Ex-corporate warrior discovers her 'soul' abroad

Ex-corporate warrior discovers her 'soul' abroad

One night five years ago, Denise Lim found herself leaving the office after clocking more than 13 hours at work.

It was another typical day for the 24-year-old management consultant. But on the MRT ride back home to Sembawang that night, she could not stop thinking about her life.

"I felt really tired and I kept asking myself how was I helping other people. I was helping companies make money but I wasn't helping people at all," she says. "There had to be a better way to use my skills."

Much to her parents' chagrin, she decided to quit her job and go travelling, volunteering at non-governmental organisations in different places while figuring out what to do with her life.

Half a year later, she found herself in Guatemala, Central America, where she met a yoga teacher who told her: "You are trying to find yourself going from place to place. But a place cannot give you contentment or happiness. You've got to find it within yourself."

So she stayed put, and did not leave. Today, 41/2 years later, Ms Lim, now 28, says with a laugh: "I think I'm the only Singaporean in Guatemala."

She has learnt Spanish and started three businesses there - a restaurant, a bakery and an online language learning school.

All her businesses have a social goal: her restaurant regularly holds fundraisers for different NGOs; her bakery is her way of introducing healthier eating options to locals; and her online school helps to find jobs for local Spanish teachers.

"I feel happy, my body feels happy," says the lean and tanned Ms Lim, who was back in Singapore recently to visit her parents.

Chirpy, articulate and self-possessed, she is the eldest of three daughters. Her father is a manager in a shipbuilding company; her mother works in the accounts department of Japanese sauce-maker Kikkoman.

She grew up with her paternal grandparents in Sembawang, seeing her parents only on weekends.

"I was a nerd, played the clarinet, studied a lot, got good grades and was a good girl," says the former student of Peixin Primary and Mayflower Secondary. Her Type A personality made her extremely competitive and hard on herself.

At Anglo-Chinese Junior College, she nearly had a nervous breakdown studying for the A levels. She ended up with 4As.

"I told myself all this studying and no learning had to change when I entered Singapore Management University," says Ms Lim, who studied business and sociology on an American Chamber of Commerce scholarship.

That change came by throwing herself into the deep end and getting involved in activities which would test her mettle.

In 2006, her first year in university, she signed up for SMU's Dare to Dream expedition where she and several other undergraduates took five boys from the Singapore Boys' Home to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa.

"It was very tough because I'd never exercised before that," she says with a laugh.

Among other things, their six-month training programme involved long-distance running, running up and down the stairs of 40-storey buildings and several jungle trekking expeditions, including a seven-day hike up Gunung Tahan which, at 2,187m, is the highest point in peninsular Malaysia.

The Kilimanjaro trip taught her one thing. "That's when I realised that as long as I set my goal and worked towards it, I could achieve anything I wanted."

The next year, she headed to Kolkata where she spent nearly three months working with READS India, a small NGO focused on creating educational opportunities for the marginalised and underprivileged in rural areas.

"It was the first time I went anywhere by myself. There was a list of organisations for me to choose from; I picked the one which I thought would be the hardest for me to get used to," she says.

The poverty was sobering and led her to launch Project Kolkata to help raise funds for a free school the NGO was planning to build in a village outside the city. Heading a team of 18 other undergraduates, she raised $20,000 for it.

In her final year, Ms Lim - who was on SMU's dean's list for two years - won an award to go on a foreign exchange programme to Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. After completing the programme, she stayed on in Spain for another seven months and worked for a spell as a Chinese translator for a tour company.

On her return, she snagged a much coveted job with consulting giant Accenture. But her stints abroad had changed her.

"The exposure, talking to different people, the poverty I saw - I realised that not everyone's priority is to make money," she says.

Doing something which has a positive impact on people's lives, she decided, was more important. That was what led her to quit 11/2 years later.

"I was earning twice as much as my mother so she could not understand why I was giving up all these big opportunities. My father just said, 'One year, I give you one year'."

With $20,000 of her savings, she set off on her big adventure. She had a vague idea that she wanted to end up in Central America where she could learn Spanish and do volunteer work with the many NGOs in the region.

"I met a lot of other travellers, all of them were lost. It's a cliche but many people travel because they don't know what they want to do with their lives," says Ms Lim who backpacked through Asia before going to Canada and ending up in Guatemala.

Doubt, she confesses, was a constant companion.

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