How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Melissa Kwee fuses:
- business & society
- rich & poor
- multi-stakeholder motivations
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
- Howard Thurman
"I have a new tape from your Mama."
"Yessssssss! Can I hear it now?"
"Sure, just let me set up the tape recorder here. Did you write your story for her? Are you ready to read it afterwards?"
"Yes I did. I like to write. I like to read to her, too. Can you tell her I got a 46 out of 50 on my English Test?"
"I certainly will! She'll be thrilled to hear that."
"I love to hear her voice. I miss her…. Sometimes I can't see her face anymore when I close my eyes. But I can imagine, since my friends have Moms. When will she come home?"
"Oh, a little while yet."
"Mama" will be home in another year, when she finishes her 5 years in prison. She and her husband were both incarcerated for drug offences. Their four children—aged 20 months to 10 years—were separated and sent to two different relatives.
In the first four years of her sentence (her second drug-related conviction), she saw her kids three times and otherwise had no news of them. She thought of them every day, racked with guilt, self-loathing, and anxiety. The kids were too young to visit her by themselves, but each Mother's Day, volunteers took them to Singapore Changi Women's Prison (CWP).
Mother, daughter, and volunteer are real—and are part of New Life Stories, an early-reader program co-founded by social entrepreneur Melissa Kwee to help families break the cycle of incarceration.
Most CWP-inmates' kids are at a significant disadvantage at school, struggling with English class and other English-medium subjects. Most of the women are divorced, unmarried, or separated from the kids' fathers. On average, each one has 4 children. The biggest source of anguish for imprisoned mothers is being separated from their kids. Some are ashamed and tell them they're seriously ill, in hospital.
Often, when they return, the children reject them, feeling they were abandoned. When mothers emerge from incarceration only to face rejection and uphill battles at every turn—especially with their kids—the results are predictable. Too many repeat their offences and return to jail.
Singapore has the third highest prisoner-to-population ratio in the world. Besides the toll on prisoners' lives and families, each inmate costs over USD 20,000 per year to maintain—approx. the basic expenses of a four-member household. Prisons offer programs to help inmates turn their lives around, but too many return to jail.
With the New Life Stories' early-reader program, volunteers visit inmates regularly, bringing news of their children, recording Moms reading to their kids, and playing recordings of kids reading to their Moms. Children read with a volunteer twice a week, talk about the values the stories impart (like courage or perseverance), and hear in their mother's own voice that she loves them dearly.
The program helps mothers make sustainable changes in their own lives, stay out of prison, and help their children avoid ever going in. While writing and reading stories, they write a new future.
For Melissa and her co-creator Saleemah Ismail, the idea actually started with another program, focused on educating at-risk girls—a connection between two programs, two generations, and two segments of society:
"We were working with 16-year-old girls who can't really read properly, some of whom were having kids. Separately, we were trying to figure out inter-generational prison sentencing. I saw 2 things. The inmates' kids were some of the least-advantaged kids in society. And I saw my sister's kid, who was reading at age 2, went to enrichment programs and preschool, sang songs in Latin, and was learning to write. On day 1 in primary school, both kids show up in the same classroom. The disadvantaged kid is labeled from the beginning and is too embarrassed to ask for help—and it never gets any better."
The girls, many of whom were daughters of prisoners and former-prisoners, kept cycling in and out of jail. Rehabilitation programs taught them interviewing skills, how to write a CV, how to apply for a job, etc., and the assumption was that they believed they're worth investing in and could change their lives. But the programs weren't working.
"So, I started to look … and listen. ‘Truth is, half of them were in for drug-related offences because they didn't really think that much of themselves and were just following their boyfriends and fathers and husbands. Honestly, if they don't stand up for themselves before landing in prison, what makes anyone think they'll stand up for themselves afterwards?"
The key was motivation: what do these women care about? What's so important to them that they would turn their lives around?
None of the women dreamed of being bank secretaries, shopkeepers, or office workers. They didn't generally dream of anything at all—except one thing: a happy family, with kids who did not end up in prison.
That dream was the key to everything. Mothers would stay in a program to build their self-esteem, careers, and lives, IF it meant that their kids were being educated and counseled to avoid continuing the destructive cycle.
The girls' program also began with Melissa making a connection. She noticed a rising trend in girl gangs and teen pregnancies alongside a shortage of programs for girls. She founded Beautiful People to match women professionals with teens for mentorship. "Big Sisters" visit girls in their homes on a weekly basis to listen, talk, and help with homework, while inviting them to camps, workshops, and talks by relevant professionals such as gynaecologists, makeup artists, and self-defence experts. Just by being there—and connecting—Big Sisters expose their Little Sisters to work and lives they otherwise would never consider, like aerospace engineering or international business.
