Mothers know best

Mothers know best

It takes experience to run a business. And as much as developing a technique of simultaneous-rocking-and-lullaby-singing as an antidote for colic wouldn't be listed on a CV, nothing prepares you better for running a business tailored to children than by being a mother. Besides, who needs to pay for a focus group when junior is on hand to provide real-time feedback on whether your kiddy-centric concept works? Riding on their credentials as world's best mums, these superwomen share their tales on bringing up a children's business.

Rae Yun

Founder of children's lifestyle store

Seemingly founded for the baby who would grow up to become a craft beer-sipping, moustache-sporting hyper-hipster, the idea for an online kids' lifestyle store came about when Rae Yun was shopping for baby products during her pregnancy.

"Most of the local online stores sell only basic children clothing or practical baby gear such as cots, strollers or milk bottles and accessories," says Ms Yun, whose son Low Jun Jie is 15 months old. "So I ended up buying a lot from international sites and paying high shipping fees."

A one-time wardrobe assistant at Mediacorp, Ms Yun then did marketing for Tangs, Dr Martens and Goods of Desire before launching Oh Happy Fry last year.

"I always knew that I wanted to start my own business, one that allowed me the flexibility to work from home and manage my own hours," explains Ms Yun. "Besides, my background is in retail, fashion and marketing so it's great to combine my motherhood experience with what I have learnt from previous jobs."

Apart from togs like irresistible slogan tees emblazoned with the words "I'm Not Tired" and terry cloth harem shorts, Ms Yun has sourced for fun playroom additions like giant cardboard airplanes that are way snazzier than the ones we used to make as kids from old packing boxes; and dotted wall decals.

"It's definitely an advantage being a mum, as it's important to know how the clothes fit, what is comfortable and not," says Ms Yun. "We also represent many young independent brands such as Thief & Bandit organic baby leggings, Twig Creative wooden camera toys, Snap Bibs founded by parents who pride themselves on making modern, quality and safe products."

Married to hairstylist Gary Low, a senior hairstylist at Passion Hair Salon, Ms Yun devotes plenty of time online to track down kidswear, toys, books and tableware by contacting indie designers through their blogs or Instagram accounts.

"OHF is a one-man band so I'm very involved in every aspect - I source and curate every collection, respond to customer emails, manage orders, plan and execute promotional strategies, and well, basically everything," says the 32-year-old. "This way, I get to know our customers better, what they like and I'm able to up-sell and recommend new items to complement their previous purchase."


Eliza Teoh

Author of the Ellie Belly series of children's books and director of boutique publisher Bubbly Books

Just like how Eloise, the protagonist of the eponymous series of children's books first published in the 1950s, was supposedly modelled after the writer Kay Thompson's goddaughter Liza Minnelli, former journalist Eliza Teoh also based her books on children she knew - her two daughters, to be exact.

"Ellie Belly came about quite out of the blue," says Ms Teoh, who was a Singapore Press Holdings scholar and worked as entertainment reporter, political journalist and then sub-editor for The Straits Times.

"My children Gabby and Ellie were then aged 11 and 7 and were reading books like Geronimo Stilton, Judy Moody and Horrid Henry. But one day, Ellie started asking me things like, 'Why don't we celebrate Halloween? What is Independence Day?' It occurred to me that all the books she was reading had settings that she wasn't familiar with. That's when I came up with the idea of coming up with a series set in Singapore."

After the birth of her daughters, Ms Teoh became an editorial consultant for government bodies but truly found her passion in creating humorous, relatable tales that her children and other young readers could enjoy. Today, she has seven books in the series revolving around a cheeky and inventive 7-year-old girl.

"When it came to thinking about the character I wanted to create, I looked to my own girls," reveals Ms Teoh. "Gabby is a really well-behaved (if a bit dreamy and absent-minded) child, but Ellie, who is four years younger, is really weird and odd and cheeky and silly. I realised that she would make a really interesting storybook character, so that's where I started."

The 43-year-old channels the voice of her children for greater authenticity and relatability, and even mines their real-life experiences as fodder for her fiction.

"In the end, Ellie Belly is very much based on Ellie in real life, except that the real-life Ellie doesn't talk to animals," says Ms Teoh. "Many of the stories in my books are based on things that really happened. For example, in one story, Ellie Belly puts her socks in the freezer. I really did find her socks in the freezer. Why did she do that? She said, 'So that when my feet are hot, I can put them on and feel cool!' "

Her children, who are avid readers and prefer thumbing through books rather than spending time in enrichment classes, also serve as sounding boards for Ms Teoh's stories.

