This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.
By Soh Jing Yee (21S03Q)
In celebration of successful female entrepreneurs this International Women’s Day, we have caught up with Dr. Elaine Kim. Dr. Elaine Kim is a Singapore-based female entrepreneur and palliative care doctor. Outside of her hectic work life, she is also a mother to 3 little boys. As a working mum herself, she was inspired to establish Trehaus—a modern preschool and childcare centre with a focus on raising changemakers for the future—in response to the woes of working parents in Singapore who are looking to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
- In your own words, can you tell us more about Trehaus?
So Trehaus is basically like a modern village for families. It brings together 3 main components—there’s Trehaus School, which is a preschool and childcare [centre] that takes kids from 2 months old all the way until 18 months old and till 6 years old; and then we have Trehaus Business Club, which is like a shared office space where you can work. We also have a crèche or nursery in Trehaus Business Club where you can have your baby looked after just a few steps away from where you are working; and we have a Trehaus Members Club [which is] basically a private members club for working families. I guess people say it takes a village to raise a child, and Trehaus is that modern village that makes work-life integration and work-family balance a reality for working parents and their family.
- What ultimately inspired you to establish Trehaus?
So I’m a working mum myself, I’m a working parent, I have 3 young children and I really believed, you know, that there was a way to not have to choose between family and career. [I believed] that you can be a successful working career professional while at the same time being able to prioritise your children and not have to miss out on the precious first few years of their life when they’re being shaped, that are so fleeting, and [so] Trehaus was established to solve the problems that I face in my own life. You know, [Trehaus came out of] wanting to find that balance between career and family, and wanting to solve these problems for so many other people who [are looking for this] balance.
- How have your personal experiences and values influenced your decisions in establishing Trehaus?
Yeah I mean [like] I mentioned earlier, it came out of my own personal challenges that I face and needing to find a solution for them. I [actually] have a different role—I don’t know if you know, but I’m a doctor and I do palliative care, so I work with terminally ill patients in my job as a palliative care doctor. And people in the last days of their lives, they don’t say they wish they [had] worked harder but [to them] it’s the relationships that matter—it’s family that matters most [and] they wish they had more time with their children, with their family and with their grandchildren. And so I really do believe that it is important to be present for your children growing up. At the same time, I do believe that people have so much to contribute to society and to the economy, and women, in particular, have a lot to contribute through work and [so] there had to be a way to find that balance of being able to have a career and at the same time prioritise family. And I think that led me to do that and behind everything, there’s a desire to make a positive difference in society.
- Are there any particular individuals who have helped shape your journey to establish Trehaus?
To be honest, I couldn’t have done without the support of my husband. As women [I think] we have a lot of strength, we have a lot to contribute. I was brought up with this [mindset] with my family and with my school life as a Rafflesian—I think I’ve been very blessed to have been brought up being told that anything is possible and that you can do anything you set your mind to achieve, and that was really rewarding for me.
But society is not always like that, and I think [with] the role of being a caregiver that women play, [there are] certain gender biases in society [such that] a lot of women aren’t able to achieve what they want and less than 5% of C-suite level women [are able to achieve success]. There’s still that glass ceiling that women are trying to break and a big part of [doing] that is having supportive people to encourage you and to say that you can, who support you in your journey.
So honestly, entrepreneurship is very hard, it’s very challenging, it’s a lot of work and I don’t think I could have done it without the support of my family, in particular, my husband. [Although] he’s a successful individual himself, but he’s willing to be supportive and encourage me to pursue my dreams and so I think that has shaped [this journey] a lot. Being able to have a supportive husband and being able to see that in my own life I’m able to have kids I’m also able to have a career, I think I am [enabling] more people to do that through the infrastructure that we’re creating through Trehaus.
- What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
The key thing we’ve been focusing on recently in Trehaus has been developing Trehaus school. Trehaus school is a full-fledged preschool and childcare [centre] and it really comes out of our vision to provide the best sort of education, to prepare our next generation for the future world and to raise changemakers for the world of tomorrow. It’s really rewarding to see Trehaus school come together, [and] to see the children that are growing up in Trehaus school that really love learning—[they go through] not just knowledge-based learning but also things like developing their character, instilling things like empathy, grit, good social skills, good communication skills, entrepreneur skills and CEO skills.
