Teen rebel who drove her dad to tears

PHOTO: Teen rebel who drove her dad to tears

Nearly a decade ago, Eileen Feng's elder brother asked her what she wanted out of life.

She told him she had two big dreams.

"I wanted to be able to travel everywhere by taxi, and afford brand-name cosmetics," the 27-year-old says with a laugh.

For someone who once had no plans or goals, Miss Feng has not done too badly for herself.

She is the co-founder of SocialWalk, an outfit which provides matchmaking services for businesses in nine countries.

It is not her first time being an entrepreneur. The polytechnic graduate has successfully started and exited several businesses - from fashion to training - and made enough money to afford not just cab rides and other niceties, but also a couple of properties.

Chatty and articulate, the petite chief operating officer of SocialWalk is the younger of two children. Her father retired as a taxi driver earlier this year; her mother, also retired, worked at a number of jobs from babysitter to clinic assistant.

"We were not well off but my parents worked very hard to give my brother and me all that they never had," says Miss Feng, whose brother Eric is one of Singapore's best-known public speaking coaches.

A smart cookie, she was the head prefect and one of the top pupils at Jiemin Primary School.

"I got into St Nicholas after that, where I also became a prefect," she says, referring to the leading girls' school. "My parents probably thought then that they could leave me be and that I knew what I was doing with my life."

But the erstwhile mild and obedient girl turned rebellious when she hit 15.

"I couldn't understand why I was studying so hard. After school, I had to attend art, computer and swimming lessons. My parents worked very hard to send me to all these classes but I was just so tired," she says.

"I thought there was a lot more I could do. I just didn't know what."

She started skipping classes and spent an inordinate amount of time on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) playing Counter-Strike, a tactical shooting game.

"I could be anyone online; I could explore being something other than being an obedient daughter. I could go online being a great Counter-Strike player without telling people I was a girl," she says.

Her antics drove her parents up the wall.

"My mother once took a knife and threatened to kill herself if I didn't go to school. My father threatened to send me to a girls' home," she says.

One day, her mother was so angry that she was spending so much time on the Internet that she took away her daughter's mobile phone and threw her modem out the window.

Enraged, Miss Feng ran away from home. She spent the first night at the void deck of a Housing Board block in Tampines, and the subsequent three nights at the home of a boy she met over the IRC.

"I told his parents that my folks were away for a few days," she says.

Her parents frantically contacted her school and all her friends before they managed to track her down.

There was one more episode - a brush with the law - before she put a lid on her rebelliousness.

She decided that she was not impressed with the security of the neighbourhood supermarket she frequented and decided to test it.

No one caught her the first few times she stole some tidbits.

But one day, a man saw her just as she was putting a bag of preserved plums in her bag.

Thinking that the man was a fellow shopper and that he would not do anything, Miss Feng walked out of the shop. The man turned out to be the owner.

"That was the first time I felt nervous and scared," she recalls. "The owner took me into his office. I said I had money to pay, I even said I was willing to work for a few weeks to pay for what I stole."

She adds: "He asked me why I stole. I said: 'Because you don't have a good security system.'"

Her candour, she says, probably offended the owner, who called the police.

"I was handcuffed and taken to the police lock-up in Jurong," she recalls.

Her parents were summoned. When they reached the lock-up, her father burst into tears.

"It was the first time I had seen my father cry. It broke my heart," Ms Feng says shakily as she begins to tear. "I feel really terrible thinking about what I'd put them through."

She resolved to stop her nonsense but asked her parents to get her out of St Nicholas.

"I was embarrassed going back to the same school. When I ran away, my parents had contacted everyone there, including the teachers."

She enrolled in a private school in the Newton area and completed her O levels. Her results were good enough to get her into Pioneer Junior College, where she took double maths and chemistry.

But she dropped out after her first year.

"I wasn't motivated. I thought it was meaningless studying integration and differentiation. What use would I have for such things? "

She ended up, much happier, at the Singapore Polytechnic, where she studied business.

At the polytechnic, she earned her keep by running a pushcart business with a couple of coursemates selling snacks, newspapers and stationery on campus.

"We'd position the cart outside lecture theatres. I could earn about a few hundred dollars a month," she says.

She graduated in 2006 with no clue as to what she wanted to do.