"I will always let them read what I've written before it even goes to the editor," says Ms Teoh. "I gauge their response while they are reading it. When they laugh out loud, I feel I've succeeded. I strongly feel that children must have fun and must feel entertained when they read. If reading is boring, and is a chore, they won't read. So I really try hard to make my books funny and engaging to a child."

Apart from writing books, she also started a publishing company over three years ago, tapping on her network of sub-editors and editors after discovering that many local publishers retained the intellectual property rights of the manuscripts and often lacked experienced editors. To date, her company has published 20 books including Extraordinary Losers by Jessica Alejandro, which was nominated for the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award 2013. In fact, the RunHideSeek Young Adult trilogy was written by Ms Teoh's older daughter Gabby Tye. It was the Number Two book in Popular bookstores for weeks (with 50 Shades of Grey holding the Number One spot).

"Whenever I run out of ideas, I just tip toe to my children's rooms and listen to what they are saying," admits Ms Teoh. "My children are a treasure trove of ideas. I talk to them all the time to get an understanding of their universe."


Li-Anne Sia

Director of Two by Two Schoolhouse

Rather than resorting to pricey enrichment classes, former teacher Li-Anne Sia got creative when it came to piquing her children's interest in Mandarin.

"I am pretty radical when it comes to education," admits Ms Sia, a mother of a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. "I believe that any encounter can be harnessed and used as a teaching moment."

When her children were initially resistant towards learning Mandarin, she realised that it was futile to force them to watch Mandarin cartoons or read their Mandarin books. Instead, as she noticed that they showed interest in singing along to Mandarin songs she had on her playlist, she started writing out the lyrics of the particular songs they were interested in and pasted them all over the house.

"I played the songs out on the piano and we had countless impromptu jamming sessions where the kids would drag out their toy microphone sets and hold the lyrics, sing in Chinese, pretend they were superstars and hold a 'concert'," recalls the Ministry of Education-trained teacher with a post-graduate degree in education, who taught chemistry, biology and science at Chung Cheng High School.

Four years ago, alongside her partner Ng Yiling, Ms Sia channelled that same creativity into her own bilingual kindergarten with a difference - up to 80 per cent of the curriculum is taught in Chinese. Eschewing traditional rote learning methods, the school's philosophy is based on learning through play in an immersive environment. Today, it is also a partner of the National Heritage Board (NHB)'s Speak Mandarin campaign, and is involved in activities that the NHB runs in order to promote the language. Currently, the school runs ad hoc Mandarin programmes for the NHB at public venues like libraries.

"Our children, especially mine, absolutely abhorred the language as conventional teaching methods were tedious and boring," says Ms Sia. "Coming from a predominantly English speaking family, even my parents and extended family members speak only English, they did not have an environment to use the language and were averse to even attempt speaking it."

This immersive environment has been successful in converting even children of mixed heritage and Caucasian descent with no background in Mandarin into "confident, articulate speakers and writers of the language". Some parents are surprised that the school does not require children to complete worksheets. Instead, Ms Sia's programme relies more on fun: For example, children put together jigsaw puzzles of the names of animals in Chinese, and along the way learn about the various species as well as pian pang - components of Chinese characters that are shared by several names of animals.

"Being mothers, we are able to draw on our experiences with our children and while working on ways to get around certain issues, we inadvertently come up with 'eureka' teaching moments," says Ms Sia, whose partner Ms Ng's youngest child is enrolled in the school. "I believe if a child is put through the experience, it is multi-sensory and learning becomes natural and much more effective versus traditional chalk and talk rote learning."


Simone Ng

Director and founder of indoor play centre The Polliwogs

Who needs a quality control manager when you have vigilant kids? In the case of entrepreneur Simone Ng, a mother of two boys, the level of service and entertainment value of her children's play centres is maintained in part due to feedback from her sons.

"Of course, we also listen to customers but the most sincere feedback comes from our kids," says Ms Ng, who also designs for her eponymous jewellery brand.

"For example, they would go into the play areas and come back to tell me if the crew are watching the kids properly, if they have been good to the customers and if they are patient with the kids. This allows us to develop training programmes for our staff and put in standard operating procedures that focus on our kids and customer experiences."

Conceived six years ago when her children were aged 7 and 6, Ms Ng and her husband, the co-founder of the company, were always on the lookout for new family-friendly spots.

"At the time, our boys were very active and my husband and I wanted to make sure they were healthy and had a good dose of physical activity and a positive social environment," says Ms Ng.

"As a young family, it was also important to spend enough time to bond with them while having some time off for ourselves. When we talked to friends and families, we found that they faced very similar challenges and circumstances."

