Enabling a final journey of immortal legacy

She has tread on a path that few dare to even imagine. Being thrust into the thick of things at a young age, she found herself in an outrightly male-dominated industry and one that called for tremendous empathy and fortitude.

Helping bereaved families, arranging for funeral set up and also providing holistic CARE planning under the CARE Planner Program, she is one of Singapore’s locally certified Will Writer and Grief Counsellor. Recognised with awards for her contribution she has been sharing her experiences with families as well.

Alverna Cher is the founder of City Funeral Singapore Pte Ltd, a modern age Funeral Service Provider founded in 2015. She is also the first Funeral Director in Singapore to provide holistic CARE planning under the CARE Planner Program launched in 2016, that write Will, LPA, and also engage in pre-planning funeral. She believes that it is about Leaving a legacy and not a burden.

Alverna was kind to share her journey in this exclusive interview with AsiaBizToday.

Activities that you undertake
My day-to-day activities include answering to bereavement families’ enquiries, arranging funeral set up, oversee the operation of the business, give training to the associate CARE planners and even spend my Sunday morning doing volunteering work with my daughters at Keeping Hope Alive.

I failed in two businesses since I started my entrepreneur journey in 2007, at the age of 25. With a motto of ‘Never Stop Learning,’ I joined the education industry, as a part-time consultant and a full-time mum. I increased my knowledge in MOE education and parenting skills, both helps me to be a better mother. I also honed my knowledge, skills and was accredited with the ‘Focus on Family’ as a facilitator in 2012.

In year 2015, City Funeral Singapore Pte Ltd was founded, however my ex-partner left over night, leaving behind a barely one-month old, indebted company. That time I was left with $400 in my bank account and five figure debts to repay. In order to not exchange time for money, I took up the challenge to embark into an unfamiliar, male dominated industry so that I can have the flexibility to spend time with my daughters, who were 8 and and 5 months old respectively at that time.

Trigger and motivation to get into this profession
My greatest motivation is MOTHER. A mother to my two daughters and a daughter to my Mother.

My motto, Turning Failure Into Fuel That Keep Dreams Burning, had inspired my surrounding mothers to stay strong and ride through hardship to see the rainbow at the end.

My parenting teaching motto to my two daughters age 13 and 6 is to live life-like a mirror, treating our family and friends how we wanted to be treated. This motto helped Vanessa, my elder daughter, to gain true friendship in school and learn to be satisfied with what she has. Vanessa is currently a passionate AVA leader in her school and a monitress in her class. At the end of Vanessa’s PSLE year, 2019, I was nominated to give a speech on stage representing the parent support group. The most memorable of the speech is to gather all P6 students, about 240 students to shoutout and remember encouraging tips to bring into secondary school life, which is: What You Think is What You Get, How You Speak is Who You Are.

Your experiences in this leadership position
The most satisfying moment in a leadership position is to empower and inspire. Firstly, being able to educate them at a young age to understand the importance of legacy planning and instilling the ‘Turning Failure Into Fuel That Keep Dreams Burning’s spirit’. Especially sharing that being in a single-parent environment does not give us an excuse to lay back.

Secondly, women around me are highly driven, inspire to do more than they can think of. Breaking the fear barrier that women can only stay at home, empowering them to step out of their comfort zone and start earning an income with CARE planner, and still able to fulfill their daily roles as mother, daughter, wife.

Important factors that keep you going
I strongly believe in leaving a legacy and not a burden for our next of kin. Leaving behind holistic last journey planning for my daughter is my mission and I want to inspire all parents to do the same.

Fulfill both my duty as a mother and duty as a daughter to my old age parents, I need not exchange time for money, hence the creation of CARE planner associate system, that runs on its own and becoming a pass-down business for my daughters. Spending quality time with my daughters and parents are my priority.

Any obstacles or challenges because of being a woman
In a male-dominated industry, I had a hard time to make a stand. I have been discriminated as a young, petite, know nothing woman, during the first six months in the business. Most of my staff left me at that time. However, I chose to prove them wrong. I did all the work that a man can do, passed my driving license in two months, drove a big van, transported deceased body and even created CARE planner associate system for the first time in Singapore. This empowers a woman to step out of their comfort zone, to earn a second income, based on my proven and supportive method in the area of Will Planning, LPA, Funeral As need planning and Funeral preplanning.

