From Banker to Social Entrepreneur, Interview with Anthea Indira Ong

(Photo credits to Anthea Indira Ong)
(Photo credits to Anthea Indira Ong)

Well known as the founder of social enterprise Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s first silent Tea bar, we are honoured to have Anthea Indira Ong to not only share with us the insights she gleaned from her life lessons but also baring her heart out on the values that see her through her exciting life journey.

1) Share with us about your undergraduate life in NUS – what were the activities you partook in on top of studying Finance and Marketing from 1987 to 1990?

I had planned to stay in Temasek Hall in my final year at NUS as so many of my friends were there. However, my brother did not clear his O’levels that fateful year so my dad requested that I stay at home to coach my brother.

In the three years in NUS, I was very active in organising dinners and dances, including organising NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU) activities such as the annual freshman orientation programmes and NUSSU balls. I was part of the canvassing committee for the planning of the NUSSU Ball. Back in my home faculty (Business Administration), I was heavily involved in Bizad balls as part of the main organising committee. I subsequently got invited by the Science faculty to help plan their pageant. Looking back now, I guess I was already called to my interest of bringing disparate groups of people together. I truly reminisce about my days in NUS with much fondness not only because I made so many great friends from different walks of life, but also because I was able to expand my perspectives and horizons. My very close group of friends even called ourselves the ‘Family Politburo’! I guess this is also the beauty of a university experience – you get to immerse yourself in varied cultures and network with people of different backgrounds and social mores.

I was giving tuition throughout university to supplement my allowance. When I completed my third year, I was offered the Honours programme for both Finance and Marketing but I decided to forgo it. My dad lost his construction business that year in 1989 as part of the Black Monday recession and construction slump – and I wanted to help ease the financial burden. Thankfully, I was offered a job by a bank even before graduation and that set my mind at ease as that meant that I could bring in income immediately after graduation. Honestly, I absolutely have no regrets on not taking up Honours as I never planned for a career in the civil service anyway, which is really where an Honours may have made a bigger difference.

2) Point out fond memories you shared with peers and challenges you faced in NUS and how you overcame them.

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As an undergraduate, I looked up to my parents a lot. To keep the family going when he lost his business, my dad did his best to ensure that we had enough. He would take up odd jobs, including sewing gloves for factory workers. My mom tailored to make a living. My dad was very strong and showed immense resilience in challenging times. He taught my siblings and I that there is no job too low to take on as long as we kept our dignity and made an honest living. He was exemplary and made sure that we grew up with no sense of entitlement. We emulated our parents’ hardworking nature and took pride and ownership in everything that we showed up for. I must say that what we saw with our parents in that difficult period of our lives shaped all 3 of us deeply – my siblings and I shared our parents’ sense of industry, dedication and humility. They have taught us well to not see any task or any person as beneath us.

Campus life helps you develop deeper self-awareness and a greater capacity for empathy because the homogeneity of secondary schools and junior colleges gave way to an explosion of diversity and variety. Before entering university, I’d like to think that the people we hung around with were largely homogenous as we were being sorted by our academic grades and social class, somewhat – blind spotted even more by everyone wearing the same uniform! This realisation of diversity was one of the highlights in my university experience. The other fond memory that I have of NUS was the sense of freedom and self-empowerment that came along with university life. They were more acute in university as we started to develop more responsibility for our life choices and had to get better at time and self-management – for example, you no longer get shoved along, whether you like it or not, from this class to that one nor are you stuck to just moving along all year with just the same class (like in secondary school or JC). We learnt how to develop self-regulation and acquired valuable life skills. If you showed up completely and gamely, you would be given more responsibilities to manage, honing your networking and interpersonal skills simultaneously. I deeply treasured these learning avenues and made the best out of every situation – this learning became a habit that would serve me well in my professional journey and personal life.

They say you are the average of the 5 people you hang out with. I was in a group of friends that placed high importance on learning; not just academically but also in terms of engaging with what campus life had to offer. I personally believed that we should not mistake our academic qualification for an education because education is so much more than just lectures and tutorials – and I’m glad that I was fortuitously drawn to, and hung out, with a group who helped me see the richness of my time in NUS.

Another distinct memory was remembering our current Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who was the NUSSU President when I was in my first year at NUS. My friends and I held him in awe as he spoke with so much zeal and was a very gifted orator. He would share his opinions with us through the school magazines, forums and get together sessions and was particularly articulate on the student fee hike matter at the time. It was both a fascinating and bewildering experience for me as a freshman.

3) What are some of the key takeaways from your undergraduate life in NUS?

The friendships formed was definitely one of the key takeaways – they were authentic and lasting. Life has taken me to different countries and on a different trajectory from these NUS friends but whenever we come together, we could always pick up the conversation easily from where we last left off, regardless of how long it has been or how far away we have lived from each other.

