Whether they’re helping women in business, doing scientific research, rescuing stray cats, giving women prisoners hope, or educating kids in remote villages, these Singapore women are giving a hand where it’s needed.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

She’s helping women grow their businesses

Mrinalini Vekatachalan

If you’re a woman who owns at least 51 per cent of a business, or you run a company that is controlled by one or more women, Mrinalini Venkatachalam wants to help you grow your enterprise.

Like a corporate matchmaker, the 34-yearold promotes women-run businesses, connecting them with local and multinational corporate buyers. Mrinalini is the regional outreach and events manager (Southeast Asia and Oceania) of Weconnect International (WECI), a non-profit network that opens doors for businesses owned by women.

WECI also trains corporations in how to source from women business owners, and trains women business owners to sell to corporations.

She was the head of Public Awareness and Youth Initiatives for the Singapore Committee for UN Women for nine years before joining WECI a year ago.

She tells Her World: “I strongly believe women should have the same opportunities as their male counterparts to design and implement business solutions that create wealth and scale their businesses. What drew me to Weconnect International is that it empowers women and helps create a level playing field.”

Mrinalini, who has a degree in mass communications and a master’s in human rights, concedes that male-run businesses still get the lion’s share of contracts. 

“There isn’t a lack of women-owned businesses today,” she says of the challenges. “The number is growing steadily. Sometimes, there is a misconception that women-owned businesses are too small or not committed enough for the big contracts. In fact, many women entrepreneurs whom I have met are as dynamic and capable as their male counterparts.”

To advocate her cause, the mother of one speaks regularly at networking events and conferences. Mrinalini is a one-woman powerhouse who represents the global outpost of WECI, which includes territories such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. She organises up to 10 networking events around the region to match women entrepreneurs to multinational companies.

Her day starts at 5am, when she holds conference calls with colleagues in Canada, the US, or India. After breakfast, she takes her four-year-old daughter to school before attending meetings in places scattered around the city.

At lunch or coffee breaks, Mrinalini checks e-mail messages on her laptop before jumping into another appointment. By the time she’s done for the day, it’s 11pm.

Her efforts have been rewarded by success stories. She says: “We have connected women-run businesses in Singapore with multinational companies that are currently engaging those businesses. This is a positive step.”

Mrinalini has roped in 85 women-run businesses in Singapore to be part of WECI, and she expects the number to grow steadily.

“I’m a stalker on Linkedin and Facebook, always on the lookout for women-run businesses,” she reveals, with a laugh. “Because I know these women and their businesses so well, I’ve become a ‘directory’ when it comes to recommending services for companies.” 
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She’s opening doors for young women to work in science and research

Christine Cheung

If anyone has a clear vision and a steadfast determination to harness the power of research for life-changing discoveries, it’s Dr Christine Cheung.

The vascular biologist has been on a decadelong quest to find a way to accurately predict if patients are prone to blood vessel diseases such as stroke and dementia. The now 35-yearold’s research resulted in her being named an honouree – and the only one who was a woman – at the 2018 Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore Awards by the Junior Chamber International Singapore.

Dr Cheung continually works on convincing local philanthropists of the need to fund basic scientific research for its far-ranging human and medical benefits.

“Basic exploratory research – as opposed to research with a specific application, such as for a cure or preventing a disease – may seem ‘aimless’ to investors, yet it’s actually very necessary,” she explains. “It’s basic research which provides evidence from which important findings and breakthroughs come. For science to be strengthened as an enterprise, there must be real fundamental knowledge.”

Up next for her is the world stage. Dr Cheung has been selected as one of 40 scientists in the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists Community, which is tasked to help world political and business leaders understand the impact of science on global issues. Her two-year commitment began in July with a global conference in Dalian, China.

Closer to home, she has another cause to champion: Having navigated the challenges of working in the male-dominated field of research, she wants to serve as an example to other women and show them that they too can take up such careers.

