Photo: Vivian Lim

Praised as a schoolgirl for keeping quiet in class, Vivian Lim now uses her voice for positive change. The TEDxSingapore license holder and co-founder of GEN (previously Women In Asia) believes that dialogue is needed to push the needle forward in building a more equitable society.

“Generally, communities bridge understanding through closed door conversations that speak on lived experiences. My team and I are always looking at ways to bring people together in safe spaces, share intimate conversations that matter, and build deep connections,” says Lim, a 2019 Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific Leader.

To kindle inclusive discussions, she has launched Generally Speaking, a limited-run deck of “conversation cards” designed to provoke conversation on gender tropes. Its aim: To build mutual respect for each others’ lived experiences and build a tight-knit community. Proceeds from the parlour game currently go towards the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF), which marks its 25th anniversary this year. Lim is one of 25 BCF “S-HEROes” raising awareness for its early detection advocacy. 

“I’ve spent more than a decade building volunteer-led communities and bringing people together. I know how important such work is for vulnerable communities, so I really respect the work BCF is doing in advocating for issues that women may face, in creating safe spaces for women to grow, and in empowering survivors to give back to the community,” says Lim

(related: BBC alum and would-be flying doctor Anisha Shah recounts the journey to earning her aviator’s licence in Kenya)

With so many hats, what would you list as your occupation on a form?

Most of the time, I leave occupation blank, as I find it difficult to categorise what I do under traditional occupation roles. But I do refer to myself as a “community builder”, as it best describes my work in civil society. Of the brands I lead, TEDxSingapore, champions ideas worth spreading and conversations that matter. GEN, on the other hand, focuses on building a new roadmap towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, if you ask me what field of work I care about, I’ll be able to answer. I’ve always gravitated to the for-impact space. My question back to you would be—do we really need to box ourselves up into “roles”, or leave that space for charting new paths? 

What does “success” mean to you?

To me, success is unexpected, failure is inevitable. I’m not being pessimistic, I just feel that the journey and purpose matter more than the end outcome. In my line of work, I hear stories of thinkers and tinkerers, pioneers and possibilists all the time. In all these stories, it was the journeys of trials and errors, of experimenting and prototyping that mattered more than the final outcome. Having met so many incredible role models, what stood out was their purpose and their “why” that kept them going through all the failures and roadblocks. If we are only fixated on “success”, then we may lose sight of the essence of what purpose is. 

Vivian Lim TedX Obama Foundation Gen Community Builder
Photo: Vivian Lim

An affirmation every girl/woman should tell themselves. 

Raise your voice — This is a recurring message I received from my mentors and role models, and it has become something I hold very closely to. In Asian societies, we are taught and conditioned to not raise our voice.  Especially as females, we are not expected to be heard. I remember being complimented in my growing up years for being the quietest girl in the room.

It took me a whole year to realise how liberating it is to simply raise my voice. “Raising my voice” isn’t just about giving speeches or being in the centre of a discussion. It is about raising our voices on all fronts in the day-to-day—giving opinions actively, contributing to discussions, refusing and rejecting people and issues that aren’t in line with our purpose, agreeing and disagreeing. I realised with this daily practise of raising my voice just a little, the “little” will become “leaps” in time to come. It is not just about the loud voices leading petitions and movements, but the small voices as well. Raising your voice is the first step, and it can be liberating. 

IWD 2022’s theme is “Break the Bias”. In what ways have you broken the bias?

I think I helped to move towards “break the bias” by gathering the strength of the community! I do not think I can break the bias on my own. This journey needs a whole ecosystem, a whole village and kampung. That is why I believe in building communities that share the same vision, creating safe spaces for the community to come together and work towards a common goal. 

One change you wish to effect now, and why.

Bridging the  generational mindset—especially on issues regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. We see a nascent generation of youth riding the gender equality movement, however,  the success of a movement is not just about having a small group of people rallying. We need to break the echo chamber and have this movement be understood by the uncles and aunties too. I hope that we can do more to seed these thoughts and views deeper within our society. I hope to have families and schools discuss topics of gender equity, stereotypes, and even differing generational mindsets. The more we normalise conversations like these— in our mother tongues and in day-to-day chatter—the faster we break the bias for our future generation.

What’s your pet peeve in the gender debate?

That people feel they can get to a conclusion within a one panel session. And taking examples from other cultures that are not relevant or applicable to our society.

Rather than a debate, it needs to be a gender dialogue that includes people from diverse backgrounds, discussing from the same cultural context. It requires the community to collectively decide where this is headed. I advocate a lot for the importance of deep conversations in order to bridge understanding between people. Just like what we are doing with our conversation cards and activities, it is gathering more perspectives before we can come to a common understanding on where our society is headed. For us in Asia, or even within different communities in Asia, the gender debate may start off the same, yet get to different points. We need to recognise that all communities are at different stages of the gender equity dialogue, and we may end up with different ending points too. I feel there isn’t a best answer or conclusion to the debate, we need to find the conclusion that is acceptable for our community. 

Your idea of perfect happiness?

It is seeing magic happen when a community comes together and works on things beyond themselves. It is feeling hopeful about our community when people co-create and work on shared goals. 

When you feel down, what’s a surefire way to lift your mood?

I rant to my closest allies and partner in crime. I don’t necessarily mean these are people who would agree with me 100 per cent, but they are people who will challenge me, break my train of thoughts, make me stop and pause. I’m someone who can go very deep into my own thoughts, so this is an effective way for me to not spiral into a space that is unproductive, and allows me to reset, rethink and restart. 

Who are your real-life heroes?

Countless local, everyday stories of women inspire me. Generations of women who have shaped our thoughts, and views. The opportunities we have now are because we are standing on the shoulders of giants before us. We can have a voice not because of our own ability, but all the generations before us who made steps towards progress.