The Trail Blazers

We celebrate International Women’s Day with a coterie of women who are ground-breaking and pioneering in their respective (and respected) fields, from AI to social welfare to F&B. These are Singapore’s new game changers.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Jamie Koh, 33, founder and managing director of Brass Lion Distillery

Crafting A Singapore Spirit

For Jamie Koh, it wasn’t enough to have two successful food and beverage concepts (Chupitos Shot Bar and The Beast – both arguably ahead of their time) to her name, she decided to “jump a level up in the supply chain” and set up Singapore’s first standalone spirits distillery. Located at Alexandra Terrace, the micro distillery currently produces three gin expressions (Singapore Dry Gin, Butterfly Pea Gin, and Pink Pahit Gin). It plans to release more variations soon, and eventually rum and whisky “in the next year or two”.

The multifunctional 370 sq m space, a first in Singapore, ties in with all of Jamie’s passions: to educate, to experiment, and to create. Kitted out with a 150-litre copper still (nicknamed Nala) that she’s pre-emptively customised for rum and whisky as well, the space also includes a herb garden and tasting room, and allows for distillery tours and gin-making workshops.

“It started with wanting to open a microdistillery because we don’t have a Singapore craft spirit to call our own. For me, it’s always about creating unique concepts. Brass Lion Distillery, with its variety of experiences, offers that to the public, which was a big motivation for me,” says Jamie. “I wanted the space to be educational, not just to show a product on a shelf – I want people to see the care and craft that goes into every bottle.”

Care is certainly reflected in the subtly floral Dry Gin, fast becoming a favourite with our island’s bartenders. Made with 22 botanicals, it’s a gin in which every ingredient (pomelo peel, torch ginger, chrysanthemum flower, kaffir lime leaf) save for the juniper berries from Macedonia, is obtained locally from wet markets and traditional Chinese medicine stores. Torch ginger flower (also known as the rojak flower) was added not just for its cultural symbolism (Singapore as a multi-ethnic “rojak nation”) but for what it adds to the mix: “a subtle spice note that gives the gin a particular warmth.”

To create the flavour profile, Jamie experimented for years, attributing a part of her inspiration to the Singapore Sling. “The typical gin profile used in the Sling is very dry and juniper-forward, which works well in cold climates. We wanted to create a tropical gin – floral, citrus and refreshing – something you could have several rounds of in our humid weather,” she explains.

The formula, crafted over numerous trips to distilleries in South Carolina and Germany’s Black Forest, took time to get right. “The product is the most important thing; we had to make sure it could stand its ground,” she shares. “It took a long time to learn about the process, to develop the recipe, bring it back to let people try it, get market feedback, and go back to tweak the recipe. Then we had to figure out the licensing – gin is actually classified as a food, so no one knew what to do with us. We had to work closely with 15 government organisations to explain what we needed to do.”

It’s a dream that’s been six years in the making, and Jamie has bet big on the distillery, pumping in her own funds (“just shy of $2 million”) to bring it to life, together with a minority share partner. “It is a big risk. An investor would have helped to diversify the risk but we wanted to launch quickly, and getting investors in at an early stage might have complicated things unnecessarily.”

So what does success look like for her? “I want to build a well-known cross-spirits brand, to be known beyond Singapore, regionally and globally. If you think of what Tiger Beer is, we kind of want to be that, but for spirits.”

There’s now a new queen of the jungle.


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Trailblazer, whiz-kid, disruptor, extrovert, entrepreneur… there are many ways to describe Annabelle Kwok, founder and CEO of Neuralbay (located at Pixel Building, in a space given to them by the Infocomm Media Development Authority), but perhaps it would be most apt to call her a humanitarian, one using artificial intelligence (AI) to better the world.

The poster child for Singapore’s AI industry is no stranger to the media. She’s just returned from Hawaii, where she took part in a leadership programme design workshop by the Obama Foundation – she was one of the key individuals making a presentation to former US president Barack Obama – to help next-gen leaders better serve their communities. She helped set up Smartcow, which builds industrial-grade AI deployment services, and now, with Neuralbay, she is developing a vision-analytic AI software for everything from keeping an accurate score of vehicles passing toll booths to how well customers engage with window displays. Her aim is for it to be accessible to small and medium enterprises, “to give non-techie people technology”.

