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Get to Know the Women Behind These Successful Companies

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Living in Singapore chatted with several women entrepreneurs who have been running successful businesses here in Singapore. We get their thoughts on diversity in the workplace, hear about some challenges they’ve faced, and get their advice for other women who are thinking of starting a business.

Shareen Wong

Shareen is the owner of Embrace Jewellery and a radio personality.

Tell us a little bit about your background and business.

Embrace Jewellery is a multi-label store that features chic, beautiful jewelry. Started in 2008, the store features our own line of jewelry – The Embrace Collection – with affordable sterling silver and gemstone pieces, as well as the Embrace Luxe range, with Modern Jade and precious stone jewelry in solid gold. We also have a curated collection of jewelry brands from Spain, Italy and more! Available both in stores and on our website

How and why did you decide to start a business in Singapore?

After my marriage broke up, I decided to go on a solo trip around the world and I was inspired to set up a retail business that showcased the beautiful pieces I saw on my travels. I wanted a challenge that would keep me busy and allow me to grow. I sure got one!

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

Having no prior experience in running a business, I’ve had to learn along the way and from mistakes. It’s been such a roller coaster journey of ups and downs. The business started more as a lifestyle and homeware business, but grew into a jewelry business, and in order to continue to operate and grow the business through the years, I’ve had to improve my skills through courses, reading books, and hiring and working with the right people.

COVID-19 is probably one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. When the lock down happened last year, we had to shut the stores but still had rent and manpower costs to pay. We didn’t want to let anyone go, so we had to pivot fast to focus our attention on e-commerce and boosting our social media presence, even learning how to sell through live streams.

How important do you think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is in society and the workplace? Why do you think so?

I think it’s really important because everyone brings something different to the table. We make it a point to hire across different age groups as we feel that older workers have a lot of experience to share, and younger ones inspire us with their energy and ideas. Some of our staff have been with us over a decade and we value their loyalty and experience.

What advice would you give to women interested in starting a business in Singapore?

Do your homework and know what you’re in for. It is hard work running a business so be prepared to put in long hours. Stay adaptable. It’s so important to be able to adapt as situations are always changing, and what worked three months ago might not work now.

Karin Rysgaard

Karin is the owner of Cocoon Styling, and the co-owner of Island Living with Denise Vrontas.

Tell us a little bit about your background and business.

I arrived in Singapore 17 years ago with a young toddler at the time. I had been working in Melbourne in the design field. The first house I rented actually became my first project here. The landlord was also considering selling if she did not find a tenant, but after discussion with her, she agreed to rent to me. She was based in Shanghai, so project management was difficult for her. I was ready to get into something creative again, so this seemed like perfect timing. She found all the contractors, funded the project, and I oversaw the works on her behalf, ensuring quality control. Having the chance to be able to select the materials, and do what turned out be extensive renovations - we pulled the whole back of the house off, and completely remodeled and extended the kitchen into what was a lovely garden space. I thought it was quite hilarious that she would agree to do this. Slowly, I then started to get approached, initially by my real estate agent, who had seen the transformation. Although I was still committed to being a full-time mom, the wheels started churning in my mind and I could see there was an opportunity in Singapore to take this further. Cocoon Styling was formalized 12 years ago.

How and why did you decide to start a business in Singapore?

As someone who wants to create the perfect nest, I was surprised by the way expats were decorating their homes, especially for those renting and facing restrictions at times from landlords. Many didn’t know how long they would be here beyond the initial two year contract that were typically offered back in those days.

People were arriving with a container of furniture, often a bit of a mish-mash of treasures and furniture collected on their journeys. Many were desperately trying to make it work in a new tropical environment, in a home that they don’t own. It’s a familiar story I still hear very often today.

As my design projects got bigger, I became frustrated sourcing furniture and homewares for design projects. I couldn’t seem to find enough variety of well-priced items. I was randomly contacted by a client in November 2018, who I had worked with several years before, who mentioned that her neighbor Denise was interested in starting to import products from the SEA region and perhaps I could connect with her and include her products in my projects. Denise had a toddler and three-month-old at the time and was not looking forward to going back into her previous corporate role. After several phone conversations, the concept grew. We decided to jump in, with plenty of blind faith, hard work, and many lessons learned along the way, which all seem to be paying off. Island Living was started three years ago.

