Tan Su-Lyn, Co-Founder & CEO – The Ate Group
Recipient of the “Outstanding Business Woman Award, The Great Women of Our Time 2016 Awards, The Singapore Women’s Weekly, Tan Su-Lyn always aspired to work in communications. She aspired to make a difference, contribute positively in her own small way within her chosen field with communications as a delivery mechanism.
After a double major in Media Studies & Public relations, her first job was a research assistant in the university, eventually a lecturer for communications theory. She identified her passion for exploring the relationship between communications, society & culture and looked for some industry experience.
Back in Singapore she started her career as a writer at a local entertainment weekly. It also gave her an entry into Singapore’s food industry. Among the various beats she covered were the food/restaurant review column at the point where it transitioned from a single review to multiple reviews. “It was such a privilege to meet so many chefs and entrepreneurs, I remember reviewing the first Soup Spoon, visiting the first Sakae Sushi, and getting hooked on the breads from Bakery Depot which is now better known as Cedele” recalls Tan Su-Lyn.
Tan has met passionate and hardworking individuals who loved and believed in what they were doing. As a writer, she was given the opportunity to help convey what they were striving so hard to achieve, to readers and potential customers. In the subsequent years, food and cooking were a major element of her career and personal life.
Her goal to do the very best; to try to make a difference; and to help support the industries she works for led to the launch of a food and lifestyle blog, “Chubby Hubby” with her husband. Through the blog, which is now into its eleventh year, she shares their passion for cooking, eating and drinking, and traveling to cook, eat and drink. “It continues to be a labour of love, another way for us to express the support for an industry has become an intrinsic part of our lives”, says Tan Su-Lyn
Alongside, she has also worked as a freelance writer for international publications, ranging from The Four Seasons Magazine, to Town & Country and the Wall Street Journal and also contributed to several cookbooks, including Passion & Inspiration, for Justin Quek; New Shanghai Cuisine, with Jereme Leung; Wine Dinners with NK and Melina Yong; Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchen, a commission by ASEAN; Steam, a commissions by Miele; and the Lonely Planet World Food Guide to Malaysia and Singapore etc. Many of these books have won awards.
Fundamentally, her aspiration was to raise the profile of great cuisine and top culinary talent. She strove to get their stories heard and their accomplishments recognized and found her calling in the journey. Here is a gist of the tete-a-tete with team ABT.
You were a journalist prior to being the CEO of The Ate Group. What prompted you to start a business of your own?
Given the rate at which the world changes around us today, we need to stay nimble. And there is no better way to be future ready than to be an entrepreneur with a business that plays to my strengths and which is also engineered to be responsive to changing market needs.
The skills I utilise today are rooted in the skills I first developed as a journalist. I believe we should have the confidence to reinvent ourselves and shouldn’t lock ourselves into a linear career path. We all have more than one career within us. We should nurture our passions and our strengths in order to be the best that we can be within our niche. The niche should by and large remain consistent. But the niche we carve out for ourselves enables us to reshape ourselves as circumstances change. It should never limit us.
The last couple of years have seen rapid changes in technology and it’s an exciting time to be working in communications. I aim to contribute towards developing new ways of helping brands, entrepreneurs and innovators better tell their stories. I believe that it is time to invest in richer content, and build niche as well as mass audiences. In order to do this today, I push myself to understand how people talk, learn and dream right this very minute, as well as how they might be doing so in the near future.
Describe your entrepreneurial journey so far.
In 2006, my husband Aun Koh and I founded Ate with one staff member. The values we started with ten years ago remain fundamental to the way we service clients to day. We’ve always worked to focus on what the client’s need is first and to add value by developing a multi-pronged strategy (what we call an integrated communications strategy today) that would deliver on those client goals in a manner that would delight and enthral.
Some of our earliest clients included Justin Quek, Alila Hotels & Resorts and TWG Tea, Singapore brands or Singapore headquartered brands we were so very proud to introduce to Singapore and the rest of the world. In those early years, our work was very much personality driven. By that, I mean that the work was led either by my husband or myself. We worked with a clear philosophy and method, but these were internalised. I also handled the bulk of the back-of-house/administrative roles, everything from issuing invoices and employment contracts to supplies.
