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Ronna Chao, 53: Empathic Leader Innovating Sustainable Textiles

Ronna Chao is a businesswoman with drive, wisdom, and a curious mindset. She discusses the role of empathy in business, the power of intergenerational mentoring, and how she's working toward a circular economy for the garment industry.

With your history of coming from a humble family in 1970s Hong Kong, to going to school as a teenager in New England, then excelling through an MBA and success in business, you don’t lack for motivation and drive. What do you attribute this to? 

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My dad always reminds us that we are “handicapped.” Why? Because unlike him and his parents before him, my generation has grown up during the longest period of peacetime in modern history. As such we are “handicapped” because we have not had the opportunity to learn from experience. On the other hand, I think I am very fortunate to have known all my grandparents (two are still living!) who have shared many of their personal stories of trials and tribulations with us. My parents are also amazing role models of strength, determination, hard work, and perseverance. The saying goes, “it takes a village”… I am truly thankful for the village that has raised and nurtured me and continues to do so. 

Sustainable Solution for Textiles

I am thinking about your innovation of The Billie System, looking at a problem and finding a solution that others were not seeing. How do you maintain an open and curious mindset? 

Innovation comes from the basic need to find a solution (or solutions) for a problem. Taking it a step further, it is also about anticipating future problems and pre-empting them by thinking about how to slow down the development, reduce the impact of such problems or, better yet, totally preventing them from even happening. It may not be that others do not see the problem, but the problem may not be immediately relevant or pressing to them. For us, the original idea that became The Billie System was born from an exercise where we wanted to come up with a way by which to recapture the value of our own internally-generated textile waste. As we put our own heads together, and as we began talking to other parties (including HKRITA, our customers and peers in the industry), we discovered more angles, levels, and perspectives which helped and inspired us to think and act further beyond the confines of our limited knowledge. 

“One way to maintain an open and curious mindset is to accept and embrace the fluidity of circumstances and situations”

It is very important to have the final destination in sight in everything we set out to do. The goal is what keeps us focused on the direction in which we have to go. However, I do not think we MUST get to that final destination quickly or even get there at all. In fact, the final destination we began with may not be where we want to go. It is during the journey of trying to get there that we learn the most, both about the process and about ourselves. Things always evolve, and one way to maintain an open mind and curious mindset is to accept and embrace the fluidity of circumstances and situations. 

Another important driver, I believe, is the understanding that I do not and cannot know everything. My liberal arts education allowed me to explore interests in different subjects and topics as an undergraduate. At Brown, the Open Curriculum encouraged and enabled students to venture into areas of study that would not belong in the requirements of the chosen major, for example. Those experiences taught me that there’s always so much more than what we are familiar with. They equipped me with more skills that are necessary for any field and, more importantly, they trained me to have broader perspectives. 

“Innovation is essential in order to stay relevant”

The Billie System addresses the need for more sustainability in the textiles industry, and therefore the fashion industry. Why is this important to you? 

Novetex has been in the textile industry for almost 50 years, and we began exploring how we could evolve into a more sustainable business over a decade ago. It has been a journey of discovery, but innovation is essential in order to stay relevant. The next generation is more aware of sustainable issues around the world and it’s very inspiring to witness change. If The Billie System can become even a small instrument of that change, I would consider that both a personal and professional achievement. 

Furthermore, in today’s world, sustainable business is good business. We cannot afford to be left behind, so why not try to be at the forefront instead and set some standards? 

“Consumers hold plenty of power”

You have said the entire chain of production, regulation, and consumption needs to be rethought. How does the thinking of the consumer need to change? 

Consumers hold plenty of power when it comes to influencing that entire chain of production as well as big business decisions, such as major fashion brands setting milestones and goals toward sustainability. We’re seeing reports that say there is indeed a desire for sustainable products. These days, consumers are on the right path and we (myself included) need to continue to not just demand better from companies, but also support businesses that champion sustainability. To put it simply, consumption patterns need to mirror values. Overconsumption is another problem altogether and we won’t see real change until we make some headway in addressing that. 

Historically and traditionally, manufacturers would focus on catering to the needs and requirements of customers. But companies like Novetex, which have scale in terms of range of clientele, production capacity, and resources dedicated to R&D, have the ability to contribute to changing momentum in the chain from production to consumption. We regularly develop new qualities to align with fashion trends and simply to be true to our motto, which is “Novetex: Your Complete Yarn Resource.” In doing so, we are also able to introduce and/or customize sustainable yarns to our customers who include large global brands and small designer shops from luxury to mid- and mass-market. 

