Ms. Chew is Founder and President of 77th Street (S) Pte Ltd, the leading youth and young adults streetwear fashion and accessories retail chain in Singapore with 13 outlets locally and a shopping mall in Xidan, Beijing called 77th Street Plaza. She is humbled by awards such as Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur in 2001 by the Singapore Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Montblanc Businesswoman of the Year 2002, Young Woman Achiever 2003 by Singapore Press Holdings and Singapore Promising Brand Award 2004. She is recently honored as a Forbes Asia’s Hero of Philanthropy 2010.
Currently, she sits on over 20 boards and committees of public service, youth and community organizations such as the Programming Committee of *SCAPE, an iconic youth community space; and the Culture & Education Action Crucibles for Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) of the Ministry of Trade and Industry Singapore and many more.
Ms. Elim Chew is also a highly sought public speaker on issues of youth matters, social entrepreneurship and work excellence. She has formally set up the speaker circuit programme to share her experiences and inspire our students, youths, educators, civil servants, working professionals and community on issues that are close to her heart.
Dhanya: How did you decide that you want to work in retail?
Elim: I trained in hairstyling in London, and came back to Singapore to enter the hair styling business. As I looked around, I couldn’t really find a lot of fashion here. So I started importing from overseas. I was 21 when I started my hairstyling salon and at 22 I started 77th street. I literally coined the word 77th street – a fashion and accessories store. I started 77th street in 1988.
Dhanya: What was the challenge in creating a brand? I am sure the scene was very different back then in 1988, but what was your challenge in building a brand in Singapore?
Elim: In anything that you start, you need to have money, content, network, and manpower. To be honest, when I first started I did not know what a brand was. You literally just start! You don’t really think through a lot of things – you want to import things, you want to open a shop, and you want to sell something you really love. I love the number 77, so I decided that would be the name. It would also be something people will remember. Through time, people grow up and now one whole generation of young people have grown up with 77th street and they are actually working adults today. It takes time to build a brand. The most important thing is for you to start-up.
It took 20 years to build my brand, but today you have social media and all the different platforms it comes with. It’s a quicker process to build a brand. You can immediately start something online, form your community, attract customers who like what you do and in essence communicate with them. However, sustaining a brand takes time.
Dhanya: That nicely leads to my next question. How has internet affected the marketing strategy you use? What are the pros and cons?
Elim: In the early days, it was a lot of human interaction that led to word-of mouth. In those days, we were the only street fashion wear. It was about being who you are and what you love – if you want to be quirky, then you be quirky – that attracts attention. We became friends with every customer, we know their names and their stories. Rental was affordable back then. Social media has taken over this interaction. If I want to say something in this interview, you are able to translate into thousands of people and share it with them. I had to do that one by one, back then.
And in this scenario, trust comes in being able to deliver your goods on time; your credit facilities must be trustable. However, I do think the human interaction is missing. Back then when someone lost their wallet and walked into the store saying they didn’t have any money to get home – we would give them $50 and ask them to give it back to us when they come back. Today, you can’t do that with internet. High tech is great because we can sell to the world, but that trust is missing.
Dhanya: Is it even more valuable today?
Elim: I think it has it’s pros and cons. Pro is that you are connected to the world and someone from India could be buying from us. Simply because they don’t have this product in their market, but they have internet. They could even get things at a lower price than their home market. Whereas with physical touch, it is one transaction at a time. It’s much slower. With going to a physical shop, you get to feel the product and decide whether you like it.
Within this though, I believe we can find a space to create something that everyone can be a part of.
Dhanya: How do you think someone can build the skill of strategic thinking?
Elim: It’s all about experience. It’s about being on the ground and starting as young as you can. Kids as young as 9, 10 and 13 are building apps and starting companies. Today, it is about how early you start. There is a lot of knowledge out there that you can learn from. I feel everyone should start as young as they can. If you want to be a chef, start cooking at home for your family and scout the internet for more. While reading is one thing, self-improvement and implementation is another.
Dhanya: I work in a big retail firm that has a lot of young people working. My biggest hurdle at work is motivating these young people. Do you have any tips for me, considering the work you do with them?
Elim: I believe that this is a generation that is driven by purpose. You need to show them the purpose. Why are they in retail? Why are they social entrepreneurs. Why are they professionals. In this environment you see the people doing their part of retail. We show them the importance of their initiatives, the vision of helping the poor, the vision of taking an idea to implementation and becoming successful. And usually, its not about the money (Money is great) but the process is so much more motivating.
I think we have to show them their future. For what they don’t know or see, they don’t have a purpose. If they do see their success, they will show you more. So it’s about encouraging them to achieve their best. Also, never fail to give credit when it is due! As Asians we tend to put ourselves down a lot more. We think that praising might get to people’s head. But I think we need to praise and give constructive feedback.
I work with those young people that react to motivation. For those who don’t, their peers (the ones I work with) act as inspiration. Using what is real – my experience in creating 77th street out of nothing and now all the way to logistic and consulting business I show it to them that it is possible.
Dhanya: Did you have to break any glass ceiling? What were the obstacles in your journey?
Elim: Every other day you live and break the norm. You create and innovate – you will stay stagnant otherwise. It could be simple things – can you walk this way differently? Can you wake up earlier? Entrepreneurship drives people to see things differently. There are people who have 9-5 days and extremely structured lives as well. You can do what you love. The more you tell us, social entrepreneurs, we can’t do it, the more we want to prove you wrong. We are dealing with issues everyday – is there a way to break this pattern today and create a new way?
Dhanya: How do you manage your time?
Elim: I don’t manage it very well as you can see.. I am involved in 20 over platforms – in boards, committees, my own businesses, etc. That is also what drives me. The day I wake up and realize I have nothing to do – I will suffer. I will probably have a mental breakdown, haha. There are times when I think I could’ve worked it better – for example your appointment. When you write an email to me, its going to stay in my mind till I meet you even though I don’t have time. That’s why I thought I better meetup with you and do this. And we measure ourselves by the things we do, right?
We are inspired by young people like yourself. We are inspired by the people who have tried and been successful. Even for the ones who haven’t had any success – we respect their lessons. They know what is going to work and not. When someone asks me what is my good experience – I think its all my bad experience rolled up into what will work and hence a good experience.
Experience is the knowledge that will create depth for what is to come – in studies, in work, in travel.
Dhanya: I am reading this book where the author says – ‘There is nothing called talent. It’s all the hard work and practice one puts in acquiring a skill’. Do you also believe in this?
Elim: I think it’s about the effort you put in too. The 10,000 hour principle by Malcolm Gladwell is something I believe in. The reason for my success is the number of hours I put in ever since I got into the workforce – I worked everyday. And over the years I have gathered the experience and practice in everything that I do today. However there is a little bit of talent that helps with the starting phase. And that little extra effort you put in affects the olympic record you can break, no matter what your level of talent is.
written & presented by Real Leaders Project. see more.