Her motivation, while technologically driven, is rooted in humanitarian intent: “Today it’s about financial disparity, but tomorrow we’re going to be talking about technical disparity. Smaller companies are not innovating fast enough to catch up with the big companies. What’s worse than exploitation is being made redundant. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t see the need now; they’re more concerned with the immediate economic benefits, so what we’re trying to do is to give them something so simple, so cheap, that even if they don’t reskill or relearn, implementing this software will buy them time to realise they need to upgrade themselves and their systems.”

For the layperson, this may sound like a well-rehearsed elevator pitch to venture capital firms (which, for the record, she stays away from), but she fleshes out how AI software doesn’t need to be complicated; in fact, it should be a simple, smart concept that meshes human and machine. “From year one, we train the neural net model to recognise various body postures by having a human stand in front of the camera in various body postures. This neural net model can then be used in the security industry. For instance, it can alert you if there is a person squatting in the corner, which could be suspicious. Or in the medical industry, if a doctor or physiotherapist is not present, it could help you to do your exercises properly at home.”

While some may recoil at the thought of such AI applications and their potential for replacing human roles, Annabelle, who studied theoretical mathematics at university, sees them as an enhancement. She admits, though, that the hardest part of her job isn’t designing the technology but dealing with the ethical dilemmas that come with it.

“I’m very hopeful that in the future, humans will become smarter and stronger. But I am also fearful that we might lose our humanity in this pursuit, so it’s a double-edged sword,” says Annabelle. “More engineers need to have an existential crisis because we have increasing ethical responsibilities, and this is not taught in school. If I need technical help, I have mentors, and Google, but for ethical issues, whom do I ask?”

“I like what Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, said: ‘In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart’, because it’s really about what you can give – your passion, and building innovative things for the future.”

If machines are the future, we’re counting on this human to keep us safe.


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Nyha Shree’s entrepreneurial journey is a real story of perseverance. By the time she co-founded social media commerce company, she already had five other attempted ventures under her belt, three of which failed to take off. Undeterred, she set her sights on unifying social media and e-commerce, and launched in 2017 to allow businesses to make sales directly on social media platforms.

Before she started the company, Nyha had experience with fielding queries from clients on customer communication, but she finally experienced the frustration of an inarticulate messaging system when she tried – and failed for a full two weeks – to buy winter clothing. Her attempts to contact a seller of a jacket she liked on social media only resulted in a comedy of errors. Instead of addressing her specific query, she was instead bombarded with the seller’s entire inventory in an upselling effort. This lightbulb moment of hers resulted in

Her company’s software makes it possible for products on social media posts to be immediately “shoppable” – no hassles with being diverted to other websites – thereby providing shoppers with the shortest route from engagement to purchase. Businesses are now directly linked to their target consumers on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. The software also engages customers via automated messaging with the use of a chatbot, so they’re guided through every point of the sale.

To Nyha, social media is a vast marketplace with immense possibilities. There are more than three billion active social media users worldwide, according to the 2018 global digital reports from media companies We Are Social and Hootsuite – that’s almost half the world’s population. While social e-commerce is still in its infancy (Facebook’s Marketplace feature, for example, which lets users buy and sell directly on its platform, launched only in 2016), but its potential is tremendous when skilfully utilised. Case in point: Nike, in a collaboration with Snapchat and Shopify in 2018, sold out a special pre-release of its Air Jordan III Tinker shoe within 23 minutes.

Today, services more than 11,000 businesses globally, including Disney and Unilever. Clients experience an average of a 30-40 per cent increase in sales. Its success landed Nyha on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list (which recognises the achievements of bright young talents) in the retail and e-commerce category in 2018.

When Disney engaged with the aim of increasing as well as tracking consumer engagement in its marketing efforts, the team helped to set up a purchase option directly on Facebook Messenger so that users could buy movie tickets for Avengers: Infinity War simply through the chatting app. The project became one of the start-up’s biggest successes, increasing page engagement by 18 times and achieving 58 per cent sales conversion.

