Meet The Tribe: Esther Ma

By Lee Williamson

The Prestique founder talks PR, wellness and the importance of a healthy work-life balance

Tatler Asia

Meet the Tribe is a five-part series introducing some of the industry leaders who helped us select the Generation T List 2018—a panel of experts we call the Tatler Tribe.  

Esther Ma could write the book on balance. In fact, she has. Well, at least one chapter of her book Harvest of the Seven Human Vines is on the importance of finding balance in life.

It’s fitting, given how many personas Ma balances on a daily basis. There’s Esther Ma the business owner, Esther Ma the philanthropist, Esther Ma the wellness advocate, among many others.

To the public at large, she’s perhaps best known as Esther Ma the PR guru—founder of Prestique, an agency whose client list runs the full A to Z of the world’s biggest brands. (In fact, she’s written the book on that, too. The title? The A to Z of PR.)

Two years ago, she also co-founded a sport management company, Harvest Sky, with her husband Harvey Lee. The agency looks after 30 of Hong Kong’s top athletes, including Olympians and Asian Games medal winners, and appeals to Ma’s “long-held passion for mentoring.”

Between her two businesses, daily workout schedule and other roles—including a seat on chief executive Carrie Lam’s steering committee on Basic Law—it’s no wonder Ma admits to only getting five hours sleep a night. We talk to her about management styles, mentorship and her journey to discovering the importance of balance.

Tatler Asia
Above  Esther Ma at lifestyle boutique Maison Huit, one of Prestique's clients, styled in Theory. (Photo: Moses Ng/Hong Kong Tatler)

You pivoted careers at a very early age. Can you tell us about that?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong but went to boarding school in Connecticut at 16, before going to UC Berkeley to get some California sunshine and a degree in economics. Back then, everyone coveted Wall Street jobs—and I was one of them, just blindly looking for a Wall Street banking job. I got hired by Citibank, in mortgage-backed securities, but I hated it. For two years I suffered, working 24/7. I didn't like my boss and I didn't like the nature of my job, so one day I just decided to take the subway up to Columbia Business School.

I knocked on the door, met the admissions director and said "I want to switch careers! I really don't like my job and I'm such a personal gal. I really like marketing and want to do something creative." She was touched and she offered me a place. I majored in marketing and management, then came back to Hong Kong and worked for Procter & Gamble as a summer intern. They offered me a job during my exit interview.

See also: Meet The Tribe: Aaron Lee

"I’d always wanted to start something from scratch, to be my own boss."

And that’s where you discovered your passion for PR?
Yes. I was assigned to SK-II, one of the most renowned beauty brands in the world. I came up with this integrated campaign that involved spokespersons, marketing and PR. I did it all: organised events, wrote the press releases, designed collaterals, did road shows in shopping malls—I even trained up beauticians. After five years, it was a regional success story and every market was replicating the Hong Kong model.

I was really proud, but at that point I said, "It's about time I go on my own." I’d always had this entrepreneurial itch; I’d always wanted to start something from scratch, to be my own boss. So I started lifestyle PR company Prestique and I never looked back. That was 22 years ago.

See also: Meet the Tribe: Joyce Tam

Tatler Asia
Above  Esther Ma at Maison Huit, styled in Theory. (Photo: Moses Ng/Hong Kong Tatler)

What are the most important traits of a successful leader?
I think there are three types of leadership. One is inclusive leadership. It's how you include your team in brainstorming. You want your team to share your vision to achieve a common goal, so this means you have to be transparent with them, include them in your meetings, treat them as friends. This isn’t just limited to your team but all the people around you. For example, I always include my two daughters in all the charity work I do. They sometimes act as receptionists at events, even.

The second is inspiring leadership. You need to inspire others as a role model and through your management style. It's how you manage your team; how you manage your time, your work-life balance. By managing your own wellness and being healthy and happy you inspire others. 

The third is called empathetic leadership, which is all about giving back. Love yourself, love others. My motto is “Do good, feel good, look good”. “Do good” is giving back; “feel good” is being healthy and taking care of yourself; “look good” is about looking good to others as a mentor, as a role model.

See also: Meet the Tribe: Vicky Cheng

How do you foster creative and innovative thinking as a leader? 
By incentivizing the team. I also encourage my team to integrate their creative pursuits in their work. For example, if you're coming up with a new logo design for a client, integrate whatever you're learning—through your environment, through social media—into your work. To my colleagues that have children, I say, “Learn from your kids!” Sometimes the ideas they come up with and the questions they ask are really outside the box and can ignite ideas, which you can integrate into your work.

If you could go back in time and start your career again, would you do anything differently?
One thing I would do differently is take better care of my health from day one. When I first started Prestique, I worked so hard and I didn’t pay attention to my wellness. At one point of very high stress, I lost a lot of hair and had acne all over my face. My body was telling me I needed to take a break. Then it led to three miscarriages within four years, so I said, “This is it. I need to change.” I realised you have to look after yourself first.

If you could give one piece of advice to the Generation T listers, what would it be?
Don't blindly follow trends. Pursue your own passions. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Do good, feel good, look good.

The Hong Kong Generation T List 2018 is unveiled on June 8.

Outfit: Theory | Venue: Maison Huit | Photography: Moses Ng | Styling: Rosana Lai

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