Serai Spotlight (IWD edition) with Sonalie Figueiras of Green Queen

March 4, 2022

Sonalie Figueiras is no stranger to the sustainability scene in Asia, having built two successful businesses. She founded and is the editor-in-chief of Green Queen, an award-winning impact media platform advocating for social and environmental change in Hong Kong. She’s also CEO and founder of Ekowarehouse, a global sourcing platform that aims to make organic products accessible to everyone. 

Having built two successful businesses and spoken about her journey at events such as TedX, Sonalie is undoubtedly an inspiration to many. We sat down with her to find out how her sustainability journey started, the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice to women on overcoming self-doubt.  

Why do you think it is important to have more female leaders in the space of sustainability?

Let's just talk economics. According to most research and studies, 80% of a household budget is actually spent by a woman. So a woman is making the decisions on the products that are going into so many households, from beauty to personal care, household products to food, and not to mention fashion. 

A lot of times the woman will buy the clothes for her children, maybe even for her partner as well as for herself. So why would we not include the spender themselves at the helm of all these companies and decision making?

You began your career in the corporate world. Why did you develop an interest in sustainability and why is it so important to you now?

Originally it was chronic health issues that led me to discover that the food we eat has a huge impact on our health. That then led me to understand that the global food system was broken. 

But today, the big driver of my work is, of course, the climate crisis. I have a child who I want to have a future that is beautiful and vibrant, and full of the natural wonder of wildlife and this planet. Right now, it's not looking good for them to enjoy that because we are just decimating our natural world. So the biggest impetus now is to be fighting the climate crisis in one way or another. 

Could you elaborate a little bit about that (CBT)? What can someone struggling with self confidence do to not have self-doubt? 

I don't think that there's anything I can say that would make someone not have self-doubt and what some people call imposter syndrome.

I think we are conditioned as women to apologise for our mission or minimise our success. It’s been a really long journey for me to grow into my own confidence and say to myself that I've done this for ten years, and I know what I'm doing. I don't need to apologise for that. 

I also use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. Sometimes my mind starts giving me an inner monologue that is damaging or distracting, trying to make me think that I'm not enough. That's when I use these techniques of just repeating to myself that I have achieved a lot of things and I remind myself of that. I am also a really hard worker and I do my homework, and so it's not like I come unprepared. And that's important. Lastly, I think what might give a lot of other women solace is so many people feel this way, especially women.

I think it's really important to differentiate between what you see in the media and on social channels with what people are going through internally. And it's just so easy to allow yourself to think that other people's lives are perfect and there's no self-doubt or bad days. It's just not true. 

The older I get and the bigger my network becomes, I realise just how common it is for people to doubt themselves. We all do it, even celebrities and big time CEOs. So normalising those feelings is already the first step. But I don't know that we're going to get to the point where we don't have these feelings at all.

This year's theme for International Women's Day is Break the Bias. Have you faced any bias in your career due to being a woman? And if so, how did you overcome that?

Absolutely, I’ve faced bias and harassment, sexual and otherwise. I had my work stolen from me many times. I really struggled in corporate life because I often seemed to perform better than the male colleagues around me, and they often worked really hard to make sure that the managers did not reward me for my success, even if the data showed that I was maybe the best performer. That happened to me at multiple jobs, and just not being taken seriously because I was a woman. A big example is Green Queen. 

When I first started, I think I was really pushed aside. I was thought of as some little blogger talking about health, which felt very small to people, when really what I had done was I had put my finger on an incredibly large disruption to the global food and consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. In the end, that's what has allowed me to become one of the region's leading experts on all of these topics.

Even to this day, I'll have people come up to me and be like, “How's your little blog?”. And, we're not a blog. We're a fully fledged media company with readers in 50 countries. 

Which women are female entrepreneurs do you admire the most, and why? 

I could have a really long list but one of my mentors and someone who I admire greatly is Jenny Ng. She's the COO and executive director at Green Monday Foods and Omni Foods. She's just been a real inspiration to me, growing the company with David Yeung from a small Hong Kong social movement to a global ecosystem. 

I'm also a huge fan of the tech journalist and media founder, Kara Swisher. She, for me, represents the best vision of ambition and success that I have seen so far. She's just unapologetic about her ambition, talent, experience and skills without being arrogant or unpleasant in the least.

She's able to come to the table and say, I'm hungry to be the best…I'm hungry to build big and I'm damn good at what I do. I really admire that, and I think that, as an Asian woman, I struggle with expressing my ambition.

So what message would you like to send out to young women in particular? 

The biggest message I have is go bigger, go riskier and do it sooner. I just wish that I had just done it and made the mistakes.

I think that's a really hard thing, especially in Asia, because if you're like me and you're this highly academic straight-A student, a mistake feels like a failure. I think we really need to redefine mistakes to not be a failure, especially here in Asia. You can't learn and grow if you don't make mistakes.

There is no path to becoming an entrepreneur where you have zero failure. There just isn't. And the idea that there should be is ridiculous. So we need to normalise the making of mistakes. Recruiters need to understand that it's okay to take a few years out, be an entrepreneur and then maybe go back to the corporate world. 

In other markets, that is something that is allowed but here it's not. You have to tick every box perfectly. Maybe that's why Asia doesn't have as many entrepreneurs as other regions, because we're so focused on building straight-A students.

An entrepreneur is not necessarily a straight-A student but someone who has an appetite to fail and grow, and to take on public mistakes. 

What do you hope to see change or progress for women in the next five years?

Of course, I would like to see more investment dollars given to women. I would like to see more speaking roles given to women and not just as moderators. I often push back on being a moderator now. I've earned my place as a speaker. I've spoken on stages all around the world. I'm paid to speak constantly and a lot of times I can see that I'm just added as a moderator to make life easier for the organiser because, then, I'm just the token minority.

We don't have enough light shone on women in the media, either. We need mainstream media to look at whether they are giving more column inches to men on a regular basis - whether they be male entrepreneurs, designers, chefs or executives. We should have more women quoted in important news stories.

What is your ultimate ambition with the Green Queen?

At Green Queen, we call ourselves an impact media so we are trying to change your mind to some extent and eventually your behavior. We have a three pronged approach. We say we inform, we inspire and we empower.

We inform you on what the environmental issues are and what's going on. We inspire by showcasing people, organisations, brands and NGOs that are coming up with solutions that are worth knowing about. We empower by giving you resources to make those changes in your life.

It’s important for people to know the issues. And that's why I do push back a little bit against only reporting on positivity. We're complex beings and capable of more than just positivity and hope. So we need to come at this with some intersectionality and a broad understanding of why this is such a crisis. 

Overall, the idea is you're just going to be so wowed and inspired by these change-makers, whether they're a scientist, a founder, a teacher or a teenager protesting. Hearing their stories is going to make you want to be part of that in your own way. 


About the series

To celebrate International Women's Day 2022, we sat down with seven female trailblazers in the fashion and sustainability industry to talk about their struggles and challenges, career learnings and advice to young women.