Cover "If you met me last year, which is probably the most money I've ever earned in my life, or 10 years ago, you would see the same person in jeans and a T-shirt," says Josianne Robb (Photo: Calyn Da Silva)

After a career in digital transformation, Josianne Robb is transforming herself by becoming an entrepreneur as a divorced empty nester. These are the smart financial moves—and one very expensive lesson—that helped get her here

Josianne Robb has been adapting since she was seven, when the Bata factory where her father worked as a shoe designer shuttered. He was one of the lucky few retained by the CEO. The only catch? They had to relocate abruptly from Belgium to Nigeria, a career move that ultimately improved the family’s fortunes. 

“To be able to work hard and have somebody help you and change the story of your family for generations is incredible,” says Robb. “Now I’m trying to do that through coaching, by helping people change their limiting beliefs, see how awesome they are and gain confidence.”  

In June 2021, Robb had the courage to leave the corporate C-suite and follow a long-time dream to launch a coaching business, Adaptologie—becoming an entrepreneur at 51. But it took more than courage, of course, it took money. Robb was well positioned after a lifetime of saving, knowing and negotiating her professional worth, and following her mother’s directive to be financially independent.  

“It doesn't mean that I didn't have setbacks and cries and hard times,” says Robb, a third-culture kid whose love of adventure brought her to Hong Kong in 2013. “You brush yourself up and go forward, including when you're divorced.”

Below she opens up about her strategies and philosophy that money should be a tool to move you forward, not something that defines you.

Part-time job in university (1988-1991) = earned enough to cover costs

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I liked school, so it felt like the next logical step. It was only later that I realised there was a big debate between my parents about whether it was necessary. My mom was a secretary and she pushed for me to go university to have a better future, not to find a husband.

My parents paid for the first year, but the second year I had to find my own way to fund it or drop out. That was the first time I was confronted with, what is my relationship to money? Is it my master or a vehicle for achieving something? I decided it was the latter. I met a guy who was hiring people to renovate floors in shops and banks from 8pm to 11pm, and I thought, that’s brilliant. It allowed me to go to university, work, and then party.

My weekly pay covered everything effectively: rent, tuition, which was not expensive, and books, which were. I had one of the better jobs and was forever lending money to others, which was very empowering. And my mom was dead proud.

Accounting error at work (1993) = an expensive lesson in leadership and risk

My first job was in international settlements at Euroclear, and it was the first time I could pay for my own holiday. The day before leaving for Texel, I was so excited. But first there was a double settlement to resolve. We did the accounting manually; we worked until 2am; and unusually, my work was not checked. I was so distracted that I switched the debit and credit. Rather than cover our cash account to settle the trade, we landed in default for three days at a cost of US$70 million (HK$545 million).

When I returned and my boss told me, my face drained. I remember being completely quiet for what felt like an eternity. I said, “I can’t even begin to say how sorry I am. I’ll take my stuff and go.” But he replied: “What do you mean? We’re going to automate the process so this never happens again, and you are going to work extremely hard in addition to your day job to make sure the project runs as perfectly as possible.”

I was so grateful. What I didn’t know is that he had been trying to get approval to automate the treasury, but because we had a track record of zero mistakes, it had been refused. Not only did this teach me my first big lesson in leadership, but it also taught me not to be afraid of mistakes relating to money. 

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First salary negotiation (1996) = earned an extra HK$31,780 annually

After three years at Euroclear in Brussels, I had itchy feet. I told some recruitment agents—as you do when you’re 26 and either very bold or naïve—that I was going to book a week holiday to come interview in London.  

I had a good interview for an internal audit role at Salomon Brothers, and the guy hired me based on a final question: Do you plan on having a child in the next two years? I thought, how odd, let's just have a bit of fun with this. So I replied: “Well, no, that's not part of my plan. Why, are you offering to father it?”

He blushed and explained that the traders were hilarious, but definitely not respectful, so he needed people who were tough. I realised, hang on, this is not just any job, this is a tough job. So when they made the first offer, I decided to negotiate, and they went from £27,000 (HK$286,020) to £30,000 (HK$317,800). Later he admitted he was so mortified that he never asked that question again.

Joint account with husband (1998) = contribute 60 per cent of income

I met an absolutely lovely Scottish young man, Gavin, and when we moved in together, we agreed how much to put in a joint account. We each contributed up to 60 per cent of our salaries—the same amount, so it’s equitable. We always had personal savings as well and, coming from divorced families, we were both comfortable with that. 

When we separated in 2017, we kept the joint account for funding our sons until they complete their education and get jobs. It’s simpler, and never has either of us used it inappropriately. We saved the financial and emotional costs of hiring divorce lawyers by negotiating it all ourselves. That said, there is an inevitable cost of separation.

Real estate sale (2000) = made HK$1.97 million profit

When our second son was born, Gavin wanted to move back to Scotland. I said, I'll find a job without taking a pay cut and then we move. And that's what we did.

