After almost three decades in Hong Kong’s higher education sector, 55-year-old Helen Lai has launched a Chinese food start-up that draws on her traditional family recipes. Here she tells her working life story.
I was born in Hong Kong and my family came to the UK when I was four. Then, after I graduated from university, I went back to Hong Kong. It was just meant to be a post-graduation holiday, but I started teaching and I ended up staying for 30 years!
I started off teaching in a secondary school and then at a university. After a while I moved into a management and administration role, and then I did a secondment in the university’s president’s office. It was a key turning point. I was in a strategic role, which had an overview across the whole university. I worked on a major government funding bid, which involved looking at the university’s vision for the next ten years. It was fascinating.
Part of my philosophy is a constant need to learn and grow. So, after the secondment ended, I got a bit restless and started looking for new roles. I was hired to set up a new unit at a performing arts academy – it was an academic quality unit, which ensures that your courses are fit for purpose and you’re properly accredited.
It was like nothing I’d done before. There was a bit of resistance [from some of the staff], so it was a real struggle in the first year and it was very lonely. But I gathered up all my personal skills and started my strategy to win them over.
It wasn’t about talking, it was the opposite – it was about listening. For 1-2 years I just closed my mouth and listened. I would meet with the deans and academic staff and say: “Talk to me – what does quality mean to you? What makes a quality musician or dancer or actor?” And through just listening I got so much buy-in. In the end, the unit was a triumph for everyone involved. We validated every single degree and we also accredited the world’s first undergraduate degree in Chinese opera.
After five years there, I was invited by The University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest university, to join the president’s office. At first I wasn’t sure – the academy was so small and I knew everyone. I treasured the intimacy and easy camaraderie that came with the size of the institution. It took HKU three attempts to get me to move over.
I then spent six years there, in an academic planning and strategic planning role. I got to work at a top global university, with a really progressive provost, and learned so much. I wrote two major competitive funding proposals that were submitted to the government, as well as the university’s vision document. I’m so thankful that I took the risk to accept the job.
After 30 years in Hong Kong, it was time to go. I’d met my husband, who is also British, in Hong Kong and we’d always thought about coming home to the UK to retire. So we moved back in 2020 and I spent a year just enjoying being at home. And then I started my own business, Jup Private Kitchen.
Jup means “sauce” in Chinese. When we moved back, I couldn’t find the sauces I wanted in the supermarket. And the ones I did find, like hoisin sauce, were full of sugar, preservatives, all the stuff that I didn’t want to feed myself and my kids. So I thought: “I’ll just make it myself.” My mum was a professional cook, so I asked her how to make hoisin sauce and then I experimented.
Armed with my sauce made from a traditional recipe, I tried it out on friends, I made it for everybody. When we were renovating the house, every time we had people working here I would feed them. All these builders were my guinea pigs! The feedback was really good and that’s when I thought, maybe this is going somewhere. So I did the Startup School for Seniors course and I started researching the vision for the whole project, drawing on my university strategic planning experience.
Now I have three sauces – Hoisin Heaven, Plummy, and Sin & Sour. And I’m broadening the venture, not just making the sauces but showing people how to use them. I catered at a big Jubilee weekend event in our village and I’ve just completed my first teaching stint at a cookery school.
The beauty of where I am now is that I can pick and choose what work I want to do. So I’m prioritising what I love to do over what I have to do. When you’re younger, and you’re building a family, you don’t have that choice – you’ve got to do the grind. Although, having said that, I loved all my jobs. I was very lucky.
To be able to start my own business, to feel this excitement about it, it’s great. And to give people pleasure with the food, that makes me feel so good. When they love it, I glow.
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