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Reflecting on Career Development in the Apparel Industry as a Coach and Mentor

Candid industry expert interviews 

In August we were honored to interview Edwin Keh, the CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) for our Motif Talk series. The first part of that conversation focused on the Innovation in the Apparel Industry and key roles skills play in the process. In this second blog post, we report on Edwin sharing his down-to-earth and real take on what career development means for him, and some lessons learnt on his journey.

Guest Introduction

Edwin Keh is the CEO of The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. He is also on Faculty at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he teaches supply chain operations.

Until April 2010 Edwin was the SVP COO of Wal-Mart Global Procurement. Prior to Wal-Mart Edwin managed a consulting group that has done work for companies on supply chain, manufacturing, and product design. The practice also did work for non-profit organizations and charities. Edwin co-founded the Consortium For Operational Excellence in Greater China (COER GC). The Consortium is sponsored by the Wharton School and Tsinghua University.

Edwin is the 2011 recipient of the Production and Operations Management Society’s Martin K. Starr Excellence in Production and Operations Management Practice Award, and is on the Debrett’s Hong Kong 100 as one of the most influential people in Technology and Digital sector.

M From 1979 until now, you’ve had more than 10 work experiences. In terms of career changes, how did you adapt yourself in different roles and areas?

 E  First of all, my career should  not necessarily be viewed as a role model. I think it may appear as a terrible model to people because of the lack of focus. If you look at the resume, you may ask “where are you going with this?”.

Yet I think, for me, there is some rhyme and reason. My first job after finishing my undergraduate degree is at the UNHCR as an editor. I got the job because I ran the university newspaper and there was a need at the UNHCR. It really was a case where X met Y. X is what you are good at, and Y is what the world needs.

I think that’s always the criteria for career development—you cannot be totally selfish, I’m interested in this and I’m curious about this, therefore I only want to do this. If the world doesn’t need it, we don’t value it, then it’s not important. So it is an internal look at ‘who am I?’ and ‘what can I do and contribute?’, and then the external look at what society and industry need, ‘What is productive and useful? What roles are needed?

For my career, where X meets Y is a moving target. It changed as I grew and as society developed.

So it was very organic. I worked for the UN, it was the most inefficient organization I had ever worked for in my life. It was frustrating and discouraging but I didn’t know how to change it. My undergraduate degree was urban design, so instead of getting my Ph.D. in urban design I went to business school to learn how to manage complex large organizations. I then discovered that I don’t ever want to work in a situation where I can’t change or impact the organization. And what I found is that private enterprises are much more efficient than public enterprises in changing society I went into the private sector. To pay for graduate school, I worked for a startup that happened to be in the apparel industry, so I stayed in this industry.

 E  In my mind to be most productive, there should be three stages in one’s career. In the early stage, you try to learn as much as possible; in the mid stage you do as much as possible; and in the end stage you teach as much as possible. You begin with learning, you try to be useful and then you execute, finally at some point you talk about what you’ve done so that others can learn.

For a lot of people, they have more of a two-stage career. If you’ve had the opportunity to hold an interesting job and have had interesting learning experiences, the most productive thing you can do is to move to stage 3 of the career, instead of carrying on accumulating technical and operational experience. I want to then spend some time on helping people figure out how to do that, and also to begin to look at things more strategically.

For some people, that means to be the CEO of a company then work on the internal strategy of their company. For me, I wasn’t happy just being an internal force of change, I wanted to do something a little bit broader and a little bit more theoretical, so I left the industry and started research work and teaching at Wharton school.

To prepare yourself for a new role, you need to have the desire to move on. You kind of know when ready to do that. We should not limit ourselves only to what we’re good at but also try to figure how we can be most useful. Usefulness is something that we will never regret.
When you think about my transitions, there were always risk. So the appetite for risk taking is important. To adapt to a new role, observe, listen, ask lots of questions, learn from the past but also be open to lots of changes.

M During your professional career, when was the toughest time for you? How did you get through it? 

 E  Being in a job that you don’t like, having to work because you need the job is the toughest place I can think of. I had a job like that for a year when my 2nd son was just born, my wife was stayed at home to take care of our kids, so I had to work for the money.

So the toughest job in the world is the job you dislike but you have to stick to it and work for the money. Most of my later career was to make sure I never go through that again. It wasn’t my employer’s fault, he didn’t enslave me. I applied for the job and I got it. But I wasn’t clear in my mind what I should have been doing. So making sure you properly consider your career moves is important. Structure your life and finances to have the freedom to say no to jobs and leave when it’s not right. I have a “go to hell fund”. This is enough money or resources saved up so that you can tell your boss to go to hell. In my case, I know I have to have 6 months to a year’s worth of living overhead that I have access to so I can leave my job anytime if I don’t like it, I can walk out. Make sure you build up those resources. If you’re living by maxing out your credit card every month and buying stuff all the time, you won’t get to that point, so live well below your means.

I also think it is important to learn as much as possible and as early as possible. Our educational opportunities goes down and opportunity cost goes up as we get older. So get as much education as quickly as possible.

Having said that, paradoxically, we should be life-long learners. Don’t work for money, work because it’s the right thing to do.


 E  Again, this is figuring where X meets Y. I think we have a generation of people who are good at introspection, good at finding and understanding ‘what I am good at’, ‘what would make me happy’. But what we are not very good at, is the outward looking part of the challenge, ‘what does society need? How can I contribute? How can I add value?’. Because if you just look inwardly, it’s a very selfish thing to do, all you care is about yourself, and how much you want to get paid. That is a very unrealistic way to think of your career. I think that’s a student’s view of the world. When you are at the university you are paying for your tuition, so of course everyone is there to give you something because you pay to learn. But once you’re in the job market, somebody is paying you, so you have to make contributions. You have to understand what value you are creating. And what is the most value you can create? And what are the most urgent things that need to get done? Also do you have the skills to do them? And if you want to do them, how you get them done? So it’s the X and Y, and it ‘s about understanding that every year we change and we grow, and every year our society and world change and grow. It’s a moving target.

I think the other thing too is that the “end-product” and “by-product” are also important. The end product, the goal, is usefulness, innovation, creativity and value creation. The by-product is earning lots of money, being successful. When you aim at the right end product, the by-product will happen. One thing I haven’t done since 1991, is to negotiate my salary, yet I always made lots of money, except here (laughs)! This is the belief that if you are in the right job, and you understand what value you bring to the organization, then the free market will take care of everything else. Because if your boss pays you too much, eventually he will fire you since you are not creating enough value. If your boss pays you too little, eventually somebody else will hire you because you are such a good deal. So either way you don’t have to worry about how much the salary is, or am I being taken advantage of. That’s the beauty of the free market, information is so transparent, everybody knows everybody else. So for me, things like salary, title, and position are by-products, just relentlessly focus on the end. Do something productive and useful, create something different and valuable.

M Could you give some tips to those who are struggling in their career?

E Especially early on in your career, it is WHO you know, not WHAT you know. Who you know is what are your peers doing that is interesting and exciting and how can you learn from it. And who do you know in the industry doing something fun that you want to be part of. Information is important; so make sure the network you create is broad enough and large enough so that you have lots of real-time information.

Have you read...

Part I of the conversation? Edwin first shared his views on how to foster innovation and the key role skills play in the innovation process. 

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