Learning From The Top 4 Asian Female Philanthropists

Mar 09, 2018 1 Min Read
[Updated Mar 7, 2019]

In 2017, the Forbes Heroes of Philanthropy list revealed that out of the 40 philanthropists listed, only six are women.

In one of its publications, the Economist states that female philanthropists in Asia are falling behind their male counterparts.

So it seems that women philanthropists are still considered as rare gems, even more so in Asia, but this is about to change gradually as the latest Forbes’ list of the world’s self-made female billionaires revealed that out of the 56 women on the list, 29 came from Asia-Pacific.

With 15 of the newcomers, 13 hailed from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan.

With the expected surge of women philanthropists in Asia, there is no better time to find out what we can learn from them.

While most of them possess more than just a few shared values, the four chosen for this article have one thing in common – they made their own fortune.

This means they do not rely on existing family wealth or inheritance to be financially successful.

Brief background

A brief background of each woman is given in the following (in no particular order):

  1. You Zhonghui

She is the founder of Shenzhen Seaskyland Technologies. Her philanthropic work begin in 2004 when she made her first donation to a school in Guizhou, China.

She subsequently established scholarships to help poor students have access to better education. She became the first woman from mainland China to sign The Giving Pledge, an initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, which asks its signatories to commit to donating over half of their wealth to charity.

  1. Yoshiko Shinohara

She is Japan’s first female self-made billionaire. She made her fortune by creating part-time jobs for men and women through her public-listed company called Temp Holdings.

She donated USD140mil worth of her company stock to fund scholarships for students studying to become nurses, social workers or day-care staff.

  1. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

She is India’s first biotech entrepreneur whose pharmaceutical company, Biocon, made her one of India’s richest self-made woman.

Since 2005, she has persistently dedicated much of her wealth to combating cancer and other community healthcare initiatives.

  1. Lilly Singh

She is a Canadian actress, comedienne, author and perhaps best known for her YouTube channel ‘Superwoman’ with more than 13 million subscribers.

She is ranked No 1 in Forbes Magazine Top Influencers List in the entertainment category and recently named as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. Although Lilly is not from Asia, she is Asian by origin.

READ: Are Women Natural-Born Leaders?

Key lessons

Here are the five key lessons from these women (see accompanying story for their background).

  1. Being emotional about something is not enough, you need to take action

For six years, Kiran watched her best friend suffer from the effects of breast cancer treatment.

Not only did her friend had to endure a series of undignified and uncomfortable sessions of chemotherapy and radiation, she was also burdened by the exorbitant cost incurred from these medical treatments.

As a personal caregiver to her beloved friend, Kiran was affected by her subsequent death.

She told Forbes, “I saw the struggle that she went through – the crippling financial burden, the treatments, the disease itself. I know how awful it is. I just had to do something.”

That was when she pledged much of her fortune to cancer research and making healthcare more affordable for India’s rural poor, among other things.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw | Wikipedia

Lilly often confessed to not always being the bubbly and cheerful persona you see of her on her YouTube channel when she was younger.

Being vulnerable to chronic depression as a child, her life could have easily taken quite a different turn.

In fact, her attempt to deal with her depression was what drove her to starting her highly successful YouTube channel, Superwoman.

Naturally, Lilly has a soft spot for mental health issues and has always been a huge advocate for positive self-image and anti-bullying.

She has invested personally in causes such as the Girl Love campaign to end girl-on-girl hate and instead encourage women and girls to support each other.

All of us either have or will subsequently face at least one form of setbacks in our lives, something that would have affected us negatively.

We have a choice to either succumb to our emotions, or do something about it and change the status quo.  

In her book How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life, Lilly attributes a lot of her success in life by keeping her emotions out of the way because emotions “can cloud your judgment and reduce productivity”.

Instead, she advises her followers to be goal-orientated and focus on results.

Before the start of a video production, she would make it clear to her team that because the stakes are high for her to produce something good within a short time-frame, she needs to expect everyone to work at their best.

In such a highly stressful environment, communication needs to be short and straightforward as there is no time for pleasantries.

She may yell at someone who is not performing, but this does not mean she has anything against that individual personally.

It is only to remind everyone to step up their game because the team counts on each other to deliver.

She advised that communicating this to your team at the start of every project is important so that no one needs to feel offended. They just need to understand that it is nothing personal but only for the good of the project.

Lilly Singh | Courtesy of YouTube

  1. Don’t just give, give responsibly and strategically 

According to UBS Wealth Management, women philanthropists are more focused on investing to achieve positive social change, in contrast to their male counterparts.

This means, instead of donating money or supporting a specific charity, women are more willing to set up a foundation of their own.

However, the Economist published that compared to 80% of female philanthropists from America, only 30% of Asian women billionaires listed on Forbes have a foundation. Out of the four women, only Yoshiko and Kiran have their own foundation to promote the individual causes they believe in.

In the meantime, Zhonghui has tried giving her money away through other foundations, one-off donations, and supporting other social enterprises, but admitted that she is inclined to “pursue a philanthropic foundation approach in the future”.

Why are more and more women turning to setting up their own foundation as a philanthropic model?  

According to Yinuo Li, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s office in China, many donors are adopting a do-it-yourself approach towards philanthropy due to the mistrust of non-governmental organisations.

In contrast to just giving their money to a charity without further hands-on commitment, by having their own private foundation, these women are able to dictate and have control of how their money is being spent, including who they want to hire to implement projects, and this often translates to better accountability.

