Regina Yau Profile
Regina Yau (Malaysia & St Hugh’s 2001) is an activist fighting violence against women, a writer, and a social entrepreneur. She is the Founder and President of The Pixel Project (www.thepixelproject.net), a virtual volunteer-led global nonprofit that combines th e power of the internet and pop culture/the Arts to raise awareness, funds and volunteer power to combat violence against women. Regina has won an award for her innovative awareness-raising work for the breast cancer cause. She holds two graduate degrees from Oxford – an M.St in Women’s Studies and an M.St in Oriental Studies. She also has a First-class Bachelors Degree in English from Royal Holloway University of London.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Regina Yau: Currently I live in Kuala Lumpur but after spending many formative years in England, the latter will always be home in my heart.
Rhodes Project: How did you start working on women’s rights issues?
Regina Yau: I think I have always had it in me. Even when I was 12 I was always telling my mum and dad about women’s lib and that I didn’t like the boys who thought they were better than me (or any girl for that matter) just because they were male. I come from a culture where women and girls are usually seen as second class citizens and in many traditional families and communities they still are. I am a feminist - and I use that term even though it is much derided – because I guess I just got fed up. Fed up of men thinking they were better than women for no reason at all. Feminism has always been a part of the way I read books, watch films and discuss culture, social frameworks and social history.
For my first degree, I studied English language and literature at Royal Holloway University of London and it was during my time there I really began to learn about these issues and the social context and history behind them. Then I went to Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship and one of my degrees was in Women’s Studies. After I left Oxford, I stopped working on women’s issues for a while when I worked in the corporate world in public relations in the UK, and then Malaysia. Nevertheless it was never far from my mind because the sheer amount of sexism in the public relations industry is really terrible.
Rhodes Project: In what way?
Regina Yau: You would think it wouldn’t be the case in an industry where the majority of the professionals are women. But if you look carefully at who runs it all, more often than not they are men. I have also had bosses here in Asia, not so much in the UK, where they outright said to me that “You cannot get fat. Women who work in public relations have to look good. You can’t get pregnant. You have to make sure that the client is always happy.” We clean up other people’s messes and make them look good. It’s a thankless job but in the end I am glad that I did it. You build partnerships and get a huge network of contacts, in technology, in entertainment, in corporate and in the media. It all helped to prepare me to start The Pixel Project.
I came up with the idea for The Pixel Project while washing my hair in the shower in November 2008 and by January 2009 we were up and running. I took a leap of faith and left the corporate world in mid-2010. Everyone told me that I was nuts, but I felt that it was the right thing to do. I don’t get paid to run The Pixel Project as it is still in the start-up stage. I tutor children to pay the bills, but I’d rather have what I have now, which is doing what I can for women and girls worldwide, than spend years and years flattening out people’s image problems.
Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about the way the media covers human rights issues, what would it be and why?
Regina Yau: I would change the tendency of the media to ignore women’s rights issues and play to stereotypes when they do cover them. They should talk to activists and social entrepreneurs more because these are the people on the ground who risk their lives to help others. They are the ones who know exactly what is going on and what the real issues are. A lot of the people who are changing the world and will change the world work in the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors, and the work that they and their organisations do should be highlighted more often. The Guardian does a good job in this way but if the broader media focused a bit more on gender issues, on equality issues, it would certainly help with getting people to understand how inequality and social injustice are perpetuated and maybe inspire more people to take action.
Rhodes Project: What was the hardest thing about setting up your own nonprofit?
Regina Yau: If you don’t have the passion for the cause, it will be difficult. For me, though, this is what I consider to be my life’s work. I am really fortunate to get to do what I was born to do, even though at the moment it is difficult. The way I see it is that I have a fantastic job that is tailor-made for me, the learning curve is so steep and I grow each day and I get to help women and girls with what I do.
Many Rhodes Scholars just walk into a cushy job after their studies and that didn’t happen for me for whatever reason. There was this point before I started The Pixel Project when I was having a really tough time getting my career on track, so I went to see Sir Colin Lucas, who was still the Warden of Rhodes House, and had a long chat with him. He said something that changed my life. He said, “Regina, I don’t think that you’re cut out for the corporate world. I think you should go to bat for those who can’t speak for themselves and need help the most.” He was right. That is how the Rhodes Scholarship changed my life. It wasn’t the fancy stuff, it wasn’t the parties; it was that meeting and that piece of advice.
Rhodes Project: Some people argue that nonprofits should function more like businesses, that this would increase productivity, staff wages, and general competitiveness. Do you agree?
Regina Yau: In a way I think that’s right. We haven’t applied for any huge grants at The Pixel Project, we rely on ourselves more. The funding pie for women’s rights is really small and it is shrinking. In England there is a donkey sanctuary that has about 20 million pounds in trust, which is more than what the three biggest national domestic violence charities have put together. At the end of the day, if you depend on outside funding, it will never be completely sustainable. It means you are at the mercy of the funders: if they pull out or the money stops, you’re screwed. You are constantly writing piles and piles of reports to the funders and not spending energy on the real issues. Also, whoever is giving you the money has a say over what you do or how you approach the problem. So charities need to mix it up with other fundraising activities, to diversify and learn business principles. They need to aim to become sustainable and that requires some level of dependable cash flow. It’s not easy but it is possible if you work hard.
Rhodes Project: What do you do just for you?
Regina Yau: Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing very much for me. Like many activists, I have a tendency to push myself and to get so involved in my work that I forget to eat or sleep. So now I take a day off every week and use that time to unplug – I’m otherwise online all day – to decompress, see friends, go out for coffee. It’s very routine, but rest is important.
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