Elim Chew, who was recently awarded the Public Service Medal at this year’s National Day, talks to City News about how she got where she is.
Contributed By Terence JR Lee
Many know her as the president and founder of street-wear retail powerhouse 77th Street which recently celebrated its 23rd year. She jokingly describes herself as “the only blond person in church” when she joined City Harvest Church 20 years ago. Today, she is just as recognizable—she wears the same blond hair, a black and pink outfit with a “Changemaker” badge pinned on.
And what a changemaker she has been: involved in all things “youth” and “street;” her name will inevitably come up in any conversation about Singaporean entrepreneurship. Nor can one walk through the hippest heart of Orchard Road without seeing the impact she has made in fashion through 77th Street. Chew sits on over 20 management boards and is heavily involved in bodies and causes that support youth, including the *SCAPE and the School Of The Arts. She thanks the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports for their unstinting support all these years. This impact has not gone unnoticed. During National Day this year, Chew’s efforts were recognized when she was presented with the Public Service Medal. The medal is given to those who have rendered “commendable public service in Singapore.” Chew will receive her award from Singapore’s new President in November.
Behind the accolades and awards, however, is a humble and down-to-earth woman, trying to do the best she can, both for herself and for those around her. “I am thankful for the award,” she says. “Church has been a large part of who I am, and the people outside of church have also given me a lot of opportunities.
“In the last few months, I was actually saying to myself and to my friends, ‘I’m tired already, I want to give up. Maybe I should just sit down and do nothing.’ Suddenly this award comes and maybe this is a sign that says, ‘You cannot give up. You’ve got to continue.’ Maybe it’s God saying, ‘No, you’ve got to continue! You’ve got to do more instead of sitting down and doing nothing.’”
While many in business consider social work their last priority, Chew feels that giving back to society is an integral part of growing—both as a business and as a person. In fact, she credits her service to society for the success in her business.
“The principle is that, as you give, more is given back to you, and it is up to you to take up that opportunity. You must take the step and take up what is given to you, and that opens a door of opportunities to the next level … The best part is that there’s no need to search or fight for these opportunities. They will come to you automatically: I call that blessing.
“I find that the more I do for people, the more I learn, and the better I become. Thus the business becomes better as well. It’s not the other way around. As you plow more into helping people out there, you’ll do better and better, and you’ll build up this momentum.”
However, she cautions that to keep giving of oneself requires an “inner core strength” which is built up through adversity and challenges. This “core strength” is what makes one’s efforts sustainable.
“For me, it’s important that my business—77th Street—do well. But more importantly, my person must do well, because only then can I take the next person through. It’s like going on a plane: when they drop the oxygen masks, they say to put the mask on yourself first, then on the child. Likewise, we must do well for ourselves, before we can help the person next to us.
“People who go through more things will build more inner core strength. It’s like muscles: the more you work out, the stronger your muscles get. Inner core strength is built by the things you go through and experience. Young people should go through more things, through good and bad times. That’s how we build our inner core strength. Once you have that strength, you can carry people through.
“We have to build ourselves up to do well, and be well, then, we can serve well.”
At the root of her spiritual “core strength” is a verse from the Bible. “When I was 17, my uncle said to me, ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you [Matthew 6:33].’ Till today, this is carved in my heart: it is God and it is His people first, and everything else will come.”
Chew encourages readers who want to start helping society to “take the first step. Do what Pastor Kong says: go out there and meet a need, go out there and serve! Through serving people, even despite your own challenges, you’ll know that you have the strength to overcome. Step by step, God will take you to a new level to overcome your challenges, and after that, you’ll be able to lead people through challenges as well.”
Even when one rises up in the world, Chew cautions, one must stay humble and keep the attitude of service.
“Keep moving up, but never stop wanting to learn. Have a willing heart and a good attitude—they will take you to a new level.”