We had bought a flat in Streatham, London, for £130,000 (about HK$1.376 million) just before the gentrification started. Gavin wanted to rent it out, but moving away and leaving stuff behind felt complicated to me. I insisted on selling it. The value had more than doubled in three years—the best return I ever made on real estate.

Last year Gavin made the mistake of checking the price. It was over £1 million (about HK$10.59 million), and he’s kicking himself. My view is, think of all the hassle of not being there to fix things. I don't want property or money to be a drag; it has to be a vehicle for moving forward, not to hold you back.

First annual mother-sons adventure (2010) = “that is what money is for”

Between jobs in 2010, I spent three weeks in Italy with my boys, then 10 and 12. That was our first big adventure and the start of a tradition. Before we landed in Pisa, I asked them to do research. We went to Elba because one had studied Napoleon and to the medieval town of San Gimignano because it was the setting of video game Assassin’s Creed. We also bicycled through olive groves and learned how mozzarella is made. It was a lot of money, but I remember thinking, that is what money is for.

We’ve since explored caves in Vietnam; volunteered twice with Habitat for Humanity; and trekked in the West Himalayas. While in Pokhara, Nepal, at the end of our trek, my younger son asked for a mini-adventure. I gave him my credit card and a budget of US$200 (HK$1,557). He chose a surprise, saying, “it is within budget but will be out of your comfort zone.” The night before, he admitted it was paragliding. I’m afraid of heights and was so anxious. But ultimately, money gave me an opportunity to harness my courage, face my fear and hopefully be a role model for my kids.

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Target income for first Hong Kong job (2013) = HK$1.2 million

I was doing well in Scotland, getting promotions and money thrown at me, but there was something missing. I started floating the idea of going abroad to Hong Kong. I just wanted that adventure again. That's what drives me.

Gavin had also been a third-culture kid; he didn’t like it, but I loved it. I wanted to expose my children to it. So Gavin, an analyst by trade, decided to research how much income we needed to live in Hong Kong. He said, “If you find a job at a price that allows us to move to Hong Kong, I will follow you. If you don’t, I do not want to hear about moving again in my life.” So I thought, you’re on.

I came to Hong Kong with three meetings scheduled and ended up with 20-odd coffees. Deloitte made an offer that was barely over HK$1.2 million. I wanted to come so badly to Hong Kong that I thought the compromise has got to be the money. But there was a part of me that said, were you shortchanging yourself? I accepted but made a promise to double my salary within five years. When I make a promise to myself, I deliver. Also my parents had passed away at that point, and I felt that taking a pay cut was not honouring them. So for the first time, in the five years after I arrived here, I hopped jobs.

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Investing and saving for retirement (2017) = mixed portfolio

I had a retirement fund that I had painstakingly invested in because I knew compound interest is your friend. But as a family, we got burned by the stock market in 2007-2008 and after that we were shy. I started investing again after the divorce and, as my firm intention is to live into my 80s, I’ve diversified. I bought life insurance for US$3,500 (HK$27,249) annually; I got a financial adviser who helps me invest in funds; I dabble in the stock market; and I’m learning about cryptocurrency, which previously sounded too challenging and risky.

I’m at this stage where I want for nothing. Am I a multimillionaire? No. But if I invest and earn US$10 million (HK$77.86 million), I know exactly how I would distribute it. I would change the lives of people who I deeply care about. This is in part because my parents managed to get out of poverty, and I was lucky as well. 

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Monthly charitable donations (2019) = HK$1,500

Monthly donations, even small ones, are more helpful to charities as this allows them to plan ahead. I donate HK$1,500 per month, spread between Impact HK and Enrich HK, and have done so for the past two years. Before, I donated on an ad hoc basis. I also sit on the board of directors for Enrich. These two are close to my heart now; when the children were smaller, it was children's charities.

There's only been a few years in my life where I didn’t give to charity. Even with my very first salary, I was still living at home and paid some to my parents and gave half of the rest to charity. I get angry when people say, I’m so helpless; look better, there’s always something you can do. The way I raise my children is to pay it forward. 

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Coaching (2021) = earn HK$10,000 - HK$30,000 for 10 sessions

At 51, I've reinvested in property (my home on Lamma Island) and created my own company: Adaptologie, which means the study of the pursuit of adaptability. Being single and self-employed, it’s the first time that I have total freedom on every decision. I splashed out on my education to get the accreditation I felt is important to be a coach, and I didn't have to check with anybody other than me—and that was immensely empowering.

What I want to do is have such a big impact on people. I want to be paid fairly, but also make sure that my price is accessible. I've got a heavily discounted price for students and people out of work; the highest price is for the executive package. So people who need support get support and it seems to be working. As of January 2022, I will start to pay myself a regular salary. This year is a gift to myself using my savings on me, which is the ultimate gift.

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In our Money Milestones series, an accomplished woman reveals her financial thought process and the spending, borrowing and investing that reflects her growth. It's part of Front & Female, Tatler's platform to celebrate trailblazers and tackle timely, provocative issues through inspiring content and events. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale

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