When Shao-Ning co-founded JobsCentral in 2000, along with partner Der Shing, it was a small two-man startup which operated out of Der Shing’s home to keep costs low. It grew to become one of the largest job portals in Singapore and caught the eye of the U.S. company CareerBuilder, which then went on to acquire the JobsCentral in 2011. After the acquisitions, Shao-Ning served as JobsCentral Group’s Managing Director until June 2014.
Shao-Ning says that’s in mid-2014 she decided now that she’d spent 14 years building her first baby, the business, she thought it was time for her to focus on the kids at home, so she decided to take a break from the corporate life.
About what she has been doing since taking the break from work, she says, “So since 2014 I have been figuring out what I want to do next, so right now I spend my time between chasing people to do their homework and then talking to start-ups, advising start-ups, doing some investment work.”
Her future projects include helping a particular non-profit to scale up their program for underprivileged children to help improve their literacy so that they are ready for primary school. And she is planning to work with two funds; assist them to look at start-ups and to channel their funds.
“Previously I was doing more Angel investments, so between my husband and I, we have about 14 Angel investments, so now we’re looking at funds that we can work in a broader spectrum.”
The most important one, the key thing she wants to promote now, is women having confidence in themselves and going on to entrepreneurship because she believes being an entrepreneur is a career choice.
“It’s not something that people just do because they woke up one day and they want to do it. You need to go through a five-year consideration. It’s risk-taking, but it’s calculated risk, and for me, it’s a very fulfilling journey.
You learn a lot about yourself. You benefit others, and I think it’s a risk-reward ratio, sometimes you’re not there, but I feel learning a path is the best choice of career,” she adds.
Shao-Ning: I just came back from Israel, where I the start-ups there all go for ground-breaking technology. Innovation is the focus. Seeing their start-ups, I realized that most of our start-ups use technology as an enabler. It’s like we are very cautious; we try to replicate what we can see working in the other markets.
A lot of our start-ups, our dreams, are not so big. We focus very much from a Singapore point of view, “I just want to cover it here, instead of the world.” So there’s a difference in the sentiments, and I would say that the difference in ambition level.
I would think that no right or wrong path, but I would say that if your solution or your business product is something that can go beyond, we should be willing to do that. Don’t worry that much, and just try.
The New Savvy: What are some of the initiatives that you are doing actually to promote entrepreneurship?
Shao-Ning: I’ve been mentoring and advising start-ups since 2000. From then on actually, I got more and more involved with Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) to promote entrepreneurship. We are under ACE and helps to run forums. So once a month, a group of seven to eight start-ups come together.
Attendance is compulsory once you sign up for it, so it’s commitment to each other. It’s a peer-to-peer sharing. And whatever they share within the four walls, stay within the four walls. And we try to find start-ups who are at the same stage of their journey so that what they’re sharing is relevant to each other.
And it’s not a platform where you bring your problem, and someone tells you what to do. It’s where you bring your problem and someone who has had a similar problem shares their experience with you and how they dealt with it.
It’s not a teaching session, but a sharing session, so it’s up to the individual what they get out from there. So that was very meaningful, because of the feedback from the start-ups. So the group that I work with now is in the second year.
Then on top of that now, I’m trying to talk to the different schools and universities, to let me bring a group of women, to come in to share their stories about how they started up, how their first 24, or first 36 months are like. There are no women-specific entrepreneurial problems.
The fact is start-ups are just tough, it’s not an easy path, but they are not women-specific issues that they cannot go through.
For a lot of women, we tend to have too many little voices. We tend to ask too many questions, and we tend to want things to be 120% or 150% sure before we want to take the first step.
So I want to get these women to share what they went through, and then how they can help the aspiring young generation to take the first step.
The New Savvy: You mentioned that there are no particular women challenges that female entrepreneurs face. What are some of the bigger challenges that women entrepreneurs are facing today?
Shao-Ning: Speaking from my experience, I don’t think there were women-specific problems that were posed by the external environment. My issue was more of an internal one. I had questions, especially when I started at 24. I had no idea how to do sales. The school never teach you how to sell things, so I had no idea how to sell, but you figure it out along the way.
