November 1, 2021

Bridgespan Southeast Asia: An Interview with the Leaders of Our Newest Office

Chris Addy, partner and head of The Bridgespan Group’s new Southeast Asia office, and Xueling Lee, senior manager, discuss their journeys in the social sector and Bridgespan’s aims for engaging with sector leaders to enhance impact in the region.

Bridgespan Singapore leaders

What led you to Bridgespan?

Chris: I began my career as a science and math teacher in Southern California, and in the summer, I also led leadership and adventure trips for students throughout North America. After that, I went to business school to create more professional opportunities for myself and got a job at Bain & Company. It was at the Kellogg School of Management and Bain that I first learned about Bridgespan. I joined Bridgespan in 2010—first in Boston and now in Singapore, where I am leading our efforts to expand our impact in Southeast Asia. Over the last 12 years, I have supported several families and individuals in developing their philanthropic strategy and launching major initiatives, worked with leading impact investors on questions of strategy and measurement, and supported ambitious NGO leaders to increase their impact. This work has spanned education, health, climate, livelihoods, justice, and other areas in the United States, Sub-Sarahan Africa, and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.

Xueling: I started my career as a high school economics teacher in Singapore on a scholarship from the Singapore Ministry of Education. After three years of teaching, I wanted to learn more about how the private sector operates and joined Bain Southeast Asia. I was at Bain for nine years, during which I completed my MBA. I remained passionate about social impact, leading several pro bono projects, and spent a year on an externship with Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. I also spent two years leading transformation across a large multinational corporation, which taught me a great deal about how to operationalise strategy and drive change across large, complex organisations. I joined Bridgespan Southeast Asia in March 2022 as their first local hire and am excited to contribute to building the social sector in the region. I’m most passionate about education, economic development, and supporting women and girls.

What prompted The Bridgespan Group to open an office in Southeast Asia?

Chris: Singapore was a natural place for Bridgespan’s next office in Asia. (Our India office opened in 2015.) In each geography, we consider the potential for learning and impact. There’s so much innovation happening in Southeast Asia’s social sector: from social enterprises and NGOs leveraging technology to achieve impact at scale, to those forming deep partnerships with local governments to help build nations, to family offices using their assets for impact, to foundations exploring innovative models. We are excited to learn from these models and share our lessons with others in the region and around the world. Singapore’s central location makes it possible to serve clients from across APAC, from Australia to North and East Asia and everything in between.

Xueling: Southeast Asia is also very densely populated, with over 675 million people, so there’s an opportunity—and need—to advance inclusive and sustainable economic development, both to improve health and education outcomes and to combat and adapt to the results of climate change.

What work has Bridgespan already done in Southeast Asia?

Chris: Prior to having a physical presence in Southeast Asia, Bridgespan engaged with several clients in the region and APAC more broadly. We supported Temasek and ABC Impact as they launched their impact investing fund. We also collaborated with Bain to serve the Thai Red Cross and the Tanoto Foundation. More recently, we have worked with the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network on their strategy and operations and with the Tenure Facility, which works with Indigenous people throughout the world’s tropical forests to secure land rights.

How is Bridgespan incorporating equity into its work within the region?

Chris: This is such an important question and a place for us to do some deep learning as an organisation. There are really three components to our approach in the region that build on and localise Bridgespan’s overall diversity, equity, and inclusion focus:

  • The first is that, because there is no one “Southeast Asian culture,” our team has been conducting research and participating in trainings on cross-cultural collaboration and sensitivity. These will provide important skills for both expats who join our team as well as local hires.
  • The second element is that we are engaging in a series of conversations to understand the historical context of countries within Southeast Asia. That context is critical to understanding the current state of equity. We are just scratching the surface of different historical immigration patterns, colonisation, independence movements, and other issues.
  • Finally, we are going country by country to explore some of the biggest issues of equity, whether around gender, religion, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ communities, or other marginalised populations. Building this foundation will enable our team to bring an intersectional equity lens more effectively to our work with clients, as well as engage in conversations with sector leaders on issues of equity and, over time, help to create more equitable results for society.

Xueling: We’re coming at this work with a spirit of humility, focusing on listening and learning. We’re engaging as much as we can with proximate leaders in the social sector, seeking first to understand instead of imposing any preconceived notions. 

How do you envision Bridgespan’s work in the region growing in the years to come?

Chris: My hope is that, over time, we will be able to work with a diverse mix of clients—funders, investors, and others—who are working across Southeast Asia or focused on their home country and who share our passion for creating a more just and equitable world.

We are also grateful for having the time and capacity to do meaningful research.

Xueling: Additionally, we hope to support the expansion and maturation of the social sector in Southeast Asia. There is a confluence of massive wealth accumulation in the region (as evidenced by the explosion of family offices in Singapore), but there has not yet been commensurate growth in applying that capital to social and environmental impact at the scale that’s needed.

Unlocking some of that capital can help grassroots leaders and social entrepreneurs get the fuel they need to power the kind of sustainable, equitable, and inclusive growth and outcomes that people in the region aspire to achieve.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.