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Lead with success > Celebrating Success > An Interview With Marisa Fong, Chair – Professionelle Foundation

An Interview With Marisa Fong, Chair – Professionelle Foundation

By Galia Barhava-Monteith, written in 2012

We wanted to profile our new Chair of the Professionelle Foundation to celebrate women who we think are the unacknowledged role models for other working women in New Zealand. We believe Marisa is right up there!

Marisa is not one to sing her own praises but in our eyes she is an incredible role model.  Why?  Because Marisa is a woman who built a very impressive business with her business partner, and in a way we can all learn from. More importantly, Marisa quietly and without fanfare takes every opportunity to give back to others – just as she is doing with Professionelle.

Marisa is the eldest child of Chinese immigrants and grew up in inner West Auckland.

“My parents were hardworking people who eventually ran their own very successful restaurant businesses. Much of what I learnt about hard work was from them.”

Lesson 1: “To thine own self be true” – William Shakespeare

Without hesitation, Marisa offered this piece of advice. This was a hard won lesson because early in her career her manager, another woman, kept her confidence low by undermining her achievements. She told Marisa that despite being competent she would struggle elsewhere without her support.

This loss of confidence didn’t happen immediately but over eight years. Marisa likens it to an abusive marriage that became violent and realises that if she had walked straight into the situation she would have said ‘I am not going to put up with this!’ but because it happened so insidiously she did not know how to leave. “I now realise I was manipulated to think I wouldn’t be as effective without her as a way of keeping me in the role.”

“I used to walk through Freyberg Square in Auckland and there was a plaque by the fountain that said: ‘To thine own self be true’ and I found myself thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I am not being true to myself because if I was, I would up and go.”

Marisa finally moved on from that toxic environment to launch her own business, focusing on customer service and delivery. It was another wiser, more mature and more experienced female colleague who pointed out to Marisa that it wasn’t OK how her boss was treating her. Also, she was indeed good enough!

This was the move that shaped her career and one she learnt the most from; going out into business was better than staying in an environment that was harmful to her state of mind. Her greatest barrier? Not having the confidence in herself. She found it by asking herself what was the worst that could happen.

Lesson 2: Finding self-confidence by asking yourself, What’s the worst that could happen?

Things got so tough for Marisa in that environment that she realised that it was better to strike out on her own. So what if she failed? The worst consequence would be that she would have to find another job which was still a better option than staying in an unhealthy situation. Ironically, that situation gave her the confidence to embark on the journey that got her to where she is today.  

Marisa is emphatic about the importance of confidence for one’s career success.

“Be good at what you do, but that’s not enough. You also have to believe in yourself and project that belief.”

If you’re not sure about how good you are, seek independent verification from colleagues, past employers and honest friends. Once you know that you are indeed as good as you believe yourself to be, own it and be confident. It is only confidence that will enable you to make the smart career decisions that will get you to where you want to be.

Having that confidence is important because you will then be able to negotiate your way successfully through your career, knowing that your colleagues and/or clients truly value your contributions. If you have value, employers will work to keep you and be more willing to accommodate your needs… but of course, don’t take advantage!

Lesson 3: It is about self-belief

Closely following self-confidence is the important value of self-belief. Marisa is passionate about helping hard working women who are good at what they do learn to have that self-belief. To her, success isn’t one size fits all but about what success means to you. She says,

“I never aspired to be anything other than being successful by my own definition, well thought of and financially independent. I believe in looking after myself first and then giving back.”

Words of Advice

Marisa’s last words of advice come from her mother:

“If you work hard and deliver, you will never have a problem’. Your past will set your future, so guard your reputation jealously and do what you say you will. Act with integrity because your reputation is one of your most important assets and it affects everything including your friendships and your career. To be sustainable, make sure anything you do now is something you’ll be proud of in the future.”

And finally, in Marisa’s words…

I discovered the recruitment industry when I myself was job seeking. Up until then, I didn’t even know the industry existed. Intrigued, I set about phoning up recruitment agencies to see if there were any opportunities to join them and if not, asked if I could seek their advice on how I might break into recruitment. That’s how I found out what skills I would need to win over a potential employer and how I got my first break, working for a small, privately-owned company after returning from my OE. After several years and some promotions later (managing staff at the tender age of 25), I moved on to working for a large international company. Again, over several years and various promotions, I became the National Sales Director. I left in 1998 to co-found Madison Recruitment with Wynnis Armour and this leads me to the role I currently hold as Director of The Madison Group.

The Madison Group is a collection of brands comprising: Madison Recruitment (white collar office roles excluding IT and contracting), Interim Taskforce (our executive leasing arm), pursuIT (IT recruitment) and Force Labour Solutions (blue collar and trades recruitment). We are the largest privately-owned, nationwide recruitment company but more importantly, we have been voted Best Large Recruitment company by SEEK, three times in a row (we now hold “Legend” status) and also voted “Most exciting recruitment company” by the National Business Review.

Non-profit Contributions

I now sit on the Madison Board and have sought opportunities to be involved in non-profit organisations in areas I feel passionate about. One is First Foundation, an excellent organisation that offers practical tools and support to bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds. My company is a Scholarship partner and I also personally mentor a young student which I find very rewarding and inspiring. I also act as the Chairperson for Professionelle Foundation, a charitable trust that is focused on supporting working women through their career pipeline. Its inclusivity and practicality in providing usable tools and support is what attracted me to them. I’m not good with ambiguity and talkfests so I’m really pleased to be part of something that is action oriented, supported by good research and with such wonderfully smart women at the helm. Being involved helps me to continue my personal development too! When I’m not working on the above, I’m working on my next export-oriented venture (which is in early start up phase), in between spending time with my husband, daughter, and dog.

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