Empowering Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs

An entrepreneur since the age of 14, Ms Jocelyn Chng, is actively involved in nurturing women entrepreneurship.

To help out with the family finances in 1982, Ms Jocelyn Chng started pairing private tutors with students to earn a commission. She also sold cosmetics to neighbours and friends. She was only 14 years old.

Her parents had lost their jobs at a food factory when it shut down. To make a living, both husband and wife sold sauces made in their backyard to roadside food hawkers. They were able to scrape through. In the 1970s, her father set up Sin Hwa Dee Foodstuff with a small factory manufacturing mainly bottled sauces and rice mixes.

Times were tough and Ms Chng had to balance helping with the business and her education which included studying Economics at the National University of Singapore. She was in her second year when her father died in 1988. Until she graduated a year later, she worked in the company and studied. As the oldest of six children, the responsibility fell on her young shoulders. She was 21 years old.

There were other complications. The business was in debt and suppliers and customers were sceptical if she could make the business work.

First challenge was to build trust

With competitors betting that Sin Hwa Dee would fail in six months’ time, she went the extra mile for her customers. She said, “Building trust was crucial. Because of my age and gender, customers and suppliers were worried about the continuity of the business and I had to do my best to assure them that the company was in good hands.”

She added, “Getting funds also proved difficult as banks and financial institutions were also wary. Most times, we had to rely on our own resources to pull through.”

She worked 20 hours a day and by the 1990s, she had three factories. In 1992, after attending an F&B fair in Paris, she decided to venture into the overseas export market and to move into a bigger factory so as to increase production.

However, in 1995 serious financial issues arose when the sale of its old factories was delayed and the main contractor for the new building ran away with the money for renovation. Pregnant with her first child, Ms Chng went back to working long hours pausing only to deliver her child and then returning to work immediately. Due to her relentless perseverance, Sin Hwa Dee started exports of their sauces in 1996.

Through trade fairs, she saw the potential of ready-to-eat meals and hot food vending machines. In 2001, together with her husband, she established JR Foods to provide restaurant quality meals in a convenient format, suitable for busy working professionals to prepare home-cooked meals as well as for restaurants with limited kitchen facility. To do this, JR Foods was among the pioneers to take advantage of cook-chill and cook-freeze technology in the manufacturing of ready meals.

Its core brand was JIAYEN, a range of menu dishes that homes and restaurants can prepare by simply reheating in the oven. Then, in 2016, the JR group opened the world’s first automatic and unmanned vending machine café serving hot meals in Singapore. Presently, the group also exports OEM products to Australia and New Zealand.

Along the way, she faced the reluctance to modernise among employees. She said, “They can be reluctant to accept change such as digitisation or to upgrade to new software. It takes time but it is possible to encourage them to continue learning and acquire new skills.”

On her part, she returned to NUS to get an Executive MBA. She also earned impressive accolades. These included the Women Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002, organised by Association of Small & Medium Enterprises (ASME), the Montblanc Businesswomen Award in 2003, the Work Life Achiever Award in 2005 and the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Asia Pacific Program Award in 2018.

Ms Chng also received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2021.
Credit:National University of Singapore, Office of Alumni Relations

Sharing her experiences

In September 2021, Ms Chng co-founded the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network (SG-WEN) to serve as a platform to connect with other women-entrepreneurs associations in Asia-Pacific, particularly ASEAN. Ms Chng said, “Our vision is to be the preeminent network of women entrepreneurs in Singapore focused on helping them achieve the fullest potential in their businesses, for the benefit of the communities and economies they serve.”

On the progress made by SG-WEN, she is pleased that there is no shortage of volunteers coming aboard to share their expertise or to help in organising events. She said, “Women entrepreneurs all face the same challenges such as accessing funds and facing gender discrimination so sharing our experiences go a long way in empowering them in overcoming these hurdles.”

Asked for advice she could share with those aspiring to join the ranks, she pointed out that women entrepreneurs wear many hats. “They are businesswomen, wives, mothers, and sometimes caregivers to their own parents or their in-laws. With so many responsibilities, they often do not take care of themselves.

“So my advice is for you to look after yourself. Take care; stay healthy. Only then can you live up to all your responsibilities.”

In addition, she advised them to take advantage of available resources such as the Singapore Business Federation (SBF). She said that in her case, SBF had opened doors in overseas markets such as in Thailand and Vietnam.

Ms Chng and her team at Food&HotelAsia 2022.

When asked if she has achieved what she set out to do, she said, “My concept of success is a journey. It is not a destination because to maintain success, I need to continue learning and doing new things. Success also involves continuously enhancing our R&D capabilities, improving quality control so as to keep our customers healthy and happy. I have not completed my journey.”