#IWD2021: Women in Hong Kong Building a Better Future for Asia – Chaoni Huang, BNP Paribas

April 6, 2021
HK Sustainability series  web photo

As a business and finance hub, Hong Kong is also becoming an important center for talented individuals who are dedicating their careers to sustainability, an agenda that is becoming increasingly critical to business success. Sustainability as an industry has attracted more women than many others, and the sector in Hong Kong is no exception. To celebrate #IWD2021, IFC on March 8 launched a series of interviews with women in the Fragrant Harbour who are championing the sustainability agenda in Asia. 

Our next interview is with Chaoni Huang, Head of Sustainable Capital Markets for Global Markets, Asia Pacific at BNP Paribas. Chaoni leads sustainable finance solutions for corporate clients, financial institutions and investors with a focus on primary asset finance and securitization. She has more than 13 years of experience in sustainable finance, having held various ESG-related roles at Natixis, S&P Trucost, MSCI and the United Nations. Chaoni is also the Vice President and Secretary General of the Hong Kong Green Finance Association.

How would you describe your work? 

I originate and distribute sustainable assets and instruments but I also act as an ESG adviser to our clients, which include governments, corporates, financial institutions and investors globally. Areas I advise them on include ESG strategy development, disclosure requirements and investor outreach planning and funding. It’s a very diverse job but everything is centered on or connected to sustainability. 

From a sustainability standpoint, what are the three biggest challenges facing your clients right now? 

Financing the transition to net zero is the most critical challenge facing our clients. All countries are either developing their net zero commitments or upgrading them under the Paris Agreement, which is something we are all very aware of with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). In certain sectors there’s already strong government and investor support, such as in financing renewable energy and decarbonization of transportation and buildings. But in some of the less obvious and maybe even more controversial sectors such as manufacturing, we haven’t addressed the issue. There are still debates in the market about how to finance the transition. We need to solve this, it’s a critical task. We simply don’t have much time left to contain global warming. 

The second challenge is around natural capital and biodiversity. As a bank we work with our clients around this issue. We did a very interesting project two years ago under our Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility, a partnership between UN Environment, World Agroforestry Centre, ADM Capital and BNP Paribas that aims to bring long-term finance to projects and companies that stimulate green growth and improve rural livelihoods in Indonesia. We fund sustainable plantation with the support of WWF. As a private sector bank, we commit some of the financing ourselves and reach out to investors in the private sector to take part in the commitment, so it’s a blended finance approach. 

But the reason we can’t scale it up is because very often these projects aren’t bankable. There’s a huge externality issue that we haven’t addressed: who is going to pay for it? Is it the public sector or the private sector involved in the deal, or the companies that are taking the raw materials from the plantation? I don’t think anyone has a solution to address that externality. It’s important to try and turn these kinds of projects into bankable projects. The biodiversity crisis is something we must address, together with the climate crisis. And they are interlinked. Our climate depends on natural biodiversity. 

Global investor participation in Asia is also an issue. We distribute a lot of green and sustainable bonds to investors, and we would love to see more international investors come in and support them. International investors still represent a small percentage in the total mix of sustainable assets in Asia. There is so much liquidity in Europe and investors there are looking for investments with impact, and sustainable investments in Asia can deliver a lot of impact in all kinds of areas, including social, climate and biodiversity. For more international investors to come in, they need to be comfortable with Asian standards and disclosure requirements, and we are trying to address this gap to harmonize the differences between Asia and the rest of the world. We act as a bridge to provide confidence for these investors to come into the market. We do a lot of work to raise awareness and provide knowledge to international investors, to correct misunderstandings in Asia’s ESG strategies and green bond standards. 

We want to present the real picture from the ground to international investors. 

Why do you think investor participation in Asia is so low? 

Investors are more familiar with their home territories, so European investors tend to have a lot more exposure in Europe. But we do hear from a lot of investors who are looking for more diversification and increase their exposure to emerging markets including emerging Asia. The willingness is there, and the capital is certainly there. But for them to come in with confidence, they need to understand that these projects deliver genuine environmental and social benefit. There is a gap in terms of transparency and standards. What is considered green here may not necessarily be green from their perspective. 

What are the biggest challenges facing women working in banking? 

I certainly see progress in the banking sector, which is becoming more inclusive and supportive of women. At BNP Paribas there are internal programs that focus on ensuring that women get the support they need to reach their goals and climb the corporate ladder. 

