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Nichol Ng and her children sort out food donations at Food Bank’s warehouse.

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Jessica Cheam music jamming with her kids.

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Hazleen Panayiotou trekking with her kids.

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Emily Perkin and her children in the neighbourhood playground.

Redefining Motherhood

Four women entrepreneurs seek career and maternal fulfillment on their own terms
May 10, 2019 5:50 AM

FOR THE NEW generation of working mums, the old dichotomy of work versus motherhood is no longer valid. Once the measure of a woman’s identity – before evolving into the unrealistic Supermum caricature of a corporate suited woman balancing a baby on her hip – motherhood is now about empowering women to define fulfillment on their own terms.

Four women entrepreneurs may well be poster girls of motherhood today, making careers out of their personal goals while nurturing their children with equal emphasis. Here, they share the ups and downs of their journeys, and how they’ve found their own equilibrium.

NICHOL NG, CO-FOUNDER OF FOOD BANK SINGAPORE

Nichol Ng, 41, has always had her finger in many pies. “I’ve always known that I would be leading a busy life, wearing many hats, and that I would be running a business at some point. And early on, I knew I wanted to be a mother – my target was six!”

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What she didn’t expect was to be running her grandfather’s nearly 90-year-old business Ng Chye Mong, which, in itsheyday of the 1970s and 80’s, dabbled in everything from filmmaking to construction and watch distribution. But it got hit by the Asian financial crisis and, just as Ms Ng had started university, the company went bankrupt. Her father barely managed to salvage her yeye’s original food trading business.

But in 2002, after a few years working in marketing, Ms Ng was called in to help digitise the business, and she’s stayed ever since. She set up FoodXervices in 2007 to buy over the business; she and her brother Nicholas built that into current-day X Inc, a $65-million business with five subsidiaries across food distribution, logistics, and properties.

The mother of three is also co-founder of Food Bank Singapore - a charity which distributes food to the needy; president of non-profit organisation One Singapore; committee member for her alumni association; parent representative for her daughter’s class – among others. “I genuinely believe that you can have both career and family. Of course, financial privilege helps but it’s not a deal breaker. It’s about what you want and what you’re willing to ‘give up’ personally. You tend to lose your old self a bit once you have kids but you’ll find a new norm.” She also credits her balancing act toher ability to get by with very little sleep, an inherent need to keep busy, and a compulsion to clear her to-do list.

“My mother never worked – her children are her only trophy yet she has found her own self-confidence and contentment. I don’t know if I can do that. I need my career to balance myself out and find that selfachievement,” says Ms Ng. “My biggest challenge is actually balancing my spouse. We married after dating for 13 years, and after the kids came, the focus was very different. It took us the first two years to find that balance, to realise that we also need some couple time. We’re still working on it,” she concedes.

Ms Ng is also quick to acknowledge her own privileged position as business owner, and strives to create a supportive environment for her staff. X Inc’s new purpose-built building will have a fulltime nanny to ease childcare emergencies. Flexi-hours and telecommuting are already available options too. Motherhood has also inspired her to start the Juniors Club for the Food Bank – children get to visit farms to learn about sustainability, or help sort food donations at the warehouse. “I’m glad that I can make a difference to society through my charities. It’s also about showing my kids that you can have your cake and eat it, and also use this cake to help someone else. My daughters really feel that they can conquer the world so that’s very heartening to me.”

JESSICA CHEAM, FOUNDER OF ECO-BUSINESS.COM

When former Straits Times journalist Jessica Cheam, 36, started Eco-Business.com in 2009, she’d imagined it as just a little passion project where she could sporadically write about sustainable development issues that didn’t make it into mainstream press.

Yet soon after she had her firstborn, she quickly realised that as much as her editors were supportive, the relentless news cycle was punishing for a new mother. Running her own business seemed like a way to regain control of her time to take care of her son. And with climate change gaining public attention, it felt timely to make good on EcoBusiness’ edge as the only Asian publication then that’s focused on sustainability issues.

To fund her vision of purposeful journalism, she began to offer other services such as consultancy, whitepapers and sustainability training. Eco-Business has since grown into a widely respected media company with a presence in five Asia-Pacific cities; for this year’s 10th anniversary, they’ve also launched a new non-profit, EB Impact,to deliver training programs to under-served communities in Asia-Pacific. “I work much harder now as an entrepreneur than I did as an employee,” says Ms Cheam, whose activism has also earned her numerous international awards.

She has quite a list of commitments too. To name a few: she chairs Climate Action SG Alliance; she’s on the board of ComfortDelGro; and she’s founding director for women empowerment group Embodhi. Straddling all that and motherhood is no mean feat, and as a recently divorced mother of two, Ms Cheam is well aware of the many challenges that the modern working woman faces.

“I realised at huge personal cost that if you want to be a good mother and wife, to be good in your career, and to be able to make a difference, you really need an environment and a partner that’s supportive. I find that even in this modern age, that structure is still not there for women.” But she finds it encouraging that things are changing. The Diversity Action Committee, for example, declared a target of 20 per cent female directors to be on the board of Singapore-listed companies. She herself is one of three recently appointed female board directors for ComfortDelGro.

“I’m motivated by the fact that I am in a position to push for social change, so I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing personal goals. As for my kids, I’m cognisant of the fact that they’re young only once. I think it’s important to be kind to yourself. If you are in a position where you’re taking on a lot on your plate, appreciate that you don’t have to have such high expectations – you’re just doing what you can using the means that you have.” She’s also sanguine that as they get older, she’ll have more time to pursue interests such as writing a book, producing documentaries, or taking on overseas stints. Right now, she’s living out one of her dreams – playing in a band – by jamming regularly with her six- and five-year-olds with their collection of guitars, ukuleles, drums, and piano.