“In Asia, on average, 30 per cent of digital sales happen through social media,” Nyha told Together with her co-founder Yash Kotak, Nyha is moving into more regional markets: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Thailand, where the company will raise funding with Bangkok Bank’s Innohub, an accelerator programme especially designed for fintech start-ups. The future looks bright, and the future looks social.


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Amanda Chong, 29, POET AND LAWYER


By day, Amanda Chong practises public international law. By night, she keeps busy with a host of activities – holding writing and poetry workshops, mentoring migrant poets – all geared towards one purpose: “As someone who comes from privilege, I consider it my duty to make space for other people’s voices and to empower others to share their stories.”

Amanda was a 2018 recipient of the Singapore Youth Award (SYA), in part for her work in co-founding Readable (, a non-profit that runs weekly English literacy classes in a low-income neighbourhood for children and migrant women. And being awarded Singapore’s highest accolade for young people is just one of her many kudos. Her poem, Lion Heart (written when she was 16), is engraved on the Marina Bay Helix Bridge, while Professions, her 2016 collection of love poetry commenting on gender relations, was short listed for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018. This year, together with her two Readable co-founders Jonathan Muk and Michelle Yeo as well as a team of volunteers, she’ll be rolling out Readyable, the next evolution of Readable that will empower volunteers to set up their own literacy programmes in underserved neighbourhoods, “because we think that to be effective in a community, it’s important to build deep relationships and partner with families”.

Accolades aside, Amanda’s self-awareness and commitment to advocating for social justice is perhaps her most impressive trait. This ethos was what inspired her to pick up writing again when she returned home from studying law at Harvard and Cambridge, and she’s spoken on a number of occasions about Singapore having a “crisis of story”.

“I felt Singapore was very different from before. There was Marina Bay Sands, there were new MRT lines, and I really felt that Singapore was diverging into two different worlds. My expat friends viewed it as a playground without a real view of the social problems, but I know the Singapore of my father’s childhood still exists – where it is hard for some to make ends meet,” she says. “There was so much tension between these two worlds, and it made me feel that I wanted to do something about it, to make sense of Singapore from a Singaporean perspective, where these two worlds are not set apart but belong equally as one and part of one community – and that’s how Readable came about.”

This advocate for the marginalised views the local arts scene as “a valuable way to build empathy and have a role in crafting the Singapore identity”.

“In my SYA speech, I spoke about how some Singaporeans don’t feel like protagonists in their own story because their choices do not seem to change the circumstances in their lives. There have to be concrete changes in government policies to better support people from lower-income backgrounds and to achieve social equality. But as citizens, we can also do something to heal these rifts,” she says. “The most dangerous thing (to me, at least) is for people to live insular lives and not engage in a wider understanding of community. We need to be more invested in the community and understand there are structures of inequality which we benefit from. As we benefit, other people are disadvantaged by it, and we have to think more critically about whether we deserve these benefits.”

Will she be taking it upon herself to effect change at a policy level? For now, she says it will be from her current position as she has “no political ambitions” but is determined to “keep advocating for issues I feel are important and to find more ways to amplify other voices with whatever public profile I have as a writer”.


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Fact: Women entrepreneurs take only 2.7 per cent of the global venture capital funding pool worth US$84 billion (S$113 billion). It’s a drop in the ocean. But where others may have walked away to explore other horizons, Pocket Sun saw opportunity.

Such foresight has earned this cheery, energetic individual quite a following. Sogal, her university project turned-global community that empowers women founders, has more than 100,000 members, and the figure is “growing weekly”. It has more than 30 chapters in cities such as London, New York and Shanghai. At 24, Pocket graced the cover (alongside four men) of Forbes Asia’s 2016 30 under 30 issue for her work in co-leading Sogal Ventures with business partner Elizabeth Galbut. To date, Sogal – the first millennial venture capital firm led by women – has invested in more than 50 start-ups, many of them run by women entrepreneurs. Its current portfolio has 19 start-ups, with investment sums ranging from US$50,000-US$500,000. What’s so different about Sogal’s approach? In true millennial style, it’s playing the social-impact and personal values card hard.

