In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re taking a look at some of the strongest, most dynamic women we know. And what better way to get inspired than by the women amongst us here in Singapore?
These ladies are not just symbols of empowerment and hope; they’re also more than ready to lend their strength and share what they have with the less privileged.
Each of these women have a rags-to-riches story that could bring you to tears, but it is also through their perilous journeys that they’ve become sources of inspiration worthy of this list.
1. Jean Yip
Jean Yip salons and slimming centres — which are named after the founder herself — are known for their glamour and professionalism. Jean Yip first forayed into hairdressing when, despite her father’s objection, she enrolled in a local school offering an American hairdressing programme.
“He was upset at first as he perceived hairdressing to be the profession of women who were second wives,” Jean admitted in an interview with Prestige Singapore.
To fund her studying, she had to secretly seek financial support from her mother, and paid the school in instalments.
She followed her passion for hairdressing, and eventually earned her father’s blessings to study from the best teachers abroad. In 1982, the then-23-year-old Jean opened her first Jean Yip salon.
In 2000, Jean Yip Academy opened its doors to provide training and to certify Hair and Beauty specialists. It was eventually recognised by ITE as their NITEC Industry Training Provider.
Jean Yip Group is now a multinational conglomerate that has earned accolades from Superbrands, Readers’ Digest, Cozycot, and more. We can only imagine that her $12 million bungalow is just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Irene Ang
In an interview with Asia-City, Ang revealed her troubled childhood growing up in a broken family. She had to work during the school holidays for her own pocket money, and as a stunt double for petty cash. Even her first stand-up comedy gig went off to a bumpy start.
But as the saying goes, “tough times don’t last, tough people do”, and her independence and versatility eventually won over her colleagues and audiences.
Her first breakout role was Rosie in local television sitcom Phua Chu Kang, and more recently as overprotective mother of Ken Chow in the Ah Boys To Men trilogy. But this familiar face in the local comedy scene is also the founder and CEO of Fly Entertainment, who in an honest interview with Yahoo! News Singapore, said as CEO she makes a humble $4500 per month, with more coming from her work as an artiste.
For more on Irene Ang’s trials when growing up, check out this article too.
3. Olivia Lum
Currently the group president and CEO of Hyflux Ltd — the company that runs Singapore’s largest membrane-based seawater desalination facility — Olivia Lum seems an unlikely protagonist of a rags-to-riches story.
She fought as an underdog as the adopted daughter of an illiterate mother, astounding her teachers and peers with her fighting spirit and her knack for business. She was forced to be the sole breadwinner of her family at the age of 9, and at 16, headed to Perak, Malaysia for further studies with only $15 in her pocket.
Never one to be afraid of taking risks, Olivia sold her apartment and car after leaving her comfortable position in Glaxo Pharmaceuticals at the age of 26. With $20,000 from her sales, she founded Hydrochem (S) Pte Ltd in 1989; it would eventually become the Hyflux of today.
In 2011, and at the age of 50, Olivia Lum was listed on Forbes as Singapore’s 27th richest person with a wealth estimated at $460 million.
4. Wendy Kwek
It is hard to believe that this multimillionaire escaped the chains of bankruptcy. After getting retrenched at age 29, Wendy accumulated $100,000 of debt in just four months.
She shared with HerWorld Plus of her divorce, and how her friends distanced themselves from her. She had no choice but to move back to her parents’ apartment.
Yet, she managed to clear off all her debt in less than a year, due to her strategic business acumen and determination for a new start.
She believes education is a vital asset to any woman, and has made organising motivational events and seminars one of her core businesses to prove it. This earned her the prestigious Asia Pacific Brands Awards as Singapore’s Finest in 2014.
Apart from her events company, she is also credited with establishing the largest property investment network in Singapore (known as WK Investment Network), which helps the average Singaporean create wealth through property investments.
5. Claire Chiang
With experience as a Sociology tutor, president of Aware, senior Vice-president and founder of Banyan Tree Holdings, president of Society Against Family Violence, nominated member of Parliament and only one of two women admitted into the council of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Claire Chiang is definitely a force to be reckoned with in a patriarchal society.
