She set up her first company fresh out of university and founded her own consultancy before the age of 30

She emerged valedictorian after doing badly for her 'A' levels.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | December 02, 2021, 05:01 PM

​​Ho Khim Rong was barely out of university when she started her first company with her secondary school friends.

Collectively, the group had spotted a gap in the market and decided to do something about it.

“We wanted to transport students staying in one end of the country, which was the East, to the West, where Nanyang Technological University was, because it was quite hard to get there during my time.

So we decided maybe we could hire a bus and pool people together to transport them there,” the 34-year-old shared. That was in 2010.

“It was a very amateur business, but it was fun, Ho admitted. “Everyone just put their skills together, for example in designing the logo and deciding how to print the bus tickets.”

At the time, Ho had just graduated from the Singapore campus of James Cook University (JCU) with a degree in international business, where she put her basic accounting knowledge to good use.

Image via Ho Khim Rong

Although the venture only lasted for several months and didn’t end up being profitable, it gave Ho the first taste of entrepreneurship.

Far from being a setback that got her down however, it whet her appetite for bigger things.

Ho’s entrepreneurial mindset was also inspired by her father, who started his own venture in the construction industry.

“My father is also a business owner and he has run his own business since I was young.

Ho remembers a story he used to tell her, that “when I was born, he only had enough money in his bank account to buy a tin of paint. So he really had to work very hard to feed the family”.

And while she observed the struggles her father went through, she also saw how rewarding it was to taste success after working hard for it.

“I think the journey he took as a business owner has inspired me since then,” said Ho.

Fast forward six years later, Ho ended up setting up Leaven Academy, a learning and development company focused on teaching life skills to students as well as meeting the training needs of organisations.

Drawing from her own life experience, Ho realised the importance of a more well-rounded education that isn’t simply focused on academic knowledge.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t great at saving money and I didn’t learn that in school. So when I started on my own financial journey, I realised the importance of it,” shared Ho.

“So a lot of these skills that we teach or provide in the company are what we find crucial for the next generation to pick up at a young age,” said Ho.

Her company’s area of focus, especially in relation to students, was developed in part due to a passion that she had uncovered for teaching even before she graduated from university.

While pursuing her undergraduate studies at JCU, Ho had worked part-time as a student care teacher after her mum encouraged her to find out where her interests lay.

“She was the one who told me, ‘Go and explore your interests and see what you will like to do when you graduate.”

At the student care centre, Ho felt a “natural affinity” towards her charges. “I felt like they were drawn to me, they were able to understand me, and they were very interested in the lessons I gave. So I realised maybe I have a natural strength in teaching.

“From there, I was really interested to find out more about how I can create better learning experiences — that's where it all began.”

With a clear direction for her career path, or so it seemed, Ho made up her mind to be a teacher and intended to apply to the Ministry of Education (MOE) upon graduation.

In fact, her career choice was what fuelled the former Temasek Junior College student to push herself to excel while at JCU.

“I didn’t do well for my ‘A’ levels because I had been too focused on my co-curricular activity, which was basketball. When I went to uni, I told myself ‘Okay, I have a second chance. I think this is the time to pick up the pieces and work harder,” shared Ho.

Ho ended up topping her cohort and was valedictorian for her year.

But just before graduation, one of her final modules on operations management at JCU made her rethink her decision to become an MOE teacher.

“I remember that there was this lecturer who taught us about operations. I was quite intrigued when he talked about how McDonald's optimised their operations, to the extent that it even determined where they placed their drink dispensers at the outlet,” Ho recalled.

Fascinated with the concept of how operations can impact efficiency, Ho decided that her first job would be one related to operations. This led Ho to take up her first full-time job as an operations coordinator in a local training consultancy.

Despite not staying long in the job, things worked out serendipitously, as she found herself better suited to being a learning and development consultant within the same company.

The firm was also where Ho met her colleague and eventual co-founder at Leaven Academy, which they set up together in 2016. Ho shared that her business partner has since left the company earlier this year.

Ho reflected how her undergraduate course with JCU had somewhat prepared her in starting her business from scratch.

“My degree at JCU was in international business, and they covered modules such as entrepreneurship, communications and marketing.

“I think it helped me in starting my business because I got a glimpse of what you would have to do for marketing, what you have to do for accounts, what to do for operations. So I think I started running a business with a little bit of knowledge of everything, and the startup process was a lot smoother than what I would have anticipated.

Something else that she’s glad for during her time at JCU were the opportunities to interact with a diverse group of students, many of whom were from overseas.

“If you work with international students, you need to communicate clearly, because a multitude of factors come into play, such as their backgrounds and different perspectives. So in group work, there is the added challenge, but it has forced me to communicate with clarity,” said Ho.

And she has applied this soft skill to her business as well.

“In my business, if you want to deliver a programme, communicating it with clarity is really one of the priorities when it comes to the delivery of workshops.”


But as any local business owner will tell you, the journey as an entrepreneur is fraught with challenges which Ho has had to continually confront.

“It’s for sure not been easy as a small and medium enterprise (SME) owner. It has always been difficult from the start. You always have to deal with cash flow and manpower issues — common struggles that business owners will face.

“Time is also a factor— we only have 24 hours in a day and sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been another setback to the business, with Ho having to nimbly and rapidly shift the training programmes online within one or two months.

But the silver lining is that it gave her the impetus to quickly change and adapt the company to a digital environment, something that might not have happened so soon if not for the circumstances.

“Looking back, I think the company innovated a lot in the past year, and we came out stronger because of it,” Ho reflected.

One other downside of being your own boss is that stress is definitely inevitable, and especially more so in the past year.

Laughed Ho, who joked that her job scope is ‘BKL’, which stands for ‘bao ka liao’, or ‘do everything’: “I think I dropped a lot of hair, my hair was a lot fuller last time, now it’s very thin.”

Not that she would have it any other way. Ho feels most fulfilled when the effort she puts in reaps rewards.

“That’s when the clients trust you and know that you can get things done, and some of these clients have actually become friends.

“But I think the most heartwarming thing is when participants come to tell us that our programme we provide has changed their lives for the better,” shared Ho.

“For example, one of the programmes we conduct is on financial literacy for youths from lower income families. And when we caught up with them maybe a year later, they told us that ‘we’ve finally started saving, and it’s really made a difference to my family’s lives.”

More about JCU’s business courses

JCU is one of four universities in Singapore that is accredited with the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AASCB).

AASCB-accredited schools have to pass rigorous quality standards, and they represent the highest standard of achievement for business schools worldwide.

Said K. Thirumaran, Academic Head in Business: “Every university offers similar academic outcomes but only six percent of universities worldwide have earned the business accreditation from AACSB to prove they have met the standards."

JCU has launched several initiatives to ensure students are future-ready, including establishing industry partnerships for its courses.

With Singapore being a technology and business hub, it also launched six new majors that students can select from, including Analytics and Business Solutions, Creative Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Global Talent Management, and MICE, Tourism and Hospitality.


This article is sponsored by James Cook University.

Top image via Ho Khim Rong.