Hazel Chu – MSc '11
The first Irish-born Chinese person to be called to the bar, Hazel Chu is hoping to repeat this achievement on the political front with her campaign to get a Dublin city council seat in May’s local elections. The former Diageo head of communications is currently the Green Party’s national coordinator.
About Hazel Chu
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
I was born and raised in Ireland – my parents moved here from China before I was born. This is actually something I get asked about quite a lot when I’m calling at doors for my local election campaign.
I did politics and history at UCD went on to do a legal diploma and barrister-at-law degree at King’s Inns. I was working for various charities in a fundraising capacity and doing the Inns night course.
When I finished I thought I’d go straight down to the bar but you can’t do that when you have around €40,000 in student loans! So I continued in the fundraising world, working in St Michael’s House, and I was also employed by Electric Picnic as artistic communications and production manager.
I fully intended to go to the bar once the loans were paid off, but my best friend passed away and I decided to take some time out. So I went travelling and spent about a year teaching in China and about six months in Australia.
When I came back in 2009 the recession had hit and there were few devilling opportunities. With my legal background and fundraising experience I started consulting and was able to do freelance jobs here and there but I really needed something more stable. So, although I didn’t have a marketing background, I applied for a UCD Smurfit Bord Bia Fellowship and ended up being offered a place and was based in New York for a year. It was an eyeopener – I had always helped my mum run her restaurant so knew exactly how the business and sales sides ran, but this was a very good deep dive into the marketing side and got me into a whole different area and industry.
Ireland was still in the throes of recession when I came back but, because I had a lot of transferable skills from many different areas, I managed to get a job quite easily.
My first job was working for the Chief Scientific Advisor of the State as head of communications and marketing for the 2012 Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin. From there, I was picked up by the NDRC to do maternity cover for a director of communications role.
Then I got a call from Diageo and was offered a job as their head of communications. I stayed there for five-and-half-years and got to work on global and European projects. I was responsible for the communications of the company but my forte resided in marketing, crisis management and project management. I was lucky that my time in Diageo allowed me to become an expert in those areas. I was also seconded onto two innovation projects and got to see products from inception to shelf. I left in October 2018.
What is your current role?
I’ve been a member of the executive committee of the Green Party for the last two years and, last April became the national coordinator and chair of the executive.
Part of my role has been managing the strategy of how to build and scale the party and build officers as well within the organisation. I sit on the management committee and am responsible for all major decisions, ranging from financial planning to staffing teams. For any political party, the strategy is all about growth and visibility: ultimately the goal is to get more elected representatives and to grow membership.
We have local and European elections this year so my day-to-day focus centres around the election strategy, the number of candidates we can get, how the candidates fit with particular areas, and looking at the party’s main offerings, as well as its principles.
And I’m running in the Dublin City Council local elections in the Pembroke ward in May. That all stems from the fact that I ran the local election campaign for my other half – Patrick Costello – in Rathgar/Rathmines in 2014. He’s a child protection social worker in the area and is very much embedded in the community and really wanted to give something back. We were both newbies and had no idea how to run a campaign but we did it and he topped the poll. After that I was selected as one of the founding chairs of the Green Party Women’s group Mna Glasa, I became a member of their executive and I was asked by the party leader to become their spokesperson for enterprise. Running for office seemed like the natural next step.
What motivates you?
Family always has been really important to me but I don’t think I noticed it as much until I had my daughter last year. What motivates me now is my family. I look at my mum who’s growing older and I want to make sure she has access to the right healthcare and a nice environment to live in. For my daughter I want to ensure there’s a proper community for her to grow up in – one that doesn’t look at her and ask where she comes from and question why she’s running for politics or anything else she’s doing.
So, changing the world a little bit for the better for my family and every other family really motivates me.
What is your leadership style?
