To celebrate two decades of empowerment, The Weekly, in partnership with PANDORA, zooms in on 20 fierce, focused and forward-looking women who are inspiring and encouraging others to reach their full potential.
CHERYL GAN, 41, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF HYSSES
Having made her mark on the beauty industry with her aromatherapy spa brand, Mount Sapola, Cheryl is looking to grow her empire by rebranding her company as Hysses. Focusing on the same Zen-inducing aesthetic that made her products such a hit with consumers, Cheryl says the change not only represents growth for her company but also puts Singapore on the map as a manufacturing hotspot.
“People often scoff at products from Asia, but we develop and produce all our products right here in Singapore,” explains Cheryl. “I think that’s important because we’re creating jobs and propping up the economy while focusing on women’s self-care.”
Wherever possible, Cheryl also conscientiously employs older women to work at their local factory in order to keep them active. “Ninety per cent of my employees are women and a lot of them are mature workers.
I realised that these women had very little requirements when it comes to employment, they just want to leave on time and have a nice working environment,” she says.
“I describe it as a marriage. They’re happy because they have a good job and we’re happy because we have able and willing workers. It’s a win-win situation!”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we live in an age where we can fight for what we want and have an equal chance at success.”
DR JUNE GOH, 50, PRESIDENT OF THE SINGAPORE COMMITTEE OF WOMEN’S ORGANISATIONS (SCWO).
As far as achievements go, becoming a senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital and the director of Neuroanaesthesia and Neurocritical Care, as well as the President of SCWO rank pretty highly. In her role with the SCWO, Dr Goh is instrumental in championing women’s rights in all fields. “We work with women from many different walks of life and they’re all powerful women in their own way,” she shares.
“I’ve learnt a lot from them and being a part of the organisation has made me aware of gender issues that I hadn’t previously thought so much about.” One example she lays out has to do with gender disparities. Having spent much of her working life in the medical field, which the multi-faceted doctor describes as being fairly gender neutral, she was surprised to find that this was not the case in many other industries.
“Female representation in the top levels of management in Singapore is low. We’re actually lower than that of China and Malaysia,” she adds with concern. “A lot of work still needs to be done to level that status quo between men and women.” That push for equality is what drives Dr Goh’s work for the SCWO where she emphasises that it is only through advocacy that women can move forward and get the recognition they deserve.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we can do anything just as well as the men.”
The Problem Solver
DR ANN TAN, IN HER 50S, BOARD MEMBER OF HALOGEN FOUNDATION SINGAPORE.
As one of the leading fertility doctors in Singapore, Dr Tan recognises what a precious commodity children are to the world. That may be part of the reason why she fervently champions young people and their contributions to the country. “Young people are the foundation on which to build our nation. Their ideals, their thoughts and their work ethos are vitally critical to how we will eventually be as a society,” says the Halogen Foundation board member, who is also a Great Women Of Our Time alumnae.
“But young people need challenges and the trick is to make them thrive on the challenges and not shrink from them. For those with less confidence we need to give them the support to fail and encourage them to go on. Among the programmes on offer at the Halogen Foundation include the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) which caters to financially- disadvantaged students from needy families.
“Empowerment means the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. I feel that through NFTE, the kids will definitely be empowered as they are taught life skills to achieve this,” explains Dr Tan. Ultimately, the respected doctor hopes that all youths will appreciate what it truly means to dig in their heels and make Singapore a stronger, more competitive and cohesive home.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “when I am given the opportunity to lead, I feel empowered to do more.”
The Numbers Whiz
ANNA HOATANTO, 32, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE NEW SAVVY
Women should be able to make sound financial decisions for themselves. That’s the belief that Anna has. “Empowerment to me means being financially secure and as a woman, it is having the choice and security to live the life I seek meaning in,” she explains. That’s part of the reason why she started The New Savvy, a web platform that provides resources for women to demystify money issues so they can save wisely for the future.
“I have always been fascinated by how money works. At a young age, I understood that I had to take care of myself and my family and that realisation sparked off my wealth-building path,” reveals Anna who has 10 years of experience in the financial sector, including wealth management, private equity, research as well as corporate and investment banking. But it was a keen observation during her Junior College days that cemented her vision for women.
“When I was in Hwa Chong Junior College, I did some volunteer work and noticed that most people are not financially savvy or prudent, especially women,” she recalls.
