Bringing passion to fruition and loving it

Sarissa recognized her passion for food & beverage and hospitality early in her career path. While studying International Business at George Washington University, she took a job as a waitress at a trendy restaurant in Washington D.C. She instantly fell in love with the industry and upon graduating choose to pursue a path in F&B, using the knowledge she learned at the University. ​

Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz is today the CEO and Co-Founder of SJS Group Hospitality, Singapore and took time to respond to AsiaBizToday and share her journey. Sarissa has the know-how to look at the industry through the shrewd eye of a businesswoman and the experience of working her way through multiple front of house positions. Since arriving in Singapore in 2011, Sarissa has become one of the most influential and recognizable players in Singapore nightlife. Originally brought from New York to open Pangaea Ultra-Lounge at the Marina Bay Sands, Sarissa was instrumental in developing, marketing, and operating what became known as an elite global brand. ​

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have the venues I have now, ranging  from nightlife & entertainment to bars, to restaurants, I would have jumped with joy!  LuLu’s Lounge, Papi’s Tacos, Employees Only, Bang Bang Nightclub, and Pasta Bar have all been successful, knock on wood!  I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years hold,” she says

She has been working in the industry since she was 14 years old.  Her first job was working in an Italian Bakery and she took extra shifts as a hostess, cashier, and whatever she could do throughout high school.  The real money was in bartending, but in America, its illegal to bartend until you are 21 years old.  While she was studying at The George Washington University, she was bartending and cocktail waitressing to pay for expenses, loans, as well as tutoring underprivileged children in urban Washington, D.C. area during an after-school programme  (which was a requirement of her loans ).

Recalling those days, Sarissa says that 98% of her peers not only did not have to work, but had the means to party. She was serving them every night, and that was the time she realized that she’d rather be on her side than on theirs!

What are the current activities that you are involved in?
Most people believe, people in hospitality only work when the doors are open.  The reality is, we actually work during the day mostly!   There are two sides to this business, the on-the- ground hospitality side, and the business side.
I recall when I was working with an agency to onboard an assistant, we were going through what I do, and what could be offloaded to someone.  The woman who runs the agency was in shock and actually said “I cannot believe you do all of this!”

On any given day, my partner and I, depending and what stage our businesses are in, will do everything from concept & business development, human resource & interviews, employment contracts, interior design & fine touches, tastings, menu development & engineering, management meetings, financial reviews, market analysis, CRM analysis, social media & digital direction and strategy, music direction, vendor onboarding, collaborations,
tie-ups, sponsorships and more.

Once the evening comes, its about having a presence and ensuring all is going according to plan.

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?
Two words- Global Crisis.  I believe I could be a poster child for how that event altered the lives of millennials, their decision-making, career paths, and trust in the status-quo we grew up with.  I always knew I wanted to have a big career and make money in whatever path I took right out of college.  I didn’t have the luxury of jumping around to various creative positions and seeing what fit. I was also never big on academia and knew I couldn’t afford to live more years as a student while racking up more bills for schooling.   Therefore, I chose to acquire a prestigious business degree and do what most people do to make money- work for a big financial firm.

Once the crisis hit, big firms collapsed, and pension funds all but disappeared. I realized the path might not offer the path of stability and income I dreamed of.  I also knew that I didn’t enjoy it very much, and therefore probably wouldn’t excel at that line of work if my heart wasn’t in it.  I decided to throw caution to the wind and not get a typical job right out of college. I wanted to pursue a life in hospitality and no one was going to stop me!

What have been your experiences thus far? 
There are two main pain points that are tough.  The first is the variety of venues that I have, which require very different and specific skill sets, as well as different personalities, from my teams at each venue.   The second is the cultural differences and motivations among the various employees.  Every day is a learning experience, especially as SJS Group grows and seeks more autonomy and responsibility from senior management.  As we go into 2020, roles will increase and a new set of challenges await!  One thing I am always certain of is that as a leader, you have to take 100% responsibility no matter what.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?  
Having a creative outlet is so important, and it’s amazing that my work allows me to do just that.  Then, of course, there is the creating of memories for so many people in the form of celebrations, first dates, and old friends catching up.  I love when people tell me they met their husband or wife at one of my venues, or that they have had an unforgettable experience and night of dancing.  Those are the little things that keep me going!

