Welcome to our interview series on Women in Tech! Today, we’re absolutely thrilled to chat with the incredible Bonnie Chi, a Senior Associate in Cyber Security at NAB.
Bonnie’s got quite a story to tell – from taking a bold leap with a gap year in Melbourne at just 17, to carving her path as a successful tech professional. Her multicultural background has played a huge role in shaping her unique approach to work, and navigating the tech landscape as a trilingual migrant woman has been a journey filled with both challenges and triumphs.
One thing Bonnie is truly passionate about is the impact of mentorship and networking in fostering strength and cultivating leadership. In this candid conversation, she shares her experiences, insights, and the valuable lessons she’s picked up along the way. So, grab a cup of coffee and join us as we dive into Bonnie’s inspiring journey!
Hi Bonnie, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us about your journey from taking a gap year in Melbourne at 17 to becoming a Senior Associate in Cyber Security at NAB?
I took a gap year in Melbourne when I was 17 as I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to “become” after my public exam in Hong Kong (similar to VCE). The concept of the “future” is too far away from me.
Truth is, no one could really plan the future ahead of time, but laying pebble stones that join the dots together. I’ve met people from different parts of the world, and living with my housemates was the first time in my life to come across people who speak a fourth language than I know. This is how it started at the root of my multicultural background.
I then took a detour to Taiwan for 7 years to follow my passion. I did my Bachelor in Literature, Post-Grad in Translation and Interpretation; I’ve worked in the publication, translation and journalism sectors, and later as an Executive Assistant at the HKSAR-Taipei Consulate Office (mainly in Press Release).
I’ve come across the twisting point in my career when I received an offer as an AML (anti-money laundering) & Compliance Analyst with a Taiwanese Bank’s Hong Kong Head Office, without any Finance or Legal background. My trilingual capability and multicultural work experience made me a perfect match for the talent they were after. Having my foot at the doorstep of the Financial Crime world, I get to love the “FBI” work I’m doing.
To solidify my foundation & qualification in the finance industry, I came back to Australia in 2017 to do my Master in Banking and Finance at Monash University. I thought this would open up many doors for me, however, I had faced countless job application rejections when I was still doing my Masters.
“Am I Not Good Enough?” This is a typical Asian ‘school of thought’ that knocks down our confidence. I couldn’t stop questioning myself but to think outside the box with unconventional approaches & make a precedent. So I simply walked into the bank branches with my CV and asked for opportunities, and finally landed my first part-time job in Australia with ANZ as a personal banker to assist international retail customers.
Graduating upon the outbreak of Covid-19 was a hard time. My career was held up due to my extended family’s circumstances back then. After 3 months of being unemployed, I managed to secure a contractor role back in the AML field with ME Bank before I moved with the Big 4 Consulting Firm (EY) to join their Financial Services Risk Management team. During this period of downtime, I’ve completed an online Leadership course, and started mentoring students who were barefoot like me. (I’ve also done a piano challenge for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata!)
Having worked in the Forensic areas for 4 years, I came across the opportunity to step up to my current role with the Third Party Risk Management team at NAB. With 2 Master’s degrees under my belt, able to greet customers in 13 languages, in addition to being “trained” by the Big 4 – this is definitely eye-catching to the interviewers.
Don’t be misled by the title in Cyber Security – our team has nothing to do with hacking, but to ensure all Third-party service suppliers are compliant with the Cyber Security regulations – which is critical to prevent IT security incidents/ breaches such as the recent Optus Data leak. So it’s pretty much still within the risk management and governance scope.
My strong background in risk and compliance made me a successful candidate as the team was undergoing structural change at that time, moving from the IT division to merge with Enterprise Controls, (and now under Suppliers and Sourcing Management function, which gives an even broader perspective). I couldn’t be grateful enough to my current manager who vouched for hiring me despite my unconventional path, that I did not come from the technical side. This is my second exceptional hire since I laid my foot in AML and financial crime – I will elaborate on “How” in the section below.