That was a huge challenge, but I wouldn’t say that I encountered people who outright refused to buy from me. It really depends on how to put forward the value proposition for the clients. But I did meet people who considered me too junior to deal with. So how I overcame this problem was, I had four sets of name cards made, one was a director, one was business development manager, one was BBE, and which card I used depended on who I was talking to.
At that time, it was it was just the two founders, and I had two salespersons. We got to play different roles. We took on different hats, and when we had a potential client, but the chemistry was not good with one of us, then we would swap roles. So everybody got to chip in. Speaking of women-specific funding, and yes I hear stories, but unfortunately, I can’t share how to raise funds because we never raised funds.
I mean when we started it was dot-com crash, so nobody was funding, it was wrong the climate, and I won’t even use the word ‘era’. My era of internet start-up is very different from the current era of an internet start-up. We had no funding.
In fact, we launched at a time, when funding became very, very conservative, so our mentality at the time was, “I just want to do it and show that we can do it. I’m not going to bother with the funding.”
What worked out for us was that we chose jobs, we selected classifieds. It’s a very cash flow positive, and up-front cash kind of business, so we didn’t have to worry that much. So we turned black in the first year, and then after that it just how to invest the profit, and then how to scale, and how to continue to grow. Because really at that time we were doing projects, mainly the first three years I think we were doing projects for cash flow.
Only from the third year onwards, we started having the discipline, because at the time one of our competitors wanted to acquire us. Then I learned a lot from that experience and realized that we really need to focus.
So after that, we decided that everything that we do, we still do all kinds of stuff, must be related to career. So if it’s not related to a career we wouldn’t do it. Before that, we were doing all kinds of work. We built an insurance system. We developed a financial system. We created payroll system. Guess we had technology in-house so we leveraged on that to get projects. We didn’t focus that much on jobs.
Shao-Ning: Yes and no. There might be 10-15% of people who are involved in technology or are interested in charting their path, so they have all these topics on how they want to grow, and they are so involved in the eco-system, but I would say the other 85% of entrepreneurship or the other 85% of the society are not so immersed in it.
Entrepreneurship is not technology per se. It’s biotech, it’s media, it’s education, it’s everywhere. I mean if you start some children services, it’s also entrepreneurship, so it’s a buzz word, it’s a very keyword generating for one sector, but from an economic sense we need entrepreneurship to be more widespread because Singapore economy is so small.
We’re so small and yet we’re so open. Sixty percent of our people are employed by the smaller companies. And then actually the big companies are usually our generation with the idea, “I want to work for the MNCs, and that’s where my future is going to be.”
But in such an open economy whenever there’s a down thing like there’s a Brexit now, they are very affected, and fundamentally they don’t belong here. They could just shift and move out.
So, from a long-term point of view, I think we need our people to be more self-reliant, so local start-ups, local technology, local employers, which you will need to be, we need to step out a lot more.
The New Savvy: For those considering entrepreneurship, tell us a bit more about misconceptions of being an entrepreneur.
Shao-Ning: I would say that the biggest misconception about being your boss, is that you are the boss in the office, but seriously are you the boss? Anything people don’t want to do, you do. And when you are considering your business perspective, you are the one who’s going to think about how to grow your business and stuff like that.
Someone recently shared this story with me about a company which wanted to do video production, and they set that as their goal for 2016. But nobody in the office had the skill set. After begging everybody for five to six months, and nobody wanted to do it, the founder decided to do it herself, and she figured out how to do it.
So being the boss, being an entrepreneur means you must be willing to learn and take on whatever there needs to be done. It’s not like you just order someone to do something, and they do it. We work with younger people, and they need to see examples. Any employer would tell you that most young employees will come up with a full load of excuses to say why they cannot do something.
So entrepreneurs are the ones who have to carry a lot of stuff. You must have the commitment to build something. And if we want to create something, the foundation’s bricks have to come from you. A lot of the things that we do are not glamorous.
The New Savvy: Do you think there’s a certain type of people who are made to be entrepreneurs?
