Sylvia is an award-winning filmmaker, Penguin Random House author, TV host and philanthropy consultant. She was awarded the Global 50 Women In Sustainability Awards 2022 by The SustainabilityX® Magazine. She was among the Top 100 Human Trafficking & Slavery Influence Leaders List in 2017 by Assent Compliance. She won the prestigious 2013 International Human Rights Press Award for her three-part documentary series on human trafficking.
Since 2005, Sylvia has managed and directed millions of dollars to major humanitarian portfolios. She is the author of ‘A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia’; ‘Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women’, the only journalistic account of historical Japanese military sex slavery during WWII, and ‘Heart and Soul.’ She is the editor of the Penguin book by Allison Heiliczer, ‘Rethink the Couch.’
Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Sylvia shared her professional journey, challenges faced by her as a woman in the media industry, the benefits of using social media platforms, exciting future plans, words of wisdom, and a lot more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
As an accomplished author, filmmaker, and TV host, you have undoubtedly made significant contributions to the media industry. Can you share with us your personal journey and the challenges you faced as a woman in these fields?
I have had a lot of unconventional and adventurous work, life and relationship experiences in China, Hong Kong and across Asia over the last 19 years. As a philanthropy fund manager and journalist, I have had the absolute joy and the gravest responsibility to bear witness to the poorest, hopeless, and exploited men, women and children. Seeing so much human suffering has profoundly transformed me and given a different perspective on life and human nature. I am currently writing a book to pass on these lessons for the next generation.
I’ve learned from a lot of crazy things I’ve seen and done during my investigations and adventures – I’ve been on the secretive underground railroad of people rescuing North Koreans, I’ve walked past armed soldiers in Myanmar, I’ve interviewed pimps in brothels and taken photos and video footage of some of the darkest red light districts in Asia, I’ve seen strung out heroin addicts with needles sticking out of their arms.
I have also had my share of challenges as a woman often working in a cross-cultural, male-dominated workplace. But I was always able to find a solution or way to thrive in those circumstances despite any hindrances I felt or mistakes I made. For me, I learn the most from failures.
I believe that pursuing one’s dreams is one way to fulfill potential. Back in 2001, I had dreamed of writing the voices of “comfort women”, wartime sex slavery victims of the Japanese military before and during WWII for the next generation to teach them about this dark chapter of history. No one had ever written a book in English that was for young people. I didn’t have anyone to help me or give me advice. And by a miracle, I finished this book despite a lot of obstacles in 2015. I feel grateful that I’m working with a film company in Singapore to develop a TV series inspired by my latest book, A Long Road to Justice.
The media has the power to shape public perception and influence policy discussions. How do you see media’s role in addressing human rights violations and advocating for positive change, specifically in relation to issues affecting women?
I wanted to interview the first victim of human trafficking in Hong Kong on camera for a current affairs documentary because I knew that would make a profound impact and influence on many levels. At that time in 2013, there were no documented victims of modern slavery in the city but I knew there were countless people trapped and suffering in exploitation. I spent around 9 months scouring the city’s red light districts with a missionary to look for sex trafficking victims and my husband, Matt Friedman, an internationally renowned expert on human trafficking, advised me on what to look for. After the release of the film, the movement to fight modern slavery was just beginning to blossom in the corporate world through Matt’s work at the Mekong Club and we were able to point to this news media report as a point of discussion on this human rights violation. Today, Matt and the Mekong Club team have reached more than 40,000 professionals with awareness talks on modern slavery and what the private sector can do to help eliminate it. Around the world, more than 120,000 professionals at hundreds of corporations have heard a talk on modern slavery and the movement is growing.
Social media has become a powerful tool for self-expression and sharing stories. What impact do you think platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have had on the visibility and influence of women in media? Are there any drawbacks or challenges associated with these platforms?
I am an avid LinkedIn user, and I am grateful for the multitude of opportunities that it has brought to me as a LinkedIn Top Voice (which means I am considered an expert in the topics I write about which includes philanthropy and leadership). I began posting my personal stories every week more than a year ago and I covered topics that ranged from the best piece of advice I’ve ever received to the power of forgiveness and toxic bosses. I was surprised by the response from my community and the new contacts I’ve made and the invitations to speak at corporations. More women need to get on LinkedIn. While there may be a drawback in the form of some men who mistakenly think it’s a dating app, I find that the benefits and the visibility to speak out and to network far outweigh it all.
