Getting to know Kara Justine Owen, the British High Commissioner to Singapore

After graduating with a BA in History from the University of Sheffield, Cumbria-born Kara Owen came one step closer to building her destined career in international diplomacy despite her initial fears of not fitting in.

Kara Owen

Written by Journalism student Ekaterina Vyurkova

Not everything went according to plan when Kara Owen first joined the University back in 1989. While she started out by studying French and Business, she soon realised it wasn’t the right pathway for her.

“After a little while into my initial degree I actually got sick, and while I was out I started reflecting on whether or not I made the right choice for myself,” recalls Kara. “I realised what I really wanted to do was to study history, which was my first love, and so I had to convince my parents and the University for me to transfer and start my first year all over again. There was almost nothing that I learned while I was in Sheffield that is entirely irrelevant to what I do now.”

There was almost nothing that I learned while I was in Sheffield that is entirely irrelevant to what I do now.”

This turnaround of events proved to be a crucial milestone, as it helped her stay true to her initial desire to join international diplomacy without having an alternative career choice in mind.

“Strangely, it was my history teacher when I was 16 who first mentioned to me that I should think about the diplomatic service,” remembers Kara. “I’m not sure what exactly it was about me that made him say that. It could have been my real hunger for international history, and his words were planted inside my brain.”

Barber House on a bright day. The windows and front door can be seen, as well as a sign above the door which says 'Barber House'.

Kara’s thesis on the Nazi Germany and the way the UK policy makers misjudged the situation in 1932-33 also played a key role in her initial career steps.

“I had an absolutely marvellous Head of Department of History in Sheffield, who was my dissertation supervisor,” says Kara. “Because I chose to look through the original Foreign Office documents for my thesis, I guess this carried me into applying to work there straight after graduating.”

Apart from the academic knowledge, Sheffield gave Kara the freedom to explore the urban lifestyle for the first time after she moved there from a rural hometown.

“I think if I hadn’t had to leave for my career, I would have very happily made my life in Sheffield ... For me, it was the perfect size. I always liked how close to nature it was and I loved the accent and how helpful the people were.”

While her friends and family help her remain emotionally connected to Sheffield, and the bands Blur and Oasis always transport her back to her university days, the Steel City also prepared Kara for an entirely different environment in London.

“When I had just entered the Foreign Office, sometimes I wondered if they confused my application form with someone else’s because I felt very different to the rest of the organisation,” points out Kara. “There weren’t many senior females when I joined. Those that were around appeared to have made some challenging personal choices that I didn’t feel ready to make, as I wanted to have a partner and children. I also didn’t come from Oxbridge or a private school. I came from a very ordinary family in a not very prosperous part of the UK, so I was afraid whether it would be okay for me to be me.”

These concerns didn’t prevent Kara from becoming the Head of Diversity and Equality at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 2009 and 2011 or over taking her most recent role as the Director for the Americas during the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections.

“The biggest challenge for me was to develop the type of self-confidence that isn’t arrogant, but that helps underpin your performance and resilience, so you don’t become insanely self-critical when things go wrong,” she says.

I’ve never done a job that totally came easy to me. I took it from my dad, who always told me that there’s no point in doing a job that doesn’t scare you a little bit.”

Her involvement with South East Asia also began long before she took on her current post in 2019, following her parents’ move to the Philippines when she was still studying for her bachelor’s degree.

By going from living in the exact same house her whole life to her parents making the other side of the world their home when she was 18, she already became acquainted with the culture by the time she was sent to her first overseas posting to Hong Kong in 1997 before taking up her past position as the Deputy Head of Mission in Hanoi in 2005.

“Thanks to that very early exposure, I learned that you really have to keep an open mind,” she says. “If you observe a culture through your own rationality and frame of reference, something that looks inexplicable, inefficient or a bit crazy will cause you to react in a way that comes from how you are used to doing things in your own country, which can lead to a deep misunderstanding.”

Having to learn Cantonese, Vietnamese and Spanish for her role is not the only way she has taken on the countries’ cultures with her.

“If it weren’t for my posting to Hong Kong, the Lunar New Year wouldn’t be such a big deal in my family,” she says. “I always get involved in the celebration by cooking lots of food, and as I got around the different countries where the event is a big deal, I integrated the customs into my own which will then also become my children’s tradition.”

ALU Kara Owen

Apart from hosting a diplomatic event in Paris during Her Majesty the Queen’s last foreign state visit in company with the other Royal Family members and the UK Prime Minister for the 75th D-Day anniversary, her time as the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Paris also cemented itself in her family rituals.

“Because my kids were little when they went to a French school in Paris, the whole family has a knowledge of French,” she says. “It’s a joy for us all to fall back into it and use phrases that we picked up there.”

With the last year’s signing of the UK-Singapore Free Trade Agreement that came into effect on January 1, 2021, for Kara it has always been the idea of making a difference that drew her to the public service, as the two countries plan to launch negotiations for the Digital Economy Agreement that aims to be a model for international digital trade.

The waterfront in Singapore
The waterfront in Singapore

“Inside the High Commission, the secret is that we only get involved in things that make the single biggest difference,” she says. “I’m not yet 50, so I haven’t gotten near the end I hope. While I do feel very fortunate and blessed for enjoying all the jobs that I’ve had, I’ve also found that I’m endlessly curious. There’s only a few things in life that I’m not interested in.”

After a 28-year-long career, she advises to never stop learning about the global trends and developments to young people who wish to break into diplomacy.

“I sometimes think of my career as a jigsaw puzzle,” she says.

It feels as though everything that I’m learning helps me complete a more integrated understanding of the world to think through strategies for promoting the British interests within the global context. The sooner you start building your own jigsaw of understanding, the better.”

Kara Owen

British High Commissioner to Singapore

This is part a series of interviews with some of Sheffield's most noted alumni, written by students from the Department of Journalism. The project was supported by a generous gift from Professor Neil Rackham (BSc Psychology 1966 and Hon DSc 2017) to help students gain practical interview experience and to help tell the stories of some of Sheffield's most talented graduates.