Welcome to Cleo Change Makers 2016

From influencing social attitudes, to paving a new way forward for like-minded women and making a difference, here are ten of this year’s most inspiring women.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
From influencing social attitudes, to paving a new way forward for like-minded women and making a difference, here are ten of this year’s most inspiring women.
My Reading Room
Mrinalini Venkatachalam

Head of Public Awareness and Youth Initiatives at the Singapore Committee for UN Women

“My biggest motivator is working with the youth in Singapore,” says Mrinalini, who has been a part of UN Women’s Singapore Committee since 2010. “While many of them are not aware of the social issues, when you do engage them, a light bulb goes off in them. And that to me is the coolest thing that could ever happen.

“There is so much we can do with this generation. If we can empower the next generation to be less tolerant of inequality, injustice, and other societal problems, then we’ve already taken massive steps forward,” adds the passionate advocate of gender equality and human rights. “And one day, if everyone is on the same page, then maybe we don’t actually even have to talk about these issues anymore.”

My Reading Room
Germaine Monteiro

Co-founder of The Nail Social

It’s not just the personal iPads and Instagrammable interiors that set The Nail Social apart from run-of-the-mill nail salons. It’s their socially conscious mission to help women who face greater barriers to employment by offering them vocational training and subsequent employment as professional manicurists.

To date, the salon has trained and hired about ten women, most of whom are single mothers. “Single mums need to be especially flexible with time,” explains Germaine, who co-founded the salon with her business partner, Cheryl Ou. “People are not always open-minded enough to accept a woman who needs to set aside time for her kids because she is the primary caregiver. They just want you to be like, ‘Hey, this is work’.”

As the daughter of a single mother herself, Germaine relates to these struggles on a personal level. “It was difficult for my mother to raise me and my siblings. That’s when I realised that actually there is not much help out there for single moms,” reveals Germaine, who keeps her motivation close to her heart. “My mother is the strongest person I know,” she adds. “I just want to be as strong as she is and to help as many people like her as possible.”

My Reading Room
Ang Geck Geck

Film Director

When Geck Geck screened the first short film she’d ever made for her class, no one clapped. But it wasn’t the bad sign she initially presumed it to be. In fact, she explains, “They were so surprised that I could make a film!”

Indeed, she could. In a class full of peers with more filmmaking experience, Geck Geck had initially been relegated to the makeup or costumes department when she first started film school at Nanyang Technological University. Just a few years later, the film she submitted for her final-year project would go on to win the Best Fiction Short Film prize at the Singapore Short Film Awards 2013.

Broken Crayon is a haunting film that tackles a painful, difficult issue — sexual abuse involving minors. And though the sensitive subject matter may have daunted other filmmakers still learning their craft, that was not the case with Geck Geck. “People don’t really want to talk about it because such a topic is difficult to verbalise,” she explains. “That’s why filmmaking is so meaningful to me — because I realised that film can actually give a voice to the weak.” 

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Winifred Lua

Founder of Winifred Kristé Cake

Not many people go from being an intern to starting their own business, but that’s the type of gutsiness that has defined Winifred’s trailblazing path. After interning at the prestigious Maggie Austin Cake in the US, Winifred returned to Singapore and jumped straight into running her own bespoke celebration cake business.

“If I were to have put more thought into it, I probably wouldn’t have started this whole thing,” laughs Winifred. Suddenly finding herself as an entrepreneur changed the perspective of the cake couturier. “I was not really prepared to be a boss,” she admits. “Leadership was something I needed to learn.” The toughest lesson of all? According to Winifred, it was taking the leap of faith, and trusting that “the only thing that is limiting you is really the voice in your own head.” 

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On the strength of her YouTube channel — “I was one of those 15-year-olds that posted videos of covers,” says Linying, wryly — this songbird was tapped to appear on tracks by international electronic acts, KRONO and Felix Jaehn. Following that, she released her debut single on Spotify, which promptly landed on the streaming app’s global Viral 50 chart.

Now working on her debut EP, Linying joins a wave of local acts that is collectively getting people excited about the Singaporean music scene again. “One of the most remarkable things that The Sam Willows and Gentle Bones have done is they’ve gotten people interested in their music. And that people would still be interested, even if they weren’t local,” she says.

