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Elim Chew

Become – High Profiles
January 15, 2015

Toast Box at *SCAPE is the designated meeting place and although it may not seem like an obvious joint—befitting of one of Singapore’s most recognised and established women entrepreneurs, I soon discover that we are right where Elim Chew belongs. One of her strongest passions lies in anything youth-related and to see young people as change makers, who are driven by good social causes—is something that Elim champions constantly.

As she shares more about working with a specific group of youths who have “big dreams”, in particular, her recent project as an advisor to “50 for 50”, I notice her eyes peering outside the glass window—subtly observing a group of teenage boys with skateboards. It is rare to see a woman of her calibre who possesses such a bountiful amount of benevolence and compassion that never wavers—even though she was marked down in her early years due to her paper qualifications. These days, it comes as no surprise that Elim is leading youths by injecting new life into *SCAPE (through various programmes) as one of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, Elim has become synonymous with 77th Street—a street wear clothing company that has been around since 1988. Not to be taken lightly, these 27 years of surviving in the retail scene has seen the business grow from her very first shop at Far East Plaza, to a chain of retail outlets across the island and subsequently, a 400,000 square feet cutting-edge underground youth shopping mall in Xidan, Beijing. Staying true to her brand, Elim wears pieces sold at her store and her psychedelic rainbow creepers are most noticeable, even from afar. That aside, her shock of grey hair with streaks of sandy highlights isn’t a mismatch with her bright blue Mandarin collar jacket. This seemingly quirky look might be extremely difficult to pull off, but Elim carries it with such spunk and is the epitome of cool. To top it off, evenings are spent at her siblings’ restaurant called I’m KIM Korean BBQ – serving customers, washing dishes, and helping out in any possible way. I’m in awe.

Conversations with Elim Chew

Founder, 77th Street
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: How’s business for 77th Street coming along?

ELIM CHEW: At the moment, we still have our retail outlets in Singapore but due to high rental costs and the lack of manpower, we had to cut down from 16 to 5. We have also gone e-commerce with part of our business. Separately, we’re fashion consultants to brands who want to enter the Singapore market: for example, JRunway and Harajuku Street Style. We deploy our talent and help these companies with logistics and manpower support too.

WY-LENE: There’s always a need to constantly evolve and create new opportunities in order to stay ahead.

ELIM: I am also bringing in the concept of an Asia Fashion City and Design Hub into Asia and building a connectivity point for brands. If I get a brand, I can connect them to Indonesia, Malaysia or even Thailand. So basically, it’s about connecting brands into the Asian market. 77th Street is still focused on its core business, but I also use it as a platform to do a lot of things that I like – eighty percent of my time is spent on helping social businesses and entrepreneurs – giving young people advice. The business still runs and I have a very experienced team.


WY-LENE: Why did you decide to open a 77th Street Plaza in Xidan, Beijing?

ELIM: The opportunity came along, as there was this rundown place that changed hands quite a fair bit. So we decided to take a look at the place because no one wanted it. At that time [2002], it was also the only place that we could afford too. In Singapore, whenever we share an idea about having a small incubation group (small outlets) concept, it gets hijacked by a shopping mall owner. When we went to China, they liked our concept and gave us the opportunity to execute it. T0day, we have 400 tenants in our plaza comprising young start-ups and tenants.

WY-LENE: Any other new business ventures?

ELIM: Recently, 77th Street has invested in a F&B business called I’m KIM Korean BBQ and a music label company that recognises young talent – singers/songwriters, serving as a platform to sell their music too.

We tend to incubate a lot of brands and when there is significant traction for them to take off, they will open a boutique or an outlet.

WY-LENE: In terms of street wear, I know that 77th Street has a lower and more affordable price point. How about high-end street wear?

ELIM: We have a different range actually – as a platform we carry affordable brands that are not known to ones that are a bit higher end. 10 years ago, we used to carry Crumpler, and then they became big. Similarly, with Billabong, they decided to open their own outlet. We tend to incubate a lot of brands and when there is significant traction for them to take off, they will open a boutique or an outlet. Then, we will start our search for new brands again.

WY-LENE: Do you think that women entrepreneurs have a harder time compared to their male counterparts in terms of making a name for themselves?

ELIM: In Asia, maybe due to the different rules and regulations, there is still a glass ceiling for women. If you look at our leadership, the percentage of women in power is not even 30%. Our prime minister and president are males. Comparatively, if you look at the Philippines and Indonesia, they have had women presidents before. Even the current president of South Korea is a female too. But I feel that it is progressively better in Singapore.

WY-LENE: The rise of Angela Merkel.

ELIM: Right, and Margaret Thatcher. I think we are getting there… but we are not quite there yet. Women face the challenge of being a wife, a mother and an entrepreneur; that they feel a sense of guilt when their career takes up too much of their time. Many of my peers who have growing businesses hand them over to their husbands once it reaches a certain level, primarily due to motherhood.


WY-LENE: What do you think of the entrepreneurship scene in Singapore?

