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Life-Changing Conversations

Become – High Profiles
January 20, 2017

Over the New Year, I wanted to gain an insight into the lives of a number of women. I asked each of them to tell me a story about a life-changing conversation. After all, the power of some words spoken at the right time can leave a deep and lasting impression that changes the very fabric of who we are as a person. They can shape our values, transform our mindset, and even alter our personality.

You are about to read 10 personal stories. Some are long, while others are short and subtle. On the most basic level, what makes up a story? Something happens, and then something else happens, and once you arrive at the end, it makes you think. Well, I am hoping you do more than think. I hope you are able to feel, relate and connect, too.

Because I certainly did.

10 Powerful Women Share Their Life-Changing Conversation

Written by Wy-Lene Yap

Hui Nan Lim (Co-Owner, Standing Sushi Bar, Tanuki Raw & The Secret Mermaid)

My husband and I were in Myanmar for his birthday and we had planned to grab a quick pre-dinner drink at the hotel lobby. We soon found ourselves chatting with an elderly guest seated next to us at the bar who was travelling alone for work. One pre-dinner drink led to another, and it was clear to us that we would be spending the rest of the night at the bar with this congenial gentleman who captivated our attention with his life stories, adventures around the world, and sagely marriage advice.

Born in Australia, he met and married his first love in the Caribbean. As a designer of shopping malls, his work led them around the world, including Kenya, where they had their first child—the first of a brood of three, who were “all conceived in different continents”. Given his vast experience, he is frequently invited to speak at symposiums and his expert opinions are sought by developers worldwide. From his stories, I gathered that his wife (whom he spoke fondly of) would accompany him on all his trips. So I became curious about her absence in Myanmar—it turned out she had just passed on a few months earlier. 

“It was truly the best way to go—we were drinking by the pool, like we always do, and I had just shared with her about an upcoming project in Bali, and she said to me, ‘It would be nice to go on a road trip after your project.’ I agreed, and she said, ‘I'll book the tickets tomorrow.’ Right after she said those words to me, her head nodded forward, her hand still holding on to her glass of red wine—and she was gone. Just like that. They found a haemorrhage in her brain,” he recounted, matter-of-factly for the most part of it—before the tears in his eyes betrayed his loss and he excused himself.

Before we retired to our respective rooms that night, we exchanged contacts—but we never did hear back from him. I still think of how fondly he spoke of his first love, of how lucky he felt to have spent the majority of his life with this woman he loved dearly and of his one marriage advice, “Never go to bed mad at each other”—something that I consciously try to practise now. Our conversation that night also made me realise that the dream of a full life doesn't necessarily mean a life rich with happiness and pleasure only; it inevitably encompasses sorrow, loss and grief at some point. That awareness has led me to be more appreciative of people and situations that bring me joy.

I instantly accepted his offer to travel the world, yet honestly thought it’d never materialise.

Paige Parker (Philanthropist, Singapore Fashion Week Advisor & UN Women Singapore Executive Committee)

I pulled my chair closer, eager to hear whatever intimate confidence he seemed willing to share, and held my breath as he reached for my unsteady hand. “I’m thinking of going around the world again. You wanna come along?” The air came rushing out of me like a sudden gust off the Outer Banks. “I’m in,” I said with a laugh, feeling as though I could follow this man anywhere, yet never truly believing that such a crazy idea would ever see the light of day, or for that matter that any relationship with a man like this—who had been married twice before, by the way—would last longer than a popsicle on a hot sidewalk. 

This narrative took place on our first date in Central Park, at Boathouse Café. (We’d met a few weeks before down South, where I worked, and talked endlessly on the phone since.) I instantly accepted his offer to travel the world, yet honestly thought it’d never materialise. Well, long story short (2.5 years later): it did, and the world circumnavigation (and that conversation) changed my life, ultimately leading me to become a different, dare I say better, person—one I would not have understood, or recognised, or even accepted back then, when we spoke the words. 

 

Elizabeth Tan (CEO, Heatwave Shoes & Co-Founder, Sight to Sky)

The cracked, bright yellow seats were hurting me. The faded green window frames and peeling blue floorboards annoyed me further, accompanied by a loud clattering noise from the old train rails. I was on board a one-way third class carriage to Phitsanulok, where I planned to stay the night at some $4 hostel before continuing my journey to the old kingdom of Sukhothai. On the contrary, the scene outside was gentle and calm—fertile green rice fields, withering shadows of slow moving men bent over at work, and the occasional buffalo. 