Apart from play areas dedicated to toddlers and older children, each facility also houses a bistro with free Internet access so mums and dads can hang out with fellow parents while the little ones run amok. To date, the chain has four locations: At Vivocity, Suntec City, Robertson Walk and East Coast Park.

"We found that kids are happiest and learn most with other kids around," adds Ms Ng. "We parents would arrange play dates for our kids at one another's homes but they often depended on the availability of the other families. At Polliwogs, if their friends can make it, it's great but if not, they can still have lots of fun and make new friends."

Ms Ng notes that parents look forward to having some personal time when hanging out at the grown-up areas of each centre without the guilt of leaving the kids at home. Growing together with the business, Ms Ng's children, now aged 11 and 13, even provide ideas for new additions to the business concepts.

"The kids pointed out that our play area at East Coast Park (our first centre) was a little boring and that we should put in some 'software' to bring it alive," recalls Ms Ng.

"Enter a programme of complimentary, interactive multi-media story-telling or arts and crafts activities held on weekdays, as well as live interactive shows featuring our Polliwogs characters."

The initiative has led to a new children's theatre division The Polliwogs Live! that operates outside the premises of The Polliwogs Play Centres. This year, a full scale production, The Lion Prince - The Quest for Singapura, will debut to the public in August at the NTUC Auditorium.

"As a mother, I understand the challenges that mothers and young parents go through in bringing up our kids," says Ms Ng.

"I chose kids entertainment because I get the satisfaction of watching kids giggle, laugh, smile - and be a happy part of their childhood memories."


Lisa Ang, founder of Bekids Experiential Learning Expedition 2015

For former Channel News Asia producer and presenter Lisa Ang, being a kid extends far beyond just tapping on electronic devices or slogging through assessment books. Come May 16 and 17, she will run the Bekids Experiential Learning Expedition 2015 at Scape to promote hands-on, experiential learning.

"The days of most children are made up of desk-bound 'mugging' for exams, or being entranced by the goggle box or tablets," says the mother of two, who grew up scaling trees and catching tadpoles in drains with her friends.

"I wanted to create an event where kids could 'collect' experiences, to get them outdoors for fun activities that would awaken their minds, bodies and spirits."

Over 20 tents will offer physical activities like Akido classes, a video competition, crafting animal-themed clay bowls and even crawling through "sensory integration tents" to encourage fine-motor work, body awareness and fitness, among other skills.

The inaugural event was inspired by a trip to Australia to visit her sister and aunts. It was there that Ms Ang learnt about the Move to Learn Programme, founded by the late Barbara Pheloung, a special education expert, that teaches simple techniques proven to have dramatic improvements in children's ability and capacity to learn. Intrigued, she met Ms Pheloung's daughter, Jini, for a crash course to be a certified instructor.

Ms Ang, learning of the importance of the relationship between perceptive movement and child development, began identifying certain learning issues in her own kids. Monitoring skills such as visual tracking when reading, spatial awareness, regulation and attention, she turned her living area into a gym, complete with blue mats, a therapy ball, and swivel stools, where physical activity and perceptive movements enhance neuro-development as well. So while dabbling in finger painting and art and craft might be an everyday affair, junior might in fact be harnessing an abundance of neurological benefits like finger strengthening and hand-eye coordination, opening innumerable neuro-pathways in his mind.

"But the kids don't have to know the literature," explains Ms Ang, who is married to former radio DJ Ivan Rantung. "We just want them to be free, be brave and try, be themselves, and just be kids."

Describing her children as "Energizer bunnies", the mother of two reveals that her children played a major role in developing the programme for the event. Her own daughter Ariel made her radio debut in a voiceover on a Class 95FM radio commercial promoting the Bekids event.

"I like to run ideas through my kids and their friends, and they've got great ones," says Ms Ang, who also runs an integrated communications company producing content and organising events.

"What started out months back as random, noisy ravings have evolved to a more focused, realistic wish list of popsicles, robotics, K-pop dance and fitness, T-shirt making, a giant rope course, skating and scooting."

But while her kids have inspired many of the Bekids activities, and Ms Ang counts them as "my greatest teachers", the presenter-producer and entrepreneur says being a mum is a bonus but not a prerequisite for working in the child development business.

"Sure, I think being a mum gives you first-hand experience and knowledge in the field but I believe anyone with heart and diligence can do virtually anything," says Ms Ang.

"Some of the people who are key players in their fields - writers, actors, photographers, artists, performers, athletes never had formal training.

"There're several successful child-development business owners who aren't parents too. But they're passionate about what they do, their hearts are in the right place and they work like dogs!"

This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
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