16 Feb Purpose from Within: A conversation with Elim Chew
An interview by Alisa Maya
As a member of the Outreach Team for UNSAID, I am constantly seeking stories that will show a different perspective from what is usually popularized in mainstream media.
Stories – especially the ones that are rarely told – are incredibly important to me. Different stories provide different perspectives. With more stories, we expand our understanding of the world. Working with UNSAID’s Outreach Team, my main order of business is to seek out stories and share them with you.
Back in my high school days, I’ve come across the name “Elim Chew” several times. This lady, as I recall, is the founder of local street fashion brand 77th Street. Her success was highly applauded due to a few outstanding reasons: (1) she was not highly educated, (2) she is a woman entrepreneur, and (3) she dares to take the road less travelled. In my dictionary, “Elim Chew” was synonymous to the Singaporean equivalent of a “Power Woman”.
So, when I had the chance to interview her, I was thrilled.
I met the warm and personable Elim some time last year and had an enjoyable conversation with her. Apart from her colourful career and entrepreneurial journey, I personally took away some fresh perspectives on what makes her such an icon: her feisty determination and her altruism towards helping young entrepreneurs.
My interaction with Ms. Chew also gave me new insights into the makings of a successful women entrepreneur. Here’s what Ms. Chew had to say about women in the workplace and the advice she’d give to local women.
Do you think it is tough living and working as a woman in Singapore?
Elim Chew: I guess in my business it’s not as tough as some other businesses in the corporate world…and being an entrepreneur 27 years ago in Singapore was tough anyway, so we never look at whether I am woman or not woman yeah? But maybe today, I guess in the corporate world where there are mostly men, then to climb the ladder is harder.
So what do you think are the challenges that women in Singapore face?
Elim Chew: [Women] need to have more confidence in themselves and have to be more supportive of each other and bringing each other into the business as well. Men, whether they are competent or not, will say: after I take the job I’ll see whether I can do it. But a woman will think and think and think and think and think and say ‘er I think I’m not ready yet’. Also, women tend to be a bit more strict with each other in terms of work. We usually don’t recommend women peers whereas men have this buddy thing you know, they will recommend each other. To me, the woman will have to say: I will take the job and climb the ladder and also they have to be be less hard on each other.
Could you tell me more about your work in teaching young people about entrepreneurship? I understand that you reach out to youth platforms such as National Youth Council of Singapore (NYC) and Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) to help young people to develop the skills for social entrepreneurship.
Elim Chew: Actually, what I try to teach youth is not entrepreneurship but entrepreneurial thinking. Entrepreneurs are people who use their own money to do something. Entrepreneurial thinking [is about] people who manage other people’s money. Like the CEOS and general managers. They are entrepreneurial because they are managing other people’s money but they have to think like a boss also. Whereas entrepreneurs like [myself] will use our own money to invest in, run and manage our own businesses.
We teach them [disadvantaged youth] entrepreneurial thinking to help them break out of the situation they’re in. A lot of them have low self-esteem and a negative mind set. They think that they cannot do anything; that they don’t belong to society. So what we need to do is to give them opportunities, so they can say that there is a possibility.
One such person [who may appear less advantaged but] who believes in possibility is Mary Low. Mary has cerebral palsy. And yet when I have a social enterprise market, she’s always the one that sells her own products and says, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” She carries a lot of arts and crafts; made by people with disabilities. She has one of the best attitudes I know. Whenever I give a talk or sharing anywhere, I will just post [about it] on the Internet. Mary will message me and say “Where are you? I’m coming to watch you!” She doesn’t make excuses like some people who say “Aiyah too far” or whatever. Even with cerebral palsy, she makes it there faster than anybody else.
What advice would you give to young women in Singapore?
Elim Chew: [Asians] form a huge component of the global economic market. So everyone is looking towards Asia. Now everyone is saying “I want to come to Asia.” So it’s your chance and your opportunity to rise up and say, “I will take the place and be the changemaker.” I always talk about being the changemaker – are you the changemaker? This generation is made up of young people who are driven by purpose. If you’re driven by purpose, you can create change. There are so many opportunities for you. It’s a matter of “will you take it up?” Like in the case of Mary, I always say, “Disability is in your mind”.