“Every one of the 19 companies in our current portfolio has some sort of social impact while making money and showing the potential for real profitability,” shares Pocket.

Case in point: Singapore based fitness app Guavapass, recently acquired by the US-based Classpass for an undisclosed sum. Such acquisitions, while impressive, are business as usual for Pocket, who’s more interested in raising the profile of women and under-represented classes.

“Women will not be the only demographic that gets lifted up in this process. Minorities too, whether they are veterans, individuals with disabilities, people of colour, or those from other underrepresented communities, are hugely under estimated and undervalued. When there’s so little capital flowing to them, they have to work much harder to get a fair term sheet or to get investments at all. Investing in the ‘unpopular’ demographics is really a triple bottom line situation,” which she explains as work that has a positive impact on social responsibility, economic value and the environment. “You raise their profile, create more success stories, and they have a greater chance of being successful and inspiring more people to join the race. I think we need more competition and representation. Right now, people are realising that all voices need to be heard.”

For Pocket, a worthy investment has to have a personal impact as well. “One investment that’s been particularly fulfilling is Lovevery from Idaho. It makes brain development-centric toys for babies and has been redefining the standards for baby toys. Its first product, a play gym, won a Red Dot Design Award. The entrepreneur has four kids, and I can see how fast her business is growing (mostly by word of mouth) – her products are among the top three in their category on Amazon and eBay, plus she’s selling in China. How much heart she’s put into it has been awesome, especially since it launched less than a year ago. This kind of international expansion and ambition has been super inspiring for me.”

So what’s up next for this pocket rocket? (Yes, the pun is intended.) She’s keeping her cards close to her chest, but she says: “The past few years, I’ve only been investing, and I’m only now starting to see how businesses rise and fall. I wouldn’t call it failure – that’s a word that evokes fear. I think of it as another great source of information and wisdom for my future use. Whenever I feel stuck or not at my best, I remind myself that everything happens for a reason – it just means it’s time to try something new and get inspired.”


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We’ve all been there – baffled by various online reward and loyalty programmes, bewildered by copious details about rebates, and bone-weary from dealing with countless cards and apps. It was too much of a good thing, but also too much of a chore, and we were just waiting for someone to figure a way out of the consumer morass.

Then along came Shopback in 2014. It’s a cashback aggregator unifying different merchants and making our lives a hell of a lot easier. Launched in Singapore by Lai Shanru and Josephine Chow (who is now head of expansion), the website makes it possible for online shoppers to purchase almost anything – airline tickets, groceries, Pokemon toys – and get a cash rebate just as quickly.

With many merchants under one platform, it’s much simpler for customers to keep track of their spending and cashback. Like all the best ideas, it was a no-brainer that took a couple of brainy women to bring to fruition.

The company has expanded into seven countries and now has a portfolio of more than 2,000 merchants in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and, most recently, Australia. It has also scooped up awards and accolades such as the gold award in the Best Start-up (Growth Stage) category at the seventh Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation Awards.

Josephine and Shanru are no doubt the digitally-savvy millennials responsible for the company’s success, and they made it onto Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2018. Their joint recognition is not surprising, given Shopback’s astounding reach within just a few years. It now has more than eight million registered users racking up an average of US$70 million in monthly sales and collectively (and happily) receiving more than US$30 million in cashback for their shopping.

Now, Shopback has set its sights on the offline market with the launch of its new app, Shopback Go. Through a partnership with Visa and Mastercard, the app is tapping into Singaporeans’ two greatest loves: good food and great deals. “Seven in 10 consumers are looking to find offers for their dining experiences,” says Mastercard Singapore’s country manager, Deborah Heng. The app makes it possible for customers to receive 5-10 per cent cash rebates from more than 400 food and beverage merchants in selected areas (One-north, Buona Vista, Holland Village and Tanjong Pagar). If the test run proves successful, Singaporeans can expect the programme to roll out across the rest of the island.