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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.

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

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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