She grew up in a household that was not well-to-do, and in a period of social turmoil that came about as a result of the 1964 racial riots, maintained good relations with her neighbours as part of a multi-ethnic community.
Her parents were her role models: her father was kind-hearted and helped the less fortunate despite their financial circumstances, while her mother pushed her children to maximise their potential as she herself fought an onslaught of illnesses.
6. Jannie Tay
Dato Jannie Tay was thrust with the responsibility of raising her siblings after her father passed away when she was 18. Still in the midst of her studies, she brought her siblings to Australia where she completed her academic pursuits at Monash University.
Her love for luxury watches motivated her to open her own boutique The Hour Glass with her husband, specialising in Swiss watches. Their later acquisition of Watches of Switzerland for $13.3 million served to entrench The Hour Glass as a dominant player in the luxury watch industry.
Yet, luxury has not made Jannie oblivious to social causes. She is a veteran when it comes to advocacy for women’s rights and empowerment, and often volunteers with charitable organisations such as the Community Chest of Singapore and Yuhua Community Service Centre.
7. Nanz Chong-Komo
Her name may not be known to many Singaporeans, but her business the ONE.99shop certainly will ring a bell. During the SARS epidemic, the business was forced to fold, marking the end of the $14 million business as well her entrepreneurial dreams.
However, she took things in her stride and used the valuable opportunity away from work to spend more time with her family and newborn.
3 years later, Nanz made a comeback with her bestselling book “One Business 99 Lessons”, which has sold over 17,000 copies. She also created an online platform to “address the many facets and assets of life for the modern Asian woman, and to empower her.”
After winning the title of Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000, and with her successful comeback, Nanz was honoured as a role model for Resilient Life at Chingay 2013.
8. Merry Riana
She has been featured in numerous publications for making her first million at the age of 26. However, Merry has not forgotten the hardships she encountered when she had to escape from the 1998 Indonesia riots.
Although Singapore was meant to ensure her safety, Merry could not help but feel anxious for her family in Indonesia and for her future. She felt the need to give her ageing parents a comfortable retirement and faced the pressure of having to pay off $40,000 worth of student debt.
Hence, she decided to take the path of an entrepreneur, and made $200,000 within the first year. Her shot to success did not come without her spending 14 hours at work every single day.
After the news of her success spread, she began sharing her success story at speaking engagements, and through her authored book. Eventually she decided to start a new venture in business training and consultancy, launching the Merry Riana Organisation to focus on inspiring and helping young people achieve financial freedom and success at a young age.
On Christmas eve in 2014, her story was dramatised for the big screen in a film titled “Merry Riana”.
9. Chong Phit Lian
After the passing of her father (who was the sole breadwinner of her family), Phit Lian’s family met with financial difficulty and she had to cross the borders of Malaysia to pursue further education.
She juggled multiple jobs to fund her tertiary education, and eventually saved enough to fly to Birmingham for university. However, the money soon ran out and it came to a point when she had to borrow money from her professor to foot her school fees.
After all her struggles, she came back to Singapore to be the president and CEO of the Singapore Mint, following which she became the first female and Singaporean CEO of Jetstar Asia in 2006 to 2012.
Currently in her 60s, Phit Lian continues to play significant roles in various organisations, such as Director and CEO of Singbridge Corporate, and board member of Jetstar Asia Airways, Valuair Ltd, and the Singapore Mint.
10. Anastasia Tjendri-Liew
Last but not least on this list of powerful women is none other than the founder of Bengawan Solo, Anastasia Tjendri-Liew.
She took up baking and cooking courses after her secondary education was disrupted by civil unrest. Through the classes, she managed to refine the skills she had learnt from her mother and aunt, which she later taught to her own class of eager students.
After she moved to Singapore, her confectionery grew in popularity and she began selling them to her friends and acquaintances. Even government officials — who’d ordered that she stop commercial business as she did not have a food manufacturing licence — could not stop the buzz of her delicious cakes.
In response to overwhelming demand, Anastasia began opening bakeries for her products to be sold, and they’ve flourished into the successful Bengawan Solo franchise today. Yet, she remains down-to-earth and generous, ready to assist her employees in their times of need.
Featured Image Credit: Prestige