Shao-Ning: We used to do a lot of career counselling, so I know a bit of career counselling. To do well in a job, it takes a combination of attitude, values, and skills. I think we grow up with a particular set of values, but values change over time.
Skills definitely could be learned, but the attitude is something that I will say is unique and some people just have. Maybe because of the environment they grow up in, certain beliefs that are very broad.
Entrepreneurs need to have a growth mindset, you can’t have a fixed mindset. You cannot place yourself in a box. So if a person is always in a box, and has a negative mindset, I won’t say they will fail for sure, but this type of belief is going to make it very hard for them to do anything on their own.
The New Savvy: You mentioned era. So you belonged to the earlier era, and nowadays we see another entrepreneurship tech resurgence. How do you compare yourself to the millennials, the younger generations of entrepreneurs?
Shao-Ning: I think compared to them I would say, I’m a lot more conservative. I don’t know whether it’s because of a different era, or just because I’m older now, I’m not so risk-taking now.
The New Savvy: Is there something that you think that all women entrepreneurs like yourself should learn, and why and what’s that?
Shao-Ning: One thing that I have noticed, even for some pretty established women entrepreneurs, is that we need to be more certain of ourselves, and we need to project the image that we know what we’re talking about.
This is because we need to be so sure about what we are putting forward. So we do a lot more, do a lot of background work and study to put things forward. But there’s a stark difference when you compare the men and women when they come to the table to try to present their idea to ask for funding. The way that the men project themselves, the way they present the case, is very, very sure.
Women, on the other hand, are more hesitant. I know women are more consensual, sure, and we don’t want to come across as aggressive. But what we should realize is that we are not there to ask for agreement. If you’re asking for approval, investors are not here to agree with you.
Investors are there to assess whether you’re capable and whether you have something they can put their money on. If your body language indicates that you’re trying to please or share what you know, that’s not going work. But, like I said, I didn’t have to go through funding, so I don’t know whether that is the reason why some of the women find it harder to get funding. But, it’s a fact that, at the table, you are not going to be given that many second chances.
Women have an easier time asking for funding related appointments, pitching meetings, because there are not so many of us, but don’t waste a chance. How you carry yourself, how you project yourself, how you communicate your business idea and viability. It’s the presentation.
Don’t overdo it, because the business environment is still more male-centric in that sense, and they will perceive certain languages as over-aggressive, but you need to find your balance.
The New Savvy: You mentioned that both you and your husband invest in start-ups. Can you tell us a bit more about some statistics of the type of companies you meet? How many are women, and what have been your experience?
Shao-Ning: Truth be told, I don’t meet many female entrepreneurs. My husband has a stronger reputation in Angel Investing, so people reach out to him more. I only started getting active in the past year, and I would say that the women entrepreneurs I met, a lot of times I sought them out.
Like, I looked for Anna and then for the peer-to-peer mentoring that I’m doing on an entrepreneurship forum. The two women entrepreneurs there, I had to go and court them to come and join this, because the men are raising their hand and they want to take advantage of the scheme, but I need to find the women. There is not a lot.
The New Savvy: A lot of people give me this feedback, and I have experienced it myself, that when you try to find mentorship, men are more willing, but women are hesitant. Is there something you think we can do to promote senior women offering to mentor other women.
Shao-Ning: So I believe that this is just personal perspective. I think, it goes back to the little voices we have in our head, where we’re like, “I want to do something.I want to make sure I do well on it, and I don’t know whether I can be a good mentor.” I work with a lot of stuff, and I call myself a mentor sometimes, but I don’t have a formal mentorship experience with anybody.
Because I feel that it should be something that’s very structured and I should be willing to put in a time for it. But the thing is, it’s a give and take relationship that you need to have. And I think women, our roles as a wife, mother, girlfriend and business personality, we feel that we need to be hundred percent, hundred percent, hundred percent.
So now going into a mentor role, can I do it all? So that’s what our girls are going through in the head because we want to be the best in everything that we take up. And we make sure that we can deliver.