For these women, it is not enough to just give. It must first come with responsibility to ensure accountability and then accompanied by a solid strategy to have a lasting impact.

Yoshiko Shinohara | Copyright: Brian Smale

Kiran once said, “Philanthropy is not charity; it is about social impact.”

Through her Biocon Foundation, she demonstrates this by developing and implementing long-term community healthcare programmes in villages in India.

Through the provision of micro-health insurance scheme, primary healthcare clinics and free health camps, Kiran is making direct and tangible impact on communities in the area of affordable healthcare.

Yoshiko’s company generates billions of dollars by providing part-time employment opportunities to men and women burdened by family responsibility to take part in the work force.

The lesson we can learn here is that we should be rethinking the way we give our hard-earned money to different kinds of charities.

Are we giving purposefully or meaningfully whenever a random stranger stops by our table at a restaurant asking for donations, or are we giving just because we want to get rid of them as fast as we can so that we can resume our meal?

If billionaires appear to be ‘choosy’ on the causes they support and how their money are being spent, why are we not doing the same for the much less disposable money that we have?

Do we want to give because we really care or because it is the most convenient thing to do?

How about stopping small random donations to people or charities we have no idea of by making bigger impact through volunteering at a soup kitchen or teaching at an orphanage?

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  1. Teach others to fish

All four women share a common value – they believe in the power of education.

While three of them manifest this value through conventional ways such as provision of education scholarships to the underprivileged or free health camp to the rural poor, Lilly is famed for her unique digital presence and content that aim to engage young people and empower them to speak up about different issues affecting them.

Zhonghui, who has been in the education industry for more than two decades, continues to see the benefit and need of education in developing a country – specifically in alleviating poverty.

Apart from giving scholarships, she has donated money towards building schools in rural areas in China.

She has proposed the concept of Great Philanthropy which essentially promotes the philosophy that philanthropy is not just about donating money and goods, but also about sharing wisdom. We say, it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them a fish.”

Being raised by a single mother and unable to complete her college education while having to hold different jobs at a very young age, Yoshiko is no stranger to the importance of education.

In 2015, she told Forbes Asia, “Education and women working were always in the back of my mind.”

What can we learn here? There are many ways to impart and share wisdom. As in Lilly’s case, for example, all you need is to make your own educational content using the widely available and free social media platforms on the internet.

You Zhonghui | Courtesy of The Giving Pledge

  1. Commit yourself publicly 

By becoming the first woman in China to sign the Giving Pledge in May 2017, Zhonghui committed herself publicly to give away at least half of her wealth to charity.

She said signing the pledge serves two purposes – holding herself accountable by fulfilling her social responsibility and setting an example to her peers by inspiring them to do the same.

Kiran has publicly pledged to give away 75% of her wealth to philanthropy after she dies. She also maintained that she would sign the Giving Pledge as a way to get others to understand the importance of philanthropy to change our world”.

In addition to this, Kiran has publicly declared that her legacy is going to be in affordable healthcare and that she is willing to invest in developing that model and the policies around it.

True enough, she has been persistently honouring her public announcements through her philanthropic missions.

Perhaps none of the women mentioned here lead a more public life than Lilly. In many ways, her appearances on YouTube hold her accountable for many of the positive messages she has been sharing online.

The next time you are inspired to do something good, announce it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

By committing yourself publicly, you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability.

  1. Mistakes are your best friend 

Yoshiko has said, “Mistakes are the sea of opportunity” while Lilly’s preferred mantra has been,Mistakes are cool!

If one were to scrutinise Yoshiko’s past life, one may conclude that it has been a series of ‘mistakes’.

She was raised by a single mother, did not complete her college education and was divorced before she was 30.

After her divorce, she struggled through life by working in different jobs while maintaining a frugal lifestyle.

Instead of viewing her misfortunes as mistakes, Yoshiko turned them into opportunities.

As a single woman in the 1950s trying to make ends meet, Yoshiko understood the challenges faced by women in Japan, particularly in what she saw as a society largely dominated by men, and where women had to miss work opportunities due to family obligations.

That was when she started TempStaff, a company that provides women with part-time jobs so that they could fulfil their domestic obligations while still play an active part in the workforce. This is the industry that has built her fortune and allowed her to help others.

In her book, Lilly says, If you’re making mistakes, you’re making the necessary moves to figuring it all out.

“If you think there are 10 possible ways to do something, and you just made a mistake, congratulations! You just discovered way number four doesn’t work. That’s progress!”

She said that we have been paying so much in tuition or college fee while all the time, mistakes are lingering around for free ready to school us.

Therefore, whether you are a chief executive officer of a multi-million dollar company or someone who is just starting out as an intern in a non-profit organisation, mistakes are your best friend.

In a nutshell 

One may ask if there is any unique or significant difference these female and Asian philanthropists have brought to the world of philanthropy?

The answer is probably no, except perhaps they defy some of the stereotypes society often impose on them because of their gender; e.g. being emotional and irrational.

If anything, these women manage to drive their emotions by turning them into something meaningful and purposeful.

Not only that, they are doing it with extreme focus, prudence and strategy, being hands-on throughout the process, making them accountable all the way.


Ka Ea was formerly the project manager at the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), and is a member of People Against Cyber Threats/Harassment (PeopleACT). She believes that human rights is firstly common sense and should be second nature to all. The content of this article was researched by Sarah Kapadia, who worked with Ka Ea. What did you think of this article? Email us at editor@leaderonomics.com.

How should the media portray women? Read this thought-provoking article.

The Media’s Role In Portraying Women And Building Negative Stereotypes

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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