Christy Davis is the Executive Director of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at Singapore Management University, where she works as a social innovator.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I’ve lived in Asia for most of my adult life. In my early years, I thought a career was a linear undertaking. I spent years working for a multinational corporation in Tokyo and Hong Kong, loved much of it, but one day realized my definition of success wasn’t the same as most of the aspirations my colleagues held.
Rather than climbing the proverbial ladder, I wanted to do more “meaningful work”, though I wasn’t sure what that was.
I was in Bangkok in 2004 when the Asian Tsunami decimated communities across the region. A chance meeting of a United Nations advisor at a business lunch produced an unexpected introduction to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to facilitate private sector partnerships.
I jumped at the opportunity! It was a completely different experience in every way – personal, emotional and professional. There were indescribable moments when walking the beaches of villages now gone: my heart simultaneously broken and filled with admiration toward the survivors I met and the resilience I witnessed.
I was introduced to the humanitarian and development world, and loved exploring how business, non-profits and government could work together to tackle big problems.
My stint with UNDP led me to development work with an NGO, which further inspired me to later found a social enterprise-inspired incubation hub for 3-P (focusing on multi sectors: Public – Private – People) partnerships. And after that adventurous, slightly crazy, entrepreneurial stint, today I am leading a university-based centre for social innovation (The Lien Centre for Social Innovation (LCSI), in Singapore.
I like to sum up my work as a ‘social innovator’, because I’m an advocate for the public, private and social sectors working together to solve social challenges none could do by themselves. Pooling resources and strengths make such great sense, so much of the time.
2) What does a day in life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I need an alarm to wake up, and I make a beeline to the Breville espresso maker, a splurge purchase I’ve never regretted. My day runs better when I have a quiet time, review my calendar and take a couple of deep breaths.
In my ideal world I’d be out the door for a walk every morning before 7am, but more realistic is chat time with my mom in the US, the most important activity of my morning next to quiet time.
In this unique season of living through a pandemic, I’m fortunate to have a dedicated office space at home, a thoughtful organization to work for, and a team rowing well together to weather this storm.
I like to whiteboard a lot. I have static electric whiteboard sheets on my wall and I do best brainstorming and thinking out loud on them.
Heaps of Zoom calls fill many of my days, and every other week my team has a virtual happy hour to shoot the breeze and catch up on whatever pops into our minds, sometimes joined by kids and a variety of beverages in our glasses!
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
I like to work from an office, enjoy the walk to and from the train station, the energy of my work campus, the water cooler conversations. During this pandemic time, I’m grateful that my productivity and ability to add value isn’t overly diminished.
Having said that, I miss people. I’m a social person, I receive energy from others. Though it’s been quite marvelous to see my lovely husband over the dinner table every night – with the usual busyness of our lives, 9 weeks of dinners together has been quite novel!
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
I gave up on “balance” a long time ago. My work and my life are intermingled; I’m not someone with separate laptops or mobile phones; I strive for a healthy work-life integration.
That means quality time for the people important to me, the commitments I’ve made, and taking care of my mind, body and soul. Please don’t ask that lovely husband of mine how I really fare at this: I confess I’m still a work in progress.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
I’ve started aspects of mindfulness. Every night I write three things I’m grateful for in a little notebook that sits on my bedside table – research shows it is the single most powerful method of increasing happiness. I’ve read that gratitude improves our health, relationships, emotions, personality, and general well-being. Plus, it’s a wonderful way to close the day.
6) Do you have any favorite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
So many favorites! Some of my favorite go-to magazines and books include:
- Monocle (hard copy!), Fast Company, Brainpickings, Stanford Social Innovation Review, AtlasObscura
- Aaron Maniam, Beyond a Scarcity Mindset: Letter to My Future Self, focuses on the power of generative resources
- Linda Hill’s Ted Talk, “How to manage for collective creativity” is brilliant. Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” is a classic and his podcasts are thought-provoking.
- Jacqueline Novogratz – The Blue Sweater, and Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World.
- Maria Popova, Combinatorial Creativity, and – (Favourite animated whiteboard): Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. Love his work on the natural history of innovation. These are great introductions to the idea of combinatorial innovation – which reminds us that we don’t have to “invent” new things by ourselves – but that the greatest innovations are those that percolate over time, a combination of ideas, resources, networks by many people.
- Love reading Malcolm Gladwell. He had me at The Tipping Point.
- For a classic Japanese book or two, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata and Wonderful Fool by Shusaku Endo. Anything by Meira Chand and almost anything by Isabel Allende.
- Chapter One, by ThankYou’s Daniel Flynn, provided massive encouragement during my entrepreneur days.
And I love historical fiction – no mental energy required, and it’s like riding backwards in a time machine.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
Aforementioned Breville Espresso Maker (and a red silicone collapsible funnel when I’m on the road, which used to be a lot).
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
I value the examples of women in my life and network that aren’t “extraordinary”. In the sense they are not wealthy, blessed with super intellect, raised in an exceptional family (highly educated parents, access to broad thinking and good education) or otherwise “remarkable.”
These are the women who are, actually, extraordinary and remarkable as they support families, raise children, care about their communities, are stewards of our environment. And at the same time, they are kind and generous – and somehow manage to keep it together most days.
I’m seeing so many examples of these unsung heroes and very special women rise up in the midst of this pandemic. I’m surrounded by them. Their stories fill my heart.
If books, these are the stories I read about in books such as Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift, or the characters in many of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
No real advice – just these favorite things woven into the fabric of my life:
- Combinatorial innovation.
- Diverse, multi-generational friendships that encourage, comfort, humor and sharpen my sword.
- The power of generative resources.
- The magic of wanderlust and the places and people it shares with me.
- Classic jazz.
- Long walks.
- Good red wine.
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