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Sustainability is more than just the environment. If you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it's also about accessibility, equity, and inclusion in multiple areas of society, and covers things like the economy, infrastructure, community, and yes, climate and the environment. But they're the kinds of goals that bring everybody up so that no one is left behind.

Join us in our conversation with Dr Sandy Chong, founding member of the Sustainable Development Goals Forum in WA, former president of the United Nations Association of WA, and member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network. We speak about the impact of digital inclusion and how the UN Sustainable Development Goals benefit us all, and are for now, not later.

About Dr Sandy Chong

A Harvard Alumna and Principal of Verity Consulting, Dr Sandy Chong is an award-winning Executive of the Year, Asia's Top Sustainability Women of the Year, and Singapore Management Consultant of the Year. The former President of the United Nations Association and the Founding Chair of the UN SDGs Business Forums in Western Australia, Sandy has chaired international forums that promote digital and energy transition. These include the inaugural Web3 for Sustainability Conference, the Intercity Hydrogen delegation between Singapore and Australia, and the upcoming AI & Data Science of Business Conference in Singapore. She was recently invited to speak on Digital Inclusion and the Impact of AI in International Trade convened by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Geneva.

With over 20 years’ experience leading multidisciplinary projects, advising trade agencies and industry councils, Sandy currently serves on public-listed board and is the Chair of the ASEAN Business Alliance. Earning a Ph.D. in Digital Commerce in 2003 and appointed Adjunct Professor of Curtin University, Sandy has published peer-reviewed journals on international business, innovation adoption and sustainability since 2005.

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  • [19:10:00] Sandy's journey from marketing and management information systems.
  • [23:13:20] The cycles of growth in technology.
  • [20:20:00] The anthropological view of technology in society.
  • [03:26:40] Technological transformation and change management.
  • [18:36:40] Starting clients on the path to digital adoption.
  • [10:06:40] Bringing about cultural change within an organisation.
  • [19:43:20] Play to the strengths of your people, and help them thrive.
  • [20:20:00] The risks behind digital adoption accelerating past digital literacy.
  • [07:53:20] Closing the gap on digital literacy of new technologies.
  • [05:20:00] The ethics of technology and how we use it.
  • [13:00:00] Building (and keeping) trust.
  • [01:23:20] Transparency and authenticity in your leadership.
  • [15:36:40] Sandy's work with the UN Association of Australia and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • [20:46:40] Change can only be made when ideas leave the activism space.
  • [22:06:40] Australia's ranking for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • [11:36:40] The pragmatic reasons for taking action.
  • [22:53:20] How private enterprise and communities measure their performance with the SDGs.
  • [08:56:40] What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do and what advice should they ignore?
Michele Ong

Sustainability is more than just the environment. If you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it's also about accessibility, equity, and inclusion in multiple areas of society, and covers things like the economy, infrastructure, community, and yes, climate and the environment. But they're the kinds of goals that bring everybody up so that no one is left behind.

Join us in our conversation with Dr Sandy Chong, founding member of the Sustainable Development Goals Forum in WA, former president of the United Nations Association of WA, and member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network. We speak about the impact of digital inclusion and how the UN Sustainable Development Goals benefit us all. And are for now, not later.

I'm Michele Ong, and this is STEAM Powered.

Good afternoon, Sandy. Thank you so much for joining me today on STEAM Powered. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you today about your journey.

Dr Sandy Chong

Thank you, Michele. A real pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Sandy's journey from marketing and management information systems.

Michele Ong

Oh, absolute pleasure. So, you know, at the moment, much of your work is in the area of business strategy, and not just for growth, but for sustainability as well. And we'll be talking about the UN SDG a bit later, but I'd like to rewind a little at the moment and talk about your beginnings in marketing and management information systems.

So what drew you to that field of study?

Dr Sandy Chong

I was an international student back then and I wanted to study something that could give me a job straight after I finished my degree. But then I met this amazing mentor and teacher and he got me interested in statistics. And so I thought, you know, I'm really interested in this. I want to do more research. I want to find out the whys and the hows. So I started pursuing an Honours degree and then later on a PhD study.

So my Honours degree was about joint venture management for the IT industry back in late nineties. And then three years after that that's where I think, in 1999, the internet started I think it's swinging into a very vibrant state. A lot of people are either an entrepreneur or part of a dot com company. So I find that really fascinating. And I wanted to do a study about innovation adoption for digital commerce between SMEs. And I did a study comparing Singaporean SMEs and Australian SMEs and basically map out the factors, the external factors and the internal factors of what makes an SME so successful in adopting a technology like a digital commerce or a mobile commerce compared to those who didn't do very well.

So that was my area of interest.

The cycles of growth in technology.

Michele Ong

That is very, very cool. And back then, like at that period, it really was at a time where tech was burgeoning into all areas of business and people were trying to figure out, you know, is there a point to this? Should I get involved? So it's such a fascinating area of study.

Dr Sandy Chong

Yeah, it's a bit like the Gold Rush that we're experiencing now with regards to at one point cryptocurrency five years ago, the AI, the web3. So it's very exciting. Lots of cowboys, not much regulatory framework. And you have a whole heap of people who are just waiting and seeing some of the people at the other spectrum were just resisting it.

