SINGAPORE – Respect for women, support for women, fair opportunities for women in 2018, true gender equality is a conversation we’re finally having. But female owned businesses still only make up around a third of companies around the world. It’s time for that to change, says Oei Aisoen.
Meet Oei Aisoen
Oei Aisoen is a successful entrepreneur. Harking from a small town in Indonesia, she moved to Singapore 18 years ago, where she launched her very first second-hand phone shop. Since then, Oei has managed several retail stores, beauty salons, fashion boutiques; a mobile maid agency and her own part-time wholesaler trading business. But the path to success hasn’t always been easy.
“Where I come from, there just aren’t as many opportunities. Women in Indonesia are often treated as second-class citizens. They are valued only on how successful their family or husband is. I wanted to be strong and independent, and not reliant on anyone else.
When I first joined the working world, I didn’t know where to start. I’d never had a job before and didn’t even have the right visa to work in Singapore!
But my father always taught me that I could achieve my dreams if I fought hard enough for them,” explains Oei
Oei had no clue that one simple concept was going to propel her towards success. Within three short years, she was the proud owner of a profitable business.
“And if I can do it, anyone can,” declares Oei.
Success is made, not born
“I had a wonderful childhood. And as a family, we were always very involved in the community. My grandpa was the President of the non-profit Hainan Association in our hometown.
While my mother ran her own home business as a seamstress and supplemented her income by teaching the local women how to sew.
In fact, it was my mother who provided the majority of the income to take care of me and three of my siblings.
My mother has always been a strong woman – very tenacious and determined – and she worked hard to give us a good upbringing. On the other hand, my father came from a wealthy background. However, he often took that for granted, which meant he wasn’t always very responsible with money.
When I was much younger, my dad actually set up a business with his friend, who scammed him out of some cash. My dad never had the courage to ask for it back. This was a running theme throughout my childhood. As as result, I often saw my parents fighting about our income,” says Oei.
Wanting More than Marriage
This dynamic made Oei more determined to pay her own way in life. Even if that went against her family’s ideas for her.
“It was interesting that despite my mother having to work hard, they never changed their beliefs. As a woman, I should aspire to get married, have children and then take care of the family. That was just the norm in Indonesia – to be hidden behind your man’s success.”
But Oei was never satisfied with the idea that she should simply settle down and let someone else make all the decisions. As a young child, she was a tomboy who often ran amok with her brothers and cousins. She sat on her grandpa’s knee as he told her stories of how he ran his own business.
“Growing up in Indonesia wasn’t easy. My identity was muddled, and I didn’t really understand why women didn’t have the same opportunities as men did. The culture didn’t fit how I felt inside. I was a balance of both my parents – I had my mother’s strength and my father’s confidence. I didn’t feel like I could waste all that to be totally dependent on somebody else,” confesses Oei
From Struggle To Success
Moving to Singapore after university was a huge step for Oei. As well as for her family and close friends that she was leaving behind. At 21 years old, she had never had a proper job, apart from her side hustles at school.
Unfortunately, the move proved to be more difficult than Oei anticipated.
“In Indonesia, it’s customary for parents to contribute to a child’s first house or business. Maybe it was naïve, but I just never really expected any hardship when I moved to Singapore. My parents had always supported me, and all the money I’d made from selling things at school was just for fun.
This was the first time it really hit me that I needed to take money seriously and take responsibility for my own success. It was scary, but I knew I could do it.”
Oei realized that she could start her own business, which would give her more control over her finances and visa situation.
“In less than a year, that business failed. Our overheads were too high, and we were too focussed on crafting a brand and not on making the business profitable.
Cash is the blood and net profit is the air of a business. I knew that then and I know that now. After that business went under, I vowed never to start a business with someone else’s money ever again. By giving someone else that power, I’d lost total control of my future.”
But Oei didn’t let this blip stop her. Not long afterwards, she was out window shopping, with zero spare money to buy anything, when another idea came to her.
