“Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.”
Ms Claire Chiang, the co-founder of Banyan Tree Holdings was in London for a rare visit to attend the launch of a book- I am Eco Warrior by Roger Moenks. The book profiles 50 global figures, including Claire Chiang, who with outstanding accomplishments and vision have addressed the environmental crisis through innovative and pioneering methods.
I got an opportunity to meet Claire just before her book launch; she was dressed in silk oriental evening jacket and looked elegant and confident. As we sat down, she offered me to warm up my hands with her hot cup of tea, a gesture which made me feel at ease with Claire Chiang. She is a leader, social activist and an entrepreneur. She also co-authored Stepping Out: Making of Chinese Entrepreneurs which was later adapted to a TV Series. She and her husband launched Banyan Tree after purchasing a large area of toxic land in Phuket and rehabilitating and enriching this land before transforming it into the first all pool villa resort in Thailand.
Her passion and interest in sociology and sustainable development have been involved in developing a robust and meaningful corporate social responsibility strategy for Banyan Tree. She grew up in Little India of Singapore, and it has a strong influence on her hand gestures and head movements.
In our brief meeting, she spoke about her educational background, principles and hardships of female entrepreneurs in China. Her knowledge of sociology made her understand the discipline which compliments men and society, the knowledge of one’s self and functions of society and how mutually they can benefit from one another.” The business is a platform and the way we define the roles of business pulls and draw the principles of sociology, philosophy and politics to create the community of wellness. It is the application of what I love about sociology; when I started Bayan Tree- I was particularly interested in the empowerment of women in this industry.” Said Claire Chiang.
She narrates her experiences of meeting many other women business owners who were not taking control and were not empowered. These women entrepreneurs were making beautiful products, but ‘somebody’ else was selling them. “Hospitality industry like many other industries always has a middle man, if you sell a product for 10 dollars; the middle man takes off 8 dollars and leaves 2 dollars for the producer. That’s when I brought this information back and thought if I was able to cut out the middle man and market the product myself and all the 10 dollars can go directly to the producer. I was able to integrate what I have learned; the work of sociology and society with the business then decided to leave university and attempt to start off the retail business.”
Today, all the products in the Banyan Tree hotel are designed and produced in-house which empowers the producers and provides fair due to them. While she reduced the supply chain,she looked at the possibilities of creating brand awareness and supporting local communities and looking at the interests of stake holders.
When asked about the role of formal education in her life, Claire replied, “You do not need formal education to qualify for business but life education. If I have had an early business administration training it would have helped.Everything you do in business is a balance sheet, if I get a choice I would like to do a law, sociology and become a historian and do business administration.”
Claire gives credits to her first principles of surviving the hardship of being a woman and starting up a business in China. “The first principles need to be clear, and one should never get distracted. I will resist if they would impose the male way of doing things, like drinking, going to golf and entertaining. I have my own principles as a woman leader. When you set your own principles in business, you will not get distracted and have the courage to choose your partners, and if any of the principles of the other person does not match your own, then one should walk away.” Says Claire.
It is her principles that resonate in her business and lifestyle; she is well-respected and walks the talk. Banyan Tree is considered as one of most transparent management structures of Singapore.
Claire Chiang is inspired by few women leaders of her time but says never had role models. She says, “Everyone has a history, and we are the architects of our history. Nobody should be anybody’s role model, but inspire each other. The challenges and possibilities are within your own self. We are so distracted by external role models that rarely give ourselves an opportunity.”
The Asian Impact
In Claire’s viewpoint, the Wall-Street capitalism is short sighted but Asian community capitalism looks at mutual interest and survival for long –term. She gives examples of Asian immigrant communities as the best models of Asian Community Capitalism and says that the Asian traditions and roots provide a strong basis for leadership and organizations; Asian Model have a lot to offer to the world and the world has a lot to learn from it.