And then you also have these pioneers who are adopting these technologies and basically co-creating process, co-creating products with their customers, with the people in their whole entire value chain. So it's very exciting now to see that this is now web 3.0. And back then when I was doing my PhD studies, it was just web 1.0. So it's come a long way.

Yeah. It's been more than 20 years.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So much has changed and yet so much stays the same.

Dr Sandy Chong

Yeah, human, human nature stays the same, I suppose, yeah.

Michele Ong

So is that interest in that area, what drew you to the academic side of the field?

The anthropological view of technology in society.

Dr Sandy Chong

So I think the academic side was a, was something that I've always wanted to know inside me. I always want to know how is this applicable in the industry, right? You have these theories of innovation adoption, innovation diffusion, that's been around for over 20, 30 years, 40 years. And how does this apply to different waves of technology coming into, into society?

And so I view myself not as a technologist, but more of a keen scholar, who studies the behaviour of human beings or behaviour of companies adopting these technologies.

Michele Ong

It's more like anthropology.

Dr Sandy Chong

Yeah, kind of, kind of like, so it's actually very, very interesting because you would think, hey, you know, the technology is really there to facilitate communication, better exchange, more efficiency.

So what's stopping a company from adopting it, right? What's stopping a company from really maximizing the potential of it? I mean, just seven or eight years ago, I still have to persuade companies in Asia or in some of the companies that I worked in in Europe to adopt social media, right? That's web 2.0. And, you know, have to persuade them and for some generation of people, they don't use it, they're not interested in it. And there's a lot of question with regards to how their privacy and how their personal information is going to be used.

And then you move that eight years later, it becomes a no brainer. If you have no presence on the internet or if you don't have any digital footprint then people don't regard you as real, uh, or you get, you know, socially, you don't get invited to parties, uh, you know, um, so you see that something that is a competitive advantage slowly becomes a necessity for some people, for some firms.

Technological transformation and change management.

Dr Sandy Chong

So seeing that transition and seeing that transformation is very interesting for me. And so I think that got me really interested in the whys and how can we better help companies to adopt this technology? How can we help them with change management? How can we help improve their process to be a lot more lean, agile, but more importantly, how do we get people, the humans in their company, in their community to be part of that whole entire journey, right? Because let's not forget, like, you can't be the only fool in a village that uses a phone or has access to a phone. You need a whole network effect for any technologies to be widely accepted, you need that.

So getting human beings on board is not always straightforward. Because we all behave differently. We all have very different perception of how technology is being used or abused. So that was what got me really interested. And, of course, at that time I was able to pursue this because I was in the university, I was an academic, I had the luxury of time. I could pursue this passion.

And then later on... My father had a stroke and then I had to go back to Singapore. I started my own firm and I started doing this consultancy work to help the Singapore government. And the idea is to help more Singaporeans expand overseas to improve their export capability, their international footprint.

And part of that is how can they level the playing field by having a digital presence online. So you can't say you want to internationalise your business if you don't have a digital presence, or you don't have, if you don't use any digital means to connect to purchase or sell products online or services.

So that whole entire journey has been a very interesting one for me, and obviously when I started my business in Singapore. So I started my business in Australia, but then we expanded to Singapore in 2009. It was during the height of the global economic crisis. I'm sure you're aware of that, but I just felt like I wanted to do this, right, because I've always been very curious on how all this knowledge that we learn in academia can actually be applied in real life, in commercial world.

And so, um, yeah, I never look back since.

So I really enjoyed, really enjoyed the journey.

Michele Ong

Absolutely amazing. Yes.

Starting clients on the path to digital adoption.

Michele Ong

And it's such a fascinating space as well, because everybody's path to innovation and digital adoption is going to be different. Because everyone's business model is different. Everyone's attitudes are different.

So how do you approach a client when they are starting to enter this space?

Dr Sandy Chong

So, it comes in many different shapes and sizes. Some clients wanted to go international and they haven't got a legacy system or an issue to contend with, so they can move a lot faster, they can set up a shop online, they can have an internet presence, they can adopt all these strategies that we can administer for them.

So that was the easy part, but for some companies, they are big firms. They've been around for 200 years. Like some of the Swiss companies that I dealt with, they've been around, you know, back 216 years or whatever. And it's got to do with culture as well, right? The adoption of technology has always got to do with geographical and cultural context.

And so, for the longest time, some of my Japanese clients, you know, when you go to Japan, Japanese are really good at adopting gadgets. But when it comes to buying, selling, trading online, they were one of the slowest adopters. Because trust is a really important thing. And people don't trust anything they can't tangibleise, they can't see, they can't relate to it, they can't touch.

So it's got to do with the markets that some of our clients are operating in, and how they persuade the partners within their value chain to adopt these technologies. And in some other cases, it really is about demonstrating the market evidence to them, and say, look, you know, you're a fourth generation company. You have done the hard yards of traveling overseas and pushing your products to each of these markets. But you know what? Here's another avenue, right? Where you can cut out all these intermediary, right? And you can literally deliver your products and engage with your target audience overseas directly, right?

