Leading Businesses by innovation & collaborative ideas

Elim Chew, Founder – 77th Street

Elim’s first attempt into the retailing turned out to be a huge success in the retail scene. Prior to that, she was in Britain undergoing a hairdressing course and returned to Singapore to open a salon.

In addition to expanding her retail businesses, Elim lent her expertise, experience and time to various youth organisations in Singapore. She co-founded Singapore Street Festival – a platform for showcasing local talents in areas such as performing arts, visual art forms, fashion, entertainment and sports, The Young Entrepreneur Mastery (TYEM) – a non-profit academy that supported youth entrepreneurship and inculcated an entrepreneurial mindset in out-of-school youths. Elim was also a founding member and director of the Social Innovation Park (SIP), a social enterprise incubator which aimed to provide a replicable set of integrated services and resources that would help create a platform to support social entrepreneurs’ business models that advocated societal change. Through this platform, she championed Pop and Talent Hub, the first social enterprise talent development platform in Singapore which gathered talents from social homes, institutions and also professional artists to sell their artworks with the objective of making them self-reliant.

Some of her accolades include the “Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” by ASME in 2001, “Mont Blanc Businesswomen Award” in 2002, “Young Woman Achiever Award” by Her World and “Leadership and Mentoring Award” by Research Communications International in 2003. She acknowledged that her first award in 2001 gave her the opportunity to become a youth ambassador in Singapore.

She is a member of City Harvest Church. When key members of the church are charged by CAD she was quoted : “City Harvest has been my family for 21 years and a family comes together in challenging times”. Here are some more insights from the versatile fashion retailer & dynamic entrepreneur.

Who is your greatest inspiration and why?
My greatest inspiration would be my mum who has always been my biggest source of support, and my role model. I still remember when I was in my early twenties, I drank and partied a lot, and always landed myself in a drunkard state, but I was glad my mum was there to talk sense into me and put me back onto the right track. My passion towards giving back is also through the influence from my mum, who has set up a children’s home in Myanmar, seven churches and an elderly home in China, and now helping a whole village in Tanjong Pinang.

Describe the circumstances in which you started 77th Street and your entrepreneurial journey so far.
Since young, I wasn’t very good at academics and usually got punished for doing all the naughty things in school. I always joked around saying that I am the most outstanding student – “outside standing”. After my O’levels, I went to London for my A’Levels, but after a series of events, I decided to pursue a course in hairdressing and upon graduation headed back to Singapore and started my first business – Elim Emanuel hair beauty and training centre.

At that time, I love being dressed up in funky punky street wear apparels and accessories that were trending in London. Many of my customers came up to me and said “I like your jacket! I like your bracelet, can you sell it to me?” And I would sell to them at a profit. This sparked me to bring in these London styles to Singapore, and we managed to open our first 77th Street store – with street wear fashion and accessories at Far East Plaza. At our peak, we had 16 stores islandwide, and also opened a shopping mall in Beijing called 77th Street Plaza.

I enjoy meeting people from all walks of life. Every person I meet has a story to tell – I gained insights from them, and in turn share these stories to the youths or aspiring entrepreneurs that I mentor. Currently, my favourite hobby is FISHING!

How do you feel about closing down the 77th Street business? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I will be lying if I say that I don’t feel anything. After all, it’s more than half my life. Since the news of closure was announced a few months ago, it was heart-warming to receive so many kind messages from all kinds of people, who shared their stories and fond memories of 77th Street with me. Indeed, a generation of young people grew up with 77th Street, and I’m glad to be part of this journey.

Tell us more about your latest business ventures and the reasons/ potential for undertaking them.
I sit on more than 20 boards and committees, and always need to sign many documents while I am on-the-go. So one day, I thought, why not create a platform that would allow me to get my documents within 90 minutes so that I can save time and money while maximizing productivity? Hence I got together with a few friends, and we started FastFast!

FastFast also helps to create jobs for people who needed additional income by signing up as a freelance driver. In a way, I “kill two birds with one stone” – making people’s lives easier, and creating employment. We work closely with companies, such as hotels, florists, ecommerce, start ups and even bakeries (mooncakes).

I think FastFast fills a market gap especially for start ups and SMEs which lack the resources and logistics support. Hence, our goal is to fill the gap and provide instant delivery on demand at affordable rates based on distance, anytime, anywhere. It also fills the manpower gap by offering employment, so I feel there’s a lot of potential for FastFast to grow especially with the high cost of living/business and when resources are tight.

Describe the biggest challenge you faced so far and how did you overcome it. Any lessons learnt?
When I first started 77th Street, I was still young, naïve and inexperienced. Some examples would be sourcing for investments to start the business, managing the finances and logistics. One of the most difficult parts is managing people. Once I needed to let a staff go due to his poor performance and attitude; I cried so badly that my mum asked if I was the one who got sacked. Especially when it involves working with external partners, I tend to be too trusting last time and got played out a few times.

All these ups and downs that I faced during these 29 years in business were all part of my learning and growing up, and it’s what made me who I am today. I feel that as long as we don’t give up, and keep learning, every obstacle will make us a better and stronger person.

What would you consider as the highest point in your career so far?
I wouldn’t say “highest point in my career” but rather what makes me feel the greatest sense of satisfaction is the whole journey of 77th Street when I look back. It is no easy feat, but definitely a fulfilling 28 years with a dedicated and supportive team. We revolutionized street wear and fashion as a lifestyle and culture today; we encouraged and inspired youths to dream big and that nothing is impossible. And from the success of 77th Street, I am able to support contribute back to the communities. That is my biggest accomplishment – to see lives being empowered and impacted.

What led you to venture into F&B business?
Even though there were many uncertainties, even with 28 years of retail experience, my siblings and I were well-aware that F&B is a totally different ballgame. Hence, due diligence was done to know more about the industry, consumers’ behaviors etc before plunging into the business. We understand the need to stay relevant, stay connected, keep ourselves up to date with trends and engage with the new generation to know what is in demand.

To catch the hype of Kpop, Korean styles and food, my siblings opened the korean bbq restaurant (I’m KIM Korean BBQ) and with a bit more experience and confidence, we started Kokomama café, and GoroGoro Steamboat & Korean Buffet about one year later. The restaurants focus on good food at affordable prices with elements of hip and fun, targeting the masses – families, students and working adults near the vicinity.

We are always open and looking out for market gaps and opportunities. After all, we need to do well to do good.

You have also started a social enterprise-related project with ElimChewTV. Tell us more about your intention for this and what you hope to achieve.
ElimChewTV – Changemaker Series (www.youtube.com/elimchewtv) is our YouTube Channel that features people from different fields around the world who are making a positive impact to society through their work. I hope that this channel will inspire more people to rise up to be changemakers; empowering and impacting one life at a time. We can all be the change we want to see in this world.

I also launched my book recently – which features my life story, entrepreneurship and philanthropic journey, in hope to inspire others to work towards their dreams. It is on sale at all Popular and Kinokuniya stores. For bulk purchases, you can write to elimchewtv@gmail.com.

What would be your advice to women who wish to become entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs and there is no gender segregation. Keep meeting and speaking to different people – they will give you fresh perspectives and insights. Setbacks are just part and parcel – it will not be always smooth-sailing. Every hurdle or challenge is a lesson learnt, reflect upon what went wrong and move on – it is all part of your learning process to get better and stronger.

There’s a quote I saw online: Two things define you: Your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything. Having the right attitude towards whatever you do be it career, passion or people around you will give you the greatest opportunities and potential to achieve what you want in life. Keep dreaming, keep trying, keep doing –you will reach your goal someday!