Your work has touched on the dark and often overlooked aspects of society. How do you balance bringing attention to these important issues while also ensuring that your audience feels empowered and inspired to take action?
Whenever I’m writing or producing a story on a victim who has survived the unspeakable such as human trafficking, I feel I’m doing a balancing act. I strive to be respectful of the survivor and share parts of his or her testimony that will move the audience while ensuring that it does not bring the survivor any harm. It has been my greatest privilege to be able to write about the voiceless and to bring untold stories to the public – I see myself as a mobilizer of volunteers, funding and resources through my writing and media work. I am now working on other writing and media projects such fiction writing and related to youth, but I will always find time to write about human rights issues if no one else is putting a spotlight on it.
As an accomplished author, filmmaker, and TV host, what projects or initiatives are you currently working on, and what can we expect from you in the future regarding the advancement of women’s rights and representation in the media?
I am writing a book that I wished I could have read when I was in my teens or in my 20s. It’s a book that describes how I’ve learned key life lessons as I share advice for how to find your purpose and calling, how to navigate toxic offices, what to look for when it comes to your significant other and more. I’m also developing a TV series called ‘Fallen Butterflies’ that is inspired by my Penguin book, ‘A Long Road to Justice’ and it’s on my journey of investigating the trafficking underworld for two decades. I hope to inspire more people to take action and fight modern slavery with their time, talent and resources.
As a SheSource expert listed in the Women’s Media Center database, you bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Looking ahead, what changes or advancements would you like to see in the media industry in terms of gender equality and the representation of women? How can aspiring women in media contribute to driving these changes?
It’s important to me to see more Asian representation and diversity in the media – it shapes society and the next generation. During my teens, a lack of Asian role models in the media exacerbated the lack of confidence I had over my appearance and I struggled with feeling invisible. I simply believed I was ugly and inferior and that other Caucasian girls embodied the ultimate standard of beauty. For a teen girl, that’s a devastating belief and label to have and wreaked havoc on my emotions and self-esteem. I thought my eyes were too small and my nose was too flat. I wished I had blonde hair and blue eyes and in high school, I even used color contacts to change my eye colour to a light bluish grey. What if I had grown up seeing more Asians on the TV screens and in the media in general? It would have been affirming and life altering. It’s my goal to produce more TV and film with strong Asian women leads and to tell the untold stories of history and Korean history (I’m Korean-Canadian).
You’ve been championing women’s rights for many years. Do you foresee any changes in the near future in Asia?
I foresee a major women’s movement rising in Asia. It feels like the time is coming – we have more Asian women of influence in our present generation, more than any other time. More than 100 years ago, Asian women like me would have had bound feet, would have been considered property and not given a name until I was married, I would have not been given the right to go to school and more.
The viral news of the trafficked woman and mother of 8 children chained up by the neck in Suzhou, China a year ago has sparked a nation-wide discussion in that nation. Perhaps it is the fullness of time for this women’s rights issue. I wrote of a similar bride trafficking survivor I met several years ago in my book, A Long Road to Justice, and the chaining of women as in medieval times and even giving North Korean trafficked brides slippers to wear while working in the fields to prevent them from running away is tragically common.
Amazingly, from what I hear from mainland Chinese professionals, there is a growing anti-trafficking movement afoot there and I believe it’s due to the increasing influence of professional women who are outraged by the horrific exploitation of women.
How has your perspective changed as a professional woman over the years?
One perspective that I’ve come to embrace is deeply appreciating the rock bottom and setbacks in my life. These experiences are more valuable than all the gold in the world; they are the best MBAs, they lead to wisdom, discernment and insight and money can’t buy that and no one can teach these things, they come by lived experience and overcoming heartbreak, difficulties, trials and immense personal challenges.
For so long, I was searching for myself, for identity, purpose and meaning – I found it when I gave my life away; that is, when I began to live to help others who were suffering instead of living a self-absorbed life. I’ve found true happiness and joy in giving my time, my talents and resources to serve and support those in need.
Over the years, I’ve come to conclude that knowing yourself is so vital and that’s the first piece of advice that I would give to any young person. Know your identity. If you don’t know your identity, then you cannot know your destiny and purpose in life fully. Knowing and accepting yourself enables you to love and embrace yourself. Then you can “do you” and not care about what anyone else thinks which can leave you under the mercy and control of others’ opinions.