The Global Top 50 Women in Sustainability
Updated: Jul 11
Sylvia Yu Friedman is an Award-winning Filmmaker, Penguin Random House Author, TV host, Serial entrepreneur, and Philanthropy consultant. She is the author of three books, A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia (Penguin Random House); Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, the only journalistic account of historical Japanese military sex slavery during WWII, and Heart and Soul: The Life Story of Pastor Augustus Chao, and the editor of an upcoming non-fiction book published by Penguin Random House in the winter of 2023.
A former TV anchor and advisor to philanthropists, Sylvia was awarded the Global Top 50 Women In Sustainability Awards 2022 by The SustainabilityX® Magazine. In 2017, she was included in the Top 100 Human Trafficking & Slavery Influence Leaders List by Assent Compliance. In 2013, she won the prestigious International Human Rights Press Award for her three-part documentary series on human trafficking in China, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
Sylvia is a SheSource expert of the Women’s Media Center, founded by Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem and is listed in a database of women experts who serve as a resource for journalists.
Since 2005, Sylvia has managed and directed millions of dollars to major humanitarian portfolios impacting at least more than one million people. This work has given her access to many influential networks in different countries.
Sylvia led a Hong Kong-based movement against human trafficking that involved more than 120 churches, NGOs, and organizations and later expanded to other nations like Malaysia, South Africa, and the U.S.
Sylvia is married to Matthew Friedman, a top-ranked keynote speaker and global expert on slavery, CEO of The Mekong Club, and former U.N. and U.S. diplomat. Together in the fall of 2022, they went on a 53-day Speaking Tour on Modern Slavery's Impact on the Private Sector in the U.S. and Canada (also a Book Tour), and in 2016, they gave 113 talks in 27 U.S. cities. Matthew is a producer of two award-winning films; he advised the movie Sold (2014) executive produced by Emma Thompson.
Sylvia is hosting a digital TV show called 'Inspiring YOU with Sylvia Yu' and working on several books and projects. She has a feature film in development based on her latest memoir, A Long Road to Justice.
Firstly, it's a privilege to have the opportunity to personally talk with you and learn more about you, your challenges to success and your future initiatives to raise awareness of modern-day slavery. Your great achievements in the field of journalism, awareness raising, film making, philanthropy work give clear evidence to your strong will and determination to pursue things till they have great impact on people. Does that directly relate to your character or something you developed along the way as you struggled to reach your goals?
Thanks for your very kind words about my two-track career journey in philanthropy and journalism/filmmaking. I still get surprised that I managed to pioneer two large humanitarian funds in China despite not being fluent in Mandarin. Thankfully, I was able to enlist a lot of talented people to help me. I also still feel shocked when I look back on the films on modern slavery that I produced – for instance, I had to take my camera into brothels and notorious red-light districts in Asia and at times it was very dangerous.
I’m often told that I have a lot of chutzpah (backbone) and I believe this determination comes from my mother’s unconditional support for my dreams which provided a foundation of confidence and there is some generational influence from my brave paternal grandmother. My mother encouraged me to never give up on anything and instilled a belief that I could do anything I put my mind to.
My grandmother was a woman ahead of her time and because she was fluent in Japanese and Korean, she was the go-to letter writer and reader in her large village (equivalent to a small town today) and was considered extremely intelligent and spunky. She probably had a high school education in Korea because women were not heading to college in droves during her era but she was very confident and bold despite the cultural restrictions on women. In her 70s and 80s, she travelled to countries like Japan on her own to do some sightseeing.
There’s a legendary story about her that she taped a voice recording and sent it to a high-ranking South Korean official (possibly the Ambassador) in Vietnam during the war and she boldly asked for her second son (my uncle) to be released from duty (he was serving in the diplomatic/government office). My uncle ended up being discharged early and he couldn’t explain why until he found out that his mother had sent a well-argued plea for his early release saying that she needed him at home.
What were the first challenges in your career as an investigative journalist and as a filmmaker? Have you ever thought of quitting it when facing any challenges?
