships with organisations such as Essendon Football Club, the City of Melbourne and RMIT University to create the GLoBALL program to introduce international students to Australian Rules Football; the Committee for Melbourne to establish Culture Card Victoria; and with various councils on localised engagement programs and services. Can you tell us why these particular sectors (sports and the arts) were your focus and how they have impacted international students?

Australians love their sports and arts, and as good hosts we introduce international students to these activities. At that time, GLoBALL was the first AFL program for international students and since then other football clubs have taken the initiative to provide something similar, expanding it to be inclusive to refugees and new migrants. Partnerships are so important when it comes to community initiatives so organisations can continue running it without AFIS or my own involvement in the hope for ripple effects.

JP You hold a Masters in Business Management, a Graduate Diploma in Law and Bachelors of Engineering and Commerce with majors in software engineering and marketing. In addition you are currently exploring ‘What are political skills and how do you develop them in politics’ for your PhD. It’s quite a diverse focus. What were your career plans when you commenced your studies?

I started my studies thinking I would be a typical Asian-Australian girl, getting high enough grades to study Engineering and Commerce at University of Melbourne, and at the time I thought after graduation I would work in the corporate sector. Life didn’t go as planned and my advocacy work with international students introduced me to politics and community work. I believed I could create impact and therefore directed my interest and career in that area.

JP In 2012 you founded the specialist consulting firm, Cultural Intelligence Pty Ltd., which helps build organisational capacities to deal both sensitively and proactively with the complexities of diversity in the workplace. As CEO, can you outline its core purpose.

When it comes to cultural diversity (or any diversity) the core issue is power imbalance which is a really complex issue. We are working to balance power which requires an understanding of how to work with it.  Many people see power as a ‘dirty word,’ but I take Joan Kirner’s view and approach when it comes of gender equality. You need power to create change for good. My approach to cultural diversity addresses the systemic issue and has developed practical tools to understand diversity, and help organisations address it through audits, recruitment, retention and promotions, research and training.

“When it comes to cultural diversity (or any diversity) the core issue is power imbalance which is a really complex issue...You need power to create change for good. My approach to cultural diversity addresses the systemic issue and has developed practical tools to understand diversity, and help organisations address it... ”

JP There is a significant gap in which organisations understand how cultural overlay impacts decision making, customer service, messaging, policy making and staff relations. Looking at your internal operations, you combine academic research with real world experience to resolve solutions for businesses and individuals to understand how people from different cultures perceive products and services and relate to communication/messaging, helping them discover deep insights from key stakeholders. How do you collect data and transform statistics and insights into opportunities that you can share with clients?

One research initiative I undertook looked at Asian-Australian leadership in Australia and explored the natural talents of Asian-Australian leaders and Australian leaders, discovering that Asian-Australian leaders are more natural at solving problems. In this data driven era, it is imperative to have people who solve problems logically working in the most senior levels of organisations. I used that insight to help businesses understand the benefits of diversity from a skill-set perspective in addition to addressing equality and representation. By understanding that there are cohorts that are more natural at certain skills suggests that if there is no diversity in senior roles it is very likely that there is little diversity of skill sets within a team.

JP Nine years into your business, how does your vast portfolio of work come to you? Can you outline your outreach initiatives?

Many people hear about my work at conferences, seminars and workshops. They usually come to me when there are problems that exist in their workplaces and they are seeking solutions such as cultural tension between staff or staff needing to better understand their diverse customers. I also work with other consultants who may require cultural insights.

JP Stepping back in time, in relation to Australia’s engagement with Asia, you were the recipient of the inaugural Swinburne-Scanlon Intercultural Fellowship in 2016. Funded by the Scanlon Foundation and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, you travelled to Malaysia and India to meet with academics, government officials and business leaders to learn how both countries acknowledge and support cultural diversity. What new insights did you bring back to Australia that have influenced your approach to work?