ELIM: For twelve years now, I have been part of the Action Committee for Entrepreneurship (ACE) and the aim was to make Singapore the most conducive space for start-ups – today it has and you can setup a business in 15 minutes online. The only thing in the last twelve years that has changed is the high costs of living, inflation and the lack of manpower. All these factors have affected start-ups so much so that before they even begin, their overheads will already kill them. So at this point, it is about finding the right balance.

WY-LENE: The start-up scene in the Bay Area (U.S) is amazing. Is it a question of talent then?

ELIM: They also have the availability of funds, like VCs, different rounds of funding: Series A, B, etc… a 360-degree ecosystem.

In Singapore, “poach-tivity” is the new productivity, which is wrong.

WY-LENE: So we don’t have that ecosystem.

ELIM: Yes. To me, productivity is actually profitability, and profitability leads to productivity, and productivity leads to innovation. In Singapore, “poach-tivity” is the new productivity, which is wrong. The flow of money must be there. Today, a lot of policies are stifling businesses – hence, they are not making money and they don’t have enough money to spend. It’s a cycle and we are spinning in the opposite direction.

WY-LENE: Can the government do something to change that?

ELIM: Policies create a reaction from the ground and if it is not working, then a solution has to be found. And it has to be a “listening with a heart” approach. Singaporeans are very good at using their heads but not their hearts.

WY-LENE: A lot of IQ but no EQ.

ELIM: Yeah and what I feel is missing in the equation is the “calling” – as entrepreneurs, we are “called”, whether we are paid or not – especially, social entrepreneurs. They have a harder time because they need to make money, take care of people, counsel them and even help them.

WY-LENE: What were some of your biggest struggles before you became successful?

ELIM: I have struggles all the time. Every step is a struggle. I think the most important thing is overcoming it. For example, in China, it was published in the newspapers that we were facing a lot of difficulties. But today, we’re doing well – even Lonely Planet featured us and I take comfort in the fact that we’re being recognised. Basically, all you need are 3 things: money, talent and distribution. If you look at Xiaomi, they are raising money at a valuation of $40 billion so that they can become a global company and compete with Apple. Apparently, Xiaomi doesn’t innovate – they take what’s current and make it more affordable. So their next step is geared towards innovation. Different stages of growth come with a different set of struggles.

I am also driven by my teacher’s belief in me: when I was thirteen, I told her that I wanted to be a millionaire and everyone laughed at me because I couldn’t study well.

WY-LENE: I understand that you are big on philanthropy and giving back to society. How did it all get started?

ELIM: Someone gave me that opportunity. Who I am today is because of certain people who gave me a helping hand along the way. Likewise, I am always giving back because I know that many of them will become somebody down the road and that’s my driving force – to know they are doing well. The touching part is every time I want to give up, someone will ask to meet me and it reminds me of the seed I planted years ago. Interestingly, this someone is now creating an impact in this world. I am also driven by my teacher’s belief in me: when I was thirteen, I told her that I wanted to be a millionaire and everyone laughed at me because I couldn’t study well.


WY-LENE: You don’t need good grades to be successful in life.

ELIM: In those days, you always thought that people who get good grades tend to make a lot of money in their careers. She wasn’t just my teacher, but also a friend. Even during my London days, whenever I was back in Singapore, she always bought me lunch. One day, I waited for her but unfortunately; I received a call that she had died in the SilkAir crash. I never had the chance to thank her so carrying on this belief system is something I felt the need to do. When I made my first $50,000 (in cash), it was everything that I had. I went to church and my pastor told me that he needed $50,000 to build 6 churches in Gujarat, India. Eventually, I decided to give that money away. One and a half years later, Gujarat had a really bad earthquake but interestingly, the 6 churches did not collapse and they became food distribution centres for the people who needed help. At that moment, it hit me that I was chosen before time. Since then, I have pledged to give back to society and today; (through my mum), we have built 7 churches in China. We also have an orphanage; an old folks home and a whole village in Indonesia that we help on the side.

WY-LENE: That’s very admirable. Would you say that religion has played a profound impact in your life?

ELIM: Yes, it is a key factor. I am a fifth generation Christian. All my relatives thought that I was going to be a pastor because each generation needs to have a pastor. But I think I am called for a different purpose – to inspire young people to create impact and change.

WY-LENE: You have always been a great mentor to many. How would you define mentorship?

ELIM: Mentorship is someone who has the experience and the ability to guide your heart and soul. Mentors have different stages too. Sometimes, you can outgrow them. For example, if you are in a start-up and you have plans to go for an IPO, your start-up mentor may not have the ability and skills to take you to the next level. So you also need to find a suitable person who can help you accomplish that particular goal or stage.

WY-LENE: What’s your greatest accomplishment in life?

ELIM: [laughs] We’re getting there. I think the greatest accomplishment is when I see young people who I have mentored, make a difference in society or do well in their respective businesses.

WY-LENE: Finally, what do you do to relax?

ELIM: Eat a plate of char kway teow or hokkien mee. I love hawker food.