Sister Acts

International Women's Day is all about celebrating female empowerment. We spotlight three pairs of siblings who have combined sisterly love and personal passions into successful businesses

Helmi YusofTay Suan Chiang
Published Thu, Mar 7, 2019 · 09:50 PM


When American-Chinese sisters Valerie and Bebe Ding opened a boxing studio in Los Angeles in 2017, no one believed it would be a hit.

CruBox is said to be the first fitness studio to offer boxing in the dark and to music. "When you think of a boxing studio, you wouldn't think it would be two girls behind it, let alone two Asian girls," says Valerie, 31. "We had to prove to the market that we could do it."

And they did. Shortly after they opened in Melrose, West Hollywood, similar studios popped up around Los Angeles. CruBox has also become the hot favourite of celebrities such as the Kardashians, Usher, and Nicole Scherzinger.

Each 50-minute workout encompasses high intensity, music-driven bouts of cardio with intervals of strength training to keep the heart rate elevated. The programme was developed together with a professional boxer and certified coach.

The sisters picked up boxing while in Los Angeles. "When we first went into a boxing studio, people there wondered what we were doing. But we, especially Bebe, showed them we weren't to be messed with," says Valerie.

The Dings recently opened a second studio at Duxton Road. Their brother, Calvin, who is the middle child, is also in the business. The trio shuttle between Los Angeles and Singapore, having grown up in both locations.

This is not the first business that the siblings have set up. In 2013, they set up CruCyle, an indoor cycling in the dark studio at Duxton Road. Bebe, 27, explains that, "back then, there wasn't as much to do as now in Singapore, and there was only so much clubbing that we could do." Hence, their idea to have fun in a club-like environment but with a fitness spin on it.

From day one, the siblings have had their roles set out. Valerie handles marketing, branding and public relations; Bebe is a master trainer in spinning and boxing and is also in charge of training the instructors and the operations staff; while Calvin handles the studio construction and music production. "Having grown up together, we know what our personal strengths are, and we fell into the roles," says Valerie.

Outside of work, the sisters are quite different. Bebe's fashion style is more sporty and edgy, while Valerie prefers a more classic look. They also have different daily routines: Bebe focuses on her wellness practices and healthy eating, while Valerie's days are packed with calls and emails for business development.

"At the end of the day, there is a stronger level of trust between us, compared with working with outside partners," says Valerie.

Bebe adds, "We have a common goal and work towards the best interest of the family."

Still, there are disagreements, and at times, their parents step in. Their father is a businessman, while mum is a housewife.

"We have blood ties, so it is not as if we can just quit being family," says Valerie. "We do argue, and as siblings, we are more open to say what we want. Our parents tell us to get over the argument. They've always taught us to look out for each other - they want us to stay in the business together."

Another downside of working with a sibling is that, "it is easier to get personal life and business mixed together," says Bebe. "We are devoted to the brand and our lives are our work." Family vacations are now out of the question as each sibling is busy running the three studios.

Valerie's advice to other sisters thinking of starting a business is to "to see eye to eye on the goal, branding and business operations."

Bebe adds, "always accept that there will be conflicts in decisions, not to take things to heart and not to be so hard on the sibling when mistakes are made."

2. SANDRA & SHARON SIM Coterie Concepts

THE F&B BUSINESS isn't easy, whether you're a man or woman. But industry veteran Sandra Sim, 40, feels it's even tougher for women in a typically male-dominated kitchen.

"It's very fast-paced," says the CEO of F&B group Coterie Concepts. "Stress levels are especially high on a big Friday or Saturday night. Men in the kitchen will shout at anyone to work faster. Women often choose the softer approach, saying to someone: 'Come, let me help you.' But that doesn't change the fact that you must be able to withstand the aggressive environment. Otherwise you won't get very far."

Sandra launched Coterie Concepts in 2014. She had previously owned and managed restaurants in Shanghai for seven years before returning home to Singapore to manage Sauce Bar under the Butter Factory Group.

In under five years, Coterie has opened four concept bars, namely Cantonese tapas bar Sum Yi Tai, cocktail backroom Mona Lounge, Shanghai-inspired bar and club Eliza, and mod-sushi and highball bar Chi Kinjo - all located within walking distance of each other in the Central Business District.

Sandra co-founded the company with her elder sister Sharon, 42, who offers strategic advice while holding a senior position at Citi. The third partner is Tay Eu-Yen, who formerly helmed the popular lifestyle brand Butter Factory Group as co-founder and executive chairman.

Eu-Yen says: "F&B is very, very male-dominated in its leadership strata. It may be condescending to talk in terms of women versus men, but the reality is that there are indeed very few women here. And women do struggle to gain the kind of equality and respect among their peers who are mostly men."

What else holds women back from joining the industry?

Essentially, it's the long hours. For example, "I have two small children," says Eu-Yen. "I have to be able to wake up at 6:30 every morning no matter what happens the night before. I have mummy duties to perform."

