Helen Hai built an impressive resume, rising steadily in the ranks from actuary to senior manager, partner, and finally to vice president in a number of large global finance institutions.
But her time in the Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA Program helped her shift her focus in an entirely new direction – one that is bringing the benefits of economic development to Africa. “INSEAD was very important in changing my life,” says Hai. The Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA Program unites INSEAD business school and Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities.
She entered the EMBA Program as vice president of investor relations and China chief actuary for Zurich Financial Services. But during the program, conversations with her coach helped crystalize her desire for change.
“My coach asked me: What do you want to get out of the program?” she recalls. “I said, at this stage in my life, I was looking for true happiness.”
With help from her coach, Hai did identify a missing piece. She wanted to contribute to a greater purpose, and she was ready to take a leap. “You have to have your own compass and really do something you truly believe.”
Partnering with two EMBA classmates, she developed a business plan for a shoe brand. “We all had management experience but lacked operations experience.” A meeting with the chair of Chinese-based shoe and leather manufacturer, Huajian Group, led to an invitation to visit Ethiopia for discussions about establishing a shoe manufacturing plant in Addis Ababa.
“My first trip to Ethiopia was eye-opening,” she says. “I was digesting everything.”
She also realized the potential that Africa holds for the same sort of economic development that China has enjoyed. She accepted the challenge from the Huajian Group chair to set up the plant, joining the company as CEO of overseas investment and group vice president.
She worked fast, and within a year of operation, the Huajian shoe-making facility employed 2,000 locals, now closer to 4,000, who manufacture shoes for leading brands.
With that achievement in hand, she founded the Made in Africa Initiative, a non-governmental organization that promotes industrialization throughout Africa. She also currently serves as the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. And as co-founder of C&H Garments, she is applying her successful formula with the development of garment factories in Rwanda and Ethiopia, also planning to add one in Senegal.
Through these efforts, she is expanding the scope of manufacturing and economic development in Africa. She works closely with many government leaders and international development players, such as the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, and the Gates Foundation.
Hai has garnered recognition for her work, receiving the African Business Icon Award in 2015 and being named a Global Young Leader by the World Economic Forum and an officer of the National Order of Lion of Senegal.
The most significant reward comes with the results, including building sustainable development that bridges the poverty gap. “This is really changing the way people perceive Africa,” she says.
Her time in the Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA Program emphasized the global nature of business and the importance of understanding cultures and their strengths throughout the world. It set the frame squarely for her next, unexpected purpose, helping develop Africa.
“Without INSEAD, I was not able to have the courage and belief to do all this.”