I miraculously dozed off for the first hour but woke up abruptly to the smell of dried fish. The food vendors with their big straw hats had come on board and I made a sport out of dodging bunches of fish that would hit my face. The people sitting across the aisle looked at me warily—they knew I was not local. My backpack was precariously placed on a broken luggage rack and the straps were flapping loosely in the wind outside the window. I felt comforted looking at the kind middle-aged lady with her elderly blind mother because she smiled at me from afar. Sitting across from me was a drunk woman with stringy hair, who had been mumbling to herself ever since she came on board. I decided to shift closer to the window, letting the high-speed wind whip my hair around, even though it hurt.

In a split second, she settled into the seat beside me, holding onto her empty Chang bottle. The smell of alcohol and sadness hit me in. She was not dirty nor did she look homeless. She just looked very drunk, but was properly dressed and even had a pleasant face. She told me in broken English that she had been drinking for 2 days, ever since her husband left her with nothing, for another woman.

Cynics would tell you to be careful because this is how a scam begins. But human instinct told me she had a story to tell. In between bouts of incoherent slurring, “You, china eyes. Me, same same but different”, she cried to me, “He was good to me in own way. I love him so much...” I felt a surge of compassion at this genuinely helpless sight. I asked about the huge scars on her arms, which were large and evil-looking, like tentacles wrapped around her arms. She kept silent and smiled. Later, she revealed to me that she was working as a construction worker to support her husband. She was on her way to look for him to tell him he was forgiven. She still wanted to be together even though she hated him for what he did—she didn't want to betray her love for him. I told her that she deserved better. “But I love him so much… you no understand, love only one thing I got… and I believe…” Before she could finish her sentence, she trailed off into deep sleep, to a place where her emotions could not get the better of her. 

It was then I realised that love—even the obsessive and unfair kind of love—was the greatest thing she could achieve in her small world of pain. Love makes the smallest person feel noble and immortal, even if there was nothing heroic about how things have turned out. She could not let go of the one thing that made her feel closer to humanity: was she brave or foolish for doing so?

I decided that day that I had no right to judge anyone for their decisions. Who are we to say what is right and wrong for others? Even though the outcome may not be favourable, it is the courage and faith in that decision that gives one strength. 

 

Anita Kapoor (TV Host, Writer, Speaker & Advocate)

I was raised by my stepdad and had never had much of a relationship with my biological father. As an adult, I decided to forge a new friendship with him. I could see the immense pride in his face the day I went to him for advice. And a look of worry as well. We were both nervous. I was trying to make the difficult decision of ending a significant relationship. I told him the story, and he looked at me and said, “Whatever decisions you make in life, ensure that you don't drag the other person down with you.” In that moment, I knew I had been asking for permission, but was taught a lesson in responsibility.

For the longest time, I hadn't been able to work out the intent behind her words.

Tan Su-Lyn (CEO & Co-Founder, The Ate Group)

I was seventeen, or eighteen at most. Highly impressionable. And still languorously stewing in my own over-indulgent daube of teenage angst. You could say that I was a little late to the party as far as puberty was concerned (and by this I mean the emotional rather than biological state).

Up to that point, I’d always stayed on the right side of the law as far as school was concerned. My gravest misdemeanour might’ve been convincing a classmate that school was out one period before it actually was on the first day of primary school. The two of us were found standing at the locked school gate, waiting to leave.

I can’t remember the precise context of this conversation but it probably occurred right after the ‘O’ Level results for my year had been released. I was a straight A student, but hadn’t managed to nab the perfect score. Two statements my tutor (teachers were called tutors in junior college) made to me that day have remained with me for over two decades.

“I expected more of you,” she first said.

And then the kicker was, “You’re a good student. The smart ones give me trouble.”

I had poured so much of myself into being good. And I still catch myself striving to be good today. But in that moment, she pulled the proverbial carpet from under my feet. Essentially, to my mind she’d meant, “Child, the rules no longer apply.”

You could get good grades, but not be smart. You might screw up your exams, but that didn’t make you stupid. For the longest time, I hadn't been able to work out the intent behind her words. My overwrought teenage self was mortified. What did she mean?

What is good?
Does not being good make me bad?
Is it important to be good? Or smart?
Is it good to be bad?

Am I being too safe? Too trite?
Am I just being polite? Should I be truthful instead?

I’ve learnt to let the question of her intent go. But I’ve carried her words, and the questions they have elicited, with me throughout my adult life.

Over the years, that conversation has forced me to understand that life consists of more than uncompromising polar opposites of good or bad. Just being good (what I’ve come to define as policing myself in order to fulfil social norms) doesn’t really cut it. And more often than not, being right (as in doing the right thing) is far more important than being good.