HAZLEEN PANAYIOTOU, FOUNDER OF AMAZING TREKKERS CLUB

Hazleen Panayiotou, 47, has experienced first-hand the tribulations of motherhood. After following her first husband to the Middle East, the collapse of her marriage left the Singaporean a single mother, struggling to cope with a travel-intensive job and caring for her three-year-old boy - all without any family support. Forget about work-life balance - she was in full-on survival mode.

Five years later, by then married to her current husband, Ms Panayiotou made the difficult decision to leave her career at its peak - she was executive director of corporate communications - to focus on expanding her family. She knew that in the Middle East, it was near impossible to return after leaving the corporate ladder. For someone who’d tenaciously built her career in a male-dominated environment, it was terrifying. Hazleen recounts, “I’ve always been financially independent, I’ve always felt the need to have that sense of security and ambition. Having seen so many other women depend on their spouse, leaving my career gave me an almost uncontrollable fear.”

The Panayiotous relocated to the UK, before finally settling in Singapore. Motherhood kept her busy and happy, but her career had defined her identity for so long that she felt unmoored. Ironically, it was a medical scare - and a subsequent pledge to get active - that led Ms Panayiotou to her new vocation.Trekking gave her the same euphoria that her job did - the satisfaction of problem-solving, the adrenaline rush of powering through challenging moments, and the tangible sense of achievement of summiting. In 2014, she set up Amazing Trekkers Club. Empowering women was the central idea, be it encouraging them to step out of their comfort zones, raising funds for women’s charities through expeditions, or creating a safe space for women to meaningfully network and share vulnerabilities. “It’s about coming together, having the belief that you can be a good mother, and at the same time, not feel guilty to pursue your personal goals.”

Having seen friends in London give up successful careers, only to competitively pin their hopes and dreams on the children, she counts herself lucky to have her husband’s support. “He grew up in the UK but he’s a Greek Cypriot, very traditional about the roles of a mother. After three years of me staying at home, he finally said, ‘Go find your own thing’. It was his idea for me to start ATC.”

ATC is not just about self-actualisation either. It’s also her way of encouraging her three children to explore beyond gender stereotypes on sports, to show them that women, too, can be leaders. Her own 10-year-old daughter has started trekking herself, and reached the summit of Kilimanjaro last year. “ I wanted to be a role model for my kids. And I wanted them to see that mums also need to feel a sense of value, to be able to make a difference.” To that end, she also organises ‘trek-cations’ for mothers and kids to bond in the great outdoors. Her message clearly resonates - to date, ATC has successfully led more than 700 women and girls on treks around the world.

EMILY PERKIN, FOUNDER OF JUST CAUSE

For Just Cause founder Emily Perkin, 37, life has taken her on a circuitous path. With her interest in social justice, she built a steady portfolio in non-profit organisations and was all set for a long career as a global civil servant when she joined the United Nations’ World Food Programme. Frustrations with bureaucracy, however, pushed her into the private sector. Ironically, it was her stint at a corporate management consultancy that put her back on track, and pointed her towards her life’s calling - impact consulting. When her then-boyfriend (now husband) got posted to Singapore, she jumped at the opportunity for an adventure. She soon noticed that unlike in Europe, Asia didn’t have many consultancy services for the non-profit sector.As luck would have it, the same week that she registered Just Cause, she found out she was pregnant. Not that she was unwilling - she had just never seen herself as a mum.

Getting live-in help wasn’t on the cards either. “We could afford it, but ordering someone else around was an alien concept.” Instead she tried Trehaus, a family-centric co-working space that offered child-care facilities on-premises, often commiserating with fellow entrepreneur-moms in the nursing room. She finally relented, and hasn’t looked back since. “My helper made a huge difference to our lives. I can concentrate at work, and whatever time I spend with the kids is quality. I’m also happy that they have someone else to feel an attachment to.”

The mother of two considers herself lucky to be raising her children in Singapore. “In the UK, the economics of childcare is such that the mother’s entire salary just goes to childcare. It’s also common to only work part-time after maternity. Here, I see a lot more mothers return to work completely, and more Singaporean women who’ve made it to the top of their game. I think motherhood doesn’t take you down the career track as much here.”

She’s also observed some friends approach their careers differently: Continuing their pre-maternity professions on a parttime basis to pursue their passion. “A phenomenon of the times, first generation millennials prioritising self-actualisation, perhaps? Combined with the trend of having kids later, you’re more able to set something up and succeed at it.”

She admits that motherhood hasn’t been without frustrations: “Frankly, I think my work and our business do suffer from the fact that most of us in the team are parents and there are limited hours that we can work. Nine-to-five is not a good basis to grow a startup. It’s an intense frustration because I’ve never thought of becoming a mother. I love the kids to bits, but I’m also ambitious about expanding Just Cause and it’s frustrating to move so slowly at it.”

Even so, “Although I’d never thought motherhood would happen to me, I guess instincts took over and I feel so lucky every day in spite of myself,” she adds. She is fastidious about setting aside quality time with the kids. Besides the sacrosanct daily family dinner, there’s another cherished ritual: On Friday afternoons or the day before a public holiday, they head out to the neighbourhood park for a picnic the quintessentially Singaporean way - with chicken rice.