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?  
Absolutely! Now that I have plenty of years under my belt, it’s more of an annoyance than something I look at as an obstacle. I get a lot of questions about who really is the boss, and not believing that I own these venues.  I try to not let comments like that get me down, but it does sting.  Constantly having to prove yourself can get exhausting, but it’s a daily exercise and I believe it’s made me much better.

Where do you usually find inspiration from? 
I find inspiration travelling, speaking to other entrepreneurs, and from my partner who also happens to be my husband. My choice of travel is to the lesser-known areas.  I love to go where locals in that country holiday, where the elders are sitting on benches watching the world go by, and where mom and pop restaurants rule all.  This is where I find my inspiration.  Its back to basics, both in design and hospitality, and it gets my creative juices flowing!

With other entrepreneurs, I am just able to relate to them on a different level. It’s an automatic closeness, and I can pick someone’s brain for hours.  Sharing information, war stories, and obstacles is always on top of my conversation list. My husband is a true visionary, and at any given time he has 25 concepts that could completely work and transform everything.  I am never short of ideas to pluck from his brain for us to work on together to bring to fruition.  It really is a fun process for us.  He always says that once I start to really visualize something, there’s no stopping us!

What’s your proudest moment so far?  
That’s a tough question, but probably the success of LuLu’s Lounge.  I only say that because it’s the most innovative, and it’s a concept I truly believe has pushed the envelope and the industry forward in the most ways. The way we produce and showcase live music & entertainment, our unique music direction, and design is so unique for anywhere in the world.  It has been an amazing journey to see people go from not understanding what it’s all about prior to opening, to now having it set the tone for what they expect in all their experiences globally.

 

How would you define success ?  
Success to me is having complete control over your own destiny.  It’s about allowing people to help along the way but having the ability and skill to rely on yourself to get you there, no matter what.

What advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
Just because someone seems confident and certain, does NOT mean they know more than you.

Work discipline needed to achieve vision

A Digital Marketing professional for more than a decade now, Evangeline Leong admits that to say this is her passion would most definitely be an understatement! Starting out in Purpleclick as part of their Marketing Team, learning on the job about various digital marketing strategies, she moved on to take up leadership positions and finally set up Kobe Global Tech.

Passionate about meeting and sharing on new updates in Digital Marketing – constant changes in the sector that keep her keep on her toes – Evangeline Leong, CEO & Founder of Kobe Global Technologies based in Singapore shared her journey with AsiaBizToday here.

Which are the areas that you have been working on?
In the past year, we have started to be more involved in education, and I’m happy to say that it’s something that I am happy to step up to! This past year alone I’ve had the opportunity to teach at SUTD and MAD, and have had special speaking opportunities at Ngee Ann Poly and NTU as well.

While my team back in the office runs the day to day activities, I point them in the right direction to go, as well as equip them through mini workshops I run for each team. We have a very flat hierarchy as well, which means my table is always open to anyone who wants to talk to me!

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?
I was visiting a small wanton noodles stall in MacPherson and I was suddenly curious as to how the store owner managed to remain popular even with other competing stores opening. His answer to me really struck me “我的口碑好” (my word-of-mouth recommendation is good). That’s actually how I came up with the name Kobe. His answer was so simple but still significant as it made me think of how word-of-mouth could be made relevant to businesses everywhere.

Having worked in the digital marketing industry for almost 10 years, the most effective tool for marketing remains as word of mouth. Social media has liberated the speed of word of mouth amongst consumers where we often see our friends or families sharing about their latest experience at a restaurant, an overseas trip.

The adoption of digital innovation, transformation has always been a concern. There are no lack of cutting edge technologies in the market, but the adoption has always been slow. This is due to the unfamiliarity towards something new and intangible. Naming Kobe after the traditional word of mouth Kou Bei 口碑 was intentionally to help bring the understanding of traditional marketing means and bring this tool to businesses.

What have been your experiences in this leadership position?
Something I personally believe in and work at is to practice servant leadership – that means I’m always available to offer a listening ear, to offer help and to be there for every single member of the company. I believe everyone shines in their own way and my aim is to empower them, as well as to help each one find his or her personal Ikigai. Ikigai refers to “the reason for being”, which is what makes life worthwhile for each person, and it is something that has been especially inspiring for me this year.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?
Something I want to see for each and every one of my staff is to see them grow and become better people – not just better at work, but I also want to build up their confidence and character. Whether it’s to learn one thing or ten, I always want to push them to try new things!