Shao-Ning: For me actually, I think it’s evolution of the start-up environment, because, in recent years, investment, funding excess has become more popular, easier, compared to my time.
The definition of success for the start-ups become, “I have people putting money with me.” But for our time, the definition of success was, the business survived, I am able to pay salary, I go on and I can see myself around for ten years, or twenty years.
Another key difference is once they get the funding, they think they’re done. But I think in the past 12-18 months funding has become a bit more difficult. So you can see some start-ups start to realize that business is about value creation. Business is about continuity and being able to see yourself there in 20 years.
The New Savvy: Is there any advice you can give on how women can conquer our little voices inside?
Learn to realize that we cannot be a 100% in everything.
Shao-Ning: Ignore it. Seriously. We have to realize that the little voices are there to make us more cautious. I guess it goes back to how the evolution was. Women had actually to multitask. In the caves, women were cooking or looking after kids and all those things, so there was always that little voice in their head reminding them of other things that need their attention. You’re doing A; you’ve got to think of B and C and D.
On the other hand, the men who were hunting; they focused only on what they were hunting. So that’s how we evolved, and it’s something that I think, biologically, we can’t change that fast, so we have to learn to ignore it. I mean, not ignore, ignore, as in just put it aside, but go through it and see whether your concerns are grounded and that’s the basis for that.
And even if not, I mentioned earlier that there are three, four, fundamental aspects of my life, I cannot be 25% sure. Some are going to be 40%, 50% and some are just going to be 5-10%, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to focus on the issues.
I know that for this project if I committed myself, I will put in this amount of time, and it may not be the best, but I need to be able to live with what I promise myself and the other people that I’m involved with.
The New Savvy: Is that how you juggle your time with you having this investment and mastering your business and mentoring and with four kids? Maybe you can tell us a bit more about how you juggle your time between all your projects?
Shao-Ning: When I was working in JobsCentral, I think my partners hated me at the start because I put a rule in place where everybody had to report to work at 9. Otherwise, there would be a late fee. Over the 14 years, we operated very much like a company in that sense. We were not like most start-ups, where you come in as and when you want, even for the founders. It’s a discipline that I think we need to have.
So even when I had kids, my confinement was usually only one month. I would go back, and then I would negotiate with myself to have my balance three months’ work out the rest of the year so that I could have some flexibility. Now, I’m not so disciplined, honestly. I realize I’m the type who needs a structure to be disciplined, but I’m working on it, on how to be disciplined right now.
The New Savvy: What is the hardest moment of your life, and how did you overcome it?
Shao-Ning: The hardest moment of my life was in 2007-08 when I had a huge struggle with my father. My dad is a typical Chinese businessman who sees himself as the centre of the universe and everything revolves around him. His business was not working out well, and I had to support him a lot financially, and it came to it a point where I ran out of my savings.
My husband and I have a joint account, so I was depleting my family’s finances to support my dad. My husband was very kind, and he let me do it, but then it came to a point where, if I continued, my family would be in trouble.
So that was a difficult time. It was such a huge, huge struggle, and then also realizing certain things about my father, that he was not the person I thought he was, so there was a lot of learning,
At that period, really, my husband and JobsCentral were what kept me going. Most of the people in the office didn’t realize what was going on, so I think I learned to compartmentalize very well. But I think a few weeks I was going quite crazy, so my husband just planned a trip and took me away from Singapore, and then we went to Vietnam to get away from the scene and all those things.
I think he grounded me, and he centred me, and then the business grounded me, so I could still focus on work. And a lot of times we use work to get away from certain things, so that was a period and that was tough.
The New Savvy: So what was the point of realization like?
Shao-Ning: I don’t think it was decision-making process, but I realized that challenges show different things, and that was a time that was a big realization for me. Because I’m very traditional in a sense, that I felt that the elders need to be respected for whatever reason.
But, I realized that there are times one can’t blindly respect someone without knowing whether the person is worthy of the respect. So that was the time I realized. Honestly, not everybody deserves to be respected; not everybody is worthy. And to understand that about your father is very hard.
