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More women in Singapore take the entrepreneurial path

Catherine Lam had been an accountant for 10 years in Singapore when she saw an untapped market for kitchen equipment. That was in 1979. In a pioneering move for a woman in Singapore, she started her own company, Fabristeel, to make steel carts. Now, the 50-year-old Lam has 130 employees at plants in Singapore and China that churn out steel tables and cabinets for restaurants and hotels. With a distribution network throughout Southeast Asia, Fabristeel's sales are running at $20 million a year.

Lam now has lots of company. More Singaporean women than ever are starting businesses, helped by better education, a labor shortage, and the country's drive for entrepreneurial achievement. As of mid-1996, nearly 43,000 women headed companies, up from 33,000 in 1991, according to a government survey that put women entrepreneurs at 22% of the total. These women are gradually changing traditional perceptions of Asian women, who used to earn labels such as ''dragon lady'' if they wielded political or financial clout.

SEED MONEY. There are two types of women entrepreneurs in Singapore: those who already have raised a family, and those who want an alternative to the traditional career path. These younger women are better educated and less beholden to traditional female roles, and see entrepreneurship as a way to leapfrog the lower wages paid to most women. ''This way, I can do whatever I want,'' says Esther Tan, 26, co-founder of Creative Addictions Multimedia. She and her female partner raised $21,400 seed capital from their families. Tan also got some motherly advice: ''She said never to depend on a man.''

Older women who start their own companies are cashing in on successful careers. Many broke the glass ceilings of their generation by rising in the ranks of bankers, doctors, accountants, and architects. Now many are using their professional experience, contacts, and credibility to strike out on their own. ''They realize their career path has reached a certain point, they've achieved being a successful mother, the children are grown up,'' says Jannie Tay, 51, founder of The Hour Glass watch stores. ''Now, they're ready to do something for themselves.''

Pauline Ong, 51 and the mother of a 21-year-old daughter, is an example. Ong had earned a strong reputation as general manager at Guardian Pharmacy, where she expanded the chain from one outlet to 55 between 1980 and 1993. She and another woman at Guardian decided to branch out on their own, founding POCL Business Consultancy. ''As a consultant, the chief asset is yourself--using the experience and skills that are stored up in your head,'' says Ong.

Women's businesses tend to go after niche markets, sometimes targeting female consumers whose incomes are rising. ''Women understand the women's needs better,'' says The Hour Glass's Tay, whose two jewelry stores and 14 watch stores around the region generated $314 million in sales last year. Elizabeth Wong, a 48-year-old former teacher, started a health spa to help women relax. In two years, her Renewal Day Spas have grown into a regional chain expected to post $7 million in sales this year. Selina Ebenhoch, 33, started Healthvision, which supplies educational videos to hospital waiting rooms. ''There's no use fighting the big boys, because you know with your resources and capital, you can't win,'' she says. ''Instead, you just stake out what isn't charted and go into that market.''

HELPING OTHERS. Some women set up their own businesses because of the more flexible lifestyle. After years of caring for family and home, holding down an outside job, and often looking after aged parents as well, many find running a business allows them to set their own schedules. While the days are long, the hours aren't dictated by a time clock or boss. ''I don't feel that guilty leaving the office, because I'm not slacking in my work,'' says Joyce Ong, founder of J:Factor Communications, a $2.6 million advertising firm.

These entrepreneurs are also helping others. Several members of the Women for Women Foundation, or WOW, plan to put $1 million into a company that helps women start up businesses. On the drawing board: a bank targeted at women, hotel and resort developments, and consulting and training services. Says Tan Seok Buay, an academic specializing in women's entrepreneurship at Nanyang Technological University (NTU): ''We have reached a stage where we can contribute--we can give benefits to our sisters.''

But with ownership comes major hurdles. The vast majority of women's businesses are small and short on capital for expansion. Kanwaljit Soin, former president of the Association of Women for Action & Research, a leading women's group, says size also prevents women from applying for government grants, because they often lack formal records and a proven track record.

One problem may be that women lag in their use of technology. Rosemary Brisco, an Internet consultant who runs a businesswomen's Web site, notes that several women clients still do accounting by hand or spend thousands of dollars on software but neglect to learn to use it. ''Women just are not up to date enough on what technology can do and how it can benefit their businesses,'' she says. For those who do use it, technology can overcome capital constraints. Business consultant Ong, for instance, saves on office rent because she works at home using a laptop and modem.

Lingering discrimination also holds women back. NTU's Tan says women have a harder time getting loans from banks, although other women leaders contend that a lack of good business plans--not gender--is the problem. Some WOW members complain that old discriminatory attitudes still exist. Several recall going to business meetings with junior male colleagues and having people shake hands with the men on the assumption that the men were in charge. Ben Chan, a researcher of women family succession at NTU, says fathers would rather leave their businesses to sons than daughters. He cites examples in which an autocratic father passed the reins to a less competent son, rather than a capable daughter.

Despite varying motives for starting businesses, the women are all aware of the bottom line. ''Business is business,'' says Susie Tay, 30, who started Life Shop, an ethnic handicrafts retailer, partly to generate income for poor Thai villagers. To help other people, she says, ''objective No.1 is to make money.'' Increasingly, Singaporean women are finding the means to do just that.

By Helen Chang in Singapore


Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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