Dr Cheung’s fascination with science began in her teens, when she saw a photo of the Vacanti “ear mouse” (a laboratory mouse that had cartilage in the shape of a human ear grown on its back in the 1990s). Now, she leads a research team made up mostly of women at the Laboratory of Molecular and Vascular Medicine at Nanyang Technological University, where she is also an assistant professor at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

“I’m a strong believer in mentoring,” Dr Cheung declares. “I keep my doors open, spend time with my staff  and students, discuss their career aspirations, and address matters such as the challenges of having a baby while doing their PhD, or how to handle situations where others compete for their resources.”

Dr Cheung, who cuts a confident yet maternal figure, adds: “Women are under-represented in research because it requires post-graduate studies that take up your time from your late 20s to your early 30s, which is when many people want to start families.”

“We can have it all,” she insists. “But we shouldn’t try to achieve everything at the same time.”

Dr Cheung, a mother of a three-year-old girl, shares: “I waited until I completed my PhD before I got married at 31 and had my daughter, Clare, a year later. Take on one big thing at a time and with a clear mind so you can focus on excelling in it and have a higher chance of success.”


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She’s helping women in prison and their kids find a future

Saleemah Ismail

The road to rehabilitation for incarcerated mothers is long and difficult. However, women who have been there can train to become mentors to mums behind bars, and help them through the process. That was how the Peer Befriender Programme (PBP) – Singapore’s first peer-to-peer initiative for mums in jail – was born this year.

Behind the programme is veteran social worker Saleemah Ismail, the founder of New Life Stories (NLS), a non-profit outfit that helps imprisoned mothers prepare to return to regular society.

“What draws me to help these mothers is my belief that they deserve another chance. Moreover, mothers play an active role in family units and are the primary caregivers of their young children,” says Saleemah, who first did volunteer work with the Singapore chapter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women 16 years ago.

Saleemah’s NLS office is currently prepping one former inmate and mother of four for a PBP role through training by professional counsellors while she works as a full-time administrator at NLS. Training for the role takes a year.

Saleemah aims to train another three reformed women for these roles. The four will then work alongside a team of 20 volunteers.

Saleemah says: “The reformed mums would play the role of mentors, sharing their experiences of adapting to a normal life, staying on the right path and functioning as full-time mothers again.”

For some 70 rehabilitated women, Saleemah is a figure of hope who has helped turn their lives around in the past five years. She has become a familiar face who visits every week, giving comfort and guiding them towards a new beginning.

 “The greatest impact of a mother’s incarceration is her absence from the children’s day-to-day life. The mother’s sentence is theirs, too,” Saleemah says.

To maintain the familial connection and mitigate the separation trauma for mother and child, some 100 NLS volunteers check up on these children at home weekly.

“In some cases, we have continued our weekly home visits for as long as two years after the mother’s release from prison,” Saleemah notes. “We want them to feel they are not alone in their journey.”

During these visits, volunteers play the role of big brothers or sisters to children under 10, reading them storybooks written by their mums in jail.

The 12-page handwritten books – produced under NLS’ reading programme – are a form of bibliotherapy, helping incarcerated mums maintain a bond with their children so they can ease into their full-time parental role when they are released from prison.

“The books have done wonders for the kids because they know their mums wrote for them,” Saleemah adds. “It turned their resentment into a positive connection with their mother.

“Children who were withdrawn began to express their feelings. This is part of the healing process for mother and child, and helps the women gain the confidence to make positive changes in their lives, both inside and outside prison.”

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She’s giving stray cats a “voice”

Laura Ann Meranda

While most people are on their way home at 6pm, work is usually not over for Laura Ann Meranda. Her next “shift” is just beginning as she gets calls for help from the public about abandoned cats – one might have wandered into someone’s home; another might be howling in distress up a 10m-tall tree.

This is the brutal 14- to 16-hour daily grind that Laura, who has a biomedical degree, signed up for after taking a 30 per cent pay cut from her previous deskbound job. The 34-year-old executive director of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS) also fosters cats in her personal capacity and mentors independent caregivers.

Laura says of her near24/7 commitment: “I want to help the ‘voiceless’ and raise awareness about more humane ways of controlling the population of strays, using CWS’ sterilisation programmes. We also provide solutions to catrelated disputes. This is about saving lives and giving the cats a new start.”

Prior to CWS, Laura spent several years working in a pathology lab, and a year in the disability sector with SG Enable.