Every country understands and handles cultural diversity differently. In Australia, we view cultural diversity through the lens of a white Australia rather than that of the original custodians of the land. Some racist white Australians believe new migrants, refugees and international students do not deserve to be here. Cultural discussions in other countries are very different. In India, since its history is layered with many years of war and conflict, there is a stronger focus on religion and what region people are from. Adding an additional layer of complexity, there is also the hierarchy of the caste system. In Malaysia, there are only three main cultural groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. In Australia, residents come from over 200 different countries, all with very different cultures. My most recent creation of the Cultural Competency Assessment Tool enables people to measure and understand their own cultural values, how they work within them and how to transcend some of these differences, which is critical in building multicultural teams within recruitment.

JP In 2017, you were a delegate on the Australia-China High Level Dialogue alongside senior political leaders including Hon Julie Bishop, the former Foreign Minister and Senator and the Hon Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, plus senior Australian business leaders and diplomats. And in 2020 you were appointed to provide advice to the Foreign Minister on issues in relation to the Australia-China relationship and engagement with Chinese-Australians living in Australia. Do you see yourself dealing more with state and national government bodies to educate staff and assisting with progressive legislation to ensure that inclusive workplace environments support and champion cultural diversity plus gender equality and equal opportunity?

The different contexts use different languages; however I am adept at moving fluidly between sectors and understand what is required within them. The private sector is only beginning to understand how political discourses impact on their workplace. We see that in relation to gender diversity and how to address sexual harassment.  We will start to see this in relation to cultural diversity because if we care about staff wellbeing, workplaces need to create a space with no tolerance to racism beyond hosting Harmony Day, for example.

JP In 2019 you facilitated a leadership program for the inaugural Asian-Australian Leadership Summit co-convened by Johnson Partners, PwC Australia, Asialink at the University of Melbourne, and the Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership at the Australian National University. Last year, it addressed the most stigmatising repercussion of the Covid-19 pandemic: racism, devising new strategies, creating new partnerships and identifying champions of change to enable Asian-Australians to advance from the backrooms to the boardrooms and succeed in obtaining leadership positions (with its 40 Under 40: Most influential Asian-Australian Awards ceremony taking place during the online summit). 

With the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements, your recent initiatives include the establishment of The A+ Influencers Network, a space that provides a culturally appropriate and unique leadership program to support Asian-Australians into senior leadership roles. You also initiated the Resilience Against Racism project in response to Covid-inspired racism against Asian-Australians and created a service to support people who might have experienced racism. How do you think we can nationally people shift racial perceptions of power dynamics on a personal level (between individuals); organisational level (between leaders and followers); and societal level (between minority groups and existing structures)?

Education from a young age must happen, however, imagine students going home to parents with prejudice. Their views can undo the teachings received at school.  Schools cannot address racism on its own. It requires a whole society, including workplaces, sports clubs, social groups etc.

I think people need to acknowledge the power imbalance first. For example, in Australia people are expected to speak up and push forward ideas in meetings. A system like this is easy for anyone who was raised in western culture. Asian-Australians have been raised not to speak up against people in senior roles (and parents) because of an underlying belief ‘senior’ people know better. Therefore, even if we were taught to debate at school, this is not practiced at home. For any Asian-Australians told to speak up at meetings, you can imagine that process is not natural for them. The question we need to ask is ‘why do Australian workplaces assume people who both present and debate well in meetings are better at decision making?’ I support Asian-Australians to understand this better about themselves and how to address it.

JP Lastly, we’ve read that the importance of having balance in your life is imperative to you, and that you believe the only way to truly succeed in your career is to find what makes you happy. So, Wesa Chau, are you happy?

Spiritual practices make me content with who I am, happy in my own skin (literally and metaphorically) and do things that I am interested in that push my limits.  As a practicing Reiki master, I share how to be more spiritual every moment and every day through one of my other brand, Enlightened Heart, which is a direct translation of my Chinese name, Wai-Sum.

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