“Forty-one per cent of women do not invest as they are intimidated by finance and hence, not reaching their full potential.” Anna believes that if she can get women to talk openly about the role money plays in their lives, the better off they’ll be for generations to come.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we currently have innumerable opportunities and resources to break barriers and create history!”
TRINA LIANG-LIN, 46, PRESIDENT OF THE SINGAPORE COMMITTEE FOR UN WOMEN
When it comes to making a difference to the lives of young women and girls every day, Trina Liang-Lin is a phenomenal example. A comforting presence in many diverse boards, the President of the Singapore Committee of UN Women has worked tirelessly to address real issues such as gender equality, sexism and women’s empowerment.
“I’ve always felt that girls should not have to play second fiddle to boys,” she declares. “Coming from the banking industry, I experienced sexism early on and it was from there that I felt a woman’s voice really needed to be heard in the workplace, which led to the creation of the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore.”
Under her watch at UN Women, Trina counts two milestones as her proudest moments: The role she and her team played in working with the government to implement a mandatory rest day for Foreign Domestic Workers in 2013, as well as putting in place anti-trafficking laws that protect the lives of countless vulnerable women.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we are free to make our own choices, for example, in our education, our jobs and even choosing a spouse – hard-won situations, which we should never take for granted.”
GEORGETTE TAN, 56, VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE SINGAPORE COMMITTEE FOR UN WOMEN
Georgette can’t help but believe in the power and strength of women even when they don’t believe in themselves. “It all started close to 10 years ago when I joined UN Women, it was an opportunity for me to get involved and volunteer to help women,” she says.
As Senior Vice-President of Communications for the Asia-Pacific region at Mastercard, Georgette has extended her quest to empower women in the region through education and development programs.
“Women everywhere are fundamentally the same, they will put everybody else before themselves. They will prioritise their children, family or parents first and place themselves right at the bottom of the list,” she observes.
“This motivated me to say ‘I need to do something for these women’ and my philosophy is that if you help a woman, there’s a multiplier effect because that woman is going to help others.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we’re at a point in our history and development where we can effect change because our voices can be heard.”
PIA BRUCE, 48, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE SINGAPORE COMMITTEE FOR UN WOMEN
Pia is happy to have been born a girl. “I grew up taking gender equality for granted because gender was seldom an issue in Sweden where I grew up. With time and travel, I realised that women in other places of the world didn’t have as much freedom of choice as I did.”
That realisation sparked a desire to create a meaningful world for women and children. “Women’s equal participation is crucial in achieving the UN’s 2030 sustainability development goals, which aims to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that people enjoy peace and prosperity,” she explains.
“We can only do this if we address key challenges like ending discrimination and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls everywhere. Of course, women’s empowerment is a pre-condition for this, as is allowing men and boys more flexibility in forming their gender roles.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we are living in a time where great strides are made towards gender equality.”
LYNN ER, 29, CHAIRMAN OF YOUNG WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP CONNECTION (YWLC)
According to the Women In The Boardroom report released by consultancy firm Deloitte, Singaporean women held on to only 10.7 per cent of board seats last year. The YWLC aims to boost these statistics and make it easier for us to clinch senior roles in the corporate world.
Lynn explains what drew her to the organisation. “I came across the Mentorship programme on their website and thought: ‘No other organisation can give you such open access to women at such high-levels of leadership’. So I signed up immediately,” she recalls.
That was in 2014. Now, the current YWLC chairman is looking to pay it forward. “More and more young women are looking to sharpen their skills, expand their professional network and give back to the community as well,” she says. “I want to help them do that like my mentors helped me. So for our 10th Anniversary next year, we’ll be introducing a series of new programmes and initiatives that will support women in their career and personal development.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we can stand up for what we want without being held back by society’s preconceptions.”
The Life Coach
ANTHEA ONG, 49, SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR
A desire to help others has always been in Anthea’s blood. “Giving back to people gives me so much joy and it makes me come alive,” she exclaims. It’s no coincidence then that her Sanskrit name is Indira, which means “one who gives abundance to others”. As a life coach, motivational speaker and social entrepreneur, that’s exactly what she has done through her many endeavours, one of which is Hush TeaBar, a cafe run by hearing-impaired staff.
