A messy divorce and series of lawsuits left entrepreneur Anthea Ong with a failed business and $16 in her bank account. She tells JEANNE TAI how she survived the worst year of her life – and why it set her on a permanent path of doing good.
Anthea Ong is like the purring engine of a Ferrari – full of drive and raring to go. At 48, the serial entrepreneur has the energy of someone half her age. She arrives early for this interview, and tells me that she typed out six pages of detailed notes the night before to prepare for our chat.
Anthea says people often comment on her “intensity” and the vigour with which she throws herself into everything – whether it’s taking part in an upcoming hike across the Loot desert in Iran to raise funds for charity, or promoting Hush Teabar, a social enterprise she founded that offers “silent tea appreciation” sessions to busy professionals.
The multi-hyphenate do-gooder juggles being a life coach, yoga instructor, and driver of social causes. Besides Hush, she’s president of non-profit Wings, which encourages active ageing in women, and a board member of Daughters of Tomorrow, a charity connecting underprivileged women to job opportunities.
In the last five years, Anthea has started several social initiatives: Circle of Bliss organises meditation sessions, and Yoga-on-Wheels provides free yoga classes to the needy, including migrant workers and domestic-abuse survivors. She is also a mentor to ITE students.
Fast and Furious Days
Anthea didn’t begin life with a great hand. She was born with a squint, which she says attracted taunts from schoolmates and family members, some of whom called her “sampat” (a Hokkien term which can mean “retarded”). These remarks stung, but shaped her flinty, never-say-die attitude.
Realising that the name-calling stopped when she did well in school, she pushed herself in her studies, graduating with a degree in business administration from the National University of Singapore.
She did a brief stint at a bank, but grew impatient with the rate of career advancement. She recalls calculating that there were 12 levels between her and the bank chairman. “The ambitious young go-getter in me decided that I did not want to wait more than 12 years to get to the top… and you weren’t guaranteed a promotion every year!” she chortles.
So she jumped ship to an international conference company. Those were thrilling years spent jetting between Singapore, Australia and Indonesia, where she ran conferences.
She quickly developed a reputation as an indefatigable corporate star who worked — and partied — hard. It was not unusual for her to put in 14 to 16 hours in the office before hitting the clubs to gleefully “drink the boys under the table”. After that, she’d head home to call the offices of media moguls such as George Lucas and Michael Eisner in the US, to persuade them to speak at her conferences. “I would sleep at 4am and be at work at 9am,” she says.
She became general manager at the firm by 25, and managing director of the Jakarta office by 27.
Not even the 1997 Asian financial crisis could put the brakes on her go-getting nature. At that point, she was managing director of education provider New York Institute of Finance’s Asia-Pacific office – she had helped set it up shortly before the economic crisis hit.
Observing business drying up across Asia, she asked her boss for six months to turn things around, packed her bags, and flew to the Middle East to court new clients.
Those months in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Bahrain were spent making cold calls and knocking on doors. She would turn up for meetings in a Western suit and feel puzzled at how her male counterparts avoided eye contact with her. “One day, a lady in Kuwait pulled me aside and advised me to cover my neck – I was oblivious to those sensitivities!” she says. Thereafter, she also brought her male sales manager along to put clients at ease.
She recalls those heady days with a smile: “I was successful – fast and furiously so.”
A Dark Chapter
Itching for a new challenge, Anthea decided to start her own IT business in 2002. Her company’s signature product, an educational technology software, was a success and attracted the attention of Microsoft. The business was en route to an IPO.
Around the same time, through a former work contact, she met the man who would become her husband. The chemistry was instant and they tied the knot in 2004. “There was a lot of romance and intimacy,” she recalls, adding that they entertained often and loved to go dancing.
Sadly, the romance proved short-lived and she filed for divorce two years into the marriage. As she recounts the point her relationship broke down, she starts massaging her chest, saying: “I felt like my heart had broken into a million pieces. The pain was so intense I thought I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe, so I went downstairs and slumped down on the grass, just lying there curled up in a ball.”
That was the start of what she refers to as her “colossal collapse”. She spent a year hiding from friends and family out of shame. When she finally served her husband divorce papers, the unravelling was brutal.
The divorce dragged on for close to a year. During this time, her husband, who had been engaged by Anthea’s business for several projects, filed a series of lawsuits against the company. Among other things, he alleged that she had mismanaged the business.
The legal onslaught overwhelmed her. “I had files numbered according to each lawsuit. When my lawyers called, I would search for the relevant one and pull it out,” she says. She spent emotionally draining months defending herself while her bank balance bled.
“All that has happened has made me, me. Every scrap, every drip, every bit of it.”
During this period, Anthea’s family rallied behind her. Her father supported her financially; her mother and brother frequently checked in on her.
She threw her energy into work and kept up a brave front for her employees – office morale had plummeted because of the lawsuits.