Another big thing for me is that I hope to build Kobe to be a global brand – we currently have staff members working in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia and we hope to expand further in the years to come!

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?
A lot of challenges lie in the head, and I don’t see why women will face specific challenges as long as they don’t make it personal. Similarly, I used to think people would undermine my capabilities because of gender bias but learning that it has been just a change in mindset was a breakthrough!

Where do you usually find inspiration from?
The people who inspire me are really the people I work with on a day to day basis! They never cease to impress me with their creativity and new ideas, and together we dare to try new things. I also always come back to my mentor, Leonard Tan, who is also the Chairman of Purpleclick. He is someone I have learned many things from, and he always encourages me to step out and to keep trying.

What’s your proudest moment so far?
One of my proudest moments was when one of my interns surprised me on our company’s first anniversary with a home baked cake. I was so touched because we were all so busy, and I didn’t expect them to put in the effort to do so.

How would you define success ?
For me, success is when the people around me succeed as well. I believe that no man is an island, and we are only as strong as the people we are surrounded with. To know that I’m able to help someone reach their goal, is truly something fulfilling for me.

What advicedo you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
A quote I live by is: “Goals without routines are wishes; routines without goals are aimless.”

I would say set your eyes on the stars, and put your feet on the ground. Set a vision that excites you and have the discipline to work and achieve the vision. This cycle will go on. Review your vision, and have the discipline to put in the work. The process is never ending.

Providing an unprejudiced access to opportunities

Through Hopscotch.work, Helen McGuire helps skilled women seek a perfect work-life balance

A very passion-driven person who admits that her career has taken several hand-brake turns over the years as she generally won’t really commit to a role or direction unless she feels very strongly about it.

With an initial drive around the world of music, and after gaining her degree at The University of Leeds and a period travelling the world, she moved to London to embark on finding a path with that in mind.  She admits that the Music Industry is a hugely competitive (and very small!) world, so it took a few years to find her way.  “I worked initially at The Discovery Channel, but my evenings, holidays and weekends were spent interning, writing and creating at various musical organisations from magazines to record labels, until I was eventually offered a role as Broadcast Assistant at BBC Radio 1 in 2005.” She started off making tea for John Peel’s show and went on to produce and create specialist music shows and documentaries, travelling globally interviewing musical royalty and attending just about any festival around at the time.

“It was a crazy ride and a wonderful time and culminated in my own podcast with friends, Join The Dots, and DJ’ing as a hobby.  But I reached the end of my journey about ten years’ later after realising it was time to move on and shifted into the (slightly) more sober world of advertising that accompanied an international move to Dubai, she says.

At that time she was engaged and without children, and had all the time and energy to commit to a role at BBDO/Proximity.  Though she had been hired for one specific role and client to create online content, in line with her previous experience, she went on to form and head up the Digital Content division of the business in order to service clients more broadly for almost 4 years. It was role about uncovering fresh, undiscovered talent and bringing that to the fore – in a sense, something that has always been her drive, in fact.

It was with the birth of her first child that the game changed for her in 2015, as she realised very quickly the lack of opportunities for women in the workplace once their commitments and available time had changed.  It was hugely frustrating to see peers, colleagues and friends fall off the career ladder, with very little hope of finding a way back.   And though she had always worked in male-dominated industries and never considered this an issue previously, the sheer unfairness she felt about it all gave her the idea for a platform that connected this huge wealth of talent to businesses and to each other.  And thus her platform, Hopscotch.work, was born.

Based in Singapore, Helen McGuire is the Co-Founder & MD of Hopscotch. She took time to share her thoughts with AsiaBizToday.

What’s Hopscotch.work all about?
Hopscotch.work is the only women’s careers platform that spans MENA and APAC.  We started off life in 2016 as a site that sourced flexible work for professional females to connect them to businesses and have expanded to now become an award-winning free global platform of over 80k through our work to provide events, initiatives, inspiration and training to women and our clients.

We work with large MNCs like Havas, Nestlé, Facebook, Avanade and HSBC, to SMEs and start-ups to aid with their diversity programmes or implement new ones.  Sometimes that’s finding the right woman for a role through our Job Board, and sometimes it’s a much larger workshop or training event to help upskill, educate or retain talent.  Our returnship programme, Career Comebacks, are also hugely popular and we’ve placed women within The British High Commission, Kantar, Mastercard, Facebook etc., often who’ve been away from the workplace for several months or years.