I gained respect through all these years of hard work, non-gossip policy and a never say die spirit. Now, we work together as a team and I treat my staff as family members.

I’m now seen as a funeral influence in the trade, my products, ideals, setup are trending and at the same time preserve tradition. Not forgetting my social media encouragement for the sole breadwinner in FaceBook and helping out single parents to find jobs.

Source of inspiration
I get inspiration from reading books, one of the highly recommended books will be ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. I often do self-reflection on how to improve further in the different roles I took on. Motivation Is What Gets You Started, Habit Is What Keeps You Going.

Your proudest moment
I’m really proud to be the first funeral director in Singapore to provide a CARE planner associate certification program. We also expanded to Malaysia in January 2020.

More good news coming our way this 2020, a locally big media company is collaborating with us. Sharing the same mission to leave a legacy and not a burden.

Definition of success
Success is not defined by wealth, nor defined by the number of houses. Personally, I feel that success is being able to lift up the people around us, to empower them to see their purpose in life, empowering, inspiring, teaching them to make a passive income that does not exchange time for money. Bringing out the compassionate heart of one person to make the world a better place. City Funeral Singapore Pte Ltd gives back providing pro bono funeral assistance to needy with no next of kin and baby funeral. At a personal level, I joined Keeping Hope Alive on Sunday morning to knock on rental flats, provide them breakfast, cleaning of the house infested with bed bugs and giving new furniture.

Advice for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women
Do not belittle yourself, believe in your dream. No dream is too small, it’s how you want to achieve it. Woman you are stronger than what you think.

When I started CARE planner affiliate program, no one trusted me. They doubted me, telling me, I’m wasting time out of the norm. But I believed and pressed on, I was doing it for my legacy to leave behind for my daughters. Many sleepless nights, worrisome, self-doubt nights, however I kept telling myself that I can do it. Kept telling myself to be positive and using the law of attraction to picture my achievements. Today, I’m a happy woman with a business system that allows me to have time with my family, a business system that allows me to have passive income and achieve my legacy. Empowering the women around me to leave a life of financial freedom, freedom of time and legacy planning.

Surround yourself with fearless women

Having worked in Branding, Marketing & Sales in Events, Hospitality, Property &  Real Estate development, Shan Wong has always been drawn to job opportunities that involved executing  new ideas and developing a new brand. It is something that has given her great satisfaction to create campaigns or initiatives, and see it through from infancy to eventual revenue generation.

Feeling blessed to have risen to leadership positions in her career, she credits this largely to the people she has had the privilege to work with. Shan believes that she is most successful and effective when her team shares a common goal and operates in an environment of friendship, teamwork, open sharing, and mutual respect.

Making an unconventional move in her career, she quit her job in marketing for Keppel Land in 2016 to take on her family’s business in the construction industry. Shan Wong, currently the Managing Director at Let Hoe Building Materials Pte Ltd is based in Singapore and shared her experiences in this chat with AsiaBizToday.

What is your current line of business?
I manage Let Hoe Building Materials, and we are a distributor of wood panels, timber and veneers imported from America, Europe and Asia. The company was established in 1982 by my late father,  and over the years, we have provided our wood veneers to many landmark interior projects for high end hotels, condominiums, boutiques and restaurants in the region.

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?
With Keppel Land, I was posted to Guangdong as part of a Pre-Opening team to create the brand and positioning of an iconic waterfront lifestyle project. It was a challenging posting with a lot of milestones to achieve in a short amount of time, but surviving the intense experience was life changing for me. Although I returned to a comfortable position within the company 2 years later, to head a Marketing team that manages 7 products within the Hospitality division, I felt unfulfilled.

When I first returned from China, my mother approached me with the intention to retire. I wasn’t ready to change gears then, but I’ve always had a feeling of gratitude towards the family business. Although I had a business that belonged to my family, I have spent my entire career working on other people’s businesses. This realization, accompanied by my mother’s retirement, triggered me to join Let Hoe.