You mentioned the importance of networking and mentorship in amplifying strength and leading to inspirational leadership. Can you share any specific experiences you’ve had with mentorship or being a mentor?
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.” Rather than asking for a job, seeking mentorship advice will always give you pointers, and even directions you haven’t thought of.
One of my mentees took the same approach to knocking on doors, and successfully got her way into ANZ with the same role I had back then. I don’t necessarily mentor people to follow in my footsteps, but I’m thrilled to see my ‘unconventional precedent’ is working its magic on others!
Most of my mentees are 10 years younger than I am, coming from a variety of ethnicities. Some people said the younger generation expects to have everything handed over to them over a silver plate; they have relatively a shorter attention span. From close observation of my tenants, I think this statement is partly correct.
They’re curious about the outside world but sometimes can be reliant too. These days they have so much exposure and distractions everywhere “all at once” (that’s my Oscars humour). As a vendor, as a friend, as a life coach, I always encourage them to search for solutions and be resilient, don’t give up on obstacles.
Michelle Obama also shared her honest opinion on understanding Gen Z in her podcast. We are in the midst of the first and second-generation migration waves. What we have been through will largely shape our next generation. On one hand, we want to be able to provide so that our children won’t need to take the “hard path”. On the other hand, we also want them to grow up as independent humans.
In her book, Michelle Obama recalled her mother’s parenting style was “raising adults”. That also applies to mentorship and leadership. As Millennials-parent-to-be, what do we expect from our Gen Alpha, our future generation?
To me, leadership is like dropping pebble stones to make ripples in the river – that will spread, will flow, will carry on. It also relies on continuous development and amplification. You can be strong and soft, be compassionate and assertive. That’s the qualities in the new generation leadership Jacinda Ardern advocates, which also echoes Bruce Lee’s motto of “Be Water”.
My networking proposition is no longer “job hunting” these days, but seeking inspiration and building meaningful connections, to advocate the values I believe in. I also want to take mentorship to the next level, develop sponsorship and use my privilege to help many more out there.
As a trilingual migrant woman, how has your cultural background influenced your approach to your work and your experiences in the tech industry?
I think being CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) can be a privilege to some, while an obstacle to others. In a caucasian dominated industry, it could be hard for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) to move up the C-suite ladder, especially females.
I am glad to see that many organisations are becoming more diverse now, and emphasising gender balance. Yet data reveal that gender and cultural imbalance still exists particularly at the management level. Hence, sponsorship is essential to break the glass ceiling!
In the tech industry, the majority of our suppliers are global companies, such as IBM and Microsoft. Being CALD is definitely a bonus in building rapport and mutual understanding, for example, in contract negotiations, process uplift and implementation. In my previous role as a personal banker, my trilingual skill came in handy to savvy clients’ expectations and their best interests, especially for customers who are new to the country.
At the start of my job-hunting journey in Australia, I thought that foreign-owned companies such as HSBC, Bank of China would be an easier “go-to”. I can speak their languages, and I am familiar with their work culture. Of course, I supposed it would be a comfort zone for me. At the end of the day, life knows better than you do.
I ended up working with the Big 4 banks which allows me to learn the Aussie ways of doing things, (and Aussie slangs!) step out of my comfort zone, blend in, and at the same time raise awareness among the local organisations. I am also a member of the Cultural Inclusion ERG (employees resource group) Committee at NAB.
What do you see as some of the challenges facing women in tech, particularly those from diverse cultural backgrounds?
The tech industry, particularly IT security in supplier risk management for banks, can be very niche. It used to be a male dominant sector – gladly not anymore, at least in my team.
Some said, “Stereotypes and expectations are assigned to you at the moment you walk into the room.” Some of the more established individuals, for example, ABC (Australian-born Chinese/ Cantonese), early migrants or those with parents/ family here, always thought things are easy as they have never gone through the same struggles as a prerequisite of success.