I feel grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and how far I’ve come. I’d say early on the challenges in my work as a journalist and filmmaker were overcoming obstacles and opposition which is de rigeur in any office. When I was investigating Japanese military sex slavery during WWII, I had opposition from those who didn’t want this part of history exposed or were researching and writing about the same topic. Nothing ever worthy of our time is ever easy.
While I was researching my documentary on sex trafficking in Hong Kong, I spent 9 months walking the red light districts to look for victims of modern slavery to film on camera. I wanted this film to raise vital awareness in the city. At that point in 2012, there were no cases of human trafficking and it was a new issue that was first addressed in Hong Kong by my husband Matt Friedman’s talk at the American Chamber of Commerce. Matt is an international leader helping global companies create a slave-free world through the organization, the Mekong Club. During those evenings where it was like looking for a needle in a haystack in some of the seediest areas, I was quite scared and if it was acceptable for me to take the hand of my frontline worker friend, I would have gladly done so.
And yes of course, I’ve thought of quitting often when a project seemed insurmountable. Even in my current book writing, I feel daunted by the prospect of creating something out of nothing. It’s easy to get discouraged and what helps is breaking it down into bite size pieces and taking it one day at a time, one hour at a time. There’s a lot of staring at a blank page on my computer or staring off into space while listening to music during my “writing” time but that’s part of the creative process of writing.
How do you imagine your course of life would have been if your parents hadn't moved to Vancouver when you were two?
My life would have been drastically different had we stayed in South Korea or if my father had chosen the other alternative of moving to Tokyo for work. I’m very grateful that I was raised in Canada where I was encouraged to be independent and break free of any stifling gender expectations of me. If I had been raised in Korea or Tokyo, I would have very likely married early and had children and sacrificed any thought of a career in order to support my husband. Today, I have zero regrets in life. And if I had them, I’ve processed them deeply and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason – there’s a divine design. My Christian faith is an integral part of my life.
What achievements do you feel most proud of? Have ever felt like you should have done things differently and why?
Over the years, I have always said that I want to be a mentor and “auntie” that young people can trust and turn to when they cannot go to their parents. I’ve walked with dozens of youth over the years and some of them I’ve known since they were babies. It’s incredible to see them grow up and mature into talented adults. It’s something I feel most proud of. I also feel grateful to have finished my second book on Japanese wartime sex slavery despite the opposition. That I was able to stay the course and not shrink back is something that has stayed with me and helped me achieve other goals.
What feelings were you dealing with as you interviewed perpetrators involved in "comfort women" Japanese military sex slavery abuse?
I have interviewed both victims and perpetrators and it was a profound experience to document their stories for the next generation so that history will not be repeated. Winston Churchill said that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” These victims are walking history books. Their voices must be heard so that we can learn from them and advocate for their closure and healing.
Can you share with us the greatest challenge as a woman that you have faced in your life and what helped you to overcome it.
I’d say the greatest challenge has been overcoming the obstacles that were placed there by colleagues or bosses and betrayals by so called friends. I learned to dig deep within and be secure in who I am despite the agendas of others or their bad feelings about themselves. Knowing who I am and being rooted in my identity has been an outcome from thinking through and grappling with these challenges which has revealed my true character and values. I’ve made a lot of mistakes yet when we fail forward and refuse to sit in self-pity and victimhood, these setbacks can provide greater strength, conviction and instil an unshakable hope.
Could you please tell us more about your current and future initiatives?
I’ve always wanted to be the Oprah of Asia. I have an interview show on LinkedIn where I feature inspirational changemakers and ask them to share what makes them tick and what inspires them. I am also developing a feature film with a Singapore film company that’s based on my latest Penguin Random House book, A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines. Recently, I finished editing a 300-page non-fiction book for a client and several editors have told us it’s a page turner – it will be published later this year! I would also like to produce more TV, films and music that will inspire people especially the next generation of young women changemakers. I am also looking to publish the Chinese and Japanese versions of the military sex slavery book with a racial reconciliation theme.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being with us today, Sylvia!