My team in Diageo used to describe me as stubborn – in a good way – but I think I’d define my style as flexible. I’ve worked across many industries and with various leaders and everyone is so different – I believe that if you can’t be flexible when it comes to management then you shouldn’t be a manager at all.
For example, when I look back at various members of my team in Diageo, some were willing to work 60 hours a week, while others had families and couldn’t do that but still put in the work at other times. I think you need to be able to recognise what people can do but also look at their skillset and not just lock them into a box based on their role.
When I’m leading a project, rather than saying what has to done by whom, I tend to ask who can do what and who can transfer skills from elsewhere. That has certainly always brought out the best in me.
Who or what has influenced or inspired you?
Rather than looking at business or world leaders, I tend to look at the people around me, particularly my friends, many of whom are very inspirational. A lot of my friends found themselves in negative equity or lost their jobs during the recession. I admire them and really anyone who has been at rock bottom and managed to climb back up again.
Back to my own family, my grandmother was protecting and looking after her children during the Second World War while rock mining, which I find amazing. But equally, a friend who lost her job and did whatever she could to care for her family is just as remarkable to me.
I’ve always felt that someone who has suffered failure and setbacks and been able to say, right we’re moving on now, is a lot more inspirational than some of our world leaders.
What have been your biggest achievements?
Being called to the bar was a big one. If you asked my mum when she arrived in Ireland 45 years ago as a dishwasher if she thought she could raise a daughter who would be a barrister, she would have said no. But she tried really hard, she saved and pushed and did whatever she could for me. And I worked two jobs and when I got there I was really proud of me and proud of my mum as well.
What was extra special to me was being the first Irish-born Chinese person to be called. I am constantly proud to be both Irish and Chinese and love seeing diversity in areas and organisations that are lacking it. If I was to get elected in May I’d be the first ever Irish politician from a Chinese background and would feel incredibly privileged.
Another huge achievement was when Patrick got elected because between the two of us we just didn’t have a clue. We both say it was 50% him and 50% me – he was the candidate but I was the manager, and I was a good manager. And I was incredibly proud that I was able to deliver on that.
I’m also proud of being one of the founding chairs of Mna Glasa. Women make up 50% of the overall population but just 22% of the Dáil, 30% of the Seanad and 21% of councils around the country. That’s simply not good enough, so Catherine Martin, Grace O'Sullivan and a few other party members came together to form Mna Glasa and do something about it.
We need more women and we need more diversity to represent the ever changing fabric of Irish society and to tell the next generation that no matter your gender, your background or your skin colour you should be able to participate.
From a professional point of view, I led teams to launch the new Roe & Co whiskey innovation and the announcement of the regeneration and reuse of the Guinness power plant into a new whiskey distillery at Diageo. For both of these I was personally called out by the global CEO, Ivan Menezes. When you’re in a company of 30,000 people, getting credit from the very top in front of all your peers is a pretty special moment. What I didn't realise at the time was that both were once in a lifetime projects. I'm immensely proud of them not just because of the credit but because I got to work on such historic projects.
What has been your biggest failure?
After getting my degree and qualifying for the bar, I found myself in a dole queue when I came back from my travels and I did feel down about that at the time. When you’re in that situation you wonder if you’re doing enough and if you’re doing it right. I’m in no way asserting that being on welfare means you’re a failure, but the system is designed in a way to make you feel small and powerless.
I also applied for an MBA scholarship with Image magazine and Smurfit. I got the scholarship but didn’t pass the GMAT. I had never before not passed an exam in my life. I don’t want to make excuses but I was burnt out – I’d just finished Patrick’s campaign and a massive project in work and thought I could just do the exams and go straight in to do the MBA.
I think my real failure in that case was not stopping myself from burning out. I thought I could run a campaign and manage everything while working 60 hours a week.
On the upside, I was able to relate it to my team at the time. I told them it was something they need to be able to spot and to tell me if they felt like they were overwhelmed. But I guess sometimes you don’t really notice these things at the time. I still plan to do that MBA eventually!