All you need to do is just make it a little bit fun if you're using social media. And make it a little bit more educational if you have a presence on LinkedIn. So it really depends on the clients, whether they are B2B or B2C. But demonstrating and using facts and using evidence, market evidence of potential growth, potential revenue that they can generate, right?

And get the company to see it as an investment. So after you've basically shown the companies these external factors and these external opportunities, then you also need to make sure internally these companies employees and their teams are ready for it, right? So that's where the change management comes through.

And it's really odd to advocate for a social media strategy if the CEO does not have a social media account, has never used social media, right? Or has never bought a single thing online. So that's always also a challenge as well, because I think, you know, back to the topic we're talking about today, which is leadership.

A lot of times, be it whether you are a company that believes in sustainability or being innovative, it's all got to do with the leaders who are leading these strategies and leading these vision for the whole entire firm or the communities that they're operating in. So if the leader is not comfortable in changing, in upskilling, in making sure that their workforce is skilled, Then they will never be able to do it. They'll only be just jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of it.

So sometimes we have clients who are clearly B2B, but they wanted to do, you know, TikToks and stuff like that. And we ask, we ask them, why? Why do you want to do this? It's, you know, your target audience are not doing this. Well, my competitor is doing that.

Then the question is, who are the target audience of the competitor? If they are into mass market, they're into big, massive discounts, and you're not, then you shouldn't be focusing on that. You should be focusing more on developing relationships with clients. You know, making sure that the content and the articles that you set out or any kind of public relations events that you put out are going to add value, are going to build that relationship. Rather than trying to be loved by everyone and basically going out like a headless chook doing everything you can.

Yeah, so essentially your brand direction or your corporate vision or your, you know, overall strategy must align with the tools that you use.

So at the end of the day the same piece of tool can be used many different ways by different people. That's what technology is, right? It's a bit like a tool, like a knife, right? Uh, someone use it to cut something and some people use it to, I don't know, clean stuff or to kill. So, you know, it's a bit morbid of an example, but I'm just saying like the tool can be used very differently by different people, right?

And so customers, a lot of times these companies really need to reflect what is it that they're trying to achieve from this, right? Are they trying to improve their market share? Are they trying to improve their profit margins? Or are they just trying to improve their equity, right? The brand equity or the equity of the firm.

So different strategy would require different tactics and different tools to get you the kind of result. So essentially that's what we do for our clients. Yes.

Bringing about cultural change within an organisation.

Michele Ong

And you know, it's great that you bring up the leadership side of things because, you know, it is, it is about top down development when you're talking about change and innovation.

So when you're trying to get leadership on board with all of these things that they need to consider, especially if, you know, for all of them, it's going to be new and shiny, but foreign at the same time. How do you, aside from all the data, but how do you get them to buy into it so that it becomes cultural change?

Dr Sandy Chong

Yeah. So again you've got to ease people into it, right? You've got to provide all the projected positives. If the company were to adopt this, right, it could be something like a system update that is going to make the accounting a lot faster. I mean, although we don't advise our clients on that, I'm just giving an example.

But say, for example, by going on to social media or by basically having an online system that could track and measure your customers consumption of your products so that you can anticipate when the stock is going to be low and you can connect with them before it runs out. So, those kind of systems, when you can demonstrate the positive bottom line to a company, then you can get them to think about it, and then they will be really curious.

I think providing business case is really important as well. So, the business case should demonstrate to them, like, this works, and how it has worked, and how it has increased either productivity, cut down costs, or improve your profit margin. So those are the two things that companies usually care about. How is this going to improve my margin or how is this going to reduce costs, right?

So from there, you need to work out how are they going to achieve their competitive advantage over their own other competitors. And then basically, advise them, coach them. Most companies are really curious. They wanted to adopt this as quickly as possible, but they probably have the wrong person in the job implementing these change.

Play to the strengths of your people, and help them thrive.

Dr Sandy Chong

Right, so some of my clients are really smart. They understand that they're bringing in their children, or they're bringing their second generation, and they are more savvy with technology. So they let their kids be focusing on anything to do with online marketing, digital commerce, and so on. So that's really smart. You try not to micromanage all the time, and you have the confidence that they're going to do really well.

In other case, for example, one of my clients, he's got this sales manager, been with them for 20 years, and she's fantastic, she's wonderful, but when it comes to changing this whole entire way of working, keeping track record online, engaging parents online, they're a childcare centre, and this loyal employee suddenly becomes a real pain because she was resisting it.

And the reason is because she hasn't been given the right skills to improve these engagement online. She didn't feel very comfortable. She was much better with this front desk person who picks up the phone, greeting the parents when they come through and so on.

So I think companies need to recognise that while you're doing this technology adoption, there are many costs that comes along with it.

You have the cost of financials of implementing this change and basically making sure that these legacy issues doesn't persist on. You have the human cost as well. How are you going to transition your staff and your workforce to a position or to a role that is something that they are still going to thrive in? They're still going to be really good at and passionate about? If you're someone who is very good at customer service and you're really not good at typing papers, writing up reports, submitting it to a depository so that everyone can access that knowledge, then don't force that person to do that.