It’s a circular, interactive, push-and-pull relationship between apparel brands and the end consumer. We listen to the consumer’s needs and wants, but we can also inspire and motivate change in those needs and wants. 

Working Toward a Circular Economy for the Garment Industry

Can you envision a true circular economy for the garment industry? What would that look like? 

Definitely, and that’s what we’re trying to help make possible at The Billie System. This is how we envision a circular economy in the context of The Billie: We process materials considered textile waste by a given brand, whether that’s a clothing brand, home brand, or hospitality company, and then we spin those recycled fibers into yarn. Following that, this yarn might be purchased by the same brand, or perhaps a different brand, and used to create other products. It’s about keeping the value of virgin materials intact, and recapturing the value of materials that are already in the cycle. But in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be anything for us to recycle… The Billie System would put itself out of business! 

Time Management and Team Work

You have extraordinary demands on your time, with your companies and foundations. How do you schedule your work time? 

Hahaha! I don’t really think of it as demands, but more in terms of what I enjoy doing and what has to be done. Very fortunately, I would say 98.5% of the time, what has to be done is also something I enjoy doing… at least, I don’t mind doing. It also isn’t so much about scheduling, but about prioritizing and optimizing and, most importantly, it is about having faith that things will work out. 

I am very blessed to have great teams and colleagues across the various businesses and operations. I believe wholeheartedly in putting the right people in the right jobs, nurturing them by giving them plenty of room to learn from trial and error, and empowering them to not just be execution-focused but to be bold leaders regardless of their actual position and role within the corporate structure. When each of them understands their own value, when each is encouraged and duly affirmed, cooperation/collaboration happens naturally and results will show. 

“I make friends and family my priority”

How do you make time for your friends and family? Do you have time boundaries? Do you have special time for just Ronna to be with Ronna? 

I AM Ronna… what you see is what you get, whether I’m at work or at home, with friends or by myself. 

My family and friends are my most treasured possessions. They are my source of joy, my safe haven, and my well of positivity and energy, though of course as any parent would admit, there are those rare moments when kids drive us completely crazy. I mentioned prioritizing earlier… and I make my family and friends my priority. When you value something, you will make the effort to keep feeding it so that it continues to grow. That applies to family relationships and friendships.

My parents model this: They meet regularly with their high school and college friends to this day. The children (my generation) grew up together, and now many of our kids are friends. It helps that most of us are in HK where getting together does not require a lot of planning, and distances to travel are very manageable. But even for friends and family who are in different time zones, keeping in touch these days is so much easier with social media and all sorts of communication tools. I just had my 35th high school reunion via Zoom, and it was amazing. 

Ronna Chao at the Global Wellness Summit Honors Global Wellness Awards Recipients

Mentoring and Giving Back

You work with Bai Xian Asia Institute among other organizations. What is it that you gain from mentoring and giving back? 

The scholarship program is the brainchild of my dad, who believed in the importance of fostering friendship and understanding in young people across different cultures. In particular, we focus on supporting Asian students to study abroad within Asia because we strongly believe that one needs to understand and appreciate one’s own home region and culture first in order to be good ambassadors elsewhere. Providing our scholarship recipients a safe platform on which to exchange views and an environment in which they learn through experience enable them not only to grow as individuals but also as a community. As they become leaders in whatever field they choose, they can extend their circles of influence and share their knowledge, perspectives, and experiences with more people. 

“Mentoring is not one-way”

Across my teams, I would say about 30-40% of my colleagues are aged 35 and under. In fact, at Bai Xian, I am the single person who brings the average age above 30. I often joke about how I can be my teammates’ mom! I don’t think mentoring is something that necessarily needs to be done explicitly. The key is in modeling mentality and behavior the way you would like to see in others. I imagine my colleagues do look up to me as the CEO, leader of the pack, etc., but if you ask them, they would tell you I regularly say during meetings: “What do YOU think?”, “What is YOUR recommendation?” and “Everyone should feel free to give input, myself included… and I may not be right.” There is so much we can learn from each other. Mentoring is not one-way. My kids, for example, always turn lightbulbs on for me with their perspectives. Those are important and valid viewpoints. We cannot dismiss them. 

Key Skills to Hone

What have you learned from being a woman leader that you are able to teach younger women? 

Women (and men) have it so much better today than before. The playing field is wider, much more level and accessible. With that, however, come more challenges. 

I don’t often use the word “equality” because things aren’t equal… and fairness does not necessarily mean equal. Our differences make us and the world in which we live in interesting. As we grow personally (and that growth journey is one that we walk until our last day), there are some key skills/tools I would advise our younger generation of leaders to build and hone. 