That was when her brother - then a life coach - pulled her aside and helped her map out her goals in life.

"He put me through a three-day programme which was very confrontational. I had to confront everything in my life: why I ran away from home, why I didn't find things meaningful."

She adds: "I realised that I was doing things not for myself. I was always doing things for other people, to get my parents' approval, to get out of my brother's shadow, to get attention."

The sessions, she says, armed her not just with self-awareness but courage.

"I decided I had to do something for myself."

A year earlier, as part of her final year project, she and three coursemates had raised $50,000 to set up Niche, a shop selling streetwear in Haji Lane.

She set herself a challenge: to raise $150,000 and turn Niche into a full-fledged business.

It took her three months to convince three investors to cough up $50,000 each for the business in 2006.

With the money, she bought out her coursemates, roped in a new partner and revamped the shop.

She started off buying imported labels but soon produced her own line designed by young local designers.

"We went to Shenzhen in China to source for factories to manufacture our designs," says Ms Feng. The business did fairly well, with an annual turnover of more than $300,000. However, she sold the business two years later when her relationship with her partner soured.

By then, her brother - who has computing degrees from the National University of Singapore and the University of Pennsylvania - was making a name for himself as a public speaking coach.

"He was very good at what he did, but he needed someone to help him run his business. So I told him: 'Why don't you do your thing and let me run the business for you.'"

Brother and sister set up a public speaking training company called Speak to Peak. She took care of the marketing; and the company did brisk business - achieving annual revenues of $1 million - targeting schools and training not just students, but also teachers.

Miss Feng decided to strike out on her own in 2009 when her brother moved away from schools to concentrate on corporations.

"I liked working with young people but corporate types were not my thing. I was barely 23 years old and too young for them to take me seriously anyway," she says.

A business opportunity soon presented itself. Even though she had sold Niche, a lot of designers were still approaching her for manufacturing contacts in China.

The owner of the garment factory in Shenzhen she used to work with asked her if she would like to buy over his factory as he was getting on in age.

"He liked me because I referred a lot of business to him. It was a three-storey factory with 80 employees. Everything was running smoothly so I thought it was not a bad deal."

By then, she had saved enough money to pay a six-figure sum for the factory.

"It was probably very risky but let's just say, I was young and had a lot of blind faith," she says.

The business was lucrative for the first couple of years but increasing rents and higher wages made her decide to sell it last year.

"The prices of materials were also going up, and there are now a lot more competitors too. It was also quite a mental strain running a business when I was not there, so I sold it to a shoe factory next door which wanted the space to expand," says Ms Feng. She declines to say how much she sold the factory for.

Her involvement with SocialWalk came about three years ago when she met the start-up's founder, Mr Tham Keng Yew, at a business conference in Kuala Lumpur.

"Keng Yew shared with me this idea of a platform matching businesses, almost like a Linked-In in Asia," she says.

She was sold. In 2011, she came on board the company and persuaded Mr Tham that providing matchmaking services at trade shows and exhibitions - a US$22 billion (S$27.5 billion) global industry - was the way to go.

She set up operations in Singapore, where the exhibition scene is more active and hit the ground, calling on major players in the conference and exhibition industry such as Terrapin and Reed.

Not long after that, the company nabbed several major deals here, including the Singapore International Jewellery Show and the International Furniture Fair.

There was no looking back. Impressed by their matchmaking results, exhibition organisers in China engaged their services.

In three years, the company has expanded its operations to nine territories including Vietnam, Thailand, India, Germany and United Arab Emirates.

To date, SocialWalk has played matchmaker between buyers and suppliers at more than 380 trade shows around the globe.

With each territory she carved out, Ms Feng's equity in SocialWalk increased.

Today, she has almost as big a stake as Mr Tham.

The work, she says, is gruelling. Based in Kuala Lumpur, she travels most of the time and visits her family here once a month.

"But I take my parents with me on some of my trips. This year, they have travelled with me to Melbourne, Bangkok and Bali," she says.

There is no time, she says with a sigh, for romantic relationships.

"But I'm willing to make sacrifices for this because I think this is a global business and I get to be involved in so many industries. One week it is food and beverage, the next it is medical," she says. She smiles when asked if she regrets her rebellious youth.

"I'm sorry I caused my parents pain but I also believe I would not be where I am now if not for my earlier stupidity."


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