Debbie Seah (BBA 1989) is by all accounts, the apex of the successful NUS Business School greadute who went on to achieve a prosperous, high-flying career. What makes her story different is that she chose to apply her knowledge and skill to lead an organization that is not in the business of making money, but of granting happiness.
Gaining the knowledge to succeed
Debbie counts her experience at NUS Business School as being one of the most significant and memorable stages in her life. Like many other students, she enjoyed the freedom of being able to engage in extracurricular pursuits such as hockey, squash, and Chinese Dance and actively participated in the Bizad Club. Fascinated by marketing and finance, she studied eagerly, waiting for the opportunity when she would get to apply her knowledge in the business world.
After graduation, Debbie found that opportunity at DBS Bank Ltd, where she began a successful career, rising to the position of Vice President, Branch Manager. However, this did not satisfy her definition of success. “To me, success is being content, and contentment is not possessing everything, but giving thanks for everything that you possess,” believes Debbie.
Realizing you can do more
Eleven years into her successful career at DBS, it seemed like nothing could change the professional track that she was on. However, that changed in 2003 when she read a newspaper article about a six-year-old girl who was suffering from leukemia. The article chronicled her ongoing struggle with the illness and her wish to meet the Power Puff Girls, a trio of child superheroes who fight crime. Reading further, Debbie came to know about the Make-A-Wish Foundation® (Singapore) Ltd, a charitable organization that focuses on granting wishes to children afflicted with life-threatening illnesses.
As a mother, she was truly moved by the Foundation’s compassion in fulfilling the wishes of the young girl. “Granting her wish was a wonderful thing to do for this little girl who was in need of much happiness amidst the difficulties and pain she had to endure,” explains Debbie. As she read on, she saw that the Foundation was also calling for volunteers, as it was still a relatively new organization in Singapore at the time. She signed up on that very day with the intention of bringing joy to the lives of children who suffered from serious afflictions.
Choosing a focus
Debbie became actively involved in the activities of the Foundation, taking part as a wish granter, fundraiser, event organizer and administrator. For three-and-a-half years, she dedicated immense time and energy outside of her everyday duties at DBS to further the Foundation’s efforts. In 2007, her career was at a crossroads, as the Foundation was looking for a new CEO and considered her for the position. However, her job at DBS complicated the matter. Passionate about both her job at DBS and her volunteer work with the Foundation, she struggled with her decision, but a choice had to be made.
In the end, she chose the greater of her passions, and decided to make charity a full-time effort by becoming the Foundation’s new CEO. However, there were some initial challenges to be faced. “I had no experience in running a charity, so the learning curve was steep. I primarily relied on courses provided by the Social Service Training Institute (SSTI) and through self-learning on charity and CEO leadership skills,” related Debbie. She more than made up for her lack of experience in running a charitable organization with her compassion and strong corporate experience.
Making the change
Debbie’s extensive corporate experience came into play almost immediately, as she was tasked with establishing, formalizing and implementing many internal processes, and planning the Foundation’s strategic thrust to grow the charity’s presence in Singapore. However, her job entailed more than just being the brains behind the organization, as she had to utilize her extensive people skills in a variety of contexts.
This included regular coordination with the Board administrators and staff involved with fund raising and marketing, community and public relations, program and service delivery, human resources and financial management. In addition, she also became the leading voice of the Foundation, taking every available opportunity to establish greater awareness of the Foundation’s efforts. This included developing partnerships with corporations, institutions and other charitable organizations across Singapore.
Transitioning from a banking career at DBS to being the Foundation’s CEO was challenging, but what enabled her to make the change from volunteer to CEO was the support of her family and her loving husband Edmund Siah (BBA 1991), who encouraged her to apply her finance, management and business development skills to the Foundation.
“Giving joy, hope and strength to children with life threatening illnesses through a wish is indeed a magical act, as the granting of these magical wishes provides a positive impact in their lives,” says Debbie. Driven by the many smiles of children who had their life-long wishes fulfilled, she continued to spread awareness of the Foundation’s effort, reaching out to local companies and corporations to raise funds.
Encouraging others to give
Debbie urges her fellow alumni to give back to society. “If you are ever presented with an opportunity to help a less fortunate person with time, talent or money, do not hesitate, because it is your chance to make a difference in that person’s life,” advises Debbie. “After all, it is always more blessed to give than to receive.”