And if the person said, look, I would like to do this job better. How can I do this job better then try and have a conversation with them and say, look, we love you as a customer service front person. And this is where we're going. This is going to improve our margin, this is going to improve your job. This is going to improve your bonus, whatever. Then this person is then incentivised to then learn. And when it comes to the learning bit, you need to be able to provide them the avenues to learn. You can't just expect employees to pick it up themselves.

And I think we see a lot of that disruption during COVID. In the past, when you try to get certain segment of your workforce to adopt online meetings and all that, they were very resistant about it. But when the pandemic hit, people had no choice. In Singapore, it's the same. Like, for the longest time, the government is trying to implement wireless payment for these small little hawkers in Singapore.

And people were like, we don't trust it, we only take cash, and so on. And because of COVID, 50,000 of them had to accelerate and adopt this technology if they would ever want to survive.

The risks behind digital adoption accelerating past digital literacy.

Dr Sandy Chong

I, I've spoken about this even recently in Singapore about the ASEAN opportunities and risk. One of the biggest risks that we're currently facing in the ASEAN region or even in Asia Pacific region is that the digital adoption is now accelerating digital literacy. So Southeast Asia is now currently the major target for all kinds of cybercrimes and scams and all kinds of breaches of privacy information, personal information, and people have been victimised because of this.

But because technology is accelerating so fast and people are forced to pick up so quickly. And yet they don't know when they are being abused, or they are not aware that they've been scammed. So I think the regulatory guidelines or the framework is often a bit slow or a bit behind. Because the governments themselves, again, you know, we had this parliamentarian who said, Look, we have this parliamentary committee that looks at digital adoption or digital transformation. But when you look around, these parliamentarians, a lot of the members of parliaments are not content experts.

They're not technologists. They're not experts in privacy or security. So they need that kind of advice from the industry so that they can make the right kind of laws and legislate the right kind of regulations to protect its people.

So those are just the pros and cons, right? And it's the same thing for companies.

If you're looking at private sector, if you want to adopt the technology, it's fine. But number one, you need to make sure that your workforce is skilled. And number two, the partners within your value chain, your suppliers, your distributors, the middlemen, the intermediaries, they need to have buy in too.

And I've actually seen some of my clients, what they did was, they actually went out of their way to give free software, free training, free online access to the partners within the value chain so that they feel like they're gaining something from it. This is not like an additional cost for them, right?

And everybody wins, right? So those are just some of the experiences.

Closing the gap on digital literacy of new technologies.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. And with the fact that the community is going to be behind in terms of digital literacy compared to all the businesses creating and producing and using all this tech, how do we close that gap with the wider group to ensure that we're not just leaving everybody vulnerable to scams and other kinds of bad actors, in order to be able to innovate at the same time.

Dr Sandy Chong

I think it's like all things a tool or technology-- it's a double edge sword. And I think, a lot of people went crazy with web 1.0, you know, it helps us connect. It changes our life. Fantastic. And then we had web 2.0 where users of the Internet are contributing content to it, and you have the boom and the rise of all these social medias, right? Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and all that. That's fantastic. But you're also starting to see after this growth of social media, web 2.0, you're starting to see how people are abusing it. Countries, politics, or even, you know, very simple social issues, or crisis situation where we need to wear a mask, you know, simple things like that have been polarised. There's a lot of disinformation out there, and people abuse it.

So, in web 3.0, which we're heading, what we are really concerned is that when people are saying that cryptocurrency is going to come in, and help empower everyone financially, people are going to have payment system, people are going to be economically empowered, right? And what happened? You have a bunch of people who came in, took advantage of everyone, and abused the system. So the way we see this, if we want to make this right this time, and really democratising exchange of information, financial empowerment, then we need to have this conversation right from the very beginning.

We need to make sure that we lobby our politicians to put in regulations so that our users are protected. So say for example, AI and machine learning. Fascinating stuff, right? And it will change our lives in every way. It doesn't matter if you're in agriculture, mining, you know, this digital economy is not an isolated thing.

This digital economy is going to affect everything we touch, right? So how do we get people on board? How are these machines being designed? These algorithms were they created by a particular group of people who more or less think the same way, who have the same sort of blind spots, or are they inclusive of people who are less advantaged, who are minorities, who are women, who are of indigenous background, who are from lower socioeconomic background. I mean, are we taking their experience into consideration? I think it's, it's very dangerous that we do not consider this and we say, look, let's just let technology go free reign and, and do whatever it likes. It never ends up in a very constructive way, I mean, I, I still think that we need to have enough dialogue and we need to make sure that everything that we're using needs to be reviewed, needs to have dialogue in a society, people need to raise these issues, so that we're fully aware of what we're getting into.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. And it's-- we're at the stage in AI where we can fix the problems that were created with web3 and crypto. Because there's a lot of discourse and it's so accessible to everybody right now, to the point where that gap in literacy is a major problem. But, you know, what you're seeing online is the people going, Oh, AI is evil, let's just cancel it entirely. It's like, no, no, no. You need to talk about it. You need to understand why you think it's evil and what makes it evil and what makes it not evil. And that way you can lead people down the right path, get regulatory on board, be able to understand what is and isn't okay with this technology. And that's the step that was missed with web3 stuff and all of the crypto thing, because people just went, well, I'm not going to pay attention to it because I'm never going to use it. And then all the other people who could misuse it could and did.

