S'porean boss: Working in China at 23 years old forced me to do things I wouldn't have done in S'pore

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | October 11, 2020, 12:30 PM

COMMENTARY: 10 years ago, Carmen Low found herself working in China at the age of 23, an experience that not only forced her to grow up within a very short time, but also changed her outlook on life.

Low, after returning to Singapore from working abroad, eventually started running her own businesses.

About the author: She is the Co-founder of Getai Group, an arts and music collective that champions original content and organises festivals, as well as Afterglow, a vegan restaurant that pushes forth a sustainable, plant-based lifestyle.

Low is also a member of the 16th National Youth Council.

By Carmen Low

Growing up in Singapore, I was the model student who did relatively well in school and was primed to join the workforce as a white-collar executive in a multinational company (MNC). During the university holidays, I worked hard to ensure that I secured internships at various companies relevant to my industry and sought to learn as much as I could.

However, at that young age, I often felt as though I was on a hamster wheel. I was chasing after goals and ambitions set out for me by society; there was healthy discontent brewing within me, yet I could not articulate it.

As a young adult, I wanted to experience the different facets of working life and have always been fascinated with the idea of working in Asia, especially China.

10 years ago, China was not quite as developed as it is today, and many young Singaporeans had yet to view it as a choice destination to build one’s career.

Due to my young age, my peers and managers would try to dissuade me from it. For me, however, I was drawn in by the prospect of working in such a dynamic environment and tried to apply for jobs in China.

Life lessons from spending time abroad

At the age of 23, I finally found myself in China working for one of the largest media companies in the world - after taking a plunge and a pay cut - to explore the unknowns of working in a country that was so different to the country that I grew up in.

While in China, I was able to work on many projects that were on a bigger scale than what can be experienced in Singapore.

I also lived through the food crisis and scandals such as the Chinese melamine milk powder incident that disrupted everyday life experiences that, before COVID-19, youths like myself would have never gone through before.

From my experience in China, I learnt it isn’t so much about your years of experience, but rather, your capability in getting things done.

I remembered that when I was working late one night, my big boss walked to my table and asked if I could speak English and Mandarin proficiently. I said yes, as I am a Singaporean and he immediately told me that I’ve been recruited to be on a landmark cross border project.

Due to my ability to bridge between both Western and Chinese cultures, I landed a spot in the project as the youngest member despite not having much experience on such transactions.

As a Singaporean youth, I realized I was incredibly privileged because of my bilingual education and my ability to understand nuances between Western and Asian cultures.

But most importantly, working and living in a dynamic environment like China has taught me life lessons that have changed my outlook on life.

Put simply, I would not have become the entrepreneur I am today if not for my experience in China.

I have witnessed the resourcefulness of the Chinese, and how they are able to make an opportunity out of anything. Seeing as how they are extremely driven and ‘hungry’, I have learnt not to give in to problems easily, and think out of the box instead.

Working in China not only forced me to grow up in a very short amount of time, but also gave me the courage to do things that I never even dared to dream of had I never ventured out of Singapore.

It allowed me to see that possibilities are limitless for those who have the courage to pursue.

Starting my own business and learning to put others’ needs ahead of my own

With varied experiences in Australia, Singapore and China, I finally returned home after 10 years of working abroad. As before, my peers and family expected me to settle into a comfortable executive job in an MNC - but I remained dissatisfied with status quo.

Inspired by my experiences, one of the first businesses I co-founded back home was Afterglow, a plant based healthy food company that aims to provide the most natural form of plant-based food.

The funny thing about the entrepreneurial journey is that things are not always fully structured.

The business environment is notoriously hard on greenhorns.

I used to think that independence is everything, but over the years, I have become more open to seeking guidance from older generation of entrepreneurs and leaders, often far more seasoned than I am.

These mentors guided me along, nurtured my professional and emotional growth and helped me immeasurably when it came to managing businesses.

After starting our first business, it would eventually lead to a chain reaction sparking other businesses such as Getai Group and Lepark (we definitely didn’t think we could turn an abandoned rooftop carpark into one of the most visited youth hangouts in Singapore!).

But it wasn’t always a smooth journey.

Many times, I doubted myself and my decisions; especially when I witnessed my peers having a stable lifestyle while I had to struggle with many business and financial decisions which often spilled into my personal life.

As a young person, we tend to act on our emotions, but being in business has taught me to consider many angles and to place our team, partners and business ahead of our wants.

One of the toughest times I faced was when I wanted to throw in the towel for my businesses as I was finding it difficult to cope with the financial and emotional pressure of running multiple projects. However, I realised that I just could not do that as our many employees represented families reliant on us to put food on the table.

Being an entrepreneur, something that I had to learn at a young age was that we could not place our individual needs before our team’s.

Adapting to Covid-19 as yet another business challenge

Crisis draws out the innate resilience and adaptive nature of people and I look upon the COVID-19 situation as one of the turning points for our generation.

It has personally impacted my business as we were in talks with regional partners to bring our brand into overseas markets as well as to expand our food manufacturing facilities regionally.

With COVID-19, all plans have been halted.

While many are worried about the disruption that this crisis brings, I have also seen how the younger generation has adapted to the challenges.

A crisis is an opportunity to do something different, and emerge from it even stronger.

For instance, we took this period to focus more on research and development of our food products and to gain more food safety certifications from Singapore to prepare ourselves for business once we emerge out of COVID-19.

We also took this opportunity to grow as a team and to know one another better through various team building exercises.

Advice to younger Singaporeans: Reframing what success looks like and to equip themselves with life skills

With COVID-19 disrupting our lives, I believe we need to reframe what success looks like.

To me, success now looks like being able to be content with the work I do daily, regardless of the scale. Being able to learn something new or to have meaningful conversations are also all wins in their own right.

I encourage youths to redefine what they want in their life as we are all going to walk out of COVID-19 a little different.

We are extremely blessed in Singapore with the government offering many schemes to provide training for the citizens. Many part time jobs are also available. I encourage our youths to equip themselves in these life skills and they can be picked up anywhere, with any job.

From my observations joining various international exchanges organised by the National Youth Council over the years, I also encourage youths to stay connected with their peers around the world. As the pandemic has shown, solidarity is key to overcoming disruption.

Youths of today are also more exposed to opportunities to expand their networks and widen their perspectives – something that they should make full use of.

An enterprising spirit, the ability to think out of the box, and being resilient, will be qualities that would help to create value in a post-COVID 19 world.

How the waves turn at sea is out of anyone's control, but we sure can empower and equip ourselves with skills to become great sailors and survive every tide that comes.

After all, as the saying goes, “the roughest seas produce the best sailors.”

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Top photo courtesy of Carmen Low