They have a proprietary curriculum that we have developed, and I think [it’s really rewarding to] see this whole school come together, see these children grow up and allow the parents in our space to [be in close] proximity to [their] while working. Really, seeing that change happen [and] when you can tell kids love school [is] so rewarding, [especially] when you see parents come and tell us that “We’re so glad that Trehaus exists, it’s changed our lives and this is really a place where I know my kids are getting the best sort of education while I can be present”.
- Conversely, what are the most challenging aspects?
I mean, entrepreneurship is just incredibly challenging, really. COVID came and that just threw our entire business into a tailspin. And so we needed to be really resilient, adaptable, and to just have incredible grit, I guess, to get through the many ups and downs, and difficulties that you face in starting any business. So I think entrepreneurship has been very challenging.
- In your own experience, what are the challenges that you face from being a female entrepreneur?
As I mentioned earlier, I was very fortunate to have been brought up with a [mindset] that I could do anything. It’s not common for a lot of women I think, and a lot of women have less confidence to go out there in entrepreneurship and put [themselves] out there, so it’s something that we overcome. And I think the other thing is a very intrinsic, almost subconscious gender bias, [that you will notice for example] when you try to fundraise for your business.
Outside my role as a CEO of Trehaus, I’m also the co-founder of an organisation called CRIB, which is a network to empower female entrepreneurs to achieve their business dreams and we do it in a variety of ways. We have this networking platform that really provides the support and the social network which women are lacking, [especially] because a lot of business clubs were very men-focused in the past and we [are] determined to change that. Networking is so crucial in any business, and we’ve been trying to achieve that through CRIB Society which is our networking community.
[We have] CRIB Match, which helps to match female founders with business partners and investors, and CRIB Angels Club [which is an exclusive network that helps] to provide funding for female startups. And so these are a lot of the challenges that women entrepreneurs face. [With] this gender bias in raising funding for startups, only 3% of received funding actually goes to women at startups—it’s a clear funding gap [and] there’s not enough female investors. Some studies show that [even though] women and men are on the exact same page, men will get a higher level of funding than women, [and when] men and women approach a bank for a loan, men are more likely to get a higher loan. So there are statistics underlining intrinsic gender bias that women have to overcome.
We try to overcome that in our little way with CRIB Match and CRIB Equip to equip women with skills to be entrepreneurs. [Entrepreneurship is] already so challenging, so we need to make sure they’re fully equipped before starting a business. So I am taking steps [not only] in my own life, but also through CRIB to create more women entrepreneurs.
- What kind of impact do you anticipate that Trehaus will make on Singapore’s early childhood education sector?
We really are paving the way for the future of work, the future of education [and] really rethinking the way early education needs to be. [By] creating Trehaus school, and rethinking the way the workspace needs to be—and actually from when we first imagined Trehaus school to where we are today—[we can already] see the changes already starting to happen.
In a sense, COVID-19 has really accelerated a lot of it, a lot of how [Trehaus was] when we first opened was about working parents’ flexibility, allowing them to have the flexibility to work, to have their own arrangements and not have to sit in an office desk from 9-5. In that [aspect], COVID-19’s really changed that thinking and made people realise [they] can get work done without having to sit in an office from 9–5 and having to be separated from [their] child all day. So in a sense, we are trying for a very different world.
When we first started out, [we were] really aiming for entrepreneurs [and] freelancers that had the flexibility to make use of our services, or forward-thinking CEOs who are like “yeah we can do this and we can have our employees work from this place”, but now a lot of our members are actually at corporate levels. Big companies and MNCs have taken up corporate membership with us to allow their employees to work at our space, [and] people are starting to recognise that there is a different way of working, that you don’t necessarily have to make your employees choose between career and family and [they don’t have to] work from an office desk from morning to night. Yeah, I [do] think Trehaus is really paving the way, in a sense.
- What are your thoughts on this year’s International Women’s Day slogan: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”?
In my opinion, [this slogan is] very relevant. Sometimes through crises, that is when strength is shown. And you know, hopefully, through this crisis, we can see more women emerge proving their leadership, their contribution [and] their worth.
- On this International Women’s Day, what is the most important message that you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers?
Well, I [would] emphasise [that] the entrepreneurship journey is a challenging one. But really, it has been taught to me since I was growing up that anything is possible [and] that nothing is impossible. If you really set your mind to it and you have a dream, [you should] just take a small step, [which will be] the first step [towards achieving] that dream. [Going] step by step will really make the achieving of this dream a reality. Don’t be afraid to take your first step towards this goal [and] always start with a first step.