What are your tips and advice for people starting out?
I would say relax. Ambition and drive are important, but relaxing and knowing that everything is a learning curve is also important. Your aim is to try your best but understand that if you don’t manage to get it 100% this time you will undoubtedly strive to reach that goal next time. It’s all about trial and error. These are lessons I learnt from Tanya Clarke, one of my mentors in Diageo, who became the general manager of Reserve (one of the fastest growing categories in Diageo) in Europe. From her, I’ve realised you always need to take a step back if things get really tough and with distance things become clearer and more manageable.
My other titbit is that you should always try to find a good mentor or mentors. I was lucky to collect a few en route in different industries: Tanya Clarke and Grainne Wafer from Diageo, Dave Fahy from Forfas, Sharon Murphy from WHPR and Martin Mackin from Q4PR have all been instrumental in where I am today and are all people I can thankfully call friends.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m focused on the local elections in May and hope to get elected, to be a councillor and to see where I can help in Dublin city and where I can go from there.
My forte has always been in media, crisis management and campaign planning, essentially fixing issues and growing share and I would like to provide my expertise within the organisation in the Green Party or in another organisation.
I really don’t know yet what I’ll be doing after the elections. There is something about bigger companies that I do very well in, but I started in the non-profit sector and part of me does want to go back there. It’s a decision I’ve yet to make and I’ll do that once the election results are in.
After the elections I want to look further into how I can contribute back to society so there might be further political runs. But from a management side I'll be running Patrick’s general election campaign for a seat in the Dáil for Dublin South Central.
And, as national coordinator I'd like to make sure the Green Party continues its momentum and engages the public with the two major crisis we face in Ireland, housing and climate change. I also plan to continue as an advocate for diversity with the aim of breaking down any barriers for the current and future generation in politics and every other industry.
How has your degree benefited your career?
It’s trained me how to research and discuss issues based on evidence. It’s also where I developed my project management skills.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
Turning the Philosophy Society into one of biggest societies in terms of members the year I was auditor.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
It has helped opened quite a few doors.
What are your main interests outside work?
Surfing, using my negotiation skills I learned at the Inns to pacify my 15 month-old toddler, cooking, campaigning and photography.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I’m afraid of heights and thought the best way to combat the fear was to go skydiving and bungee jumping while in New Zealand. I am still afraid of heights!
What piece of technology can you not live without?
When voluntary teaching in China I was in a remote village at least three hours away from the closest town, there was no wifi and no phone, it was isolating but serene. So whenever I think I can’t live without something I remember I can.
What is your pet hate?
People who look over your shoulder to see who else is in the room when talking to you.
Who are your favourite writers and favourite books?
Anne Enright – The Green Road; JRR Tolkien – The Return of The King; and JK Rowling – The Order of the Phoenix.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
The xx, Mumford & Sons, Rudimental.
What’s the last gig/play/film/exhibition you went to that you loved?
Gatsby at the Gate, Elisabeth Magill at the RHA, Shawshank Redemption and Body and Soul.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Steamed whole seabass with homemade preserved lemons and black bean. Also dumplings, I make them from scratch.
What teams do you support?
Ireland Rugby both men and women’s team.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Florence – the history, the art, the food.
Where is home and why?
Dublin, always Dublin no matter where I am in the world because there’s simply no other place like it.
Name three things on your bucket list
Speaking fluent Mandarin (I speak fluent Cantonese, unfortunately the majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin), hiking volcanoes in New Zealand and surfing in Costa Rica.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Cancer research and support societies – having had a friend pass away from cancer and family members with cancer it’s imperative we continue to do all we can in researching treatments. Focus Ireland, Simon Community, St Vincent DePaul, ICHH, Peter McVerry all do such amazing work to address the current crisis of homelessness in Ireland. Lastly Climate Action – it is an undeniable fact that our climate is changing, we must do what we can do take action now so the future generations have something to inherit.