Shao-Ning: In the past, my struggles every month was the sales number. Whether I’d be able to pay salaries at the end of each month. I mean I know the cash flow was positive, but still. Being an entrepreneur, you need to be optimistic, and at the same time pessimistic, and I always look at the worst part of things.
You know what I’m trying to say? I guess it’s because I’m a woman. So the thing is, I would say then my biggest struggle was always about sales number. I would usually come home late, go to sleep and wake about 3 AM in the morning thinking about my sales number for the month.
And now, my struggles is with myself on how to be a mother, to bring up my kids well. The environment is so competitive these days, and it’s just crazy that all the kids need to be A and all these things. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to chase them to be book smart, and not street smart.
And I most worry about bringing up kids who cannot think for themselves. And now we are so into involved parenting that whenever our children face any problem, we would jump in to try it solve it for them. So now my struggle is how, as a mother, to bring up kids who are useful and not so purely focused on books smart.
The New Savvy: What is your definition of success, and are you near that definition, your definition?
Shao-Ning: My definition of success is to have done something I am proud of, and to be happy with what I have achieved. So I think I am 80% there. I’ve built something that I’m happy about. I’m quite proud of the company I built, having done it as a fresh grad, and the outcome has given us a very comfortable lifestyle.
But I would say I’m not there yet because I don’t know what the outcome will be for my kids. They are also things I’m trying to build, and I am trying to make sure that they come out right.
The New Savvy: My next question is related to kids. You have 4 boys. Do you have any thoughts regarding, women, children, marriage and the current environment?
Shao-Ning: I think I’m two-minded on this. I get it that people want to focus on having a career, and especially now, with women getting more educated, and there’s no reason why we have to forego what we learn and then focus on home.
Focusing on a home doesn’t mean that you forego what you learn in school. So I don’t really have an answer, but I would say that whatever a woman wants to do, it’s because of our more consensual working style, and we are more partnership-oriented, we should be very clear on what we are trying to drive for ourselves, and get your partners to buy in.
Personally, I would be very sad if my kids didn’t end up right, or didn’t turn out useful, but I don’t think I’m going to be as affected if my job wasn’t well done, or the accounting or the career side was not so well achieved.
I think kids are what anchor me, and I think kids are my biggest project, but being a control freak, I have to realize that their life belongs to them. I cannot run their lives for them. I think I fall into the school of thought that I felt that I would help them to draw the map, and I would try my best to help them draw the map, but what they want to do on that map, they figure it out.
I’m not the one to go tell them, “You got to do this, A, B, C and D.” So I don’t think I’m successful as a parent yet, because if I would say that, I’m glad to say that my kids love me, and I have a very strong relationship with them, and I’m very happy.
Especially my two older ones, they know what the business was about because they went through it, and I’m glad to observe that they’re very proud of us.
The New Savvy: Are there any tips you can give to women on how to have a happy family?
Shao-Ning: You hear a lot of stories, good and bad, about working with your spouse. And I think, a lot of times, it’s the personal ego at stake. Because as entrepreneurs, I think we’re all very Alphas, so you have your Alpha ego to manage. But I think what worked out for us was that though we’re both very Alpha, we learned to communicate effectively.
Sometimes it’s just screaming and shouting at each other, but then you learn to communicate with the big picture in mind, and you know the objective of what you’re trying to do. For me, what was superb, was that I knew my partner would never betray me.
I mean, in partnership management, sometimes you have partners who turn on you for whatever reasons you cannot understand.
So in a sense, we are life partners, and we are business partners, so we know that we are aligned with both aspect of life. So for me, that was the cornerstone that ground us. So for women who want to go into business, be willing to commit, and once you’re committed to doing something, try your best to explain and get the buy-in from people around you.
Because I think some women really try to do it, but then the husbands are standing on the sidelines and saying, “Don’t come to me for money when things go sour” and stuff like that. That’s not a very good partnership to start with, so think of your partner as your first shareholder.
Even if they’re not putting in money, they probably have to put in the time to support you for other things, so that your partner is your first shareholder. It is also important to have a very good support network to do the business.
The New Savvy: How about your relationship with your husband? The two of you have a very good relationship. What are some tips you can give to people who are dating or are married?