Beautiful People operates on the premise that dreams come true because of someone who believes in the dreamer; that every dream is a possibility; and that dreams and stories transform lives.
Melissa wanted to articulate a vision of leadership that's less about outward position and authority and more about inner values and relationships. She wanted to influence the next generation of young leaders and make sure they understand that leaders serve before they are served, create a culture of service, and uplift situations in which no one has (yet) been lifted up.
One particular program remains in her heart and brings tears to her eyes even today. She worked with a group of 20 girls, who would become leadership catalysts, teach others, and organize a conference for hundreds more at their schools. The "ripple effect" would continue from there.
One of their exercises with Melissa was to create a leadership persona. Each team would elect a girl to become the persona and present, with support from her team. One group included both the head prefect and a girl with a physical disability.
"Usually in such a group, you know who gets chosen to present—the popular girl. But in this group, they all decided to choose the girl with the disability. I was impressed at the time, but it got even better. One of the teachers told me later that this girl, who was incredibly bright, used to eat and do everything by herself because no one would spend any time with her. But after that day when she stood in front of her group and the whole team stood behind her, she became a totally different girl. It changed her world completely. When you change the values of the leaders of a culture, it changes everything for everyone."
What kind of a leader would create programs for prison and at-risk youth? A prison inmate turned reformer? Troubled youth turned educator?
Melissa was neither. Her father is Indonesian-Chinese-Singaporean Kwee Liong Tek, Chairman of Pontiac Land and owner of USD 1 billion worth of hotels in Singapore, including the Ritz-Carlton Millennia, Conrad Centennial, Regent, Capella, Camden Medical Centre, and a number of upscale residential developments. Kwee family net worth is estimated at USD 5.9 billion. Her father and her Japanese-American mother, Donna Naomi, both speak at least 3 languages.
Melissa's mother always said, "You're no better or worse than anyone else." She was a role model of sensitivity and compassion to all. Melissa's grandfather, founder of Kenwood Electronics and Mikasa Chinaware, George Aratani (after whom she is named), was similar. She used to watch him work and noticed how he was exactly the same man whether speaking to business leaders, politicians, cleaners, or clerks. Years later, Melissa's sister remarked how inspirational a speaker Melissa was on stage, and yet was exactly the same person at home the night before, "chilling out" on the sofa.
"I was socialized as a child to be blind to differences. I don't see boundaries at all. They just don't exist. I see what we can do together—what we have in common and can do with purpose, commonality, and mutual learning."
The Kwee children worked during summer holidays, as many kids do. Melissa was a drugstore cashier, and her two sisters were waitresses.
Melissa was educated in Singapore-based international schools with a very multinational cohort. When she went to the US to further her education, she was surprised to find she didn't entirely "belong," despite her American heritage. She found the same in Japan, China, and Indonesia.
"Identity and belonging are not the same. Belonging is a matter of building community, so I always try to remember to be a community member where I am. If I'm in the US, I'm a community member of the US. If I'm in Nepal, I'm a community member of Nepal. When in Singapore, I'm a community member of Singapore."
It also helped her connect with others who didn't quite "belong."
"Being a minority helps develop sensitivity towards other minorities."
During a school trip to rural Indonesia with United World College, Melissa saw how little some have compared with what she had. Instead of fuelling a desire to hoard, it made her want to share.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that I discovered as a young person the immense beauty and brokenness of the world. I became keenly aware of suffering and the way we degrade the environment. My heart is drawn to where people are disadvantaged or structurally discriminated against and need change. At the same time, there's the immense possibility of every person to be part of not just a problem but also a solution. That need for a bigger purpose—and sense of potential—has always appealed to me."
Before studying Social Anthropology at Harvard University, she spent two years in a village in Nepal as an intern and English teacher, also pursuing volunteer and fund-raising activities. Afterwards, she became a Fulbright Scholar in ethnographic studies at Tribhuvan Vishwavidalaya in Nepal, and a Visiting Scholar (Activities and Societies) at UC-Berkeley.
Melissa doesn't engage in vanity projects or live off of family wealth. She earns her own living as CEO of National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) and as a business consultant, drafting community-engagement strategies for corporate clients. She engages in real problem-solving for marginalized people, and creates programs that are self-sustainable.
She co-founded & co-inspired the Halogen Foundation for mentoring and empowering young people, including leadership workshops and camps in local schools. In 2015, they reached 10,000 children and launched a regional programme, One Degree Asia, to bring together social innovators from different sectors around the region.