The ethics of technology and how we use it.

Dr Sandy Chong

Yeah, yeah. I bet those people who get scammed online now with these digital crimes they never thought that it would happen to them because they just trust the system and they think, oh, if everyone is using it, it should be fine. I think also with AI, we did talk about this at the conference in Geneva, we did talk about the-- this ethics.

Everyone is talking about adoption of technology, we need to revive this, this talk about ethics, what makes this technology an ethical, constructive use for the human race.

And also, at the very top, from a leadership governance perspective, say, for example, you're a CEO of a company. AI is going to disrupt your workforce. Let's not even talk about external factors. Let's talk about internal factors, right? So, your employees data will be collected. How are they going to be used? There was this question at this conference that people were asking, were you comfortable if AI becomes your boss one day?

Some people put up their hand and they're quite happy. But majority of the people in the room just look really baffled. It's like, I don't know if I want to be monitored, tracked, you know, surveyed all the time. It's great if you are doing monotonous work, because a lot of that will be replaced by AI and machine.

But when it comes to creativity, how do you monitor that? How do you quantify creativity? How do you-- and then not just that, you take that one step further and say, okay, your employees produces this amount of work and so on, and it's going through this much of stress or going, you know, it's claiming X amount of leave and so on.

Are you then going to use a predictive model to see whether this person is worthy of a promotion or not? Is that ethical? And not only that, like, when you're dealing with your customers as well, how do you actually collect this data and how do you actually use this data to your advantage responsibly.

Building (and keeping) trust.

Dr Sandy Chong

And how do you continue to gain trust with your customers? Because all it takes is one, all it takes is one breach, one misgiving, and it's enough to kill your brand and it's enough to kill your reputation in the industry. We have found out that some of these companies in America are being called out doing that. And don't underestimate the ability for your shareholders to get activated if you haven't quite delivered what you promised in terms of integrity, in terms of your corporate values, people can call you out and they can literally crash your company. So yeah, so we have to understand that there's a double edged sword.

And I understand this is also a reason why a lot of companies are very concerned of having anything to do with the digital space. So I sit on the public listed mining company and the company has been around over 20 years. We have difficulty advising our CEO to have a digital presence today.

This is a public listed company. Whereby people would review and see and want to judge where the company is going and who is leading this company. And yet this particular CEO will come and say, look, we need to get on Twitter, to get on Twitter to report on our findings, our quarterly earnings and so on.

And that's all great, but people are going to find out who you are and people want to know who you are and where you're taking the firm and he said, Oh no, no, no, I don't want anything, I don't want anything to do with social media online.

Michele Ong

Yeah, and that's a funny thing as well, because you you aren't your company, but you are.

Dr Sandy Chong


Michele Ong

And so many consumers these days want to know more about this. It's about the sustainable and responsible consumerism, right? So people do want to know who is behind the companies they are buying from and supporting.

So if you keep yourself being super reclusive, that gives people a different kind of perception of your company as well.

The lack of transparency is, yeah, a double edged sword. It's going to hit you both ways.

Transparency and authenticity in your leadership.

Dr Sandy Chong

So how do you overcome that, right? So I think at the end of the day, it goes back to that leadership value, leadership quality that you believe in. You need to be authentic and you don't over promise and you say what you do and you do what you say.

It's a bit like the adoption of ESG. So, for the longest time, we've been talking about sustainability, nobody cares. People think you're a tree hugger or a fringe. And then now, every company is doing it because they realise that their shareholders are going to judge them according to it. They're not going to get some funds if they're not performing well. And a lot of them still take this very, like, wait and see attitude, right?

But it's the same thing. When you adopt this, you've got to be fully aware of your weaknesses and your strengths. And the idea is not to hide the weaknesses and only boast about your strength, but to come to terms with it and say, look, these are the areas that we're not doing really well when it comes to environment and social.

In the context of technology, we use huge data centres and environmentally they may not be friendly because they are consuming a lot of energy, right?

In terms of social, well, you know what? Internally, we haven't actually got our employees upskilled. The communities that we're operating in don't even have network. What are we doing to help them get access to information? Well, as we all know, like, the digital gap is going to widen, and that's going to cause a widening of wealth gap.

This is something that Bill Gates himself talked about 25 years ago. It's just going to widen further and further. As a company who is responsible to your shareholders, what are you doing to close those gaps? We don't expect you to be a saint. And we don't expect you to have answers to every questions and every challenges in life.

But you can pick and choose. You can say, okay, with environment, we're looking into data centres that are environmentally friendly, has these carbon offsetting, and we are investing in, these companies. With our local communities, we are providing computers, we're providing mobile phones, or we're providing network, or we're providing online training to our-- to the stakeholders in that particular region, so that they can work with us, so that they can send information more freely, more efficiently to the people in their community.

So they fully know where we are at with regards to this particular operation in this particular land.