In 2020 we launch our new online training programme, Digital Warriors, to help upskill women wherever they are and we have many more plans in the pipeline.

What have been your experiences in this role?
Although I’d been quite autonomous in previous positions and have a family background in entrepreneurship, this has been one of the most challenging journeys of my life.  Whilst there have been huge successes, opportunities and accolades, I’ve had to learn an enormous amount about everything from putting on events (a first!), to training, to recruitment.  And that’s without planning growth, adapting business models, building websites, dealing with complaints or hiring staff!  My sweet spot has always been the content and comms aspect of the role – which has drawn heavily on my previous careers!

There have been many potholes along the way, including some rather unscrupulous characters, but I’ve met some of the most inspirational figures and friends along the way and I hope helped to push the cause forward, though we’re far from done yet!

Which are the important factors that keep you going?
Equal opportunity and fairness are two of my core values – I don’t believe we’re all made equal, but I do believe everyone should have unprejudiced access to opportunities, should they wish to pursue them.  That is what we want to achieve for people in the workplace, with a focus right now on women.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?

As a first mover in any industry or region, there are always (almost!) as many challenges are there are opportunities.  Whilst it may be the case that being a woman sometimes means you have to work that bit harder to ‘prove yourself’ – which is far from ideal – I do think having a clear vision of your future and a positive, problem/opportunity mindset will set you apart (male or female!).

The main thing that some might say has held me back has been having three babies in five years (two whilst setting up and running the business), which has of course meant breaks and a disrupted schedule.   But without them, the idea of the platform would never have come about and I am living proof that women can have a family/business and a career, whilst working flexibly and moving upwards.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?
Inspiration often arises out of frustrations – things that aren’t or don’t work well enough or solutions that don’t yet exist.  That could be something small and home related, or big and business-related.  Talking these through and taking some time out to day-dream often yields interesting paths forward.

What’s your proudest moment so far?
I’ve loved the acceptance we’ve had as Hopscotch in terms of its idea and drive, not just in the outward form, but from chatting to strangers who’ve heard about our work, or new women who have signed up who’ve been recommended the platform by a friend.  The awards we’ve won have also been very well-received and it’s always fun to contribute to events or panel discussions, but it’s the difference we make on the ground that makes me the most proud and the reason I started this platform in the first place.  It’s also the reason Hopscotch is really just in its first phase – we’ve proven this is needed, but now we want to scale so that the problem can be tackled on a much larger basis.

How would you define success ?
Doing what you said you were going to do.

What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
Don’t overthink it.  I started this business with a vision and having done my due diligence and research, but also having quit my job in advertising at 7 months’ pregnant and with just a simple website and press release to launch it.  If I’d thought too hard about the details and the ‘how’, I never would have hit go.

Getting back to the roots, literally

From leading a global communications agency to turning an organic farmer

After being a Marketing Communications professional for over 25 years, Kavita Rao recently turned an Organic Farmer Entrepreneur. As the President & CEO of one of the leading global public relations and public affairs agencies, Hill+Knowlton Strategies – India, her core expertise lay in corporate brand reputation management, crisis and issues management, with extensive experience in building external and internal communication outreach programs customized to varying audiences.

In early 2019, she decided to move from the corporate world to pursue her passion & dream of becoming a farmer and the result was Bougainvillea Organic Farms.  A delightful 10-acre patch of green where she grows a wide variety of chemical and pesticide free organic fruits, vegetables and cereals such as mangoes, papayas, pomegranates, mulberries, guavas, jamuns, custard apple (sitaphal), coconuts all seasonal vegetables, rice, legumes and corn.

With a dream to create a sustainable venture which provides healthy food, employment and livelihood to everyone connected with it, Kavita Rao took time to respond to questions from AsiaBizToday on her dreams and experiences.

What the farm is all about
Our farm is what is called an integrated farm as we grow fruits, cereals and vegetables.  So all typical farming activities take place – tilling the land, de weeding, enriching the soil with nutrients, sowing, maintaining, harvesting and then selling our produce. The farm is jointly managed by my parents and myself with the help of our passionate farm workers.  Its hard work and it’s a dawn to dusk job.  When I decided that I would be giving it my 100%, we all decided that each one of us would focus on a few areas that we all agreed we were good at and therefore my Dad takes care of production, Mum takes care of finance & operations and I am responsible for the business development, sales & marketing.  It seems to be settling in well.

