Fastest Executive: Leading The Race To Support Room To Read
Janine Canham is not just a business leader. The Asia-Pacific COO at asset management firm Alliance Bernstein is also a seasoned ultra-runner—and an ultra-charitable soul. Now she's helping Room to Read with their work to provide girls in the developing world the same opportunities as she had.
Canham was brought up in Beirut, launched her career in Paris and London, and has now been working in Hong Kong for nearly three decades. But while her background may be geographically disparate, her career and sporting achievements have been impressively focused. She has become well-known in running circles for her prowess as an ultra-runner—an athlete who takes on races longer than a marathon. Each year, she participates in gruelling events across the globe, such as Racing the Planet, where she sprints across unhospitable terrain in far-flung places including Antarctica and the Gobi Desert, running as far as 300km in one race.
The mother of twin boys met her partner out running on one of Hong Kong’s trails. As part of their early days of courtship, Canham and Mo Devlin swapped dinners and late-night drinking for global races, including a 100km race together at Stonehenge in England that cemented their relationship.
Together they now raise thousands of dollars for charity through their racing adventures. When Devlin battled prostate cancer two years ago, the pair were inspired to raise money for Movember. But the charity closest to Canham’s heart is Room to Read, hence her involvement in its Fastest Executive Race, a 13km course from Pok Fu Lam Reservoir to Admiralty, with each runner raising US$5,000 for the organisation. We spoke to Canham to find out more.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
To always under-promise and over-deliver.
And the worst?
Being told to “relax.” How do you force yourself to relax?
Room to Read is dedicated to supporting girls' education around the world. What are your experiences of gender imbalance in the workplace?
When I first joined a law firm as a trainee many moons ago, there was only one female partner. Clients would come to meetings and ask her to make them a coffee. The automatic assumption was that she must be the tea lady. I think people are much more conscious of equal rights these days but I still come across many instances of unconscious bias. I have now learned to speak up when this happens. If we don’t, nothing will change.
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How do you create a good work-life balance?
By working for a company that is supportive of life outside the office. People trust me to do the right thing and to get the job done to the highest standard. With the best technology available to us, we are not tied to our desks all day. With this flexibility, I can fit in running, going to the gym and spending time with my children around my work.
How do you manage the push and pull of being a mother and a success in business? And do you think it's unfair that men rarely get asked these questions in relation to fatherhood?
Working in an environment which allows you to succeed at your job at the same time as being a good parent is the key. After my twins, Josh and Sam, were born, I was fortunate that I could name my terms and be able to leave the office early every day to be home when they got back from school. We would sit together at the table, all three of us working on our laptops with mummy “doing homework” just like the boys. I don’t feel conflicted having a successful career and being a mother. To me, it’s important to be a role model for my kids and to instil in them a strong work ethic and a sense of independence. Growing up, my father taught me never to rely on anyone else but myself financially. Do I think it’s unfair that men don’t get asked these questions? Yes, absolutely. Working women are made to feel unnecessarily guilty.
You've spoken about your love for running. What has it added to your life?
Running has added so many different dimensions to my life. I am part of a team sponsored by Gone Running, who supply running kit, and Joint Dynamics, where we train each week and go for physio treatment, and this pushes me to challenge myself more. I met my partner Mo at the running track and he is even more obsessed with running than I am. We understand, motivate and support each other and I have never felt in better shape than I do now.
How do you motivate yourself to run?
I have travelled to some amazing places—the Sahara and Gobi deserts, Everest and Antarctica to name but a few—to take part in multi-stage races and have met many incredible people along the way who have become lifelong friends, so it’s not hard. It has also presented me with an opportunity to raise funds for several charities close to my heart, especially Room to Read and RUN [Rebuild, Unite and Nurture, in support of refugees] and therefore to give something back. Running plays a major part in my life.
What drew you to Room to Read?
I am surrounded at work by colleagues who are highly educated and who have been to the best schools and universities. Alliance Bernstein has partnered with Room to Read over the years to help build a school in Laos and to develop educational programmes for young girls. We are fortunate to have had the best education possible and we feel it’s only right to do what we can to give others a similar chance in life. Having an education is key to having control over your future, and Room to Read is a great charity as it empowers communities by giving them the tools to help themselves.