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Dr Mary Ann Tsao is best known for heading the Tsao Foundation, which has pioneered many game-changing innovations in eldercare.

It’s a little jarring to hear this accomplished leader describe her younger self as shy, introverted and “a typical obedient Chinese girl”, but that’s exactly what emerged during a lively panel discussion on the topic “Women in roads less travelled – when going against the flow pays off”, held at the 2017 International Women’s Day Conference organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry-Career Women's Group.

We caught up with Dr Tsao after the talk to find out more about how she learned to confront her fears and strike her own path.

What comes to mind when you think about how you have gone against the flow in your own life?

Dr Mary Ann Tsao The hardest one was when I chose to marry someone whom my parents didn’t approve of. I was already in my 30s, established as a doctor, and it was difficult, because on the one hand I didn't want to disappoint my parents, but on the other hand, at my age, I felt like I should be able to make my own decisions. As a typical obedient Chinese girl, to stand up for what I wanted was very, very hard. But having gone through it, nothing fazes me, because I know what it takes to stand up for myself. So it was actually very liberating. I don't really care what other people think as long as I know my purpose.

But one thing that’s important is that you have to be very clear about what you want, because if you take that step, you have to deal with the consequences of your decision. So you have to think it through, and know who you are and what you want to achieve. Everything comes with positives and negatives, you have to deal with both, so having clarity of purpose is important. Once I’m clear, then I’m committed, and I’m not afraid. If you’re afraid and you take tentative steps, it’s more likely that you’re not going to make it.

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You describe the Tsao Foundation’s work as pathfinding. Which new paths in eldercare are you most proud of creating?

DMAT One thing we championed was the notion that older people should have choice. They shouldn’t have to go to nursing homes, they should be able to live in their own homes and lead their lives with self-determination. We swam upstream to figure out how to create services and communities that could provide care so the elderly could age in place. Now it’s become a more common idea, but when we first started out 25 years ago, people were like, what the heck is that? It was really difficult. We had to convince a lot of people, but I was clear that this was our purpose, and I was committed to the work.

The other thing was that we didn’t just create a philosophy, we created solutions. The Tsao Foundation created all kinds of services to support the elderly who wanted to live at home, and still have a good life even if they are dealing with a fair amount of frailty. I’m pretty proud of that. When it comes to older people, it’s not just about keeping them safe. The notion of wanting to grow as a human being does not stop at a certain age. No matter what age we are, we all aspire to a better tomorrow, to learn something, to contribute. If we have a different mindset about this as a society, the way we do things will be very different, and it doesn’t have to cost more. I hope to be able to look back one day and see that the lives of older people are better because we were able to influence society to think about ageing differently.

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The speakers at the conference included (from left) property developer Ong Chih Ching, business leader Noni Purnomo, media veteran Yang Yanqing, Dr Tsao, violinist Siow Lee Chin, and athlete Theresa Goh. The panel discussion was moderated by DJ Jamie Yeo.

How have the women in your life inspired you?

DMAT I had two amazing grandmothers. One was very smart and business-savvy, and she was the one who had the vision of creating this foundation. My other grandmother taught me all the virtues of being a woman. My mother was very compassionate. So I learned from each of them what it takes to be a woman in multiple roles. When I young, I lived with my aunt in the United States, and she was awe-inspiring, a little bit scary to me at that time, and she really pushed me to become fiercely independent. She believed women could do anything we wanted, that there were no limits. So I learned very valuable lessons from her as well. I was very shy and introverted then, and I had to polish myself up, and be what I needed to be to get the job done. Whatever you are afraid of, once you confront that, you will overcome your fear. I think for women, sometimes what stops us is the high bridge we build in our minds. For Asia, a lot of women were brought up to feel like we can’t cross that bridge, so we hold ourselves back. We have to dispel that.

When you first moved to Singapore from the United States to run the Tsao Foundation, you didn’t know anyone in this sector. How did you go about building your network?

DMAT Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I didn't know how people thought of me, so I just asked, and people were very generous. I would ask one person, who would introduce me to three more, and so on. People were very generous with information and helped to open doors for me. So slowly, I was able to build my network. The key is you have to step out and ask for help. No question is too stupid. I didn't know a thing, I didn’t know anybody, so I just had to start from scratch. Develop a thick skin, and just reach out. Some people will say no, but many will be helpful.

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This article first appeared on sg.asiatatler.com.

Tags: Tsao Foundation, Interview, Dr Mary Ann Tsao, Industry