Over the years, we’ve built core integrated communications teams that span communications and creative concepts. With a team of 15, my role now is to work with our COO, Celine Tan to ensure that we continue to refine the way we service our clients in adherence to the Ate credo.
As the CEO, I focus a lot on the creative aspects and content that we generate and remind our team that it’s not enough to deliver an adequate job, but the need to always have a point of difference, an edge. It’s about getting the research done and trying to understand the subject at hand as best you can. That means reading and consuming media voraciously, and almost indiscriminately. It means getting out there and meeting people. It’s about remaining curious and remaining eager to learn. We work hard to identify the most important stories our clients have to tell, and to help tell those stories in the most meaningful way.
What would you consider as the highest point in your career so far?
I believe that the best is always yet to be. There will always be a new mountain to scale, a new skill to master. Today, more than ever before, we need to continue to evolve.
Who is your greatest inspiration and why?
Two figures in Singapore’s F&B industry stand out in my mind.
The first is the late Juliet David, a teacher-turned-journalist-and-advertising-manager who launched Singapore’s first food magazine, Wine & Dine in 1983 with the intention of giving chefs a voice and show off the cuisine in our part of the world. A visionary and ardent supporter of our local dining scene. After selling Wine & Dine, Juliet went on to become a food consultant, and established a cooking school. The second is Violet Oon, former reporter and food critic, consultant, cookbook author and respected authority on Singaporean cooking who is now a highly successful restaurateur.
Both women have remained staunch supporters of Singaporean food and chefs. They followed their passion and carved their own career paths. And both Juliet and Violet are straight talking, strong women who have won respect in a male dominated industry. At the same time, they are beloved mothers and grandmothers; nurturing women who stand up for what they believe in.
They taught me the value of staying true to your passion while remaining versatile entrepreneurs.
Describe the biggest challenge you faced so far and how did you overcome it. Any lessons learnt?
One of the greatest challenges at work for me has been learning to juggle motherhood while running the agency. When I had my second child, I was pretty much back in the office a month after. Business waits for no one. But what I’ve come to value and what I’ve learnt to tap on is the power of the women’s network. The support, both in terms of sharing of experience as well as simple encouragement, from other women entrepreneurs is an incredible thing. I have learnt so much from the experience of other women on this front. And it gives me great pleasure to now be able to give other women the same support.
How do you find time to manage both business and family life?
Juggling motherhood with entrepreneurship is not easy. The support of family, as well as other women, has been the most significant key to success for me. Without the support of my husband, our parents and great helpers, I wouldn’t be able to focus on work with the confidence that my children are well cared for during the workday.
Mothers, especially, understand the dilemma that working mums face. We work to provide for our children, but oftentimes, we also feel that work keeps us away from our most important job–that of being a mother. I am grateful for a strong circle of women friends who offer me the benefit of their own experiences; who encourage and inspire me when that’s what I need most; and who will even help me to be there for my children when I can’t always physically be by their sides.
I make it a point to be home to put my children to bed before heading out to evening work engagements or a simple meal at home with my husband. At night, I go through emails, and trawl the web and social media platforms. It is my time to catch up with what the rest of the world is doing. I’m curious to know what people are talking about and interested in; what they are cooking, eating and drinking; what chefs are playing with in terms of ingredients, as well as equipment and technique; where people are traveling to; what uplifts people.
What would be your advice to women who wish to become entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurial women have always existed. When you need to fight for the survival of your family, you find a way. Women invariably find creative ways to juggle the day-to-day domestic needs of their families along with their efforts to make a living. But many women today have an even greater edge. Great education has enabled many women to carve out impressive careers for themselves that give them the experience and confidence to start their own businesses.
Juggling motherhood with entrepreneurship is not easy. But it’s appealing for a mother to become an entrepreneur because it gives her better control over her time and affords her some level of home-life balance. Building your own business is also an opportunity to carve out a new career for yourself, one that harnesses your skills and experience in new ways. It opens the door to innovative new businesses. In a nutshell: “Find your niche. Master the fundamentals well in order to distinguish yourself within your niche. Stay humble, but believe in yourself. Be generous. Give and you will receive.When things go wrong, pick yourself up and learn from it. Every failure is an education.”