“Hush came about as a result of thinking about this stressful pace of life that many of us are living in, coupled with this incessant use of technology that is pushing us further away from ourselves,” she explains. Having been through divorce, legal suits and financial woes herself, Anthea found that the act of being alone and silent saved her from having a meltdown. So, she sought to replicate this philosophy in Hush.
“I decided to focus on the corporate sector because I started my career as a banker so I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed and high-strung,” explains Anthea. “The space I created is meant to be accessible to corporate executives who can take a pause, slow down and connect with themselves.” The compassionate multi-tasker explains that she doesn’t do anything if it’s not meaningful and in order to make sure she was empowering the underprivileged, she brought on members from the deaf community and made them the core of the service experience.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we can celebrate our vulnerabilities and tap into that to find our true power.”
LAINA GREENE (RIGHT), 53, AND AUDREY TAN, 30, CO-FOUNDERS OF ANGELS OF IMPACT
What started out as a mentorship for Audrey would quickly blossom into something more under the guidance of Laina. While these two women are from completely diverse backgrounds and are separated by a generation, the kindred spirits found they had more in common than differences: They both believe in “creating a world without poverty in unity with women”. To drive home their passion, they started Angels of Impact, a social movement that supports female-led social businesses in the region.
“Poverty is the key root behind a lot of other problems. And if you only had one dollar to spend, who would you spend it on?” asks Laina. “The data shows that you should invest it in women because women put 90 per cent of their income into the family and the community. Women are a good investment.”
The duo look at women entrepreneurs for their multiplier impact as they serve many more women. “We support them in two key ways. First is market access – we open doors and find customers for them to have their products and services integrated into corporate companies,” explains Audrey. “The second thing that we do is we help flow funding to these women entrepreneurs, who are struggling to get access to funds.” As of now, the movement works with 8 women social entrepreneurs across Asia.
[Laina] It’s wonderful being a woman because… “while we still have far to go, we are coming to a time when women are finally allowed to shine – we are empathetic and have intuitive leadership skills that can help us succeed in uncertain times.”
[Audrey] It’s wonderful being a woman because… “of our femininity and the bonds of sisterhood we cultivate.”
TAN PECK YING, 29, CO-FOUNDER OF PSLOVE COMPANY
For many women, when that time of the month rolls around, it can turn enthusiastic individuals into irritable Debbie-downers. Peck Ying knows first-hand how periods can make women feel pretty horrible. “When I was in school, I used to get really bad menstrual cramps. They were so bad that I often felt like fainting,” she confesses. While her discomfort would plague her into adulthood, it also spurred her to create an all natural pain-relief patch.
The company, which was set up in 2014, started off as a subscription service but Peck Ying has since streamlined the business to focus on the hero product: MenstruHeat. “One day, my co-founder bought me an electric heating pad to ease my cramps and it really did help but it was bulky and inconvenient to carry around as I had to plug it in to get it to heat up,” she shares. “We adapted that idea when we realised there was a lack of natural pain relief options in the market for women.”
But ultimately Peck Ying doesn’t want her product to be just about easing period pain. “The bigger picture behind the product is for it to be there when a woman feels vulnerable,” she explains. “During that time of the month when a woman feels physically unwell and needs comfort, they can turn to MenstruHeat for support, just like how you would turn to your girlfriends for help.” As of this year, psLove has expanded its stockists list to include over 500 retail stores, which includes 7-Eleven, Guardian, Watsons and other leading pharmacies.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “our feminine qualities give us the strength to do what we do best.”
The Rule Breaker
MARY HO, 81, MUSICIAN
Who says you have to slow down as you get older? Mary, popularly known as Grandma Mary, certainly doesn’t think she has to! At 81 years young, time has not withered the sprightly octogenarian who is in the prime of her life. Having just performed an electrifying guitar solo at this year’s National Day Parade and getting a personal shout-out from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Twitter, Grandma Mary is showing that age is just a number.
“I have always believed in active ageing and the fact that you need to keep learning new things because it’s never too late to learn anything,” says the guitar-rocking granny. “It never tires me to keep on pursuing my many hobbies, interests and activities. I always remind myself that I am too young to grow old.” The grandmother-of-seven only started learning how to play the guitar when she was 60, proving that it’s never too late to pursue a new passion, no matter how radical it may sound.