Another key takeaway was the realisation that I was more suited to the business arena than a law fraternity. After my A Levels, I managed to secure a job at the then Advani Hoo & Partners. I was very interested in the legal sector and was hungry to know more about it before furthering my studies in law. I landed a full time role as a confidential legal secretary and learnt many tangible skills during my time there. Besides learning how to type really fast in those days, I also got to understand the ins and outs of law and how it was practised. However, I didn’t really take to the idea of being a lawyer and I remember thinking ‘Do I have to keep citing all these precedents? Why can’t new trails be blazed?’ I didn’t think I would be comfortable just following a prescribed way of doing things and decided that law was not my cup of tea. I was happy then, and still very happy now, that I chose the business school in NUS as my choice of study. My time at the law firm was amazing and it benefitted me tremendously. The experience most certainly added to my personal growth and professional development. It was an opportunity to see the real world and to understand how it works. Again, I’ll still credit this to my parents but I’ve always worked during school vacations. Personally, I find these experiences highly valuable as you get to hone your sense of independence and resourcefulness – I think I should make myself useful whenever possible. Without some taste of the real world, the transition from school to work is going to be very stark.

I also remember that university life coincided with an interesting phase of Singapore politics, when dissident voices were getting a little stronger – and there was the Marxist conspiracy that happened when I was in the first year at NUS. I remembered thinking that alternative voices are important in a country’s political system to make sure that no one gets left behind. I remembered reading about shadow cabinets in the United Kingdom and Australia – and thought how fascinating it would be to have that in Singapore – I think I was more fascinated by the term and concept of ‘shadow’ cabinet than anything else. Despite the thoughts and questions, I was never really interested in being part of politics except for wanting to know how we could be more inclusive.

All these key takeaways really helped shape my thoughts and deeds in the years to come.

4) What was the motivation behind Hush TeaBar?

First, we are living in such a dizzying and unabating pace of life which I felt was pushing us further and further away from connecting with ourselves and with one another. I personally lived such a life for a long while as I climbed the professional ladder fast and furiously. A slowdown was seen as a luxury, an act of laziness or a lack of productivity. Such narratives, I felt, needed to be changed to help us be happier and more at peace with ourselves.

Second, I understood what it was like to be called different or disabled. I was born with an eye defect and was called names, bullied and taunted from a young age. My eyes would go in different places and I was unable to focus with both eyes. I was called ‘retarded’ because it looked like I was developmentally challenged. The name calling stopped only when I started topping my classes. Eventually, I corrected my eye defect at the age of 30 when it became a medical condition after I resisted correcting it as a cosmetic procedure. So I’ve been compelled to work with differently-abled persons for a long while.

Hush is a project of love for personal well-being and more empathy and empowerment for true community inclusion – of creating a space for the hearing to slow down, take a pause from the white noise and connect with themselves with a cup of tea, as well as for the Deaf to be themselves as they step forward in a most empowered manner to lead the Hearing into their inner silence.

5) Any wise words of advice for young entrepreneurs in Singapore, especially to women?

I think the most important life skill to have is self-awareness. Yes, I would rate it way higher than innovation because there can be no social transformation without inner transformation. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. So to be an entrepreneur, knowing that distinction gives you an edge in creativity and inclusion. Know what makes you, YOU. Be open to new ideas, keep exploring your options and seek out alternative avenues for growth. Do constant reflection on your life choices and aim to create value into this world. Dare yourself to fail because if you are not failing every now and then, you are not innovating very much at all!

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Keep practising becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, as you will need a lot of resilience and perseverance to walk this path of innovation and social change. Commit yourself to a cause that is bigger than yourself and work at making a difference, because your gifts serve a larger purpose beyond yourself. We rise by lifting others. It is going to be a very fulfilling journey.

For women, I would like to see us become more comfortable in our power to be great entrepreneurs. Show up with the best version of yourself with every opportunity that is being presented to you, and know that equality is not about becoming like men but to understand that we are entitled to and deserving of equal opportunities as men. We can create a new path that does not require us to give up who we are as women – let’s do it our way! Do not get too caught up with focusing on striving for gender equality but instead, strive for equal opportunities for all.

 

 

 

About Hush TeaBar

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Hush is Singapore’s 1st Silent TeaBar (and possibly the world’s first) – a social movement determined to bring the worlds of the hearing and the Deaf together as one, with a cup of tea, in advocacy for Wellness, Inclusion and Deafness – challenging the notions of everyday “busyness” and “disAbilities”.

Hush@Workplace is a new responsibility model where companies can transform responsibilities into opportunity by integrating the need for innovative employee wellness initiatives with a community-empowerment effort.

#Young&Hush is a customised Hush experience for the young in promotion of mental wellness and inclusion in schools and Institutes of Higher Learnings (IHLs).

Come Rush to Hush. Give us a hello at
www.hushteabar.com and like us at our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/hushteabar

More about Anthea Indira Ong

If you are inspired by Anthea’s story, do visit her site at www.antheaong.com and https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/typical-one-pager-anthea-indira-ong

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