The legal bills mounted to the point where she had to make the painful decision to wind up the business and lay off all the staff – more than 20 of them. Although she managed to place her employees in other jobs through her contacts, she admits: “I felt like I had short-changed them.”
She was ruined financially. Her bank balance hovered at $16; her car was impounded. She moved out of the marital home – a threebedroom condominium – and retreated to the flat she had purchased before marriage. It had floors covered in cheap laminate and was furnished only with a fridge and queensized bed.
“I had a broken heart, a broken bank balance and a broken business,” she says.
Hitting the Refresh Button
One night, while she was lying on the cold floor of her apartment feeling emotionally “knackered”, she had an epiphany. That was her turning point.
“I felt completely barren and naked. I had absolutely nothing. Yet, I also had a sense of, ‘Now that everyone knows I’m at zero, there’s no need for me to hold up a front anymore’,” she says.
“I used to think titles, money and professional success made a person. Now, I thought to myself: ‘You are not [defined by] your business. You are not your marriage.’”
Liberated by this thought, she rebuilt herself. She ditched the fancy restaurant meals, the drinking and partying, and the shopping sprees of her old life, admitting that she’d never been careful about her finances: “There was a sense of being invincible then. I believed I was so capable of making money that savings weren’t a big deal.”
Regular yoga and meditation sessions became part of her healing, and she started a journal to process her feelings. She also dabbled in volunteer projects, joining Unifem Singapore (now the Singapore Committee for UN Women) as a board member, and helping out at The Soup Kitchen Project, which delivers food to needy households.
“I was so porous,” she recalls. “Helping others filled me up, and gave my life value and meaning.” She discovered genuine joy in serving others – a key reason she devotes so much time to social and community causes these days. “It makes me want to dance out of bed in the morning,” she says, smiling.
Around the same time, she accepted a job at an international consulting firm to build up her decimated savings – but not before informing her boss she wanted to continue volunteering. “In the past, I was so dogged that if I decided to do something, I’d put all my effort into it,” she says. But her experiences had forced her to rethink life’s priorities.
“I said I wanted to devote a third of my time to self-development, another third to work, and the last third to service,” she says. Fortunately, her boss was understanding.
Along the way, Anthea rejected several promotions, as bigger responsibilities would encroach upon her other commitments.
“I wrote in my diary that this was a first for me,” she says. “I had so much clarity as to what I wanted and didn’t want in life.”
A New Chapter
In 2013, Anthea left her consulting job, which had paid her just over $400,000 a year, to devote herself to meaningful causes, and her passions of coaching, writing and travelling.
Money is no longer a carrot now that she’s rebuilt her savings. “I know now how little I need, financially, to be happy,” she says. “I don’t see the need to chase a certain lifestyle anymore.”
Her current pet project, Hush Teabar, is a roving for-profit bar that hires hearing-impaired staff who visit workplaces and guide people through tea rituals. Participants surrender their electronic devices and maintain silence throughout. After that, they reflect and share their thoughts.
By encouraging people to slow down, Anthea hopes to build a calmer, kinder and less stressful world.
She talks about how frazzled executives have emerged from the sessions recharged. She has seen steely managers break down and cry, the introspective ritual nudging them to confront some personal hurt they’d been bottling up. These “silent” moments are cathartic, says Anthea.
“After my life collapsed, I found clarity and purpose in silence,” she muses, referring to the night she lay dejected on her apartment floor, and the moments of quiet – meditation, journalling – that helped her recover.
As it turned out, the darkest year of her life ended up being the most illuminating. She bears no ill will towards her ex-husband, even saying she is grateful to him as “he came into my life to be a teacher, and taught me the biggest lesson ever”.
“All that has happened has made me, me. Every scrap, every drip, every bit of it. I would do nothing differently.”
Hush Teabar organises “Rush to Hush” sessions for the public every two months. The next instalment is on Aug 18, at the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. Visit its Facebook page for more details.
WHEN LIFE HITS ROCK BOTTOM... Find things to be grateful for, says ANTHEA ONG.
Engage in active healing:
“It is so easy to lie in bed and feel sorry for yourself. Don’t sit around and play the victim – it only makes you feel more powerless. Even if it’s just a walk in the park, writing one page in your journal, or doing a yoga pose, go out and do it.”
“At my lowest, I meditated and did yoga. There’s a difference between doing these things by yourself and going to class – for the latter, you may be doing it only because you paid for it. But when you do it purely of your own accord, that is an act of self-care.”
“Avoid thinking ‘Why am I here? I want to be there again’. The challenge of reaching that high point can depress you. Find something to be grateful for no matter how low you are. For me, it was stuff like being able to enjoy a home-cooked meal by my mum. End your day by writing about something you are grateful for and the next day will be slightly less low.”