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Elim Chew’s Lessons on Entrepreneurship

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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.


Interview transcript

(00:00)

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.

Callum Connects

Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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