Meng Choo Cheah
Head of Legal, Sephora
Meng Choo serves as Head of Legal at Sephora (LVMH), SEA & ANZ. Having pioneered and built up a high-performing team in a time of innovative evolution, she has brought, to the legal and compliance functions of Sephora, a focus on efficiency and strategic utilisation of technology, policy and protocols to drive productivity and excellence.
Throughout her career, Meng Choo has worn (and continues to wear) different hats – that of transactional lawyer, in-house counsel, business partner, team leader, mentor and mother. She is a recipient of the 2020 Women in Business Law Outstanding In-house Attorney Award and was also recently nominated as a finalist for the Asian Legal Business SE Asia Law Awards as In-House Lawyer of the Year and Woman Lawyer of the Year (In-House).
We spoke to Meng Choo about her journey, the challenges which lie ahead and the advice she has for young lawyers and women.
Could you tell us a bit about how you found yourself in your role today?
I qualified as a barrister-at-law in the UK and started my career as an M&A lawyer, before transitioning to an in-house role with a private equity firm. After almost a decade of working, I chanced upon an opportunity with Sephora. As I have always had a keen interest in the consumer goods retail and e-commerce industry, I took a leap of faith, and the rest is history.
What are some exciting things that have happened during your time at Sephora?
As Mark Twain put it, “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. When I joined Sephora, I was excited to go to work every day, and to build my dream team within a business I was passionate about and which (having just acquired an e-commerce business) was at the peak of its innovation journey.
Having the opportunity to be selected for a series of international leadership training programs as a next gen leader has helped me to find my authentic leadership style. I have been able to build and coach my team to be responsive to stakeholders and to succeed in getting the opportunities they want. It has made my career so much more meaningful, knowing that I am not only adding value to the organisation, but also forging relationships with my team, the younger legal community and non-legal professionals. I feel immensely proud to have made an impact as a mentor and leader.
In the midst of my career, I also became a mother and am blessed with a tremendously cute little boy with a big heart. He is probably my most rewarding and exciting accomplishment to-date!
You were in BigLaw for 6 years before moving in-house. What attracted you to make the move in-house? Any tips for anyone considering such a move?
Early on, I aspired to be a partner in a big reputable law firm, which law students are often told is the pinnacle of success. However, when I was presented with an opportunity to join a leading Asia focused private equity firm, I was drawn to the possibility of a new career adventure.
While I would never trade away my private practice experience, I have never second-guessed my decision – being an in-house legal business partner has been exciting, challenging and rewarding. 10 years on, and my learning trajectory has not diminished, both professionally and personally. Being in-house has given me the opportunity to elevate my expertise to a new level, work closely with the business and be part of the strategic decision making.
If there was any advice I could give:
- Be true to yourself and be an authentic leader, even if it comes without a title.
- When you find meaning in your work, challenges and obstacles will eventually pan out.
- Be flexible and realise that things are not always black and white.
- Learn about the business and develop the ability to think commercially as a lawyer so you can be a valuable business partner to the organisation.
What keeps you on top of your game in managing the legal aspects of Sephora’s innovative evolution?
Putting in the effort to invest in relationships is always important. I am fortunate to have built lasting relationships with outstanding co-workers and mentors who have supported me in mastering my job and making my long-term mark in the industry.
In an ever-evolving business, I am required to constantly triage and exercise discipline in managing my time (including time blocking and learning how to say “no” in some situations) and resources (including knowing when to seek external support to manage an issue or challenge).
As an in-house lawyer, an open and flexible mindset and ability to get comfortable outside of my comfort zone is key to dealing with stakeholders who often require me to see things from a different angle.
How important is the adoption of technology in your day-to-day work in supporting the business? What types of innovative tools/solutions are important for your legal department?
With business needs and stakeholders increasingly demanding more for less (i.e. more specialised support; quicker turnaround times; cost-efficiency), I see a shift towards using technology and alternative legal solutions in our work. Being the head of a modern legal department who is responsible for external legal spend, I have made a deliberate move away from using traditional law firms, and towards the use of digital tools and ALSPs in supporting the business. This reduces the need for expensive legal services from external counsel that do not provide sufficient value.
Technology-enabled collaboration services have allowed for more integrated and efficient service, resulting in deeper client relationships. Some of the key considerations for me are tools or solutions which are creative, customisable for my specific business needs, scalable and cost-efficient.
What are some of your team’s key priorities for 2021? How has COVID-19 affected your team’s goals?
Our key priority, more than ever before, is to support the business in its omni-channel initiatives to scale the business. COVID-19 has forced us to re-prioritise and adapt to new ways of working. Some tactical steps we have taken to strengthen learning capabilities include:
- increasing virtual learning programs;
- creating more bite-sized legal and compliance awareness training for the business;
- creating self-serve tools to empower the business to move forward swiftly in decision-making and implementation
- establishing a learning-response team; and
- exploring alternative digital strategies and legal technologies to prepare for multiple outcomes and to tackle new issues as they arise.
How do you think increased digitalisation of businesses and remote working will impact resourcing and the workplace?
COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented change and challenges. Although conventional wisdom has been that face-time is critical to productivity, remote working using technology and digital collaboration have produced results better than I could have imagined. This will inevitably impact resourcing as many are starting to prefer greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives.
As organisations reimagine work practices and workplaces, it is unlikely there will be a one-size fits all solution. Resourcing will depend on what talent is needed, how much collaboration is needed and continued innovation on how work should be done. Talent sourcing will become easier and more diverse as the pool of talent will likely have fewer geographical constraints.
How have the challenges for women in law & tech changed vs 10 years ago? Any career advice for women in these industries?
The challenges which women faced a decade ago and today remain largely the same, including the perception that women can’t have it all, that women are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts and ultimately, the difficulty in breaking the glass ceiling. While I have seen more and more women in senior leadership positions, what hasn’t changed is that working mothers (myself included) are often torn between the demands of work and family.
The biggest difference today is that technology, and the right working environment, can help women (and men) work more efficiently and achieve a greater work-life balance and sense of fulfilment in our careers and self-identities.
To be the best that we can be, whether professionally or personally, we must be willing to overcome self-doubt and not be influenced by the expectations and prejudices of those around us.
Who / what inspires you?
My mother greatly inspires me to be a better person and strive for the best, be it in career or personal development. She is a woman of great resilience – despite having gone through many adversities, she has always had a positive outlook on life. She has taught me that hard times can be overcome, and to have confidence in myself.
On a day-to-day level, I derive inspiration from podcasts and books on varied topics. I am reminded of a poem by one of my favourite authors, Robin Sharma – “Spring has passed. Summer has gone. Winter is here … and the song that I am meant to sing remains unsung, for I have spent my days stringing and unstringing the instrument.” This often reminds me of the shortness of life – how easy it is to get drawn into spending the best hours of our days being busy.
More than anything, I want to make the most of my life with no regrets. That is my ultimate life inspiration. It is why I took on the pioneering role with Sephora, moved to Singapore to pursue my career and, often, chosen to travel the road less travelled even if it is challenging. Like a compass point, it channels me down certain paths aligned with my goals and values, away from the safe and predictable and into unfamiliar territory.
What are two things people don’t know about you? Fun facts or secret talents?
I love books – the reading, the touch, the smell, and the excitement of discovering gems in a bookstore. My downfall is that I often don’t get to finish a book as soon as I would like to, but I’m working on time management strategies to get around this! I’m also a self-proclaimed multi-potentialite. I used to feel guilty for wanting to pursue different interests in life, and not finding enough time to do them. I don’t anymore and am now finding new life hacks and ways to be more productive, which will boost my ability to pursue my interests!