One of the challenges facing multicultural women in tech, is to bring down the walls between fluency (accent) v.s. competency. Women like me, need to take extra effort to work on gestures and tone when articulating our ideas. I still feel bizarre looking back at those videos taken when I was a panel speaker at some of the Alumni Conferences. Yet, recording yourself is one of the fastest ways to pick up flaws in your public speaking and improve.
One of my mentors mentioned that “being the ‘Only One’ in every room is actually a unique privilege,” and that you can be the change you want to see.
Another challenge facing multicultural women in developing their careers actually comes from pressure at home. Being dominated by the opposite sex is common among migrant women. Some have been restrained from seeing friends or joining church youth groups, as in some cultures, it is very common for males to think that: “We’re the ones working hard to support the family. You should not go out or have fun at social clubs but be physically at home to show your support.”
Some migrant women might be convinced by the idea, keeping the grievance to their own, especially when waiting for their PR. I also know partners, who would even use their other half’s phone to message and threaten their friends. This is not a one-off scenario. Many women may underestimate that a prolonged toxic relationship could cause deterioration in mental health, thus affecting work performance.
In fact, females, especially BIPOC, need to work twice as hard to work our way up to where the males are. That effort should not be undermined just because we earn less, in terms of money.
I also know migrant women undergoing divorce, separations; single (but brave) moms who take care of their kids all on their own, which is also challenging for them to juggle between career and personal matters. From time to time, they not only need to take time-off but also disconnect their minds from work when fighting their dragging on, ‘brain draining’ court cases, for instance, complex property settlement issues.
It is important to be upfront and transparent with your team about your situations to manage expectations, get the right support, and look after your well-being. Meanwhile, organisations also need to be flexible, supportive, and understanding of their employees.
I just had a chat with my mate tonight, and realised that another attribute to migrant women being reluctant to speak up is largely related to financial stability. In some cases, females are being pressured by the opponent’s representing lawyer to withdraw the lawsuit by threatening them on a question of costs on a full indemnity basis. On a shaky ground, many of them couldn’t afford a lawyer to make a counter offer, ended up giving in and succumbed to despair. Narrowing the pay gap comes to play a critical role for those who’re new to the country, to cultivate independent women, foster them to fight for their rights.
In your LinkedIn posts, you discuss the importance of challenging the Bamboo Ceiling and advocating for gender and cultural equity. How have you personally navigated these challenges and what advice do you have for others facing similar barriers?
Coming from a legal and regulatory background, I’ve seen females – the only Asian woman in the court hearing room, being treated unfairly, whilst the legal aid personnel showed bias. The judge would spend half of the time on the case compared to caucasian women.
The legal aid personnel, who came unprepared, intended to persuade the client to close the case and accept the opponent’s lawyer’s inequitable offer, instead of fighting for her best interest. In a phone conversation with the legal aid personnel, that person honestly admitted to me that they do have KPI to meet and they’re facing resolution pressure.
That’s why networking with like-minded people from esteemed communities such as the PMW – Professional Migrant Women, helps me to challenge conventional thoughts and ways of doing things. From an equity perspective, and as a country made up of ethnicities, we’re trying our best to fit into the local cultural expectations, yet our norms and diversity should also be respected.
I used to joke that we pay equal amounts of tax too, for some of us, even more. I know that there is a lot more I can do to encourage migrants, females, and minority groups to speak up. Even if people want to silence you, keep fighting to make an influence and raise awareness. There are always people out there for you – in allowing ourselves to be known and heard.
To all who are facing similar barriers, injustice treatment, gender or cultural imbalance, I want you to know that “It’s OK to embrace your vulnerability”. Coming from an “A- is an Asian F” mindset, I was taught to be tough, looking up to role models in chronicles such as Mulan. I understand that it could be a cultural tendency to hide away our pain and sorrow.
Only by addressing our emotions earlier (no matter how minor you think they are) can we get ourselves the right support, and avoid leading to more serious mental illness. I blacked out once when I was driving and being yelled at. I only found out later that it was a recurring panic attack, and I’ve been suffering from depression.