"As a Director of Pontiac Land, she led the creation of an alternative hiring system that treats foreign construction workers more humanely and doesn’t reward middlemen for employee churn. She and her team co-founded Company of Good at NVPC to help companies and corporate leaders integrate and magnify their business efforts and social impact. She also co-founded and co-inspired financial education for migrant women workers (AIDHA), as well as the Kindness Exchange (online marketplace for professional pro-bono work), and more."
Having served as President of UN Women Singapore (formerly UNIFEM-Singapore), Melissa initiated a ground-breaking project against commercial sexual exploitation of women and children that changed the Singapore penal code and led to more reform.
— Saleemah Ismail, Co-Founder and friend, as well as Private-Sector Partnership Developer for UN Women
"Melissa was one of the key individuals whose ideas and personality led to the ground-breaking awareness and advocacy for anti-trafficking legislation. I say ‘personality' because her inclusive, integrative personality made it possible for stakeholders with different desires to come together and focus on what we have in common. She made a huge difference to the project just by being who she is."
—Saleemah Ismael, Co-Founder and friend, as well as Private-Sector Partnership Developer for UN Women
Although Melissa held the title of President, she makes it very clear that it was a deeply collaborative team-effort. Indeed, leading change and innovation requires establishing an ethos of openness and collaboration. That may be tomorrow's leaders' most important job. It requires setting the stage for others to shine, enabled by open, integrative leadership focused on the task at hand—not ego.*
Awards include the Harvard Foundation Award for Inter-Cultural and Race Relations, "35 under 35" (World Business, London), Asia 21 Young Leaders (Asia Society, NY), Singapore Youth Award, Women in Leadership Fellowship (Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC), Young Woman Achiever (Her World), and Emerging Leaders Fellowship (State of the World Forum, San Francisco).
Melissa's most defining characteristic is empathy—understanding others' perspectives, sharing emotions, and actively helping. Friends describe her as other-centric, generous, humble, authentic, modest, polite, down-to-earth, inclusive, multicultural, welcoming, warm, effusive, eloquent, and action-oriented. She's very observant, a good listener, non-judgmental, open to new ideas and experiences, broadly-read, intuitive, and a mobiliser, catalyst, and free spirit who learns from those she serves, while focusing on the greater good.
She's playful, openly emotive, and not afraid to give a hug or friendly touch. Although described as a super-connected super-networker, she also fosters a small community of very close friends who support and guide her. She knows her calling and vocation and spends no energy being someone she's not.
"She's definitely a polymath with interests in multiple dimensions, and she connects them with each other. She's creating pathways of connection between rich and poor, corporate and social. When she gives of herself to others, she's also storing up information. Then when she looks for a solution to an issue, she connects the dots. She pieces things together so they make sense and translates learnings from one context to another."
- Peter Hsu, collaborator and friend
Although described as a high-energy extrovert forever working on multiple projects, Melissa sometimes runs out of energy and needs time to reflect.
"I can't think at my best, all non-stop, full-on. I can get small insights but really to get the bigger ideas, I need a certain freedom of mind-space and some conversations over a period of time, while the ideas are ripening. I also can't create sitting in a cave—I have to work on it—and just be around it and observe."
She refines her thoughts while writing poetry. She loves beauty but is not obsessed with it. She wanders in parks, listens to cello, and loves to "dream the impossible."
Whether eating a bowl of laksa with villagers in the Himalayas or dining in a Michelin restaurant in the Central Business District, Melissa is the same. Her ability to mobilize others flows from authenticity and genuine inspiration. Her own motivation flows from her deep Christian faith.
"I believe that nothing is accidental in life and that everything was created or allowed for a purpose. If we're open to being of service then the right things happen at the right time. For me, the Christian faith anchors and directs how I think about these things—understanding what is God's plan and His design for each of us? How are we part of that?"
Melissa's outward openness and empathy enable her to reach inside herself and others—tapping on motivation (like the mothers in prison), crafting values (like the girls learning leadership), and igniting dreams.
What are your dreams?
Are you helping someone else's dream?
Are you writing a new future and coming alive?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Melissa Kwee is CEO at the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, Director of Pontiac Land Group, Chair of Millennia Hotel Pte. Ltd., and Co-Founder of Beautiful People. She is "from" Indonesia, Nepal, Singapore, and the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on her work, see: LinkedIn, NVPC, New Life Stories, Halogen Foundation, and BeautifulPeople.org.sg.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
* Ref.: Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, & Kent Lineback, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Melissa Kwee, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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