At Island Living, we want to offer our customers a laid-back approach to furnishing and homewares to style their homes; products and items that are on trend and affordable. We focus on natural textures and fibers, using recycled and sustainable materials where we can. Denise, coming from a corporate PR and marketing background, takes charge of this side of the business while I focus on the creative elements. It is the perfect marriage, so to speak, when it comes to our individual skills. We have also cemented a wonderful friendship along the way, which is such a bonus. In addition, slowly building a great team of staff from different cultures and backgrounds to back us up is just fantastic, allowing us to keep growing.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

There have been many challenges along the way. In the early years, finding suppliers and contractors, and trying to build lasting relationships with them, was tough to start. I was lucky to connect with my main contractor, Raj, ten years ago, and we still work closely together today. Being a creative person, my technical skills were limited, so I needed loads of help in this area and still do. We were lucky enough to have made some great supplier connections for Island Living prior to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has had its challenges for sure in regard to shipping and stock supply chain. Contractors and manpower to work onsite on design projects has also been a challenge.

On a positive note, having the opportunity to support and build lasting relationships with smaller businesses in the region during this time has been fantastic. The countries that we all used to pop to for a long weekend are really struggling and need support.

How important do you think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is in society and the workplace? Why do you think so?

This is so important! Your ability to include people from all nationalities, ages, and backgrounds in your business here in Singapore is the only way to succeed.

As someone who is 50 years old now, working with younger people helps to keep your perspective in check. What are the needs of the younger generation and upcoming trends? We also employ older people as I feel the experience they offer is priceless. They have great attention to detail and patience. The diversity of a well-planned team will allow your business to keep growing.

What advice would you give to women interested in starting a business in Singapore?

Do your research and contact professional people that can initially guide you on how to set it up correctly. The laws are changing all the time, so ensuring you are well informed and armed with the latest legal requirements before you start is important. I often hear the most successful businesses are based on passion. You need to love what you do. There will be a lot of hard work, weekends, holidays, and evenings spent if you are serious about success. So, choosing to turn something you love into something that is financially lucrative seems the best way to go. Be prepared to sacrifice your personal time. The time it takes to always keep all the balls in the air is something most people don’t realize initially. This is especially true if you start off solo, as I did. Learn to create boundaries and stick to them, make clear decisions about your availability to clients, the business, and then your personal life. This can be tricky to stick to, especially if you are working and living in the same spaces, as many of us are doing now. These lines can easily get blurred very quickly and you may start to feel that you are always at work. Therefore, ensure to make time for yourself so you can take a full day off now and again.

Define your strengths. Make a list of the things you are good at and enjoy. Then make a list that highlights the areas in which you will need help in. For me, that was administration and technical skills that I lacked. I outsourced help in these areas, and this really paid off. Don’t put additional pressure on yourself. Recognize where you need help and reach out. Most, importantly don’t give up! Believe

in yourself!

Sasha Conlan

Sasha is the owner of Sasha’s Fine Foods, an online grocer.

Tell us a little bit about your background and business.

I am a food-loving mother of three who relocated to Singapore from London with my husband and kids back in 2008. I was a lawyer by profession, but a foodie at heart, so when I saw a prime opportunity to bring together my passion for cooking and eating with the growing demand for “cleaner” food in Singapore, I took it upon myself to set up Sasha’s Fine Foods (SFF) in 2010.

Sasha’s Fine Foods is Singapore’s first online grocer that is positioned as both premium and ethical, selling high-quality sustainable groceries to households and restaurants across Singapore. We source food as close to its natural state as possible from trusted suppliers who can satisfy in-depth questions on farming and working standards so that our customers can make informed decisions about their food. From day one, I made it my mission to visit our suppliers to witness their sustainable-farming practices first-hand and sample their products before committing to them as a supplier. With COVID-19, we have pivoted to virtual farm visits, but our commitment to sourcing for the very best food remains. We are still providing food-savvy shoppers in Singapore the convenience of shopping for tasty and high-quality groceries that they can get delivered on the same day by people who care.

How and why did you decide to start a business in Singapore?

I was frustrated by the lack of good quality meat and fish produce in Singapore and the lack of transparency of where it came from and what was in it. Back in 2008, there were also no online delivery grocers in Singapore. SFF was the first! Food is deeply personal and hands-on for me, hence I began a journey of sourcing and importing top quality, ethically sourced and fully sustainable produce. The process brought me closer to the farmers and their produce, reinstating my trust in the food I was feeding my family and gaining complete confidence in what I am selling.

What started off as a weekly pick up from Changi in my car to then deliver to customers has now blossomed into a thriving online, ethical grocer. My commitment to our customers to provide the best food the world has to offer has been unwavering, and while the company has grown so much, these values remain unchanged. Not only have we grown in size, but we have also grown in terms of our range, quality and values. SFF now has an expanded range of over 600 high quality, carefully sourced and nasties-free products. We are also steadfast on supporting the “small guys” and have greatly increased our range of high-quality goods from Singaporean producers.