“Back then, no one in Singapore was buying or selling second-hand phones! With so many shopping malls and a higher disposable income, lots of people would just go and buy a brand-new one. And, leave their old phone lying in a drawer somewhere. My big brother owned a successful second-hand phone shop in Indonesia, so I knew there was a big market for them over there. This lifestyle gap just became really clear in my head, and I knew it was a great business opportunity.” says Oei
Little did she know that this would be the idea that propelled her to success.
Oei’s business continued to grow through 2003 and beyond. With the success of her first mobile phone shop, she was able to rent more business space in a bookshop in City Plaza. By the end of 2006, Oei was running eight stores. Not many Singaporeans recognized that second-hand phones could be a viable business opportunity. Which meant Oei was able to corner the market and target individuals struggling in the wake of the economic crisis in 2007.
However, in 2009, Oei faced a new and entirely different type of challenge. As a newly single mother, she decided to focus even more on growing her entrepreneurial skills. Shop rental was expensive (one of her stores cost a whopping $12,000 a month). So, she needed to make sure she had enough money coming in to cover business expenses while still making a profit.
Oei began dabbling in various small businesses, from selling second-hand laptops to opening a hair salon. She made space in one of her stores to stockpile a range of in-demand products. Thereafter sold wholesale to companies like Groupon, StreetDeal and deal.com. The success of this side business led her to launch her own online shop, deal2sg.com. As well as a private boutique in Indonesia. She even negotiated with a world-famous mobile phone brand to become an authorized dealer of their products.
“After my divorce, I really just needed to find myself again, I wanted to take a break from business entirely and focus all of my attention on me, to heal my broken heart.” says Oei
“I had a few failed relationships during the healing process, and in 2013 I decided I just needed to be alone for a while to focus on learning, my family and getting back to business. I attended a lot of self-improvement seminars, which reminded me of how much I love to learn. It was the most productive I think I have ever been. Because, I had never really made time for those things before.
In 2013, after selling deal2sg.com, Oei found herself searching for a new challenge. An opportunity presented itself after she met a customer’s maid in one of her stores. The maid in question was originally from Indonesia. She was struggling to deal with her own stressful, busy life in Singapore. She began asking Oei questions: Why are my employers so anxious all the time? Why don’t they talk to me? Why is Singapore living so expensive? By the end of the conversation, the maid was feeling much happier about her situation.
Speaking and Impacting People
“My upbringing is what motivated me to make money. In all of my businesses, I pay attention to the bottom line so that I can find ways to cut expenses and maximize profit.
And the definition of family to me is to do whatever it takes to take care of your loved ones and make them happy. My parents never pressured me to be the best, but they always told me to do my best. And now I want to do my best to look after them.”
In 2014, Oei joined the JT Foxx networking community, which also really encouraged her to embrace her love of learning. There, she met like-minded business owners and discovered how to push herself to the next level. Inspired by the speakers she heard at those events, such as Blair Singer and Robert Kyosaki, Oei then spent a couple of years as a motivational speaker on the side before giving it up to spend more time with her daughter.
Attending a Tony Robbins event – aptly titled Unleash the Power Within – in 2018 really hammered home the importance of having a positive mentality to Oei. Who deep down, believes she’s always had a fear of success.
Success After Divorce
“After my divorce, I found it hard to trust new people. Listening to Tony Robbins, I realized I was scared. Scared of standing on my own two feet, scared of failure. But I’m not scared anymore. Instead, I want to be the best I can be.
Oei has stood courageously throughout every new venture, the ups and downs of being a sole business owner and refuses to ever give up. She has let go of any negativity.
“I take inspiration from Rocky Stallone: It isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
Moving forward, Oei hopes to inspire other women, especially single mothers. To take control of their own destiny while still keeping their feet on the ground.
If you want to launch your own start-up, you do need to be realistic. You need some money in the bank, an investor, or a loan. At least enough to pay your deposit rental, stock capital and insurance. And you need enough to pay your staff, market your business and cover your overheads. After that, you just need to sell, sell, sell!
But most importantly, it’s about believing in yourself.
Life really is what you make it. I am a single mother by choice and an entrepreneur by passion. You just have to find your passion. And remember: You can always dream bigger, strive harder and reach higher than you ever imagined.” says Oei.