Her talents have made Grandma Mary an Internet sensation with YouTube videos of the feisty musician garnering more than one million views. She’s also been covered by news agencies around the world. So, what advice would she have for those who want to keep their spirits up as they age? “Stay young at heart by socialising with friends and taking care of yourself,” she advises. “To grow old gracefully, you just have to do what you love. Life is what you make of it, after all.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we have so many roles – grandmother, mother, wife, friend, and colleague – I feel that’s truly a gift.”
FEON ANG, IN HER 40S, VICE PRESIDENT FOR LINKEDIN’S TALENT AND LEARNING SOLUTIONS BUSINESS IN APAC.
Almost 20 weeks into her pregnancy with her third child, Feon got a harrowing call from her doctor. “He suspected that my baby had Edwards’ syndrome, a rare genetic disorder,” she reveals. “On top of my work stressors, I was torn between deciding whether to have an abortion or respect the creation of life.” Thankfully, Feon chose the latter and her perfectly healthy son turns 10 this year.
That’s what has spurred her on to want to help support women as best she can through their ups and downs. “A lot of the time, women feel like they need to be superwomen. But to me, we should accept that we’re human and that we need help to become the best version of ourselves,” she explains. “I started the EmpowerIn program at LinkedIn in order to enrich a woman’s life by helping them to be stronger leaders and supporting them in their development.”
The eight-month programme includes workshops and group mentoring. “I’ve had other divisions within LinkedIn sit up and say, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is really interesting’, so that really encourages me that we’re moving in the right direction,” says Feon.
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we have the courage and confidence to tackle the hardest challenges that life throws at us.”
ELIZABETH TAN, 32, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF HEATWAVE SHOES
When thinking of fashion, one doesn’t immediately associate lace dresses, mini-skirts and thigh-high boots as empowering. But that’s exactly the myth that Elizabeth, a second-generation Singaporean business owner, aims to dispel. “I want women to remember that fashion is liberating,” she declares. “Historically, clothes serve as a conduit for popular expressions and personal views, be it political or artistic. So, for me, fashion is absolutely about empowerment.”
As Managing Director of Heatwave shoes, a family-owned business started by her father in 2001, Elizabeth wants to spread the message of fashion as empowerment further than it has gone before. “When a woman wears our shoes, she walks a little more confidently, stands a little taller, struts a little more sexily,” she says. “Can a pair of shoes change someone’s life? Maybe it can’t, but a reliable pair of shoes sure can make a woman’s journey towards empowerment more comfortable.”
On top of her day job, this mother-of-one also finds time to help others. In her role as co-founder of healthcare non-profit, Sight To Sky, Elizabeth helps to bring mobile clinics that treat conditions like dry eye, conjunctivitis and cataracts, to remote Himalayan communities. “I saw first-hand how much medical attention was lacking when I travelled to Ladakh in 2009,” she recalls. “When I came back, I joined forces with a local NGO to launch medical missions to the region. I felt compelled to help because when you’re in a position of privilege it’s really hard to turn your back on others.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “women are not defined by the roles they play in life, but rather, their life journeys.”
The Change Makers
CLAIRE CHIANG, 66, CO-FOUNDER OF BANYAN TREE HOTELS AND RESORTS; AND RENYUNG HO, 31, FOUNDER OF MATTER
She may be one of the most influential faces in Singapore’s business landscape but far from being aloof, Claire is warm and approachable. There’s no pretence as she sits down to talk to me about her accomplishments as a woman and how it has allowed her to effect social change.
“I grew up in a period where mutual support was so important in the nation’s developmental journey,” she shares. “My neighbours and my family would always be exchanging goods; be it food, lending a helping hand or doling out advice. So, from an early age, I understood this concept of social exchange, where people helped each other and I realised that by giving, you also get.”
It is a precious trait that Claire has passed on to her daughter, Renyung, who works in collaboration with rural textile artisans as part of her social enterprise MATTER. “For me, it’s not about giving back out of charity or pity, but realising that a more equal society enhances that society’s well-being,” she asserts. “It’s better for all of us when there’s less inequality and that extends to women and gender equality as well as to one’s socio-economic status.”
Together, the mother-daughter pairing is pushing the concept of “retailing with a difference” through their work with Banyan Tree Gallery Essentials. These sustainably-sourced products go towards conserving natural and cultural resources in the region.
[Claire] It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we have feminine qualities that men can never emulate.”
