Mellissa Lim is a Senior Risk Analyst at KPMG Australia and the human embodiment of Meyers Jr.’s famous words “Go into the world and do well. But, more importantly, go into the world and do good.”
Her undying love for human beings and a passion for ‘giving back’ to humanity have been a driving force in her life. Through a social enterprise called ‘Her Handwork’ and her commitment toward tackling human trafficking, she is truly talking the talk and walking the walk.
Here, Mellissa opens about her philanthropic endeavours, the importance of recognising one’s privilege and the issues facing feminism in developing countries.
Following are the excerpts from the interview.
- What is your definition of the verb ‘Lean In’ and how does ‘leaning in’ differ in your corporate life and social work?
To me, ‘leaning in’ means trying to listen and understand without any distraction or bias, all within a safe and nurturing environment. It differs in my social work from my corporate life to a significant degree. I get to empower and change the lives of young, abandoned or abused children by raising awareness and fundraising to give them access to education, food, shelter, clean drinking water, proper sanitation and healthcare.
- How has your upbringing impacted your desire to ‘give back’? Was there a defining moment when you realised you wanted to contribute to society or was it a gradual inward journey?
I was first exposed to poverty at age 8 when my father brought me to an orphanage in Singapore. I remember playing with the children in the orphanage and was too young to understand their plight. I went to my first overseas volunteer trip in 2008 and was shocked to see the look of despair on the faces of women infected with HIV. I spent sleepless nights thinking about those women.
To answer your question, there was no single defining moment but a series of significant moments that led me to this path of serving the marginalised. The reason why I do this is that I see myself in every single person that I meet on my volunteer trips. It is like looking into a mirror, except that I have been given so many opportunities. As a young woman, I was never forced into a job I didn’t want to do. There is so much potential, so much creativity in every single person I have shared life with during my volunteer trips.
- Your social enterprise ‘Her Handwork’ strives toward ending the cycle of generational poverty among families in developing countries. Can you walk us through the motivation to start something so impactful and your thought process while building it?
I started raising awareness for poverty and sex trafficking within KPMG Melbourne in late 2017. With the encouragement of a workplace mentor, I spoke again in KPMG Perth to raise awareness for poverty and sex trafficking. The response I usually get is overwhelming. On one end of the scale, there are people eager to help. On the other end, I get comments such as “You could have just given them condoms, so they do not breed so much.” “You can never get rid of poverty and human trafficking.” I see these comments as opportunities to keep raising awareness and challenge the audience to a mindset shift.
Her Handwork was established in late 2017, birthed out of a long-time desire to establish a safe house for women and children. Her Handwork believes in relieving the suffering of the innocent, those who are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. I do this by partnering with and helping overseas-based NGOs raise much-needed funds. Specifically, I raise funds for Mercy International’s HIV Centre for children and New Life Community Sri Lanka.
I fundraise by selling Fairtrade and jewellery items made by myself at Makers Markets. ‘Her Handwork‘ currently adopts The Giveback Model approach. The social enterprise serves the common good by giving back for every purchase made. As of 2019, ‘Her Handwork’ has expanded into Singapore. The official expansion will take place in October this year.
- Melinda Gates, in her recently published book ‘The Moment of Lift’ said “In some countries, the largest feminist act right now is providing contraceptives to women”. With your mission trips and incredible work with women affected by human trafficking, especially in countries other than Australia, what are some of the challenges faced by feminism due to cultural boundaries?
There is a saying in Khmer which translates to: ‘Men are like gold; women are like white cloth’. In Cambodia, men are seen to be of great worth. Dirt can be cleaned off gold easily and it will still retain its value. Women, on the other hand, are compared to a white cloth. The white cloth cannot be restored to its original state once it becomes dirty. This mentality may be prevalent in most developing South-East Asian countries.
In Thailand, with the cause I am involved in, money that comes through child sponsorship, donations and through my fundraising efforts, women and children living with HIV are empowered through access to education, food, shelter and proper healthcare. To empower the marginalized, to give them access to basic human dignity, there must be proper community development programs or projects tailored specifically to address deep-seated societal issues in those specific places.
“We must be willing to get our hands and feet dirty to make a difference
in a world that is broken and hurting. Our actions reflect our priorities
and how we choose to spend our time, reflects who we are.”
- With the styles of philanthropy changing between generations, we see a bigger desire with the new generation to contribute skill sets and time. What advice would you give to this generation inheriting new resources?
I conclude some of my presentations with a saying from Andrew Bennett “The longest journey you will ever take is 18 inches from your head to your heart.” Once your head knowledge becomes heart knowledge, your thinking will shift, your priorities will change, your actions will change, your life will change.
First, they must be willing to get their hands and feet dirty to make a difference in the world that is broken and hurting. Challenges are never a good reason to stop doing good. Second, never be infatuated with the crowd. Never be obsessed with numbers. It is synonymous with performance in our culture. Remember, the underprivileged must never be seen as “projects to be completed” or “boxes to be ticked”. Start small, change and empower one life, one day at a time. Brian Zahnd summed it up perfectly; “There is no them; there is only us.”
- Now more than ever, when everyone is crunched for time, how do you maximise your day with a thriving full-time career and fulfil your philanthropic endeavours?
It all boils down to priorities. Our actions reflect our priorities and how we choose to spend our time reflects who we are. When I have Makers Markets or an awareness session coming up, I can be working 50 to 60-hour weeks, making jewellery, updating my website and getting my presentation ready. I make time during the week to pray and have quiet time to myself to rest and recharge. I make time to read and colour. Colouring de-stresses and de-clutters my mind. I also tell myself that I can change and empower one life at a time; one tummy filled, one smile, one life off the streets, one life into a school, one life away from an abusive home, one life saved from drinking clean water. And I do it all over again the next day.
If I am having a difficult day, I remind myself every single minute that ‘this too shall pass’ and that the glass is always more than half full.
- Who has been your biggest role model in the field of philanthropy?
I do not have one particular role model in the field of philanthropy. The role models I have in my life are not well known but have shown me through their actions what it means to be resilient, determined, kind, selfless, to act with integrity and have an amazing work ethic.
- What would be the title of your autobiography?
Find Joy In The Journey.
I do not always go through life with the best attitude. This reminds me to keep walking amid crushing disappointments and to always find joy in the mundane.