 

Shumei Lam (Owner & Managing Director, Poultry East Africa Ltd)

5 years ago, I set out to pursue a ridiculous idea: I wanted to create the first modern poultry farm in Rwanda, so I could provide affordable and accessible meat proteins to a growing population. Having zero experience in farming, I connected with one of the largest poultry suppliers in Singapore and declared him my mentor. I was immediately barraged with disparaging comments about how I shouldn't get into the business because it was a difficult and dirty industry, especially for a ‘little girl’ like me. Driven by youthful naivety, I pestered him relentlessly for advice on how to build my farm.

Despite having initial doubts, he always responded with kindness and patience. He even taught me industry secrets on how to use chicken waste to power my farm and depreciate laying hens. Though we have now been operating for 2 years, the journey was wrought with countless challenges. I guess I hadn't really thought about my project as a success until our last catch up at a poultry tradeshow. After introducing me to the other big poultry suppliers as Rwanda’s number one farmer, my mentor turned to me and declared “I salute you!”

 

Shannon Kalayanamitr (Co-Founder & Group CMO, Orami)

Since I was 6, I remember my father had a habit. Whenever he returned from a business trip, he would bring back “souvenirs” in the form of magazines, books and even week-old newspapers. I would go through everything, though I wasn't sure what he wanted me to do.

Every time my father handed me a book, magazine, or newspapers, he would highlight a few articles or sentences and explain to me why it was so interesting. The phrase he often said was “You can do it”. He encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be: one day it was an ambassador, the next it was an engineer… the following was a diplomat… the sky was the limit.

Looking back, my father had the foresight to shape my mindset at an early edge and also gave me the confidence and support that regardless of sex, grades, lack of financial means, a non-ivy league background, I could do whatever it was that I wanted.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

Just thinking about it makes me smile, and as I glance over at his latest stack of “souvenirs” from his recent Myanmar trip, I hear the words, “You can do it.”

Till today, that conversation remains one of my guiding principles in life.

Grace Huang (Co-Founder & Creative Director, Trifecta Martial Arts)

“What do you know woman? Just f***ing sit down!”

That was the vicious response to a neighbour at an emergency residents meeting, when she stood up (politely) to question the Chairperson's motivations for spending a substantial sum of estate money that year.

The silence in the hall was deafening, people were looking around, both in shock and disbelief at what had happened. Visibly shaken, the lady slowly sunk back down into her seat.

Suddenly, another woman stood up and yelled, “How dare you!? It is you who should f***ing sit back down! She asked a question, we all want to know the answer!” There was a roar in the hall. The residents eventually got their answer that day.

“Why did you do that, Mom?” I asked, on our way home.

“Because in such difficult situations, you must always stand up for what is true. And you must always stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.” She replied without hesitation. There was a soul-piercing conviction in her voice.

I was in my early teens then, and till today, that conversation remains one of my guiding principles in life.

 

Dr Jade Kua (Emergency Medicine Specialist & President of the Association of Women Doctors Singapore)

Sometime last year, one of my old friends who happens to be a jeweller, asked me to be one of her brand ambassadors. During the photo shoot and interview, she asked me an interesting question: What wise advice would I give to the younger version of me, if I could go back in time? 

I have always lived life to the fullest and have made decisions that others may never understand. A conventional person may consider some of these decisions ‘mistakes’, I suppose. Yet my reply to her was that I would choose to say nothing at all. I consider all of those moments to have shaped me to become the person I am, and truly, I left the interview with the realisation that I felt content and peaceful despite my imperfect life.

 

Carol Chen (Founder & Managing Director, Covetella)

It was the summer of 2011 and my clothing brand had just gone bankrupt after being stocked in over 300 stores. Seeking my manufacturing expertise, a friend from Texas called me up to see if I could help her produce US cheerleading uniforms in China. She said that currently all the uniforms were being made domestically, but if we could figure out how to produce them overseas we would dominate the market. Her uncle owned a factory in Dongguan that I could stay at while I tried to develop the product, so with nothing to lose I signed a 6-month contract without even knowing where Dongguan was. Two weeks later, I had put all my stuff in storage in Los Angeles and was off to China’s infamous “Sin City.”

Suddenly, I found myself in a gated factory compound surrounded by hundreds of migrant workers. I slept in the dorms under a mosquito net, had mice all over my office and lizards in my shower. I went to work when the factory bell rang and lined up to eat rice every day in the food halls. My job consisted of buying dirty machines, training uneducated workers how to sew, and taking my team to shady KTV bars. I worked 16-hour days and wore the same blue-collar uniform as the others so I wouldn't get robbed. The men that tried to date me were farmers.

Within a few months, it became clear that no independent vendor would be able to effectively make our product to our standards, so the only choice was to have me stay and develop our own factory. My consultancy contract turned into an equity partnership, 20 workers turned into 80, minimal revenue turned into millions, six months turned into two years—and that simple conversation over the phone turned out to be an adventure (and legacy) of a lifetime.