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Melissa Mowbray-d'Arbela: 'The key is trusted guides and voices', says ethical innovator

As a pioneering entrepreneur, any obstacle can be overcome, but respect for the support around you is key, writes Marie Incles

 

Two minutes into our conversation and it's clear Melissa Mowbray-d'Arbela selects pioneering business projects based on ethical choices. Still, reaching out for help is not beneath her. "Self-doubt is important. You'd be arrogant to presume you have all the answers. The key is trusted guides and voices."

She is chief executive of Filligent, a cutting-edge biotech firm based on new ideas and products to address unmet health needs around the world.

One of Filligent's main products is the bio-mask, an anti-infection face mask designed along "intelligent filtration" principles. It has been used in the aftermath of major disasters, such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and in HIV hospices.

Then there's the cigarette filter that makes cigarettes less dangerous by blocking many of the carcinogens. It is tipped to be introduced on the mainland, where 1 million people a year die from smoking.

"I firmly believe China is where it's going to be introduced, due to the top-down authority and where it will benefit the most people. They are not going to stop selling tobacco and so the filters work in a way to alleviate the effects," Mowbray-d'Arbela says. "Often it's men who die from tobacco, so families lose the major breadwinner. I have a chance to redress that."

A former investment banker at Lehman Brothers and corporate lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Mowbray-d'Arbela has come a long way from her impoverished roots in Australia, where she was raised, as one of four children, by her single mother. Yet, having established a successful career, she wanted to help the needy.

In 2007, she teamed up with Civic Exchange chief financial officer Kylie Uebergang and philanthropist Ranjan Marwah to establish PathFinders, a charity that assists distressed migrant women and their Hong Kong-born children. Since 2008, the project has assisted over 1,000 pregnant women, mainly overseas domestic helpers, with clothing, baby items, medical treatment, and work and repatriation documentation. The charity's work is close to her heart, as her mother also helped single mothers and victims of domestic violence. In the course of her voluntary work for PathFinders, in Chungking Mansions, she learned that traffickers were taking many of the pregnant women's children.

"In every city across the world, there are these ghost women. Because they have no papers it becomes easy to become prey," Mowbray-d'Arbela says.

The mother of a daughter, Chiara, now eight, she was so moved by the plight of the trafficked children, that she adopted a baby girl, Kaila. The adoption process here proved tough, but Mowbray-d'Arbela overcame these hurdles. This year, Kaila started school - an emotional milestone in the mother's and daughter's lives.

"She's super-smart," Mowbray-d'Arbela says of Kaila. "I am humbled by both my daughters every day - their love and respect for each other, their quest for knowledge and for ways to make the world suffer less. Imagine what the world would be like if we gave more people the chance to reach their full potential."

Asked if being a woman working in Hong Kong has helped her success, Mowbray-d'Arbela credits the city as an excellent place to do business, and praises the support of her "excellent and caring home team".

"Until this year, I would have said being a woman makes no difference. I ignored it, but it really does inform everything. It makes you a focal point. You're subjected to a higher form of scrutiny. There are many double standards, but we are women and we cope with it. It's not a massive stumbling point."

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