The growth of SFF tells me that we have a generation that are more interested in knowing where their food comes from, something that has become even more relevant during the pandemic, and I am overjoyed to be able to support it. This really shows the relevance of SFF 12 years on and has allowed us to keep striving to better ourselves. For instance, we now have Singapore’s first carbon neutral grocery delivery fleet and are also members of the United Nations Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) and Singapore’s F&B Sustainability Council.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

The challenges are almost too many to mention! Flights get canceled, our suppliers send the wrong products, food regulators unexpectedly take produce for inspection, drivers get sick, trucks break down...the list is endless. However, years of experience have of course given me great insight and enabled me to find solutions. For example, ensuring all products are transported and stored at correct temperatures is extremely challenging in a tropical environment, so we now have customized trucks which have both refrigerated and

freezer compartments.

Additionally, there are also personal challenges worth mentioning. As a woman in a food industry that is largely male-dominated, I have found myself occasionally being thrown curveballs, but I have always found solutions and over the years, my confidence has grown. This confidence comes in part from my strong belief in what I am doing; feeding our families clean top quality food, looking after our planet, supporting companies who treat their staff well and who invest in their communities. These are all values that I cherish, and I have them in mind every time I face a new challenge.

How important do you think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is in society and the workplace? Why do you think so?

’m really proud of SFF’s record of diversity and inclusion. It makes the sum of the parts much greater than the whole and helps to avoid groupthink - in both business and in the wider community.

I’m proud that our office team is 70% female, we come from seven different countries, and we are flagged as LGBTQ+ friendly on our Google listing. That said, I am also mindful that inclusivity isn’t about statistics, and is a continual journey of learning and improvement.

Having these values embedded in our actions and communication have a more lasting impact than we can ever imagine, especially as a business building long-term relationships with international suppliers, some of whom come from backgrounds with little to no privilege.

It is important that we embed these values in our actions and ensure that they extend beyond our team. That’s why we partner with farmers, fishermen and producers from underprivileged backgrounds - such as Re-Foods, who work to make the women and girls in their cashew farming cooperatives safe, by doing things like installing street lighting in their villages in Vietnam.

We also practice inclusivity closer to home. Our vans are washed by those with learning challenges, and we ensure that any food that is close to running out of life is given to care homes, nursing homes and those who aren’t as included in Singaporean-life as they perhaps could be - those in dormitories, for example.

We must all be champions of diversity and inclusivity. We have come so far in that struggle to not remain vigilant.

What advice would you give to women interested in starting a business in Singapore?

Ultimately, a business must be purposeful to you. If you are just in it for the money, it is easy to give it up for another business or job. Having a passion that you can channel the drive and motivation into is super important as well. Personally, SFF is where it is today because I was (and still am) guided by a simple philosophy: helping our community understand the importance of where our food

comes from.

When you believe in the purpose of your business – for me, that is serving the community – you will feel empowered to make it succeed. Believing in your vision and business then creates the excitement you need to sustain it. Matching the quality of our produce with the quality of our service has always been a pillar of Sasha’s Fine Foods, and I am always excited to know that we have given our customers the ability to shop with confidence. There are women who may perhaps lack the confidence to market their businesses because they hate selling, but when they truly believe that they are adding value to their clients, I believe they will feel passionate about sharing how their business can add value for them.

Dr. May Ooi

May is a former Olympian in swimming, and the owner of Capoeira Kids, a martial arts school.

Tell us a little bit about your background and business.

I was born and raised in Singapore, but spent 16 years of my life in the US and Europe. My childhood revolved around a competitive swimming career that took me to all the major games including the 1992 Olympic Games, 1994 Commonwealth Games, 1990 and 1994 Asian Games and SEA Games from 1989 to 1997.

After retirement from competitive swimming at the “ripe old age” of 24, I went to medical school in Europe and graduated as a medical doctor. Somewhere along the medical journey, I found Capoeira and other martial arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, judo and wrestling. That snowballed into a Capoeira school for children and a professional MMA career with some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, like ONE Championship and World Series of Fighting.

Although I retired from elite competition, I’m still very much involved in the sport scene of Singapore. I currently serve as Vice President of the Singapore JuJitsu Association and Vice Chairwoman of Women in Sport Committee under the Singapore National Olympic Council.

Capoeira Kids started as a passion project that morphed into a mission of “Grooming Leaders Through Sports.” We work with children from 3-12 years old, teens and adults. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art and art form that incorporates self-defense, acrobatic, music, and folklore dances. It’s a great channel to help kids build resilience, grit, and delayed gratification while having fun in Capoeira class.

How and why did you decide to start a business in Singapore?