So when you say that, people say, Okay, well, you've been honest. You're not saying that you have solved these problems, and you're not saying that you have achieved X amount of goals, but you're saying that these are the areas that need working, and you're working on it.

Well, that's good enough, actually, to be honest. And it's the same thing with the way you communicate why you're adopting a particular technology, or why you're adopting a particular digital strategy in the countries that you're operating in.

So, as a leader, you need to be innovative. You need to be courageous. You need to be not afraid of taking risks. And you need to also be able to communicate effectively and more importantly, stay authentic to your values.

So that people can say, yep, this is the company that we can stand behind because this is the kind of leadership. Or this is the kind of leader that we can stand behind.

Michele Ong

And it ties in so well to the UN Sustainability and Development Goals, because all of those facets that are covered by that initiative are the kinds of things that we need to be thinking about as business owners and organisations and individuals. So, I can see how that kind of work has tied into your own consulting work, but okay, we'll rewind a bit.

Sandy's work with the UN Association of Australia and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Michele Ong

How did you get involved with the UN Association of Australia and promoting the SDGs or the Sustainable Development Goals there?

Dr Sandy Chong

Okay, right about eight years ago, I was raising funds for UN Women, here, the chapter, and I was a volunteer and worked that I was very good at fundraising. So the division here in WA basically asked me to join the executive committee. And I had a look at the committee at that time, and it was run very much like a grassroots organisation, very small, lots of retirees.

And it was kind of sweet and cute, but it was not doing well. So our membership base was very small, we didn't have a lot of members, we don't have a lot of funds, and you can see that the government and the public sector is reducing their funding support to a lot of these non-profit organisations.

So, I came in and, to some extent, transformed the organisation. Get the organisation to adopt technology, have a social media presence, and making sure that our board reflects the diversity of the United Nations. So we reduced the age group from 60 to 35, and then we also recruit a lot more people from different parts of the world.

So we have Jamaican, Japanese, French, French-Canadian, Italian, Dutch, you know. So we have a very diverse team, we have Asian, we have Indian. And so it makes it really interesting for people to come together and cross-pollinate ideas. And when you have diversity in thought leadership, and you have diversity in cognitive ability, then you come up with very interesting ideas.

You come up with very vibrant, very energetic kind of activities. And so, it was really fun.

Change can only be made when ideas leave the activism space.

Dr Sandy Chong

So, we started the SDG Forum in 2018. So, three years after the 193 member states of the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. And we said, look, let's try and socialise the Sustainable Development Goals in the public and private sector.

And right then, in the beginning, internally, a lot of our executives were actually resistant of that idea. I kid you not.

Michele Ong


Dr Sandy Chong

Why? Because we wanted to start charging for the event. And it wasn't expensive. It was like, if you're a member, it was only $19. If you're a non-member, it's 25. But the idea is to socialise the idea out of the activism space.

So we've always been known for human rights and environment, which is great, and gender equality, and they're all very important. But we all know that in order to get buy-in and in order to have change, you need government, you need the civil society, you need the business to be on the same page. So then, what we did was, we then come up with these series of forums to have that kind of conversation, that kind of thought leadership, and we were engaging the industry, public sector, and private sector.

And at that time, no one was doing it. Everyone thought that we were fringe. And no one has ever, ever heard of Sustainable Development Goals. Nobody knows the 17 goals, nobody even cares.

So we basically try to have our outreach beyond the activism space. So we went into the public sector, we went to the business sector, we went to the small business development corporation, we went to sporting organisation, we went to local government and formed partnership with them and say, Look, it doesn't cost you a single cent to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals as your universal standard of sustainability. You don't have to achieve all 17 goals, like yesterday. You can always pick and choose, and who knows, maybe some of the things that you're doing are already meeting those goals. So it's a no brainer.

And very quickly we got a lot of support from the public sector, state owned utility companies, private sectors, local governments, to a point where we actually attracted funding from Ernst & Young. We have hosted events in KPMG, BHP Billiton is a big sponsor, and we formed partnerships with West Coast Eagles.

So the more conversation and dialogue we have, the more rigorous the conversation, the more interest we generate from people.

And the idea was never to push it down anyone's throat. The idea was food for thought. After this session about, I don't know, impact investment, or sustainable energy, or eco tourism, or how sports can actually help improve someone's leadership quality. After you attended any of these sessions, you have fun, you network, you go home, you think about it. How can I instill this in my everyday life? How can I get my workforce, my teammates at work, my boss, to buy into this?

People are connected. You know, just being in this position, I've seen so many people come together from different walks of life wanting to connect just because they believe in the values of these goals. It doesn't take a politician to say, I'm all for equal opportunity. You and I said, you know, are huge advocates for that. We want equal opportunity for girls. We want equal opportunities for women, be it education, business, or employment. Both you and I can stand for simple things like we want a quality education, right? We want sustainable cities. We want to have, you know, good economic growth. We want to have good climate action.

So because of these unifying values among the stakeholders in WA, we started getting a lot of interest. So then pandemic came, everyone's sense for the environment and climate and social well-being suddenly just heightened. And so you can still look at all the other ESG frameworks like the TCFDs or the GFI standards and so on. There are tons of them around. But I think the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal is now being used by a lot of companies, a lot of organisations, even the governments here as a barometer to measure themselves against.