What have been your experiences in this leadership position?
Having been in the market for almost 40 years, Let Hoe was already a mature business with a loyal following when I took over. Our employees, suppliers and clients had been with us for decades. However, although stable, revenue growth was sluggish. The challenge for me was to study the processes of a well-oiled machine, identify potential blind spots and initiate improvements in branding, sales, HR, procurement and operations. The business was stuck in a time before the internet. Our SOPs and business methods were outdated and inefficient. Hence the past 3 years have been spent rebranding, restructuring and going online.

I have been told my strength is in people management, and if that is true, I am surely putting this skill to good use in Let Hoe. The initiatives I have introduced inevitably created discomfort in stakeholders, but I am determined to ensure our culture remains one that is based on friendship, teamwork, open sharing and mutual respect.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?
For the first time in my career, I have the opportunity to grow a company that belongs to me. Knowing that I am in the position to empower and improve the lives of employees who have been with us through generations keeps me motivated.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?
The construction industry is 90% male dominated, and from all walks of life. I have had some uncomfortable things said to me, but I don’t see them as obstacles or challenges. Just for laughs, I will quote remarks that have been made to me by older, and mostly well-meaning business associates.
1. ‘Oh that’s nice you have decided to get into the business. Don’t you have any brothers? No? How about your husband?’
2. ‘You are quite attractive. But this industry is more suited for men. You will soon understand.’ Throughout my career I have experienced varying degrees of gender bias in the workplace. But I have learnt to navigate my way through and excel regardless. On the contrary, I credit a lot of my successes to being a woman. Sometimes in business negotiations, being underestimated gives us the upper hand.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?
I have a strong support system of resilient girlfriends who own successful businesses in tech, e- commerce and manufacturing. I draw inspiration from their stories.

What’s your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment happened in 2019 when the business saw a 20% growth in revenue. When all is said and done, all successful initiatives should have a positive impact on revenue.

How would you define success?
I would measure success with happiness. For me, happiness follows the peace that comes with finding your purpose in life and walking in it.

What Advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women?
Be fierce. Surround yourself with other fearless women, as courage is contagious.

Re-imagining the marketplace for Insurance & preventive healthcare solutions

Rosaline Chow Koo, Founder & CEO – CXA

At the age of 21, Rosaline got the first hand sobering experience, as she recalls, supervising Procter & Gamble’s factory lines in Iowa, managing two production lines, staffed by older white men in their thirties. She rose to the ranks from there to land up at Bankers Trust on Wall Street, launched two dot-com start-ups before moving to ACE insurance and has to her credit, the success of growing Mercer Marsh Benefits’ to 14 APAC countries, a growth of 800% over 8 years.  Her second startup, which she later sold, was co-founded with the former president of Dell Asia.

A graduate from UCLA Cybernetics and Columbia Business School, Rosaline was convinced that the antiquated paper-based industry was ripe for disruption. She invested her entire life savings of $5 million, and borrowed $5 million more, to found CXA. She recruited a world-class team to build Asia’s first benefits and wellness marketplace platform and acquired Singapore’s largest homegrown employee benefits brokerage.

Today, CXA has grown into a $100 million company working with employers to transform current healthcare spending from treatment into benefits and wellness programs where employees in Asia choose their path to good health.

Prior to establishing CXA, Rosaline led Mercer Marsh Benefits, the largest employee benefits brokerage and HR benefits consultancy in Asia Pacific, overseeing a 14-country operation with over 400 staff and growing the business eight-fold during her eight-year tenure.

Rosaline shares her experience & insights in this interview with Team ABT Singapore.

How has being a Woman, complimented your entrepreneurial journey?
From 1999 to 2001, I actually built two start-ups during the dot-com era, but had to quit since I discovered my 6 year-old daughter had epilepsy and a learning disorder.  My two little kids were living in Singapore while I was commuting every Monday to KL and only returning Fridays at midnight, so you can imagine the guilt I felt as a mother building startups in another country while leaving my real babies at home.  CXA is my 3rd start-up, which I can focus on 24 by 7 as my children are now in college in the US. I feel that the journey was very exciting, with all its hardships, making me more experienced, wise & ready to face any challenges.

