As a girl, Dr Sidney Yee plucked rambutans and sold them at night markets in Kulai, a small town about 40 minutes from Johor Baru.
Money was tight for the daughter of a construction worker father and rubber tapper mother who worked to support four children. During school holidays, she worked in her grandmother's pepper farm to earn pocket money.
But life in Kulai was also about adventure.
"I led a group of about five to six boys and girls. We played marbles, gasing (spinning tops) and caught fish in drains," recalls Dr Yee, 47, senior vice-president at Exploit Technologies.
Those early years helped Dr Yee gain street smarts, which came in handy when she joined three Singapore biotechnology start-ups as the general manager.
Now a Singapore citizen, she says her interest in entrepreneurship came from her father.
He risked everything to work in Indonesia where a friend had won a timber concession and, for six years, she saw him only once a year when he returned home.
After six years, he had enough savings to seed his next project, a housing development. He managed to get a bank loan and became a successful property developer, lifting his family out of poverty.
He sent Dr Yee and her elder sister to Canada to further their studies. "We didn't speak a word of English since we'd studied in Chinese-medium public schools. We persevered, watched TV to learn English and we graduated," she recalls.
After obtaining her doctorate in chemistry in the United States, she joined the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in Singapore in 1995. But as a researcher, she felt removed from the real world. She was persuaded by the then head of IMCB, Professor Chris Tan, to join a spin-off company called Gene Singapore as the general manager.
That was the first of three biotech start-up jobs, followed by more than a decade at the Economic Development Board promoting the biotech industry and building a global network of contacts.
The experience she gained as a researcher and from working with start-ups has proven useful in her current job at Exploit Technologies.
Married with two daughters, she says that she sacrificed many business and professional opportunities because of family commitments, but she does not regret the choices she made.
"There're always opportunities to do the work I'm passionate about. What's more important to me is that women can multitask well and, despite the sacrifices, we can still get ahead in work.
"What I would like to see is moral support for women entrepreneurs from their loved ones and friends. This is lacking in Singapore."
This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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