Singapore is home. Although I spent years outside this sunny island, I always knew I would come back to take care of my mom. I started the Capoeira school because I wanted to create a lifestyle that allowed me to take care of my physical health and, more importantly, have complete autonomy of my time. Working in the medical industry in Singapore didn’t give me that option. I had to make a choice based on my values and a vision only few could understand.

Starting a business in Singapore is easy. It only takes a few clicks on the computer to get registered with ACRA as a business entity. Growing that entity to a successful business is something else.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

There were loads of challenges. I switched from a respectable and stable career to a start a martial arts school. Capoeira was relatively unknown then and it was an uphill task to kick off the business. We started classes at local condos, community centers, international schools, and rented space by the hour at a dance studio. I borrowed $20,000 from my mom and we rented our own space at Horse City. We are still there. It’s been

14 years.

In the beginning, we made just enough to pay rent, utilities and whatever overhead that came with running the school. I didn’t take a salary for ages! I remember sleeping in the gym a couple of nights a week for two years because the travel time from Horse City to my mom’s was well over an hour and I had to teach early morning classes (Sixth Avenue MRT did not exist back then!).

As classes became busy and we got more popular, we worked pretty much every day with no rest days. We worked right through public holidays, too! I was teaching, working the reception, doing the administration, managing the parents, and cleaning the gym every day. It was exhausting and, on top of it all, we were dead broke.

How important do you think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is in society and the workplace? Why do you think so?

Singapore is a melting pot of cultures. Growing up in a small country with diverse cultures, languages, religions, and customs has taught me to be more tolerant and understanding of the people I work with.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Capoeira is because the community is the heart of everything. Women, men, and children are all encouraged to participate in the activities and everyone plays a role. It’s like a big village where everyone can contribute to the best of their abilities. My position on equality and inclusiveness in the workplace draws from the lessons learned in Capoeira. Everyone has the ability to contribute in the workplace. Sometimes we learn valuable lessons and skills from those we least expect in the community. Everyone is a resource, but it’s up to the leader to discern which resources can be drawn upon at an appropriate time.

What advice would you give to women interested in starting a business in Singapore?

Starting a business is like running a marathon. There will be bumps and detours. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people to help you get through those bumps. Having a mentor to guide you helps a lot especially if you are starting a business for the first time.

Most importantly, enjoy the journey.

Jennifer Yarbrough

Jennifer is the owner of White Glove, an employment agency.

Tell us a little bit about your background and business.

My background is in law, and I am an attorney in the US. I also have experience in technology training and course development, as well as customer service. I own an employment agency in Singapore that specializes in foreign domestic workers for families and employment passes for companies.

How and why did you decide to start a business in Singapore?

I decided to start a business in Singapore because I kept running into the same problem when I was trying to hire a domestic worker myself. Nobody would listen to my requirements and I seemed to be at the mercy of whomever showed up for interviews that day in their office. I thought there must be a better way. I also felt like my needs as an expat weren’t being addressed very well by the market and the agencies I dealt with personally. I did several months of research and just decided to go for it.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

It was quite a learning experience in the beginning and there wasn’t much available to teach me how to do this job, so I spent a lot of time researching answers and trying to come up with technological solutions to the problems I faced. For example, I had a hard time remembering which worker had which skills and kept shuffling paper around and re-reading their biodatas. Finally, I decided to put their answers in a searchable database to help me. Now, I can search based on skills, which has been a tremendous help to me. In the beginning, I took a course, and WhatsApped someone at the Association for Employment Agencies with my dozens of questions. I am sure I annoyed him to no end! However, he patiently answered all of my questions. I also called MOM several times a day in the beginning! Both were great resources to me.

How important do you think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is in society and the workplace? Why do you think so?

I think diversity, equality and inclusiveness is important and as a business it has been very important to our success. From the beginning, I decided to make sure all applicants were considered fairly, and hired people based on their personalities and merit. With our clients and applicants this has served us very well, because we usually have someone on staff who is familiar with certain customs and requirements that our clients may have. With our applicants, we don’t limit ourselves to any particular nationality. We take workers from any approved source country as long as they have the skills and experience our clients are looking for in a helper. Every client and every applicant is different. There is no one size fits all and we choose not to limit ourselves to one profile. The toughest part in being inclusive and diverse has been in educating clients and domestic workers that may have their own narrow ideas about what they are looking for and teaching them that people are people regardless of their backgrounds. You will find good people and bad people in every culture and it is best to take each individual as a person rather than a profile that may or may not meet your prior expectations.

What advice would you give to women interested in starting a business in Singapore?

I would advise anyone interested in starting a business in Singapore to do your homework first, follow your heart, and choose something that really interests you. It’s easier to be passionate when you have a keen interest to begin with. Being a business owner will take over your life, so you’d better love it!

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