Where do you find inspiration from?
Reflecting back over my 34-years career, I feel like Forest Gump as serendipity placed me as an active participant in so many innovations in both corporate transformations and start-ups.  These experiences have taught me how to re-imagine a different future based on solving customer pain points and the execution skills to transform a vision into reality.

Some of my life changing experiences include Just in Time Inventory at P&G; shift from Product Specialists to Relationship Managers, from Deposits to Mutual Funds and Pensions to 401k at Bankers Trusts; Unified Messaging and Regional BPO during the dot-com; Worksite Marketing at Chubb; Regional Brokerage Mandates and Flexible Benefits at Mercer Marsh and Employee Flex & Wellness Ecosystem & SME Bancassurance at CXA.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have always had very good managers and mentors who helped me become much more self-aware and a better people leader.  They’ve also helped me to integrate work with life so now I’m extremely healthy, whereas earlier I barely slept and ate and minimized my water intake since I didn’t have time to pee with my crazy travel and meeting schedule running 14 countries.

How did you come up with CXA? Tell us more about the idea.
Even though Mercer grew 800% during my time there, client complained that we and others in the industry were not addressing their pain points of rising healthcare costs due to worsening employee health and one-size-fits-all benefits not meeting their multi-generational staff needs. We finally figured out how to do this with technology, so for 5 years, I repeatedly begged NY HQ for $10M.  But they wouldn’t, so I finally left to build my dream on my own.  Little did I realize that the $10M would come from my family’s life savings, and that my retired husband would need to return to work and my daughter would have to work for her college tuition in Boston.

Firms that purchase their employee benefits insurance via CXA’s brokers get our marketplace platform for free, which allows employees to shift their unused insurance treatment spend into prevention to get healthier. So we help firms use existing spend to improve employee health to reduce premium costs. Now the largest banks are white-labelling our SAAS platform to cross-sell financials services to employees of their SME customers.

What’s been your career highlight to date and what do you still dream to achieve?
Last year, CXA was valued at over $US 100M after series B, so 75 high flyers from the HR consulting and brokerage industry finally felt safe enough to join our start-up.  We hope to become Singapore’s first post-menopausal unicorn, since I started CXA after 50.

How do you balance motherhood & work?
I’ve always had difficulty balancing motherhood with work and have always integrated work with life.  When I was on Wall Street, I had to leave work at 5pm to free up my nanny since she was attending night school. I quit my dot-com in 2001 when I discovered my daughter had epilepsy and a learning disorder. I started CXA with 10 employees in my living room, while helping my daughter apply for college and my son loudly gaming with all his friends in the house.  Both my children summer interned for CXA.

Like every other working mother, I’ve lived with guilt about both motherhood and work.  My guilt only left several years ago when my daughter told me that she wanted to grow up to be just like me. I really had no idea she felt this way and was so touched.

What Advice do you have for young Women Entrepreneurs?
Try to gain the necessary skills needed before starting your own business. I was fortunate to have years of experience running start-ups and implementing radical change for corporate turnarounds.  This gave me the leadership, strategy and execution skills to build CXA.

Business success is about keeping emotions at bay

Anu Shah, CEO, Rocket Internet

For someone who left home with $ 40 in her pocket to fetch a job in a call centre in Mumbai, Anu Shah has come a long way in her career, overtaking challenges & hurdles, head-on. Her career kickstarted with an FMCG company in Mumbai where she had to demonstrate extreme endurance in blazing heat for over 8 hours a day to cover 40 shops, to earn a commission of mere $10. It was a steep road marked by many slammed doors, extreme gender and pay discrimination in male dominated sales role, unwanted / unusual catcalls and stares from shop-keepers and supervisors, she recalls. Despite this, Anu exceeded her sales target, outperformed her peers, and rose through the ranks to become a Brand Manager in the same organization.

