As a former Miss World Malaysia and notable television host, Deborah Henry is also passionate about championing the rights of children and refugees and their rights to education. She has dedicated most of her time to numerous philanthropic efforts including co-founding Fugee School, a school for refugee children in Malaysia and running Fugee.org, a non-profit organisation as well as Fugeelah, a social enterprise.
On December 12th, 2019, she was invited to moderate a talk between former US first lady Michelle Obama and award-winning actress Julia Roberts at the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific event held in Kuala Lumpur. She shares five key takeaways from the inspiring conversation focused on leadership and education.
3 women sharing the same stage
I’ve always been a fairly self-confident woman. I’ve always believed I had a right to sit at the table and vigorously fought for it. But when I received confirmation that I would be sharing the stage and moderating a conversation with Julia Roberts (a childhood favourite actress of mine) and Michelle Obama, a kafuffle of questions clouded my head.
Who was I to be on that stage? What had I achieved compared to them? Weren’t there so many other Malaysian women who could do a better job? This was my “I’m not good enough” moment. And who wouldn’t be intimidated in such a situation? But thanks to a few close friends who bolstered me, I owned my place on that stage.
Sitting on that stage with Julia Roberts and Michelle Obama on December 12th, it dawned on me that we were just 3 women, having a conversation, sharing our own experiences about life and we could relate to each other. It really showed me that it doesn’t matter how different our lives are, when you make the effort to sit down and understand each other you can always find things to connect and bond over.
Sometimes, you may feel like you are not good enough to be in the room, to sit at that table or to have a voice. Sometimes the world tells you that you don’t belong, that you don’t have what it takes. Maybe it is because of the colour of your skin, where you grew up, or simply because people like you don’t get ahead in life. People from all walks of life feel this way at some point. For instance, Michelle Obama said a counselor once told her not to bother applying to Ivy League schools because it wasn’t for someone like her.
But what I learnt that day is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead of letting this hold her back, it only cemented Michelle’s determination to apply and get accepted.
She spoke about her journey, and how she always second-guessed herself but then sitting in a boardroom one day she realized maybe it’s the guy next to me who doesn’t belong. Just because the world tells us a ‘certain’ type of person belongs or is the right kind of person for the job, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question what is considered the status quo.
This is why I believe in personal development and self-care. It is so crucial that we invest in ourselves and have champions in our lives who support our success. Michelle ended by saying, “no one is going to give up their seat for you. You need to want it, to practice being there and ‘owning’ your own seat. I’m telling you ‘you belong’.” This resonated with me on so many levels. It is not about what others say about you or where you belong it is purely about what you think of yourself and where you know in your heart you should be.
Find your joy
When you get so busy with living life, crossing off every task on your to-do list, you can often miss out on the most important task of all – finding joy. For is an unhappy life really one worth living? We can find joy in the most simple things, if we put our mind to it and this is what I learnt from Julia Roberts. Julia talked about her mum being so busy committing to things and doing things for others that she didn’t have time for joy, she didn’t even think about it nor desire it for herself. I later asked the question, “where does your light come from on a dark day?” Michelle built onto joy, saying, “we are taught to plan our lives but we are not taught to plan our joy.” In order to stay vital you have to plan joy. “Unlike our mothers, women who didn’t have joy, we owe it to ourselves to achieve joy. The question simply is how will you plan your weekly joy. Understand how to bring yourself joy, plan for it and expect it.”
As I understand it, planning joy is not selfish. It’s self-care.
Heroes come in many shapes and forms. Should our role models and heroes be confined to someone famous? If we can truly value the people in our lives, we will find that our heroes live amongst us. They may be your family or friends or sometimes someone in the room whom you haven’t even met. I loved when Julia mentioned the small daily heroic acts her mum made in providing for the family.
Michelle reminded us to be mindful of positive energy. She told us to never forget the positive input people around us bring into our lives. Pay attention to and invest in the positive energy coming our way every day.
My interaction with Julia and Michelle cemented this belief, that if we really open our eyes, heroes can be found everywhere we look. Inspiration surrounds us, it is just waiting for you to latch on to it.
Change is incremental
We live in an ‘on demand’ world. We want it all and we want it now. We always want to win because failure is hard, demotivating and not looked kindly upon. But is this really a feasible reality? And would it be so bad if it wasn’t?
During the session on December 12th, Michelle asked a few questions, “Are we in this to win? What does winning look like? We all want to be able to say, we did this, we achieved this victory! But if you are in this for real change you need to be in it for the long haul.”
We need to appreciate and celebrate the small victories that happen. Julia said, “It’s about the delicious bits of truth we should savour every day.” Michelle echoed this, “There are moments of victories, you may not see any results from, but the work you are doing in your lifetime, is vital in preparing for that result. You are investing in the future. To be part of a bigger, longer solution”
Change happens bit by bit. It is not instantaneous and it is not always blindingly clear. But we must not be discouraged. We must persevere.
The power lies with people and it is our job as people to use this power to the best of our ability to affect the change we want in the world. When we create a vision for something different and operate from truth success will come no matter how gradual it may be.