So this brings me to the next thing I really want to talk about, which is Australia's ranking for the SDG.

Australia's ranking for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Sandy Chong

So, long before COVID, we were at 18, then we slipped down to 36. And then at one point we went back to 39. And then we back up to 34 and currently now we're ranked 40. So we, we do really well in the space of education and health, but what we are not doing well is climate action, reducing inequality. And of course, I think there's still a lot of pockets of people in our regional area that are not given the same opportunity as the people who live in a metropolitan city.

So I think those are just some of the areas that we can improve. And people are saying that, Oh, why, why is Australia doing so bad? The thing is, Australia is not doing very bad. I mean, we've achieved a lot of targets. The question is, what other countries have done better? So, it's not that we didn't do anything.

It's just that other countries have put baseline budget and changed their policies to adopt these. So Singapore is a very good country to give that example, like Singapore government has basically committed to a sustainability agenda. They are signing green economy agreement with our country, just October last year. They want to accelerate this renewable energy space.

In the meantime, they also believe that digitisation is the way to go. If you want to achieve sustainability, it's two sides of the same coin. You can't achieve one without the other. So they wanted to have more of these regional cooperation or international cooperation so that we can reduce our carbon footprint and, by the way, live more sustainably.

So we have a long way to go, Australia. I really hope that people could see the merits of this, because if anything, COVID has made it worse for all of us. So a lot of people are saying We're just trying to get our job back. We're trying to get our lives back. You know, pandemic has hit us really badly. This is something that we can think about in the future. Put aside for now. But what we're doing is we're just delaying the inevitable. Already you can see in Australia the last couple of years we've been experiencing very extreme climate conditions. These bushfires are happening more frequent now. And floods are happening in some regions of our country more frequently now.

The pragmatic reasons for taking action.

Dr Sandy Chong

So we need to do something about it. It's no longer something that happens only in developing countries. We're seeing in newspaper every single day now, this is affecting us, right? And it's costing us a lot of money. If people are, are not idealistic, and I, I get that, and people are very pragmatic and they only want to look at money, then just look at the money that is costing us. In healthcare, when people are not being taken care of.

Michele Ong

Your costs go up everywhere when these things aren't being addressed.

Dr Sandy Chong

Exactly. Yeah. And, and we haven't even talked about domestic abuse, abuse of children, and all that costs a lot of taxpayers money. Because you have to counsel them, you have to support them, you have to get them back on their feet. And we're not just looking at how much this is going to cost us in terms of dealing with the climate issues, the climate crisis, the social crisis. We're also looking at opportunity costs. A woman in the refuge center who was trying to recover from the abuse, because she didn't get any support or because she wasn't aware of how to get herself out of that situation, is someone who could have added value to our economy. Children who are not getting the kind of education they need. If they had the education, if they had the environment to thrive, who knows they could be the next Einstein.

Michele Ong

If you're too busy treading water, you can't grow.

Dr Sandy Chong

Absolutely, absolutely. And all the money that we spend on insurance covering all these disaster, we could have better spend that in building better schools, building better healthcare facilities, investing in renewable energy because that space is also very new, right? It needs a lot of innovation. It requires a lot of leadership in investing in these sectors so that we can accelerate.

Already we are really behind the Europeans and some Asian countries now. So I think a lot has to be done and I don't really want to overwhelm people, but I think we should really appreciate that this is a beautiful country and it's a very inclusive nation.

We only want the best for this country and I think we can do better.

That's it.

Michele Ong

Yes. Absolutely.

How private enterprise and communities measure their performance with the SDGs.

Michele Ong

So with the rankings, is that only taking into consideration government initiatives and infrastructure, or is it also considering private enterprise and community as well and their efforts?

Dr Sandy Chong

So with the SDG, there is actually a dashboard that you can see online and that is only for countries. So the countries will be ranked against other countries based on the 17 goals that are mapped out by the UN and agreed by its member state. So how do they perform, so on and so forth.

And companies are using those as indicators for the ESG reporting now. So, if I'm a company and this is where I measure myself, so in their ESG reporting, they could say, right, for this target, for this goal, what targets have I achieved? And then they report that to their shareholders. And then year on year, they can improve that.

So, there are ESG reporting frameworks, and then there are ESG ranking as well. So it's not just good enough for you to just report because you can always self report and you can always say that you're great. But it's about, it's about measuring yourself against all your other peers and your competitors in the industry.

And there are ranking indicators and mechanism in place so that you can say, okay, last year I was here. And then this year I've done a little bit better. And then the moment you go into production, maybe you slip back behind because you have consumed a lot of energy and you're emitting a lot of carbon.

Michele Ong

But it, it's always going to be going up and down anyway, because no matter which goals you're going to be aiming for, there's always going to be periods of advancement, periods of setback because the nature of business and the way that you've run things is going to be fluid.

