In Conversation with Shermaine Heng
the creator behind the OpenIDEO Berlin Chapter touches on the balance between achieving goals and pursuing hobbies; finding niches; and the joys of blue sky thinking.
Hi there Shermaine, what’s your story? — I’m an Australian, who was born in Singapore, grew up in Perth, worked in Sydney and Shanghai, and now call Berlin home. Why? Because I’ve found there’s no better way to learn the unknown, face challenges, and meet wonderful people than to go where I never expected.
Starting off my career in an avant-garde fashion & lifestyle magazine, I later moved into marketing. For the past 8 years, I’ve worked within agencies around the world, collaborating with teams to build and communicate brands both locally and on a global scale. The thread tying all my work together is creativity, the vital ingredient that can spark a little magic in all that we do. I believe that great ideas, good intentions, and hard work can truly make a difference in the community. In whatever way I can, I want to be constantly contributing to those around me through social initiatives. In the past few years, I have started a social initiative in Berlin, been a board director for a non-profit focused on disadvantaged children, and was part of the mastermind for TEDxShanghai.
In a nutshell, I’m chronically optimistic and see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I love all things handcrafted, write endlessly, and tend to smile too much.
What does it mean to you to be an Asian Between Cultures (ABC)? — Growing up with two different influences, the Asian culture of your family and the Australian culture of the community. Figuring out where you best fit and how you see the world, and creating your own identity based on this. Being able to understand the context around you and switch freely between them, realising that identity is fluid and malleable depending on each situation and the people you’re around - all while keeping true to yourself. Seeing things from both perspectives, trying to understand each one to create your own opinions.
How does being an ABC shape the way you think of your relationships? — As Chuck Palahniuk says, “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I've ever known.” Similarly, my relationships and life in general are viewed through the combined lens of being a global nomad, an optimist, a free spirit, a feminist, a leader, a follower, a teacher, a student, a dreamer, an explorer, of course an ABC, but also sometimes just a girl ready to take an afternoon nap. All these aspects of my life create the person I am and shape the relationships with those around me.
What are some of the blessings that come with being an ABC? — The biggest benefit of being an ABC is having an understanding of both cultures and being able to bridge the gaps between them. This has allowed me to easily grasp the diverse cultural differences between people and adapt to them. I have been lucky to experience both cultures and pick the values & actions that matter most to me to create my own path and way of life. I’m liberal in my values, I always try to fix what’s broken, I’m always seeking for more, I am independent and fight for what I believe in, I take risks and seek new experiences, and I don’t really believe that grades determine a person. At the same time, I love food and how it brings people together, ‘respect your elders’ is always ingrained in my mind, I find it essential to have savings in my bank account, I enjoy having thousands of aunties & uncles, I always finish what’s on my plate, and whenever needed, I put my head down and work long hours to get everything done. I’ve definitely benefited from being a part of two very different cultural environments.
What are some of the challenges? — When I was younger, there were times when I felt that I never completely fit into either culture – not being accepted as truly “Australian” in Australia or “Asian” in Singapore. But since then I’ve seen this challenge as a strength and end up finding my own niche wherever I go.
Cultural identity and upbringing is a great way to start deeper conversations. Why do you think most people engage or disengage with these topics? — In Shanghai & Berlin, I have been part of a very diverse community and our friends and networks have come from all around the world. As a result, cultural identity and upbringing are very much topics that are discussed in conversation – we find that this is the best way to learn about other cultures, discuss their differences, and the lessons we can take from them. This is one of my favourite parts about living in such an international city with people spanning different backgrounds and cultures. Cultural identity can be a difficult topic to discuss, similar to any topic involving identity, especially in our current culture of ‘political correctness’. People can feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters in fear of offending, probing, or creating awkwardness during conversation. I find that if all words are said with respect and questions are asked with curiosity, we can feel free to share and listen more openly to learn about how we’ve got to where we are.
What are you most looking forward to in the next six months? — When thinking of goals and things I look forward to, my mind often defaults to what I want career-wise – building up my team, growing my account, streamlining processes, encouraging a more positive culture, the list goes on. I find it easy to place my focus on work and push as hard as I can to get there. This year, I’ve decided to try to find more balance between achieving my goals while at the same time, pursuing my hobbies and interests, making time for myself, creating more, reflecting more, and leaving the office at a reasonable time! Also, I can’t forget that in the next six months, I’ll celebrate my 12th anniversary with my partner and we’ll have our wedding – that’s certainly something I’m looking forward to.
What do you work towards in your spare time? — I have a social initiative that I lead together with an amazing group of people, called OpenIDEO Berlin Chapter. We’re a volunteer-driven community dedicated to creating social impact locally in the city. As part of the global OpenIDEO network, we connect creative problem solvers in Berlin to design local solutions to our world's biggest challenges through a series of events and initiatives, for instance redesigning the single-use cup used in McDonald’s & Starbucks. In January 2019, I had the opportunity to attend Gather, the first-ever community summit bringing together OpenIDEO chapter organisers & community mobilisers. We collectively travelled more than sixty thousand kilometres to be there together, flying from Germany, Lebanon, Peru, Kenya, Australia, South Africa, Colombia, Turkey and the US (just to name a few). I was so fortunate to be able to join this transformative experience where we were able to connect, share, and learn from the knowledge and skills of this incredible group of changemakers.
What is the main driving force in your life? Share with us your motivations for doing what you do and pursuing your dreams. — My main driving force is to create positive impact: in the workplaces I’m in, the communities I live in, and the people I connect with. Impact sounds like a big word, but it can be as simple as making someone smile that day or helping improve something around me. I don’t want to drift by and realise that I haven’t made any difference in the place that I’m in. In my workplace, I spend time to build new processes, a positive culture, new initiatives, etc – things that will benefit the agency in the long-run, rather than just focusing on the daily busy work that gets us through each week. These are the things that make a positive difference to both the agency and the team, and ensures that blue sky thinking keeps on happening.
If you had the opportunity to meet one person you haven’t met who would it be, why and what would you talk about? — I can’t narrow it down to one person but I’m really looking forward to meeting more female leaders, leaders in the social impact space, leaders who have accomplished big things, and leaders in general. I want to learn about how they got there and the lessons they learnt along the way. How to build more grit when things get rough. How to make a difference. How to influence culture and mindsets. To talk about their experiences, their journeys, their challenges — and how they overcame them or are in the process of doing so.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your previous self? — To always be curious and keep exploring. It’s a trait that is so underrated but keeps us growing and learning.