[Renyung] It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we recognise that equality is not about being the same as men, but about respecting the differences that women bring to the table.”
KIM UNDERHILL, 53, PRESIDENT OF DAUGHTERS OF TOMORROW
When Kim left her abusive relationship with her two children in tow, she was left without a home, without a purpose and without any direction. “It was the lowest point in my life. I went from leading an expat life in Malaysia because my husband was a foreigner, to coming back to Singapore with nothing,” she remembers. “The first few months were tough, especially for the children, whom I had to move into a little one-bedroom flat.”
For the sake of her little ones, Kim ploughed through her difficulties and started from scratch to succeed in the corporate world. In her role as President of Daughters of Tomorrow, she hopes to help empower other underprivileged women by providing them with livelihood opportunities. “I also coach the ladies in a module called ‘Confidence Curriculum’, to help them gain a positive mindset as most of them don’t realise the power that they have as women,” says Kim.
Because of what she went through, Kim focuses a lot on building women up so that they can speak up to assert themselves. “We need to have a voice so that we can help to guide other women on the right path. Women have a tendency to not fight for what they want but I believe you have to step in, in order to step up,” she advises. “Next January, I’m starting a platform called ‘One Woman a Day’. I’m in a position to help now, and I want to create a safe space for like-minded women to tackle domestic issues.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “you can be a wife, mother and daughter, as well as the CEO of an organisation.”
HAZLINA ABDUL HALIM, 32, CHAIRMAN OF WOMEN’S REGISTER
While it was Michelle Obama who said, “Adolescent girls are the future of their countries and their voices can move mountains if we let them speak”, it took a Singaporean woman of equal passion to make this ideal come to life on the Red Dot.
As the chairman of the Women’s Register, a sub-committee of the SCWO created in 2005, Hazlina has been instrumental in revamping the initiative to cater to the needs and desires of women who are either in Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) or about to enter the workforce. “We take a two-pronged approach: Encouraging our members to give back to society and honing their leadership opportunities,” explains Hazlina. “The next phase of Women’s Register will be encouraging women to be community leaders so we’re developing programmes moving towards that and reaching out to IHLs to inspire women to step up.”
Leading by example, Hazlina herself serves the community as a Board Member of the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association. Through her multiple roles, the eloquent news presenter is hopeful that a woman’s place in Singapore will be more valued than ever. She asserts, “The women’s conversation needs to continue and until we attain that balance where we don’t have to ensure female representation in leadership is achieved and it’s organically achieved, we still have work to do.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we aren’t held to double standards whether at work or at home in Singapore.”
PAMELA CHNG, 41, FOUNDER OF BETTR BARISTA COFFEE ACADEMY
If there was ever an award for a hometown hero that produces tangible results on the ground to help those less fortunate than herself, it’d go to Pamela. Using coffee-making as an activity to incite social change, she is positively impacting lives with Bettr Barista, her business with a heart. She explains, “At the core of what we do is arming disadvantaged women and at-risk youth with vocational and life skills that pave the way for long-term careers in the specialty coffee industry.”
Pamela adds that Bettr Barista also works with a clinical psychologist as part of their six-month programme to provide resilience training to the women and teenagers to teach them to cope with negative emotions. “You have to remember that these groups we cater to have been through hardships that the average person can’t even begin to fathom. So we want to, as far as possible, equip them with the tools they need to succeed.”
To date, the social enterprise has put close to 70 beneficiaries through the programme. “One case that particularly stood out to me was a 19-year-old single mother-of-two,” Pamela recalls. “Over the course of several years, she gained enough qualifications to teach internationally-certified coffee programmes. She’s now a retail cart supervisor, managing her own team, and was recently able to buy her own HDB flat.”
It’s wonderful being a woman because… “we find ways to use our privilege to help other women.”
PHOTOS: JEFF CHANG; VEE CHIN; AND YANN CLOITRE
ART DIRECTION: CHRISTINA LIM
STYLING: JEROME AWASTHI, ASSISTED BY NADIA RAHMAN; AND NEO LIRONG, ASSISTED BY CAROLINE NEO
HAIR: ASH LOI, ASSISTED BY RAEN CHAN; DAWN CHANG; AND KENNETH ONG
MAKEUP: CARMEN ONG; GINGER LYNETTE; RIE MIURA; AND LOLENT LEE