Real estate developer and LGBTQI+ activist Gigi Chao on how nurturing acceptance can harness creativity in business - and save the next generation

In association with EPOS
·5-min read

By Jennifer Barton

For Gigi Chao, even the sky isn’t the limit.

As the Executive Vice Chairman of Hong Kong real estate development firm, Cheuk Nang Holdings Ltd., Chao’s day job sees her managing multi-million pound property developments and deals.

She’s also got an overflowing “gay job,” as a vocal LGBTQI+ activist and philanthropist. In whatever spare time she has, she often takes to the skies as a helicopter pilot.

As a youngster, Chao was already aiming high.

“I dreamed of becoming a president of a country,” Chao says on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

As the daughter of property tycoon Cecil Chao Sze-Tsung, it seems presiding over the family business has always been in her destiny, yet Chao has paved a new way, navigating the expectations and traditions of the past, while evolving the business to innovate and inspire the next generation.

Executive Vice Chairman of Hong Kong real estate development firm, Cheuk Nang Holdings Ltd, Gigi Chao
Executive Vice Chairman of Hong Kong real estate development firm, Cheuk Nang Holdings Ltd, Gigi Chao

While Chao describes her path as being “laid out for me,” she famously rebelled against familial expectations after penning an open letter to her father entitled: “Dear Daddy, you must accept I’m a lesbian,” in 2014. The letter came in response to her father placing a “marriage bounty” on her head - and her bold move impacted people across the globe.

“We try the most polite way first and then if it doesn’t work, we have to keep escalating. I think that was my strategy. The fact that it reverberated around the world was a surprise and it did do something to my father to make him realise the importance of acceptance,” Chao says.

As a business leader, Chao is vocal about her company standing for something beyond profitability, which she sees as an essential concern for those in the 25-39-year-old age bracket, as well as those of us who are rethinking what work-life balance means in a pandemic world.

“It’s really a three-pronged approach so everything is not just about the financially profitable sector. There is the corporate culture or the advocacy that a brand or a company stands for, and there’s also the ESG or the community engagement or the community work or the poverty alleviation work. So everything that we do, we have a 360 worldview and the path goes in three prongs,” she explains of her business strategy.

While Chao never envisioned herself as an activist, her passion for LGBTQI+ rights and equality has led her to pour her resources into helping others. Chao is the founder of charities including Faith in Love and Big Love Alliance, as well as co-founding Hong Kong Marriage Equality. Chao is also an ambassador for AIDS Concern and an adviser on the UN Development Programme’s ‘Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific initiative’.

“LGBTI acceptance is a matter of life and death. It is urgent and important. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ because it impacts our young people and it impacts the mental health of our young people so severely that without acceptance, I don’t see how our next generation can be happy and can bring their full selves to their lives,” Chao tells Brinded.

Gigi Chao talks to Yahoo Finance UK's Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded
Gigi Chao talks to Yahoo Finance UK's Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded

For Faith in Love, now in its 12th year, Chao mostly focuses on anti-discrimination work, recently launching an an app called VoiceOut!, developed in response to how the social unrest in Hong Kong and the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affected those in the LGBTQI+ community.

“That’s made us realise that technology has really not made the world a more equal place. If anything, it’s made the world much more unequal. And if we are to make an intervention and do something for the less fortunate, we have to do it in ways that are relevant to the times.”

The app allows people, especially those who identify as LGBTQI+, to log instances of discrimination and abuse (including being forced into “conversion” therapy), with pro bono lawyers on hand to assist their cases and resolve any issues.

In Hong Kong, there are still no legal protections for discriminations against LGBTQI+ individuals. Chao describes the work as going into the courtroom to “build the law” for each case, from the bottom up.

Chao is conscious to tread a fine line between respect to local culture, and pushing the envelope, especially when it comes to matters of discrimination, which Chao rails against in every aspect of her life, including business.

“I rule with an iron fist and there’s a zero tolerance for discrimination and that is very clear for everybody that does business with us. And that, I hope, really harnesses creativity and allows people to enjoy life.”

Watch the full Gigi Chao Global Change Agents interview for:

● Chao’s views on her role and responsibilities as a “global citizen”

● Chao’s advice on being a woman in a male-dominated world

● Chao’s take on how the Covid disruption has impacted diversity inclusion and how crucial it is for companies to amp up their anti-discrimination policies

● Chao discussing her work for Hong Kong Marriage Equality, which helps LGBTQI+ people access their rights through the courts

● Chao talking about her work for the UN, where she helps out on programs that encourage entrepreneurship in LGBTQI+ communities as well as poverty alleviation for LGBTQI+ folk in rural areas

● Chao’s advice to her younger self

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.