There are many others out there, who shared a lot more resonance than we imagined. Knowing that we are on the same journey, we will build a greater network and find our voice together, regain our confidence by confronting our fears. Remember, you belong somewhere, and you’re not alone.
How have you seen the tech industry evolve in terms of gender diversity and inclusion during your career? What improvements would you still like to see?
Certainly. As I mentioned above, my team comprises colleagues from different countries, and the gender proportion is almost 50:50.
Also mentioned above, despite having employees from diverse backgrounds, data indicate that there are still obstacles for them to move up to the C-suite level. I want to see more transformation happening in organisations, not only at NAB. I want to see people of colour taking noticeable leadership roles.
To make this happen, again it relies on sponsorship and advocacy to give us a lift, not just voices from the external community. After all, gender diversity and cultural inclusion are not merely a number or a targeted percentage to meet. They are not propaganda but the core values to bring transformational evolution.
What advice would you give to other women who are interested in pursuing a career in tech, but may not have a traditional technical background?
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Even if you get a rejection, there’s nothing to lose. My personal tip is to navigate the LinkedIn network, and ask professionals in the areas you’re interested in for a coffee catch-up to share their experience with you, and how they get to where you want to be. Many recruiters also have off-market contractor roles, which can provide a bridge to the field you want to pursue.
For ambitious individuals, completing courses or certifications in tech could be helpful. But I also understand that professionals with 5+ years of work experience may not want to start fresh again in order to change paths.
Tech is indeed a very broad scope and not necessarily related to computer programming. Some roles may require more sharp-edge techniques but for some, they’re actually looking for talents with a more diverse background to support the dynamic team and structural reform (which is very common within organisations).
The key is to articulate your strong suit into the transferrable, desired skill set, the relevance of your past experience, and how your passion can add value to the organisation. Developing story-telling/ narrative techniques + keyword insertions also helps to nail the interviews.
I took a detour in Risk & Compliance after I left Journalism, disappointed with the suppression of Free Press. I reckon this path in combating Financial Crime still holds the same value – my passion to maintain integrity within the financial system & protect our stakeholders’ best interests.
Keep a keen eye on the market trend. With the emerging AI, Open-AI, IOT, Blockchains, FinTech, Cryptocurrency, etc. It is foreseeable that there will be an increasing demand for regulatory oversight as most of these services/ applications are decentralised. Or if you have a background in telecommunication, you may even step in to prevent Data breaches just like the Optus IT security incident.
How can companies in the tech industry do a better job of recruiting, retaining, and promoting women in the field? What initiatives have you seen be successful in this area?
To leverage talents collectively as a team, rather than looking at candidates/ employees as individuals. My team consists of players from FinCrime & compliance background (myself), cyber defence, audit and assurance. We work closely to comprise the knowledge for each other, and train each other to get up to pace.
We also have regular 1:1 sessions with our people leaders (we don’t call them ‘line managers’) to track our progress – in terms of wellbeing (we’ll be asked to rate out of 10), workload and career aspirations, to understand our interested development areas and provide the suitable opportunities that helps to prepare and lead to our next role internally.
Under the great initiatives of our CEO Ross McEwan, NAB is sponsoring all colleagues to complete the CQIB (Career Qualified in Banking) qualification in partnership with FINSIA. We now have an accredited career pathway not only in tech, but in the greater industry. A way to retain talents is to keep them competitive, and promote a workforce of lifelong learners.
I’m also nominated as a Graduate trainer for colleagues sitting the exam. Reinforcing team players to take up greater responsibility also provides initiatives to promote talent. Upbringing young leaders rely on exactly small steps like this.
I am proud to see NAB is leading the way to raise the bar in industrial professionalism. Our Executive strongly believes that we’re human operations, and we want to put together individual backgrounds into a collective background. Helping employees to grow a promising career is not just a slogan, NAB is successful in taking everyone on the path of our solution journey.
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