Dr Sandy Chong

But you also see that more and more frequently now, you're starting to see that companies who are adopting technology that can meet their sustainable goals or companies that are really focusing on sustainability are actually doing really well. So in the beginning, like some of my clients in Singapore, like six years ago, way before like SDG came about, we asked them to invest in sustainability strategy and they were like, where's this gonna come out from? You know, where's the budgets gonna come from? From PR marketing or from procurement? And we said, Look, look, look, if you're not ready yet, just come up, take a budget out of the PR and marketing and see if you get anything. So they did that and they changed their machine. They changed their process. They changed the way they train their employees. Two years long, they were like doing really well. They were really surprised because customers are now buying from them because the product is a lot cleaner, it's a lot more efficient. They're saving a lot of costs and therefore they can have that price advantage.

And then they come back to us and say, Hey, you know, we're doing really well. Maybe we should just set aside a budget and it should come from procurement, not just a window dressing exercise, like a PR or marketing, so companies do have to see the value. And most of the time, this is a long game for the companies that we've been helping two or three years, they're starting to see really positive either in terms of their margin or either in terms of the kind of talent that they're attracting in the industry. We all know that millennials now have very big safety net.

So when they pick an employer, they want to pick an employer that they can look up to. That they can really admire, a company that is aligned with their values. So they're able to attract this talent and retain them. And we all know that there is a talent crunch as we speak. Companies are starting to bribe graduates. Give them, you know, gift basket just to keep them. Like back when we were studying or when we came out to the workforce to work, there's no such thing. But now companies are competing for talent.

And so I think it makes sense to keep the best talents to your company if you know how to retain their attention and you know how to engage them constructively.

And so I hope this is not just a buzzword, this sustainability thing, I hope this is something that is going to continue on and it will become a norm in the future.

Michele Ong

We have no choice. It's going to happen.

Dr Sandy Chong


Michele Ong

Yeah. Cool. So just quickly wrapping up, because I know you have to go shortly.

One last question for you.

What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do and what advice should they ignore?

Michele Ong

What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do and what advice should they ignore?

Dr Sandy Chong

I always tell people not to believe everything they see on the internet.

Michele Ong

Not a bad, that's good advice.

Dr Sandy Chong

Taking away all the optics aside, I think, if you want to be a leader in your own field, you've got to be able to, number one, take the risk in doing things that are always different from your peers. Number two, you've got to be able to form alliances, you know, if you can't compete with them, join them. And I think you're stronger that way, and we can't be all things to everyone, so... Find someone or find a company or a partner that can complement you. And number three, really stand behind your values. I think it seems like a cliché, but people often forget that we are all bound by our values. And it can act as a real shield to protect you from any kind of difficult challenge, attacks or whatever. It's, you know, human beings are fickle-minded. Let's just put it this way. They like you today, they hate you tomorrow. As a leader, your job is not to get everyone to like you. Your job is to do some things that are going to make an impact, are going to change, but don't disrupt for the sake of it, right? The idea is you've got to lead with courage. And sometimes you're not always gonna get the best people around you telling you the positive things.

Like, you know, when I wanted to start my own business, my father was really concerned. He was like, are you sure? You have a great job, you had a tenure, are you sure you want to leave the university? But, what I really wanted to do was I really wanted to start my own thing. I really wanted to test it out, all my knowledge, to see whether it's applicable in the industry.

So, my friends, who are really good to me at that time, would basically say, Look, Sandy, you'll be fine. It will be a form of stress, but it will be a different kind of stress. So then, you know, it got me thinking, I need to find myself a tribe. I need to find myself people who could validate these visions and my ideas and bounce ideas off and has the same kind of level of energy as myself.

Because you're going to have a lot of naysayers out there when you come up with something different. Especially when you're in technology, right? What tech entrepreneur have not gone through the whole process of people knocking them down. I've been there, done that, this will never work and so on. Like, it's a given, right? So you need to have that resilience and you need to work really hard. So what people see on the internet, what people see on social media, is just the tip of the iceberg, just the surface. What they don't recognise is that there's a lot of hard work, years of resilience behind the scene to build up to that point. That pinnacle.

And I would also say if you are in an uncomfortable position, whether at work or in a business situation, I'm not saying give up easily. Don't give up easily. If it's tough, continue to ask yourself whether this is aligned with your values. If this is getting tough and you feel abused and this is no longer serving you, you're no longer happy, then you are allowed to exit. And revisit this again in the future with a different mindset and perspective.

So my advice to young people or to entrepreneurs out there is that, you know, you need to go and find your tribe, be resilient and always exercise self care, whatever that might be, you know, meditating, doing sports, going out karaoke.

Michele Ong

Exactly. Yeah, that's amazing advice, and yeah, definitely a lot to think about, especially in terms of sustainability for your business and for yourself. So thank you so much, Sandy, for speaking with me today. It's been absolutely wonderful hearing about your journey and all about your work and sustainability.

If people would like to know more about what you do, where can they go?

Dr Sandy Chong

Uh, they can go to my LinkedIn page, just type Dr. Sandy Chong, or just go to my website, I look forward to hearing from all of you, and I welcome all kinds of interesting ideas and happy to catch up for coffee.

Michele Ong

Amazing. Thank you. And thank you so much again. And I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.

Dr Sandy Chong

You too, Michele.

Michele Ong

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