Subsequently she earned an MBA from University of Leeds and worked in M&A, strategy consulting and private equity. In last 7 years, Anu has lived and worked in all the major financial capitals of the world including London, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Boston. In 2017, while she was pursuing a short course at Harvard University the startup incubator called ‘EFI Hub’ was born. She managed to raise over $300,000 for this business and to date, EFI hub has mentored tech businesses in East Africa and India; raised capital in excess of $ 100,000 for one of the startups as well as worked with the government of South Africa on developing technology investment policy infrastructure.

Her current role is that of a CEO for Rocket Internet’s on-demand staffing platform called Ushift. Ushift has over 35,000 subscribers and more than 2,000 businesses registered on their platform in Singapore.

“The experiences and resistance I faced early on in my life have jolted few things within me and it has gotten me more involved in social impact initiatives. I started volunteering with an NGO in Mumbai several years ago. There I led a volunteer team of doctors / i-bankers / marketers / journalists /MDs / COOs to educate children in slums; worked in tandem with psychologists, counsellors, corporate trainers, and education entrepreneurs to spread awareness about child abuse and sexual harassment”, says Anu Shah.

Anu Shah was conferred the Women Icons Asia Award 2018 by BERG Singapore earlier this year. She shares some interesting facets from her journey in this interview below.

Who is your greatest inspiration & Why?
In the past I would have said Golda Mier is a woman I admire the most. Raised in a middle class family she went on to become a wife, mother and a school teacher before she became Israel’s Prime Minister and remains the only female to hold such an office. She was lovingly called the “Iron Lady” before Margaret Thatcher adopted the moniker.

However, in recent times I have come to realize that real heroes in my life are the people closest to me. My biggest inspiration is my uncle, D.R.Shah. His is a classic rag-to-riches story. After several obstacles in life he carved a niche as a noted professional and entrepreneur in London. Inspite of all the hardships life threw at him, he never became bitter. He’s brave, courageous, optimistic, altruistic and extremely emotional about every single family member. I aspire to be exactly like him.

The other biggest source of inspiration is my mother. Though I never admitted publicly out of fear of never being her equivalent in any sense, but the truth is that I have always tried to be her mirror image. At the time when I was 6 years old & my brother was 4, my mother was managing a tour group of 1,200 people and a staff of 200 (only men) in the North of India. We were on the road for a couple of weeks and there were instances when we have travelled alone with my mother in trucks & tempos, to deliver food at the designated location before the group arrived. She managed it all single-handed without getting bogged down. Her astute business sense, leadership qualities and ability to manage hundreds of people at work with boldness and courage has always left me awestruck. She’s the most pragmatic, proud and strong woman I have ever known.

What led you to the path of Entrepreneurship?
I am not as strong and bold as my mother was so I never dared to dream about being an entrepreneur. However in 2016  while I was deal sourcing in Rwanda, I met CEO of a Craft Brewery, run and operated by a  woman. During our conversations, I learnt that she had faced many odds in her life – forced marriage, domestic abuse, and gender discrimination. But through her brewery, she intended to build a livelihood for herself and empower other women in the community – a business that truly spoke to me.

Professionally, I had to turn down the deal, but my interest was still piqued. I decided to consult the CEO pro bono. I assisted the business in closing a crowd-funding drive that raised $ 110,000. The capital was used to build the bottling line and hire 50 women. This success was the most fulfilling of my life; it meant jobs for women without means, jobs for women like me.This experience and all of the past experience of overcoming challenges at work place only remained stand alone incidents until I came to Harvard in the spring of 2017. I found my inspiration, support and mentors on Harvard Campus who motivated me to create something which will generate impact on a larger scale.

Through their guidance and funding from my classmate at HBS – Lavan Gopaul and support from other Harvard Alumni (who have joined as advisors) idea of replicating Rwandan success globally, came to form. And I founded ‘EFI Hub’ a start-up incubator with the goal of empowering start-ups in emerging and frontier markets of Asia and Africa. I scored moderate success with EFI Hub. Africa is a very challenging geography and I felt that I was too early in that market and I lack the right skills to achieve the scale as an entrepreneur.It was around the same time I was talking to an old friend of mine who was CEO for one of the Rocket Internet Ventures and he mentioned that Rocket Internet was looking for a Co-Founder / CEO for one of their startups in Singapore. And I looked no further to build my skill sets. Rocket Internet is definitely the university you need to graduate from to build your entrepreneurial skill sets with low economic risk. And voila! Ushift happened.