But in terms of real challenges, regardless of industry, I feel that women aren’t upfront enough in terms of speaking up for themselves and sharing their voices. Whether you work in sustainability for a listed company, in a bank or in asset management, a big part of your job is liaising internally. You need to be able to challenge the status quo and have strong support from your peers and top executives. My job requires support from the board and senior management, which is so fundamental. Without it, sustainability cannot go mainstream. Without that, it’s impossible for women to go far. 

Women in my sector need to be very effective at communication, and they need to act as influencers to mobilize and leverage resources to achieve their goals. We always need to remind ourselves that we have a voice and our work is important, so don’t shy away from sharing your voice. There’s nothing holding you back. We are in the best driver’s seat to make things happen, to inspire and to influence.  

What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your career? 

Growing my confidence through experience and speaking up for myself. When I first started working as an analyst, even after developing technical skills around ESG, sustainability, reporting and investment approaches, I didn’t feel like I had enough courage as a young female employee in an international working environment. I started my career in London, so not only was I a woman, but I was also foreign. I always felt like there was a barrier in the way of me standing up for myself. I must admit it took me a while to come to where I am today and develop the confidence to talk about sustainability in front of the board, to clients and senior management. It took me a while to reach that epiphany. 

That moment came after watching Sheryl Sandberg’s electrifying TED talk in 2010. From that moment I have been very conscious of the need for women to lean in. You need to find your seat at the table. Don’t sit in the second row when someone is discussing your topic. That’s your territory. Speak up. 

What needs to be done to make the industry more inclusive of women? 

We’re heading in the right direction in terms of making the sector more inclusive and supportive. At BNP Paribas we have a Returnship program, which we’re proud of. The program provides women – as well as others who have taken a career break for personal reasons, very typically for family reasons such as taking care of young children –with a ladder to return to the corporate world. Actually, I had a returnee join my team on International Women’s Day on March 8. 

I’m very excited about these kinds of programs, as they create social impact. We hope people who join the program have an easier path back to the corporate world and aren’t discouraged because they have a two or three-year gap on the resumes, which is sadly true for a lot of people going through interviews. They get discounted for taking a small break out of their careers. We also have an internal group called MixCity, where we facilitate networking and mentorship for women. 

But even with these programs we still have a long way to go, particularly when it comes to the toughest area, which is positioning capable women in leadership roles. This is where real balance and diversity kicks in and it must be addressed across companies and industries. There’s still definitely room to grow. 

When you were young, what did you think about women’s leadership and women’s empowerment? How have your views changed? 

I always look up to my mother as a role model. Growing up, she really showed me the meaning of leadership. She’s such a tough cookie, a tough, strong, entrepreneur who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She had a very tough upbringing. Her and my father really made a life for themselves and were always working hard. She taught me so much about hard work, being ambitious, being different and being independent. That gave me a lot of confidence going into sustainability 15 years ago, when nobody really cared about sustainability. It was such a niche area.  

Growing up in a Chinese family, you’re taught to be humble, to work hard, and one day you’ll be recognized and rewarded as a consequence. But after many years in the corporate world, I’ve realized that no matter how incredible your work is, you must still advocate for yourself and make sure your achievements are visible, both within your organization and to the wider world. For women doing a fantastic job in their field, I would really encourage them to stand up and speak up. 

What advice would you give other women looking to forge a similar career path? 

I get this question from a lot of young students who want to explore a career in sustainable banking. It’s always helpful to have experience in a wide range of sustainability sectors, either at the corporate level where you really understand how companies collect data and do ESG reporting, or as an investor working on ESG analysis or peer benchmarking. There are many areas of sustainability you can work in. 

You can also work in sectors outside of finance. Right now, the finance world already has a very established source of talent coming in. Very standardized curriculums are taught at universities, but the sector still doesn’t have a lot of talent with a strong understanding of sustainability, and who can apply that knowledge to banking and investing. I would encourage young women thinking of taking this career path to use their previous sustainability knowledge or to go out there and get relevant experience, and then come to the banks. The banks are expanding their sustainability teams and it’s going mainstream. These talents will definitely be in high demand in the near future. 

This is something I’m very passionate about. I’m also the Vice President and Secretary General of the Hong Kong Green Finance Association, where I really want to develop an ESG talent program to help people build careers in sustainability. There is certainly a big employment gap that needs filling. I started my career at the United Nations in 2006, which was so instrumental for my career. That’s the job that made me decide that I didn’t want to follow a typical career path like any of my friends. Forging a career in sustainability made so much more sense. Our world is running out of resources, we are destroying our environment and inequality is spreading around the world. Why don’t we do something about it? 

I find my job particularly rewarding. In finance, we can use the market as leverage to decarbonize the world using finance as the tool, to make it a more equal and sustainable place.