Shao-Ning: Yes. He’s equally responsible for them. I mean I was a very poor communicator, so he taught me how to communicate. You have to learn to say things in a constructive way. Don’t say things in a destructive way.
I used to think that if our marriage doesn’t work out, we would just part our ways. But I think the second year after we got married, we had this talk, and then we realized that my thinking and his thinking were very different. Our wavelength was a bit off. To him, a divorce is never an option, and that’s why he will always make sure that things work.
At that time I was like, “If it doesn’t work out, we will just part our ways, what’s a big deal?” I mean, that’s the way things are. But after I came to know of his thinking and his philosophy, it shocked me, and then it changed me at the same time because if he’s so committed to making this relationship work, it’s my job too to make sure it works. I mean, it takes two hands to clap.
The New Savvy: How do you handle your finances?
Shao-Ning: As I said earlier, we don’t have personal bank accounts, so for us, family finance is always planned together. In our earlier days when we were still trying to make sure we could pay our salaries, our staff in that period, we had a very interesting rule, set by him, actually not by me.
Two interesting rules. One, we will only go on holidays if we have profited from stocks and equity investments. Then the second rule was, we only buy things from clients who buy from us, because we were doing a very mass market product. For the first few years, we were doing campus market.
At that period, I was always jokingly telling myself, “Make sure this client buys, otherwise I can never drink coffee from here.” We are very careful in the way we spend, and we’re very thoughtful in the way we spend.
We spend on what’s necessary, so the kids always have me downs, and we never really splurge, especially that they grow up so fast. I wouldn’t say that we don’t enjoy ourselves, but we enjoy what is necessary, and we spend more in travel, learning, food, the experiential stuff, but the material stuff, we’re not so into it.
The New Savvy: How do you improve your financial knowledge?
Shao-Ning: I’m a finance student, but financial products are so different from the textbook stuff nowadays. They’re so innovative, so I read to learn. Online reading, of course, there are courses and TedTalks, and then learn about the new ways of managing.
But financial management actually, is critical because personally, I feel that it’s not so much financial freedom, it’s more financial knowledge and the fact that you know that you have enough to support yourself, that will grow the confidence in you.
You are not dependent on somebody else. It’s your self-worth I would say. So you can’t have self-worth if you forever are trying to get something from other people. So to me, that’s key to keep your confidence and to develop yourself.
The New Savvy: How do you teach your children money management or financial interests?
Shao-Ning: So I think kids nowadays are very lucky. They don’t realize what money is, and they just have a lot of things. An iPhone for one thing, iPhones are not cheap. So my kids, actually they only get a phone when they turn a certain age. So they don’t have it when they ask for it, and a lot of things they don’t have it when they ask for it.
Even if they do get iPhones, it’s older models that we change out from. So we don’t let them have things that they want all the time, and because we feel that if it’s not necessary, then we will not give them. But if it’s for experiential learning, then we will support truly. So it’s about the value of money.
We have to be very clear with them why we make them do that. And once they start going to school, they have an allowance. So for allowance, I just start the mommy bank. I tell you I’m the best interest-giving bank in Singapore. I give them 1% per month for whatever they save on their balance, and I don’t allow them to draw out. So I’m trying to encourage them not to overspend.
It’s trying to get them to realize what money management is about, and then we don’t teach them the concept of brands. We tell them that branding, marketing, and all this is important, they understand the concept of that, but we don’t go into living luxury brands and all this, because to me it’s teaching them attitude that is not very productive.
So we try to teach them the concept of value and substance.
The New Savvy: Are there any tips you can give to women in general on life, success, balancing a family?
Shao-Ning: Not really tips. I just feel that women have to acknowledge that we are smart individuals, and we are intelligent individuals, and we shouldn’t feel inferior simply because voices are questioning ourselves. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be selfish and expecting things to be done for us because we are women.
I mean if we ask to be equal, we should behave as an equal, but don’t ask to be equal with a massive clause of demands at the back. I’m not a feminist, but I feel that for women the goal should be to be self-reliant.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in