Tell us about your cherished accomplishment.
There has not been one to mention. I have never felt that I have achieved enough, or I am the best at any point in time. But every time I look back, I do feel grateful that I have come this far in life. At the age of 21, surviving in a city like Mumbai was the biggest challenge. I never thought I would ever make it where I am today.

The journey sure has been gruesome, but I am extremely thankful and grateful to Almighty for all the challenges he threw my way. I have only learned and become wiser from those experiences.

Tell us about the biggest Challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it? Any lessons learnt?
Though I have 12 years of experience, I think entrepreneurship is a different ball game altogether and nothing can really prepare you for that. I still feel I am naïve and inexperienced. Some challenges I faced initially were sourcing for investments, managing the finances and logistics. Though one of the most difficult part is managing people.

Very recently I had to let go a staff member, also a close friend & more like a younger brother; due to his poor performance and attitude. I am an over emotional person so this decision tore me apart and totally crippled me emotionally. I cried so badly the day I let him go that my mom asked if I was the one who got sacked. Days following that were harder and I was filled with grief and guilt; I would cry every night worrying about him. I even asked my colleagues to check on him, to know if he’s doing well. It was the most painful thing yet the most logical decision to go ahead with.I tend to be too trusting especially with people I am close to and in the past I got played out a few times.

Though everything did not go well in this situation, but when I reflect back, I realize that I too had gone wrong in the way I communicated and handled the scenario.The biggest lesson that I have learnt is, as a leader,  you have to take some tough decision and separate emotions from a situation in making a professional decision, yet be level headed & transparent in communication.All these ups and downs that I faced in last 1-2 years in business were all part of my learning and growing up, and it’s what has 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 a stronger person!

Do you face challenges as a Woman Entrepreneur? Tell us more
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to partner with many entrepreneurs and help foster the growth of dozens of startups for social good. As a woman, the fact that I’m still working in tech, and in a leadership position, is not lost on me. By now, I’ve grown used to being one of the only women in the room.

Hence as a woman entrepreneur, I don’t experience obvious forms of discrimination or sexism. Instead, I face an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation.I feel, it is tough for women entrepreneurs to get venture funding. Recently when we were downsizing & I had to let go of one of the male employees, the investors walked up to me and said that it would be tough for me to raise funds without a man by my side; they sure were right I realised. The heavy male presence in the private VC process is one not talked about much in the diversity conversation within the tech community. Male VCs invest in male-led startups, then end up on the boards of those startups, which then grow into major male-led tech companies.

However, I don’t get deterred by these challenges. This is part and parcel of the game. Over a period of time, I have learned to circumvent these obstacles by being positive and building my own network and support system of strong female mentors, investors, and peers. These experiences have also bought me closer to my friends and family and in them, I find my biggest support system.

How do you describe your leadership style?
This is my first job as a CEO and I am continuously learning to adapt and change. I have a very pragmatic and practical approach towards business. I believe in leading by example and I am a workaholic.

Ever since UShift started, I have been working 16-18 hours a day and haven’t taken a single holiday or a weekend off. I am totally consumed by my work.I am also quick to admit mistakes and take corrective measures to prevent them from happening further. For example, I am over committed to the projects I take on hand and that makes me quite demanding to my employees too. I am now making conscious efforts to communicate more effectively and embed empathy in my approach at work.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?
In next 3-5 years, through EFI Hub I want to replicate the Silicon Valley model globally by creating a robust develop a robust ecosystem which will bring the entire mentorship network to support the growth of high potential start ups in emerging and frontier markets such as Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore and HongKong.

However in the long term my goal is to change the way investments are perceived and establish an ‘Investment fund’ investing directly in technology, health care, and clean energy sectors. I will differentiate my fund by establishing a concurrent gender-based index fund designed to track and invest in companies that are leading in their respective industries by placing women and minorities on boards of directors and in senior leadership positions.