One reason why the three women work so well together is that they are sympathetic to these challenges. Sharon says: "As friends, sisters and women, we don't bat an eyelid when one of us says she has to leave the bar to pick up her kids (Sharon also has two children). The F&B business is filled with difficulties and challenges, but when you have partners who are supportive of you and your life outside of work, you can weather the worst."

Sandra and Sharon met Eu-Yen when the three were studying at Raffles Girls' School. Sandra and Eu-Yen were peers, while Sharon was two grades ahead. After university, the Sim sisters worked and lived together in Hong Kong. They spent many evenings at the legendary hotspot Lan Kwai Fong - with over 90 restaurants and bars - and wondered why Singapore didn't have a sprawling party district like that.

Meanwhile, Eu-Yen was busy running the popular Butter Factory nightclub for nine years. But when it started winding down its operations in 2014/2015, she needed to find her next venture. The three women got together and decided to launch an F&B group focusing on bars serving Asian food.

"We started out simply wanting to eat Asian food at a bar," Sandra says. "Typically, one finds fries, chicken wings and standard Western fare at a bar. But why couldn't one have, say, carrot cake with cocktails? Canto bar bites became the concept of our first bar, Sum Yi Tai."

Sum Yi Tai (which means "Third Wife" in Cantonese) proved popular among local barflies, thanks to its signature XO carrot cake and Asian-infused drinks. The bar's success spurred the women to launch the three others, as well as Coterie's own social media branding arm Postman.

When it comes to work division, the women are clear about their strengths: Eu-Yen, a former litigation lawyer, takes care of business development, corporate structuring and management oversight. Sandra, a keen chef and designer, oversees the food design and kitchen operations, as well as all of Coterie Concept's visual branding and interior design. Sharon, a senior private banker with her own investment portfolio of F&B startups, tech platforms and real estate consultancies, provides strategic advice.

Sharon says: "We work well together and complement each other's strengths. For Sandra and me, we've gotten closer since we started the business together."

Sum Yi Tai and Mona Lounge are at 25 Boon Tat Street. Eliza is at 113 Telok Ayer Street while Chi Kinjo is located on 29 Stanley Street.

3. SOPHIA & NADIA CHAN Maiko Singapore

Growing up, Sophia and Nadia Chan were as different as chalk and cheese. Sophia was bookish, Nadia was sociable. Sophia's side of their shared bedroom was neat and simple; Nadia's was messy, its walls crowded with posters of boy bands. But they both had entrepreneurial ambitions, which led them start Maiko Pte Ltd together in 2017.

Maiko runs an e-commerce site that distributes the products of popular Australian beauty brand Canvas. Founded in 2004 in Melbourne, Canvas uses a base of certified organic Australian botanical ingredients, infused with aromatherapy. Though Maiko's site was launched in late 2017, it has already become profitable with a steady volume of orders.

Sophia, 32, says: "The beauty industry is competitive, and consumer tastes change rapidly. But that means that they're always on the lookout for new products. We think they're increasingly looking for products that are natural, organic and cruelty-free - which is what Canvas offers."

Singapore, she notes, is seeing a higher incidence of skin problems such as allergies, psoriasis and eczema. In 2016, the National Skin Centre had 304,000 outpatient clinic attendances, up from 263,000 in 2008. In 2017, there were 18,405 new cases of eczema.

Sophia, who has a degree in biomedical sciences, addresses all the concerns and queries that potential consumers have about the products via Maiko's website. Though she holds a full-time job as an occupational therapist at a hospital, she also makes time to contact customers to gather after-sales feedback.

This personal touch is one way of standing out in the crowd, since Canvas prices are higher than mass-market Korean brands, but lower than popular prestige brands such as Estee Lauder and SK-II. Canvas' serums and essences, for instance, retail between S$54 and S$132.

Nadia, 30, takes care of marketing, publicity and partnerships with brands and events - challenges she enjoys as she also works full-time as the general manager of a PR company.

Running a new business, they admit, hasn't been all that easy, as neither woman is trained in business and finance. Sophia says: "We had to learn how to manage finances, build marketing materials, make the right connections, and many more. Everyday is a learning curve... But the greatest thing about running a business is that there are no rules in business or entrepreneurship. Everything depends on us. We craft our own success."

With so much to master quickly, do the sisters ever get on each other's nerves?

Nadia admits: "Yes, occasionally. The toughest part of working together is knowing that neither one of us can afford to slack, because that would mean disappointing our own sister. We have very different personalities, but we are also aware of our individual strengths and weaknesses. If anything, we are tougher on each other because we want to push for greater results."

It helps that their parents are also entrepreneurs running a company which their father started 30 years ago. They sometimes step in to offer tips on how to run Maiko more effectively. Nadia says: "The roles of women have changed so much from the old days. We have careers and businesses, while at the same time we're caring for and raising our families. Today being International Women's Day, I think it's a good time to celebrate our achievements and look back on how far we've come."

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