Entrepreneurship is the only way of life Hong Kong based Cheryl Ng has ever known! Both her parents were entrepreneurs, and she grew up with the dream of owning her own business one day. Today she is living that dream as the CEO and founder of travel aggregator service Lemi.
Seeing her parents and their work ethic, she learnt the importance of hard work at a young age. In fact, she graduated from college early, at 20, majoring in History from a liberal arts school in the US. Immediately after college, she started working in SAP Implementation and Project Management. After which she was taking night classes in Finance and Accounting while also working in the office of a CEO of a multinational listed company. She also earned a Masters in Corporate and Financial Law. All this was done as conscious steps toward becoming a business owner.
Like her entrepreneurial dreams, the idea behind Lemi also germinated in Cheryl’s early years. She has familial ties across Asia, which meant travel was a very natural part of her upbringing. This also made her curious about different aspects of history and culture. She was always curious to know the stories behind the places she visited.
“I love the romance of being able to visit somewhere new and truly feel like you’re stepping out of your life, entering another one. The history and characteristics of the shops or restaurants I visit, be it at home or abroad, drive my curiosity and instill me with a sense of wonder,” she shares. Lemi, she says, was conceptualised as the place to record all these nuggets of information people don’t usually know or talk about during their travels.
Moulding the Idea
When Cheryl was visiting the Philippines for work, she had the urge to try the local food. She asked for recommendations from the concierge at the hotel she was staying at and he named some nearby malls and big brands that were popular with tourists. A local friend then stepped in and took her to the non-touristy areas, giving her the quintessential Pinoy experience.
She thought to herself about the absence of a guide who would show her the different and unique things on offer in the city she was visiting. And, that’s when Lemi was born. It started out as a customized guide tool, supporting small businesses where users could build their own journey, connecting places that are based on their own preferences.
“The idea was to enable everyone to have that insider viewpoint. We want to connect people with local experts in their field, be it a chef for food, or architects for undiscovered landmarks. Our community shines a spotlight on those local businesses that make up the heart and soul of a city, and which care about quality,” she says about the functioning of the company.
Supporting Small Businesses
As a traveler, Cheryl has always been interested to share and hear about the special perspectives of local businesses instead of visiting big chain outlets. Choosing to spend money at small, local businesses and promoting them ensures that funds are channeled directly towards the continued preservation of local culture and traditions, she explains. This way, she adds, travelers are able to help the local community grow and create a sustainable economic cycle for these entrepreneurs.
“I don’t want to wake up one day to a world where we can only shop at one mega grocery store, or we can only get a ‘grande coffee’. If big businesses are able to drive the real entrepreneurs out of business, we will also lose parts of our culture,” she feels. If we don’t promote these businesses, they will fall through the cracks, she adds.
She thinks that the pandemic awakened people to the volatility of small business, something that Lemi has been working to counteract since its inception in 2016. They have been giving these entrepreneurs the tools they need to compete, or sometimes just even be seen, when competing in a market with big multinational businesses.
Effects of Pandemic
Lemi being a well-oiled machine built to enable people to work on it from multiple locations, the business itself was not impacted negatively by the ongoing pandemic. “Unfortunately, we saw a loss of many small businesses around the world that we have most sought to highlight. With travel restrictions in place, we started helping the other by creating a dashboard of marketing tools and an ecommerce platform – opening digital sale channels,” informs Cheryl.
This gesture of goodwill also provided her own business a chance to grow into a new direction. In fact, her team has been complimented for making the leap from being “just” a travel app. “We’re flattered! But, we see travel as one of the means to get to the heart of empowering small businesses,” she says of the praise. She adds that the core of the business has not been shaken by the pandemic – if anything, it has proven how important its mission is.
Diversity and Inclusion
Cheryl has a very clear and simple way to ensure Lemi is an equal opportunity employer – always hire the right person for the job. This seemingly easy task becomes difficult due to one sore point in human resources, that people often have talents that they didn’t realize they had. Being a remote work based company that hires employees from all over the works makes diversity a natural occurrence in their scheme of things.
“Talent can be found everywhere, there are no borders or boundaries – it is the person that counts. When hiring, I look at their experience, creativity, ingenuity and a great work ethic. I want trustworthy, passionate and intelligent people,” she reveals. Academics are great, but emotional intelligence and worldliness are more important in her eyes. It is also important for her to learn from every single person in her team.
Despite their physical distance, the team works pretty closely. There is no need to outshine someone or rise above someone else here; in fact, they hand off the baton to one another, aiming for one goal. Cheryl says she has observed that the best results come when she enables each team member to push their own abilities and growth. “Giving my team what they need to do their best job and trusting their judgements really produces the strongest workflow,” she feels.
Women at the Workplace
Power, she believes, is accrued over time. It was not that long ago that women were supposed to stay at home. Their position in the workplace needs to be as firmly established, and that is taking time, thinks Cheryl.
“It’s not that we don’t have women business owners in history, it’s that they aren’t supported when there’s a chance that work will take them away from the home for more than what the family structure can handle,” she asserts. This is changing, she adds, with women being able to take these positions because of certain social and economic improvements like in healthcare, specifically maternal care. Giving her own example, she speaks of how she has worked during pregnancy, postpartum, and will continue to work while raising her children.
Moreover, the digital era allows businesses to be created and run from home, she points out. This point was driven home even more during the pandemic, she says. Working remotely, she adds, allows men and women to be able to concentrate on career and home, having to give up neither.
Gender Balanced Workforce
When asked about the changes needed in the corporate world in order to achieve the goal of having a gender balanced workforce, Cheryl says, it’s essential for corporate structures to support fatherhood, specifically paternal leave. “Parents should experience parenthood regardless of gender. Paid paternity leave could be a great way to ensure this,” she suggests.
Shared domestic and familial responsibilities would provide women the support they need to advance in their careers instead of saddling them with an unfairly high amount of responsibilities. “Corporations can’t continue to ignore the fact that men and women are going to want to have families, and it’s a choice that affects both genders. This equilibrium would help the next generation become more well-rounded when it comes to understanding work-life balance, and help leaders emerge from both genders,” she thinks.
While men can’t truly understand all the barriers women have traditionally faced, she feels, we can work together to get rid of some of the antiquated stereotypes.