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Leadership and a lifetime of service

MANY gathered in Shanghai last month for a small function to salute the leadership career of internationally respected Asian affairs expert Brenda Lei Foster.

It was a low-key drinks and canapes function in an art gallery down the depths of a lane off Fuxing Road.

But the size and quaint venue belied the significance of Foster, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, receiving the Athena International Award in recognition of her years of service to business leadership and womenís affairs.

Visitors had come especially from the United States for the Chicago-based womenís leadership organizationís award presentation, the first time to an expatriate American.

Foster was visibly humbled to receive the award ó ìthe experience of a lifetime? ó and gracious in accepting it ìon behalf of all professional women for the types of work weíve done together over the years and the experiences weíve had.?

Humbled she might have been but honored she was and her name joins the ranks of some heavy-hitting previous recipients.

They include US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Nancy Woodhull, a co-founding editor of USA Today, Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Networks, attorney Sarah Weddington who argued the winning side of the landmark case Roe v Wade, and the Chinese businesswoman and philanthropist Guo Junqin, the first Chinese recipient.

It was presented on behalf of Athena by former board member Jerrie Ueberle who reiterated that it honored all of Fosterís career, including her AmCham work and her early vision to recognize the importance of China 30 years ago.

President of AmCham Shanghai since 2005, Foster has past careers as an adviser to the Governor of Hawaii on international affairs and director of the stateís international relations office.

She is a member of US national organizations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pacific Council on International Policy and the National Committee of US-China Relations, among others.

Her ìin-country? China experience started in 1978 but her 30-year engagement was a foregone conclusion once she decided to devote her university years to Chinese studies following the inspiration of a history teacher when she was a high school sophomore.

ìHe had been a German translator during the Nuremberg trials and told me that if I wanted to take a language I should choose one that would be continually intellectually stimulating and that many Westerners did not speak,? she said.

ìComing from Hawaii, my family was always closely connected to China through a lot of Chinese friends so I decided to learn the language.?

She earned a BA and MA in Chinese studies from the University of Washington at Seattle and subsequently an MBA from the University of Hawaii.

Her first visit in 1978 occurred six months before the United States and China normalized relations and, as executive director of Hawaiiís Pacific and Asian Affairs Council, she got State Department approval to host a delegation through China of academics and high school students.

ìHawaii has a very long history with China. Dr Sun Yat-sen went to school there and several of our overseas Chinese community members there helped fund his revolution in China in the early 1900s,? she said.

Since then Foster has been in and out from her Honolulu home base, working originally in Beijing but with Shanghai as a particular area of research.

Domiciled now in Shanghai for four years, she said one of the most important China matters sheís currently associated with is AmChamís work in collaboration with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation which focuses on childrenís well-being.

ìWe have partnered with the foundation to build health care clinics in rural China, in some of its poorest areas, in Guizhou (Province), where people have never had health care and, much to my surprise, where a lot of them in ethnic areas have never seen foreigners before,? Foster said.

ìAs a result, we have helped eliminate the neo natal death rate in some communities. We have worked on maternal health care because prior to the clinics most women had to give birth in unhealthy rural locations.

ìBy moving them into clinics we have improved the care. The economic development of villages has increased and itís just been an incredible thing to see. Itís been about sharing best practices, sharing about caring for people and it really does make a difference.?

AmCham started the program three years ago ìand itís been nationally recognized, even by the central government, as a model program.?

Foster praised the work of the All China Womenís Federation and the Shanghai Womenís Federation as well as Madam Soong, Sun Yat-senís wife, providing the role model to help women and children.

ìI have felt that health care was Chinaís Achilles heel but now the central government is developing a national initiative and it is something that we all need to work on for the betterment of everybody in this community,? she said.

Ueberle, an eager beaver in her own right developing womenís programs and education centers in Hunan Province, hopes that Fosterís award will inspire other women doing work equally deserving of recognition.

And if thereís any doubt how to do it, just take a look. Foster continues to ply her leadership skills in Shanghai in her own unique way.

ìI share experience and knowledge on a daily basis with my Chamber of Commerce staff, whether on US-China policy issues or personal issues. If you donít share what you know, youíre never going to accomplish anything ? because then you canít lead.?


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