Southeast Asia’s Women of the Future: spotlight on the region’s leaders and changemakers

Three of the award winners (L-R): Dr Bee Lynn Chew (Science, Technology & Digital), Chit Thu (Social Entrepreneur), Heidi Quah (Community Spirit & Public Service)

Ten young women across diverse sectors were recognized with awards for their work and leadership, showcasing the region’s female changemakers.

By Zachary Frye                                                               

On June 25, Southeast Asia’s Women of the Future Awards celebrated women engaged in leadership roles across the region—and encouraged those that are following in their footsteps.

Although persistent inequalities remain, especially in access to leadership roles in business and government, women in Southeast Asia are finding ways to break through and make a difference.

The awards included 10 categories, ranging from arts and culture to business, science and community service. In a virtual ceremony that showcased their work and talent, winners were picked from a shortlist of 48 candidates across all 10 ASEAN countries plus Timor-Leste, an observer nation.

In her opening address at the ceremony, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, a member of the British royal family, noted the unusual circumstances wrought by the COVID-19 crisis while lauding the women for their determination.

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leadership,” she said, adding that “talented female leaders are paving the way and affecting positive change…shattering stereotypes and inspiring the next generation of women across Southeast Asia.”

Women’s voices on the prospects of advancement and renewal

Many of the winners said they were encouraged by the recognition and energized by their peers.

“[This award] has inspired me in many ways and motivated me to continue to help make Cambodia to be a better place to live through the Think Plastic and Stay at Home campaigns,” said Sotheavy At, a manager with USAID Development Innovations, a project funded by the US government that encourages unique solutions to global development.

“I am more committed than ever to support other young women and men to be innovators and leaders,” she added.

Others emphasized the need to work together across sectors. “This award isn’t just for me, but for my community…I want to collaborate with you all,” said Chit Thu, a winner from Myanmar who developed an award-wining digital education company called CCEducare.

Khin Thida Hnin, another winner from Myanmar, agreed. “I believe we will be able to inspire and empower each other…to create more positive impacts in our societies,” said Khin Thida Hnin, who is helping open the country to foreign tourists after decades of military rule through her company Forever Travel & Tours.

For Anita Takounsy, an entrepreneur from Vientiane, the award is more than simple recognition—it’s a way to show the next generation of girls in her country that they have a chance to follow their dreams and goals.

“This award means a lot to me and also means a lot to every girl and woman in Laos that are trying to strive and…do good work for their community,” she said. Takounsy is the co-owner of Once Upon a Time Coffee, a business that sources its coffee beans ethically from locations throughout rural Laos.

Despite the difficulties that remain, women leaders have the power to help move the region forward

Award winner Gigi Morris is the founder of the MoCA Family Farm RLearning Center, an organization that teaches and supports sustainable family farms across the Philippines. Acknowledging the continued barriers to women leadership fueled by social expectations, she said that she felt scared when she first heard about her nomination.  

“[I knew] that inspiring women in a bigger platform is a huge responsibility. But I had to remind myself that the real women of the future don’t run away from responsibilities. Instead, we embrace it and we say bring it on.”

Lucille Dejito, an award winner who works with the International Justice Mission to end forced labour and child sexual exploitation across the Philippines, said her work shows how women in every sector play a role in preventing abuse and encouraging just economies.

“A woman of the future is not deterred by these giants [of abuse]. Instead, a woman of the future chooses courage, charges us with hope and catalysts others to join the fight,” she said.

Winners demonstrated a diversity of talent across countries and sectors

The full list of winners is as follows:

Arts & Culture: Annice Lyn, Photographer, Anntopia Studios (Malaysia)

Business: Khin Thida Hnin, Managing Director, Forever Travel & Tours (Myanmar)

Community Spirit & Public Service: Heidi Quah, Founder & Director, Refuge for the Refugees (Malaysia)

Entrepreneur: Anita Takounsy, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Once Upon a Time Coffee and Lao-Bolaven Coffee Roasters (Laos)

Media & Communications: Sotheavy At, Senior Innovation Programme Manager, DAI Global, LLC/USAID Development Innovations Project (Cambodia)

Mentor: Gigi Morris, Founder, MoCA Family Farm Rlearning Centre (Philippines)

Professions: Lucille Dejito, Director of Legal Interventions, International Justice Mission, Cebu (Philippines)

Property: Rhonda Wong, Chief Executive Officer, Ohmyhome (Singapore)

Science, Technology & Digital: Dr Bee Lynn Chew, Senior Lecturer, Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysia)

Social Entrepreneur: Chit Thu, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, CCEducare Myanmar (Myanmar)

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.