It was a no-holds barred gathering right from the get go, when Dr Rosemary Tan opened her keynote address with an epiphany of sorts. “What’s so different between us and the men? Well, we women want everything. We want to have the most beautiful bag. We want the biggest rock. We want the perfect family. We want to be the slimmest, tallest, and so forth. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
The CEO of the multimillion-dollar medical diagnostics company Veredus Laboratories was speaking at the Women Entrepreneurship Forum 2009 held at Novotel Clarke Quay on 13 November 2009. Organized by SIM (Singapore Institute of Management) Professional Development, the event saw a turnout of 120 participants, mostly women. “The government is constantly emphasizing the need for more small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to act as a buffer against the economic shock that withdrawals of MNCs can cause to our economy. However, local SMEs today are run predominantly by men as witnessed by the entrepreneur awards winners in the last few years. Through the sharing of successful women entrepreneurs, we hope they can inspire more ‘unpolished gems’ to take on entrepreneurial roles,” says Chia Chye Teck, senior manager of SIM Professional Development.
Dr Tan, whose company broke even within two years, shared her golden rules for aspiring entrepreneurs before turning over the floor to the other five speakers: one, make sure you are running a business you are familiar with; two, always work with people whose skills complement, not mirror yours and finally, use your own money to start your business; that way, you can pace yourself at a comfortable level.
Building blocks of victory
Throughout the full-day event, as the women shared personal anecdotes about their trials and tribulations, several common denominators stood out: each went through fire and storm with a never-say-die attitude.
For Jocelyn Chng, managing director of Sin Hwa Dee Foodstuff Industries which manufactures the well-known Chng Kee sauces, having to take over the family business at age 21 in order to support her family was hard enough. The company’s finances were in bad shape, and she had to work in the sun fermenting beans while her peers high-heeled their way into marble-floored banks upon graduation. Adding to the heat were strong words of discouragement from her relatives and industry partners.
With an eye for opportunity, a clearly defined goal and countless hours of sheer hard work, Chng managed to expand the business overseas — the company now supplies to 30 countries worldwide. Not one to rest on her laurels, Chng’s company recently tendered for a major project with the Integrated Resorts. Out of the four short-listed companies, they were the smallest. After four rounds of audits and presentations, they were rejected. “We couldn’t bear to give up just like that, so we went back and enquired about what went wrong. It turned out that they were not confident about our financial ability to carry out such a big project. We promptly sought out our banker to back us up, and I also wrote a long letter expressing our keenness to take on the project.” This ultimately led them to secure the deal. “As an entrepreneur, don’t ever give up,” she says.
Echoing her determination, Susan Chong, CEO of environmentally-friendly packaging solutions company Greenpac said, “Self-motivation is tantamount for any entrepreneur. One must be flexible enough to change in the face of obstacles and come up with creative solutions. This is because in business, one can take calculated risks and still come across unpredictable situations sometimes.”
The other speakers included Valerie Tan, CEO of automobile company Pinnacle International, Annie Gan, managing director of Jian Huang Construction and Fong Loo Fern, managing director of CYC The Custom Shop.
Work-life balance — a myth?
|PHOTOS: Jayson Lee|
Being working mothers, the issue of work-life balance inevitably cropped up. And while the women, all married with children, agreed that family is the most important, they also admitted that “work-life balance” is a term easier and more often said than done. Fong, who herself missed out on her daughters’ growing up years when she was devoted to reviving CYC, called work-life balance a myth.
Sometimes, though, it is just a matter of doing one thing at a time. Says Chong, who has four children, “When at work, focus on your work, get it done and out of your head so that when you are at home, you can devote quality time to your family without anything else dangling over your head.”
For Chng, striving for balance extends beyond managing one’s own time. “The skill to delegate is equally important. Outsource household chores. Teach your children to be independent. As mothers, your role is to guide them, not to handhold them all the way.” To illustrate, her domestic helpers run the household errands and her children schedule their own extra-curricular activities, freeing her up to concentrate on the things that matter.
Tan has another strategy — she involves her 8-year-old daughter in the daily affairs of her business as much as she can. “Once they are involved, they don’t view your work as an enemy that takes you away from them.”
These women were neither born with silver spoons nor superhuman powers, but they worked at what they had to the best of their ability and simply refused to back down when the going got tough — that’s inspiration enough for the rest of us.