Her responsibilities at CWS include creating national programmes to improve cat welfare, providing advice, and mediating cat-related issues on the ground. The society is the appointed third-party mediator for government agencies and town councils.

“I work closely with caregivers and volunteers islandwide to provide assistance on the ground on a day-to-day basis, too,” says Laura. “We have had difficult situations where we endured verbal abuse from people when we offered solutions. Other times, we might spend up to a month gaining the trust of pet owners, to educate them to be more responsible and resolve their neighbours’ complaints,” she adds.

The satisfaction of seeing the lives of cats improve is what keeps her going. Laura, who began working at CWS in 2015 as a mediator, later became a senior mediator before spearheading the society’s initiatives two years ago. She has seen several achievements at the helm: A total of 6,236 cats were sterilised last year, the highest number so far. Culling numbers are at a low of 900 annually, down from 13,000 since the inception of CWS in 1999.

Laura’s concern for cats extends beyond her work. Home is a cosy four-room apartment she shares with her 35-year-old husband and 10 feral cats she has fostered in the last two years.

“Fostering gives a cat a chance of a better life and preps them for adoption, then you move on to help the next,” explains Laura who, like all fosterers, pays for the food and medical expenses of her charges.

“Some of my friends don’t understand why I wouldn’t spend the money on holidays instead,” she says. “Well, we’re saving lives every day and because of that, I sleep well at night.”


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She’s helping poor kids

Rachel Nadia Croh

Her conviction takes her into the mountainous central highlands of Vietnam to educate underprivileged children. And she founded the volunteer missionary group, Barre, when she was only 18, before going to university. That’s how committed Rachel Nadia Goh is to bettering the lives of people in rural communities.

Her efforts have transformed the lives of children in eight villages. Rachel, a Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ Secondary) alumna, credits her mission-school upbringing and its values of love, service and empathy for the path she walks now.

The 28-year-old says: “It isn’t so much about what you should be, but what already exists in your heart; how you live, fulfilling who you are, for a reason bigger than yourself; to serve with impact, so others feel loved and happy; to tell the stories of those who go unheard; and to give the most you can of yourself.”

Among the things Rachel has achieved is the transformation of a decrepit 800 sq ft room in a church where she once stayed during her early missionary work. The room has become a library and classroom equipped with two basic computers and desks.

Three Vietnamese natives who took English lessons conducted by Barre volunteers for more than two years, via Skype, are helping to train others in the villages. They also reach out to children in remote parts of the mountainous region with books and educational materials, and provide hygiene and sanitation support for children whose parents have leprosy.

“We’ve come a long way in establishing a strong relationship with the local community, so that our programmes can be sustainable,” says Rachel.

Her parents were initially apprehensive about the path she chose. Rachel, who holds a master’s in law, says: “I showed them pictures of the places I visited and what I did. It took them some time to understand my cause, but they want to visit these villages now.”

However, she doesn’t romanticise the path less travelled. Being out there is never as exotic as you might think.

“I’ve seen a lot of hardship and gone through rough living conditions I could never have imagined,” she reveals. “Once, I befriended a lonely 16-yearold boy and gave him a jacket to keep him warm. When I returned to the village on my next trip, I learnt that he had passed away the week before.”

She admits: “When I go out and serve, I always come back more broken. Some days, it takes courage just to put one foot in front of the other.”

Rachel is also a regional relationship manager at The Fred Hollows Foundation, an international development organisation that aims to end avoidable blindness. To provide long-term, sustainable eye care in rural communities, the foundation trains local doctors and health workers, builds and upgrades medical facilities, supports surgical procedures, and supplies equipment and medicine.

Rachel’s volunteer efforts have taken her to slums in Ethiopia, Haiti and Calcutta. However, her conviction never wavers. “You make time to fulfil your responsibilities to various parties, according to the commitment and promises you’ve made to each one,” she says firmly. “It proves your sincerity, and only then are people more willing to listen and get on board, and not see you as some overly passionate, naive young person.”

Despite the good she does, Rachel isn’t idealistic. “I don’t believe any single person can change the world,” she says. “We need to recognise where our specific gifts and resources lie. Everyone plays a different but equally crucial role in the ecosystem of good.”