Her ambitions aren’t limited to topping the charts or playing shows at Coachella; they’re more life-affirming than that. “To have people be saved by the songs I write,” she confesses. “I think that is the dream.”

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Rani Dhaschainey

Co-owner of The Curve Cult

The noughties heralded the era of the blogshop, and like every other enterprising 20-something, Rani decided to open up an online boutique of her own, catering to plus-sized women. But unlike other online stores that have scaled up by focusing solely on e-commerce, there was a deep need for Rani to take her growing venture offline. And that’s how The Curve Cult became a business with a higher mission aimed at inclusivity and empowerment.

“I realised that plus-sized people never had a place where they can go and try on clothes. You always just wear the biggest sizes in the store because you don’t have a choice,” explains Rani. “We started giving customers an experience that they never got as plus-sized women. What we’re going for is education and empowerment, and we’re using fashion as the tool to empower these women.” 

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Pocket Sun

Founding partner, SoGal Ventures

Pocket is not your average 25-year-old. Not only has she an MBA and a corporate career, she’s also spent the last two years fanning a global community of diverse entrepreneurs into life.

“SoGal started in my college classroom,” she shares. “I was working with female founders, and I realised these experiences could be valuable for women.

“In Singapore, women do have opportunities, but there are still biases,” explains Pocket, for whom gender disparity at the workplace is a critical issue. SoGal’s misssion is “to engage everyone in the conversation,” she says. “It’s about having role models share their stories, to help foster a peer-to-peer learning system, and inspire people to think about how they can be more innovative.”

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Lu Yawen
Co-founder of The Local People
If you find yourself at one of The Local People’s curated art markets, expect to leave with empty pockets because you won’t be able to walk past displays of lustworthy handmade jewellery and home-brewed jams, without picking up an item (or ten) to take home.
“People don’t think Singaporeans can make good things,” laments Yawen, who hatched the idea for The Local People over a casual hangout sesh with fellow co-founder Pin Goh. “If they see a foreign brand, they’ll think it’s better than Singapore brands. I think that should change.”
The first time The Local People set up shop, they had never planned a single event. Since then, they’ve spawned other copycat art markets and fostered a growing recognition of the homegrown maker culture. Possible future plans for the enterprise include a music festival. Featuring local music acts? The answer would be a resounding “Yes”. 
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Rebekah Lin
Co-founder of The Social Co.
Amidst the furore and festivity that surrounded Singapore’s golden jubilee last year, there was also 50 For 50, a social project that gathered 50 millennials and mobilised them to raise funds over a three-month period.
The brainchild of Rebekah and Cheryl Chong (who is the other co-founder of The Social Co.), the ingenuity of the plan was that the amount raised directly by the 50 people would then be matched sum-forsum by The Social Co.’s corporate partners, and the sum total of that would then be matched again by the government, under its Care & Share initiative. The impact? Over $3.5 million raised for 42 different charities, most of which are lesser-known and under-funded entities.
Not bad for an untried, untested endeavour that Rebekah selfdeprecatingly describes as “a couple of young punks trying to raise money”. 
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Nadia Rahmat

Model/event coordinator

With her captivating bone structure and one-of-a-kind style, there’s no question that Nadia is the kind of photographic subject shutterbugs dream about. But then there’s the not-so-obvious catch that some people just can’t seem to get over: the colour of her skin.

Which is why Nadia is, among other things, an accidental trailblazer. She might not have set out to be the only Singaporean (and the only brown-skinned female) to star in Marc by Marc Jacobs’ social-media-sourced 2015 advertising campaign — but she was. Neither did she seek to provoke the ire of a few local netizens by appearing as the sole Singaporean subject of a global compendium of beauty called The Atlas of Beauty — but she did.

When it comes to serving as an inadvertent poster child for Singaporean diversity, Nadia explains, “I’m just one voice, I can’t do it alone.” Instead, she sees herself as part of a greater wave of acceptance and awareness that’s becoming the hallmark of our generation. “We’ve been sweeping these issues aside for so long, but now we’re becoming more aware,” she notes. “I’m just contributing to this and I feel like a part of the change.”