How is it to be a woman entrepreneur in Singapore? It can be confidently claimed that the country is one of the best places there is in Asia for female entrepreneurs; in fact, in accordance with Dell’s Women Entrepreneurs Cities Index, Singapore City is the 5th best city for women entrepreneurs in the world, just coming after the Big Apple and the home of Big Ben.
If that isn’t enough proof for you, maybe it would be better to hear for yourself from women entrepreneurs in Singapore who are not only making a name in the country but throughout the world. Check out their stories – the struggles as well as their climb to fortune and success – below.
Think of industries you see the greatest potential and chances of success in entrepreneurship. There is little chance that you thought of the beauty industry, let alone a spa business. But this is what makes Singapore Tourism Board’s Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year of 2012, Cynthia Chua, different from the rest.
How she did it: What motivated the beauty entrepreneur was the fact that Brazilian wax was almost unheard of in her country 20 years ago. Ask someone where you can have it, and people would have looked at you blankly, clueless about the ‘western’ jargon you just uttered. This pushed Chua to start Strip in 1996.
Strip, now part of Spa Esprit Group, is more than the great, varying services they offer; what sets it apart from any other spas and waxing salons is their branding. Their ads are like no other – they are witty, novel, and undeniably creative. One might say this alone is not what brought Spa Esprit into becoming a household name in Singapore, but it is definitely among the greatest factors for it.
When it comes to branding, this is how she reasons out: “I think about what I want to see when I enter a place. We treat a beauty salon like a fashion parlour – there’s always an element of discovery to it, there’s art, there’s design. We use this to connect with customers. To us, it’s a necessity, while others may not see it that way.”
Twenty decades after the first Strip, her business empire has grown and expanded to other countries and across the continent; with stores in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Jakarta, Shanghai, and yes, even in the highly competitive New York and London, it currently has a total of 37 chains worldwide.
What we can learn from her: Chua, through what she does, reckons that it is her attempt to promote the celebration and love of one’s body for women as she says “I want women to celebrate and love their bodies, that they do it for themselves.”
There were also many who doubted her chances of success and her capability to make it big. But she did not let these remarks stop her from going after what she wanted and doing what she loved. Someone who thought her to be crazy now considers her a genius. This is a quality that must be embraced by entrepreneurs, especially those who are just onto their first business venture: “I’m too used to people saying these are bad ideas at first, then changing their minds to say they are good ideas. But I dare to dream, even if they think it’s just a fantasy of mine. I’ve proven them wrong. I’m here to effect a change and to create a movement.”
If you are already a working professional lawyer, would you leave your job to get into the field of entrepreneurship, a field full of uncertainties? Unsure or not, this is what Lyn Lee willingly did. And all because she failed to find that perfect chocolate cake that would satisfy her cravings for cocoa.
How she did it: Not very keen on the strict 9-5 job options a lawyer is offered, she decided to seek out other people who were entertaining the idea of starting a business. They started out small and slowly. Before dropping their full-time jobs, they were meeting during the weekends for a year to try different techniques and ingredients until they were able to make the perfect chocolate cake.
Thus, in 1998, Awfully Chocolate was born. The start of Lee’s business was anything grand; it was a small store in an almost hidden location, offering just that one type of cake. Many were sceptical regarding the potential of her business, but with the steady influx of orders, she was able to expand her business and open her second store in 2004.
Awfully Chocolate grew even faster in the past decade. They made sure, however, that it was a cautious kind of expansion, taking note of the booming industries that suddenly just vanished into thin air. Today, Lee’s hard work has resulted to 17 franchises all over Asia.
What we can learn from her: More than improving her skills and network as an entrepreneur, Lee sees it valuable to cultivate the entrepreneurial skills of her staff to the point of helping them set up the first restaurant Everything with Fries: “They really need to take this on, and they really need to feel that this is their baby, and then I want them to fly with it.” She sees her role within the business now as equally being a guide to them.”
Like other entrepreneurs, Lee emphasises that rather than putting your eye on the money aspect, you should focus on finding your passion so that you are doing what you love and enjoy as you are working.
In the face of personal and family struggles, running a business, let alone expanding it, is made even more challenging. But Jocelyn Chng, the eldest of the children of the founders of Sin Hwa Dee, did just that.
How she did it: Chng experienced poverty at a young age after her parents both lost their job as the factory they worked for shut down. Her father and mother then started what was to become one of the biggest sauce company in Singapore by making sauces at the back of their house and selling them by the roadside. Their hard work eventually paid off as the company was started, but it came with a price; as they put all their time and effort into starting this business, young Jocelyn was placed under the care of her grandmother for a significant portion of her early years.
The growth of the company in the 70’s was fast; but the company eventually faced the threat of failure as her father’s health was failing until ultimately, his death from his illness. Chng was only 21 around this time, but the responsibility fell upon her hands to make sure the company survives and that her other 5 siblings remain to be provided for.
Chng saved the sauce company from closing down, and more. She successfully expanded the business, with the help of her siblings and her husband, Richard Wong. It was Wong who had the vision to cater to hotels, hospitals, and institutions like them by serving meals via vending machines, an idea that led them to start the JR Food company. However, just 3 years after the company was founded, Wong was diagnosed with cancer and passed two weeks after.
But rather than letting this put her and her company down, Chng made sure that her husband lives on through the legacy of their business, especially JR Food. The meals produced by the company are available in over 100 vending machines throughout Singapore. Their sauces, meanwhile, are exported to different parts of the world and can be seen in various groceries and supermarkets worldwide.
What we can learn from her: More than remaining to be strong and composed in the midst of struggles, Chng also teaches us that in business, we cannot burden ourselves with everything. For a venture to be successful, you will need to seek not only advice but help from others. While Chng’s family owns all of Sin Hwa Dee, she is open to investors for JR Foods (now JR Group): We needed to keep growing JR Group, and we needed the capital to do that,” she says. ”
And of course if any of the right partners were to come along, we would be keen to look at a merger. But they would need to have my passion for this company.”
She was nominated and selected for FORTUNE Most Powerful Women conference in 2016 (Asia) and 2015 (San Francisco, Next Gen).
Anna has 10 years of experience in the financial sector and is currently a Director in Tera Capital. Her previous work experience includes positions at Citigroup, United Overseas Bank, a regional role in Business Monitor and a boutique private equity firm based in Shanghai. She graduated from Singapore Management University (Finance and Quantitative Finance).
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