The roles played by women have always been a point of contention. Women are either feminine or sporty, supportive or ambitious, mothers or career women. But do they really have to choose? Does being one mean that you are less of the other?
Not likely. Nicole Seah, co-founder of local startup Rewardz, is one living example of a power woman who has taken on various different roles at the same time: she is a mother, a wife, an ambitious entrepreneur, and a founder working in the tech space — and she does this without scrimping on effort, giving her all in every role she takes on.
Pregnant And Starting Up
Nicole started her career in Human Resources, and worked in the corporate sector for a long time. Having worked in Credit-Suisse, she later quit to look for a new direction with Jaya Maru, who had also left a corporate banking position. After they both resigned, they discovered that there were many corporate perks that they were entitled to but didn’t know about, like promotions for stays in 6 star resorts, or discounts for luxury stores.
They realised that this was a common issue faced by those in the corporate sector: many perks were not communicated well enough to employees, and employees often didn’t know what benefits were available to them. Technology could bridge the gap, and together, the two women started Rewardz, a digital portal that helps manage and communicate corporate benefits to employees in an effective manner.
In a strange twist of fate, both got pregnant within months of each other as they first began the business. Suddenly, they found themselves self-employed entrepreneurs with no maternity benefits, trying to build a company from ground up and with hardly anyone else to help them.
Nicole shared that as Jaya had the more difficult pregnancy, they came up with a system where Jaya would stay at home and do the digital processing and writing of contracts, while Nicole did the footwork — she was lugging around papers and a laptop to meet merchants, vendors, and potential clients — all without a car. This was despite her being only a few months behind Jaya in her pregnancy.
As any entrepreneur knows, the first year is when you hit the ground running, and run she did. She and Jaya hired Andrew to join the team, “because he was a guy who won’t get pregnant,” she joked.
“I was so tired, I was so so tired, but thank god that in my first pregnancy, I didn’t have any issues and I wasn’t puking or anything bad, so I could still meet people.”
The worst of it, Nicole recalled, was when she started organising events. As a bonus for clients, she would organise for vendors and merchants to showcase their products to employees. This would bring benefits closer to employees, while providing merchants with an effective marketing platform. Despite being in her last trimester, Nicole would be moving tables around when she wasn’t satisfied with the layout of the venue.
“I would think: ‘I don’t think it should be this way, I think its too crowded, I think I should do this’, and the vendors would look at me like, ‘Nicole, you’re pregnant!’ and I would go ‘I know I’m pregnant, its okay I’m wearing flats, It’s okay.’”
But it all paid off. In the six months before she gave birth to her daughter Sophie, Rewardz secured their first big client, National University Healthcare System (NUHS). The business picked up from there, which also meant that things got busier. Sophie was born in July, and Nicole worked from home during her maternity leave, sorting out accounts.
“I think that’s how startup life is, nobody’s gonna help you do anything, there’s no maternity cover, me and my co-founder, we just had ourselves.”
A Startup And A Child
Almost three years on from the birth of Rewardz, and 21 months on from the birth of Sophie, Rewardz has grown tremendously. They have since won over more than 30 clients — including Courts, Crocs, DB Schenker, Fuji Xerox, IHG and the NUHS — with their flagship EmPerks corporate perks platform.
The company has also achieved an incredible annual organic revenue growth of about 400% since the company’s inception in October 2012. They currently benefit over 20,000 employees, and aim to grow this number 10 times to hit 200,000 employees benefitted by 2016.
Rewardz’s two main products — EmPerks, their flagship online and mobile app, and Flabuless, its sister corporate fitness lifestyle program which has recently been taken out of beta and into a brand new app — has even been brought onto the global map. They’ve established joint ventures and strategic partnerships with regional organisations such as Total Loyalty in Hong Kong, Actevo in Australia, and even Peruvian-based Pideunesco.
With a growing startup, Nicole also finds herself much busier despite being supported by a larger team of 6 — which includes her husband Sudhanshu Tewari. Her lean operation means that she has to dedicate lots of time to her startup, but she says that she still makes time for her other full-time job — being a mother. She schedules ample time to spend with her daughter, often waking up early to be there when she wakes, and leaving the office on time to be there when her daughter sleeps. Weekends and public holidays are spent with her daughter, though she often works nights after her daughter goes to bed, into the wee hours of the morning.
Nicole admits that it can be pretty tough being a working mother, especially since Sophie has reached the age where she’s beginning to say to her mother: “Mommy, don’t go out”.
Nicole recounted an incident when Sophie had an infection that gave her a fever and caused her eye to swell up. At that time, Nicole had an urgent meeting to attend to, and couldn’t bring Sophie to the doctor’s. Frustrated, she wrote an extensive letter, noting down her daughter’s symptoms, what medication she was given, how she got the infection, and gave it to her helper to pass to the doctor.
“It was heartbreaking and I was tearing — that’s something I face on a daily basis, but we have to come to terms with it and know that professionally there are things to accomplish in a day.”
But despite the daily dilemma, there are heart-warming moments that motivates Nicole.
“There was this once last week, which was very touching. When I was going out, I said, “Sophie, Mommy needs to go to work, I’m so sorry but I will try to be back earlier today, and I will spend some time to play with you.” She said okay, and continued eating her Honey Stars.
“I went to the shoe rack to take my shoes, getting ready to get out, and she ran up to me and went, “MAMA”. I thought she was gonna cry, but when I went down and hugged her, she went, “Mama bye bye”.
“I was so touched because though she’s so young, she understood why I need to go to work.”
Why There Aren’t More Female Entrepreneurs
Female entrepreneurs, especially in the tech industry, are rare. And according to Nicole, it’s all because of a single statement that she often hears from other women in the industry:
“No lah, I don’t think I can do it.”
From her experience working in Human Resources in IT, Nicole said that 80% of the industry is made up of men. And it is often the men who are more ambitious and outspoken.
“(Women) are so used to our comfort zones, so inclined to nurture, to play passive, supportive roles, that a lot of women I see that I know do very well in the IT side of things aren’t speaking up and marketing themselves.”
Nicole encourages more women to step out of their comfort zones, be passionate, and be convicted in learning continuously, especially if you want to work in the tech industry. Nicole is no stranger to learning, having transitioned from a career in Human Resources to running her own company. She has also picked up cheongsam making, which she hints may turn into yet another business venture.
She also encourages girls or women with an idea to talk to people, and find mentors who can lend their experience to help you develop the idea.
“When you have an idea, you cannot be passive. Go out there, and tell the world.”