Your trigger and motivation to get into this
Curiosity!  That’s been the driving factor my entire life – I’m curious as a person.  I want to learn new things and to challenge myself if I can succeed or fail in something new. I had been living away from my family and frankly I was bored of the corporate life – everyday seems to be a repeat.  The learning had slowed, and I wasn’t inspired or challenged anymore.  Health was also another reason that I wanted to move out of Delhi (where I was living) and the corporate world and get into something that was into overall well-being.  And what better than Organic farming. I come from a family of farmers and estate owners and my parents have helped us develop a love for farming and I have always loved gardening, so it was a natural choice.

 Your experiences and learnings in the leadership position
My skills from my previous profession, was not transferable to being a Farmer!  It was a hard coming down to earth for me!  For starters, it was very tough! Farming is certainly not for the faint hearted or for people who expect to make any kind of money : ) It’s the most unpredictable business there is! First there were no rains, then there was wayyyyy too much rains (recording the highest rainfall in over 100 years!). So, crops dried up, planting gets delayed, rains wash out crops, insects and bugs infestation….gosh! I was seeing all my savings wash away. And then just when I thought it was getting too much to handle, I was sat down and given a tough lesson in farming by Dad & Mum.  Seems I couldn’t apply what I had learnt (Strategy, Finance, Resource planning, production management, supply chain, etc. etc.) with all my years of working, because it doesn’t work in farming!  So, to cut a long story short and after interesting discussions, lots of turmoil and some meditation lessons for me, we all decided that each one of us would focus on a few areas that we all agreed we were good at and that seems to be settling well.

Important factors that keep you going
That I am contributing in whichever small way to make the world healthier, happier and more sustainable.  That I am learning and challenging myself every single day.  That I have learnt once again to appreciate the small joys in life. It is the most satisfying feeling to know that you are capable of feeding your family and loved ones with what you have grown. Everyday is challenging – vagaries of the weather, resource and fund management, people management AND most of the produce is perishable! So! much better than powerpoint presentations and meetings after meetings!  This was out in the open, fresh air and real life!

So! If you are contemplating trying your hand at farming and especially organic, be passionate, be resilient and make sure you have an income that’s going to pay for everything accept the food that you hopefully will grow. This is a tough business! But I also have to say that it’s after reaching this age and achieving some level of financial security, I have realised that the only professions worth pursuing are if you can feed, teach, heal or love. “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle” – Thich Nhat Hanh 

Any obstacles in your initiatives or specific challenges because of being a woman
I wouldn’t call them obstacles but challenges and yes I have faced many.  Firstly, farming is generally considered a man’s profession, so no one takes you seriously especially if you have been in the Corporate world, they don’t feel that you are serious about it and its merely a hobby for a few months.  So from the family who felt that I was merely dabbling in this for a few months till I accepted my next corporate assignment, to the farm workers with who I had a language problem, to the people I tried to sell to, who all tried to give me the worst rate in the market.  I have faced it all!

Your source of inspiration
Sports & Sportspeople!  Being a sportsperson all my life, I tend to go back to sports whenever I am challenged about anything.  Sports teaches you how to tackle every challenge in life.

Proudest moment so far
When we (Bougainvillea Organic Farms) were onboarded as one of the farms for 24 Mantra Organic (https://www.24mantra.com/) which is a pioneer in organic foods and India’s largest organic foods brand.  We currently supply fruits and vegetables and we hope to expand to other products with the support of the very dynamic team of 24 Mantra Organic. We are thrilled and for my parents and me, it’s a validation for the organic farming journey and like a dream come true.

Your definition of success
When you feel a sense of achievement on meeting the milestones you have set for yourself.  In this case, it was a create a sustainable way of life I have realised that the only professions worth pursuing are if you can feed, teach, heal or love. “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Words of wisdom for aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women
Be relentlessly curious all your life, pursue your dream but be aware that it will not be easy at all. Know that there is no right time and you will face innumerable challenges and its only your passion & self-belief that sees you through.  Be prepared for self-doubt and insecurities and be prepared for people not taking you seriously.  But believe me nothing is more satisfying than when the tide turns.