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Hopscotch Heroes – Helen Duce

8-min read. Here’s a woman wearing multiple hats – Helen Duce is the executive director of INSEAD’s Gender Initiative, the co-leader for Lean In Singapore, and owner of her own consultancy that focuses on sustainable businesses. Talk about having a busy schedule! At the age of 12, Helen was told by her school’s career counsellor that she should at best aspire for a secretarial job at the local factory. Read about how her reaction to that – “Hell no!” – set her on the path to building this stellar career.

H: Tell us about what you do and what this looks like on a daily basis.

HD: I have what I’m told is called a ‘portfolio career’. In reality, this means I get to do lots of different things that really interest me and I try and balance what I’m passionate about with what pays the mortgage and the school fees! More and more I find myself focusing on gender. I’m the Executive Director of INSEAD’s Gender Initiative, where I get to work with amazing academics pioneering research to find solutions to creating a more gender-balanced business world. I co-lead Lean In Singapore, a non-profit grassroots organisation whose mission is to inspire and empower the women of Singapore to achieve their career ambitions. I run my own consultancy, GreenOcean Group, that focuses on sustainable business and I work with NGOs and multinational companies on building profitable business models that deliver social and environmental impact. Recently, I have been partnering with an Australian company called Symmetra to deliver diversity and inclusion programmes in South East Asia. 

Every day is different, but a typical day would see me up at 6:20 am to get my two boys up and ready for school. We have breakfast together and I walk them and the dog through the condo to the bus (they are way too old for this but it has become a family tradition). My husband and I then workout together – we have a mutual guilty pleasure of enjoying cheesy but really hard workout videos. Depending on the day of the week I would either head to the Lean In office, to INSEAD or work from home. I try to be home by 5 pm most days but I will still be working in my home office. We always have dinner together as a family at 7pm – unless one of us is travelling. After dinner, I’m out at least 2-3 evenings a week with Lean In – either running an event, meeting with my team and volunteers, or attending my own Lean In Circle.

A Lean In day sees me planning and organising events, designing new workshop content and running sessions on subjects such as mentorship, networking and unconscious bias with our sponsor companies or any company looking to address gender imbalance. An INSEAD day sees me meeting with my academic director to plan; or working with students, alumni and staff to embed our gender strategy across the school.  In terms of GreenOcean, most of my client work is delivered overseas and so I travel at least once or twice a month. The work takes me to really interesting places, like Zambia, Nigeria and Columbia. I also teach an MBA class at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School, so I’m in Hong Kong 4 -5 times a year. 

H: What is your family background/current situation and how has this influenced your life today?

HD: I grew up in a small village in Yorkshire, in the North of England. Nothing but fields, sheep and a lot of rain. My mum was a hairdresser and my dad was a pattern maker. The girls in my town typically grew up to marry their high school boyfriends and went to work in the local factories before they had kids and became stay-at-home mums. At 12, I read the first book that would change my life. I’m embarrassed to say it was not great literature, in fact quite the opposite. It was a trashy romance, with lots of ‘naughty bits’ that a girl of 12 had no business reading. But the book was full of powerful, ambitious women and the key character worked in marketing, lived in New York, drank champagne, wore high-heeled pumps and went to A-list parties. Despite the fact I had no idea what high-heeled pumps were, I decided there and then I was going to be a marketer. I took myself off to the school career counsellor, an elderly gentleman with the requisite tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, and informed him of my career choice. He confessed he’d never heard of marketing but told me that the best ‘a girl like you’ can hope for was to go to secretarial school and get a job in the local factory. If I worked hard, perhaps one day I would become a PA. My instant reaction, to think “Hell no”, set the path for the rest of my career. I worked hard at school, was the first person in my family to sit for A-levels and to go to University. I studied Marketing, achieved a first class honours degree and went on to join Unilever. After working for four years, I was transferred to the US, where I got to live in New York, drink champagne and even to occasionally wear high-heeled pumps.

My background influenced me a lot. It taught me to have a clear vision, work hard and never let anyone limit you or tell you what you can and can’t achieve. It also makes me realise how incredibly privileged and lucky I am to lead the life I live. It reminds me to be grateful and really appreciate all I have. 

H: How do you keep work and family life balanced?  What are your ‘go to’ coping strategies?

HD: As someone who spends most of her time working on gender at the workplace, I dislike this question. It is a question that we only ever ask women. Nobody ever asks men how they balance work and family life! I also don't like the idea of ‘coping’ – who wants to go through life just thinking they are coping? 

Having said this, my husband and I learned early on that as hands-on parents, if we wanted to do everything we wanted to do in life, we would have to get comfortable with the 80/20 rule. In our case this was knowing that 20% effort will get us to 80% of the way on most things. But perfection – being 100% at everything – would require more hours and energy than we had in a day. One of my favorite books is ‘The Subtle Art of not Giving a F@$k!’ by Mark Manson. The approach in the book is really how we managed – with perhaps less colorful language. When we first became parents, we would ask ourselves how many ‘F@$ks’ we gave for the little things versus the big things and this enabled us to focus our energy on the things that mattered the most – and to let the rest go. 

The other aspect for me is constant positive self-speak. Telling myself, no matter how busy things get and no matter how overwhelmed I feel from time to time, that this is the life I choose because this is the life I love. At the most stressful times, I journal – just so I can focus on all the things I have achieved in a day, rather than stressing about what I did not get to. I wish I had the discipline to journal all the time but I don’t – so I use it only when I need it. And of course, I have my wonderful Lean In Circle! A group of six women who are always there for me and keep me motivated, focused and inspired. 

H: What does women’s empowerment mean to you? 

HD: Simply put, for me, it means ensuring that every woman has the power to create her life the way she wants it to be – whatever that might be. The idea of empowerment is really at the core of the Lean In movement, which is why it resonates with me so much. It’s about what we as women can do now, for ourselves and for each other, while we encourage and wait for our countries and cultures to catch up. It’s also about the most powerful force on earth – sisterhood. Women supporting women. We want a world where people of every gender can pursue their dreams without bias or other barriers holding them back. Where girls grow up to be confident, resilient leaders. Where more women run companies and countries. We are driven by the belief that our society and economy would be better if women and girls were valued as equal to men and boys.

The movement is occasionally criticised for suggesting that gender inequality is just a women’s issue and that it’s simply a matter of ‘fixing the women’ or putting the onus on women to fix things for themselves. I know that leaning in is not a panacea for all the challenges women face but I do believe that for many women across the world it plays an invaluable role in how they navigate and try to thrive in an unequal world.

H: What keeps you moving forward and what threatens to hold you back?

HD: What moves me forward is impact. Whenever we run a Lean In session, we focus on the impact of one – if just one woman leaves feeling more empowered, confident and resilient, then I feel like we have succeeded. It's important to me that the work I do outside the home really matters and makes a difference in the world. I want to inspire my children to take responsibility for creating the world the way they believe it should be. And when they see something that does not seem right or fair to them, they should see themselves as part of the solution.

I have to be completely honest though and also say that part of what moves me forward is frustration! When I hear statements such as “gender equality will not be achieved for 120 years”, it makes my blood boil and I find myself, again, thinking “hell no”.  So I’m driven by a vision of a more equal, fair world but also by a disbelief that we still have so much further to go. 

What threatens to hold me back? Not much really. It’s not that life is without obstacles and challenges; it’s just that I feel empowered and supported by my amazing community and family to tackle whatever life might throw at me.

If you enjoyed reading about Helen's inspiring journey and her 'portfolio career', keep an eye out for similar stories in our News section. 

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