First and foremost is SELF-AWARENESS. Know yourself — your strengths, weaknesses, areas for development, areas where you can most effectively contribute. Next would be HUMILITY. I’m not saying one should be humble, as in keeping quiet. Quite the opposite; if you’re humble, you will not be afraid to admit you don’t know, and you will not shy away from asking questions or letting others know you need help. Our pride is so often an obstacle we put up that prevents ourselves from moving forward. Another skill to constantly work on is COMMUNICATION. I use this example very often: Imagine yourself listening to the radio (probably not too many young people do that these days). You have to adjust the dial to tune in to the station you want to listen to. On the flip side, the radio station has to broadcast in a certain frequency for the audience to be able to hear the programs. What this means is that as the speaker, we have to speak in a way so that the listener can HEAR. Similarly, as the one who’s listening, one would have to “tune in.” One more important tool to add to the kit is WILLINGNESS TO TAKE RISKS. In many cultures, especially Asian ones, the focus on success is so heavy that making mistakes in itself is already so unacceptable — never mind failing outright. We place so much weight on the results without valuing the process, the journey, all the growing and learning that can take place simply from falling and getting up again. I tell my kids: I don’t really care if you get an A or a C (even a D) as long as you are learning. 

Finally… All of the above will only bear fruit if one is willing to work hard and persevere. It is perfectly ok to ask for and accept help, and absolutely crucial to be collaborative, but the true fulfilment and reward come from seeing the fruit of your own labor every step of the way. 

Female Leaders

We see women leading everywhere in our age group. Why do you think that is? 

As mentioned above, the world has changed and continues to change. There is much more accessibility in all senses of the word, from education to jobs to choices. Over time, people’s mindset of certain industries/roles being male-only or male-preferred has evolved. Traditional stereotypes are gradually fading away. There is more awareness about gender-equity/equality. And it is only logical and practical for any business or organization to put the right person in the right job. I suppose we have seen that in many instances, women are the right people for those jobs! 

Wisdom vs Knowledge

How do you see wisdom as different from knowledge, and how does wisdom help you today? 

Knowledge and wisdom are both important. Knowledge is more about what happens in the head. It can be acquired by learning, whether it’s through books, in the classroom, or on the factory floor. Wisdom is knowledge-PLUS because one can only develop wisdom from seeing and doing oneself AND watching how others address the same issue/situation. It comes from a richness of experiences, and often from negative experiences. So that’s why we often hear the saying “wisdom comes with age” because it takes time to have experiences. 

Knowledge is knowing what to do. I would know how to adjust a machine if I had the manual. Wisdom, for example, would be the ability to zoom in on the likely cause of the problem, knowing what tools I would need or whom I should bring in to most effectively and efficiently fix the machine. 

There is no end to the accumulation of wisdom. One very obvious way wisdom helps me today is that it reminds me to slow down, to let others speak, to let them finish, to not be so eager to present my point or prove others off the mark. Especially being older and in my position at home and at work, extra effort has to be made to let others feel safe and respected to voice their opinions. 

Kindness, Honesty, and Business

You mention how appreciative you were of the kindness you were shown as a young foreign student at Choate. What is the role of kindness in a business today? Is it different than in the past? 

We’re going through challenging times and the world is in a lot of pain as we speak. Kindness is more important than ever. I think a modern business understands, more so than perhaps a decade ago, that the ability to employ empathy and compassion in the workplace is no longer considered a soft skill, but a necessity. Kindness can yield positivity in very concrete ways, such as employee performance and even company turnover rates. One important caveat, however, is that kindness and honesty have to go hand in hand. 

“We each have a purpose while we are here”

What is inspiring you today? 

Seeing young people — my own children, my co-workers, our scholars — choosing their pathways, showing dedication and determination, unafraid of breaking conventions, respecting one another, standing up for shared values, embarking on their own adventurous journeys, and getting somewhere… All of this inspires me. And to know that I am somehow inspiring them gives me such a sense of joy. We each have a finite time on earth. We each have a purpose while we are here. If what we start can be carried forward and carried on by the next torchbearer, we will have done right by our purpose. 

As you look ahead 10 years, is there anything you are thinking that you would like to have accomplished? 

In 10 years, I will be 63 years young! I know I will definitely NOT be living a retiree’s life, but I hope I will have accomplished the passing of the baton to the next CEOs of the various businesses and organizations I currently run. 

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David Stewart
David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

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