This interview was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), July 2017, Volume 12, Issue 3.
Women are making impressive inroads into the Singaporean labour markets and more are smashing the ‘glass ceiling’ and taking their seats in the ‘C-suite’. With Singapore clinching best Asian country for women-owned businesses in the inaugural Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2017, women’s entrepreneurship have also seen a rise here, with some achieving high levels of growth and crossing into the global market. Women have proven to be equally capable entrepreneurs as their male counterparts and evidence suggests that companies with strong female representation at the board and top management levels perform better than those without.
However, while cultural or societal gender norms still exist, hindering equal participation of women in ventures that men undertake, being in gender-stereotypical industries such as retail or childcare are not necessarily disadvantageous for women. Instead of viewing it as a drawback, women can capitalise on female-oriented or dominated businesses, and June Rusdon is the perfect example of such an instance.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Busy Bees Asia and a pioneer in professionalising childcare in Singapore, June Rusdon has been building her international high-quality childcare empire for over 20 years. As a mother, June easily understood the needs of working parents and had an idea to turn high-quality childcare into a profitable business.
The Karyawan team interviewed June in her office at Changi Business Park to find out more about the entrepreneurial spirit that drives her.
1. What made you enter the early childhood industry and how many brands in the industry have you developed since then?Top of Form
I first conceptualised Learning Vision in 1989, from my desire, as a new mother, to establish a quality early childhood centre for my children. I was a stockbroker then and had been in the stockbroking company for 10 years, but saw the need to provide a good head start for my child. I began researching on early childhood, and attended workshops conducted by Nury Institute, which utilises the Glenn Doman concept to design programmes tailored for young children. My first centre started in 1989 at Bukit Batok.
As my business expanded, I realised it was crucial to have quality teachers since the children would be at a critical stage in their growth. That was when I was determined to open Learning Capital, a teacher’s training college which has since been rebranded as ‘Asian International College’.
Learning Vision is now part of Busy Bees, a leading global organization in early childhood, based in the UK where it is the largest and most comprehensive childcare services provider. We also own and manage six successful early childhood brands in Singapore and Malaysia.
Each of our brand has its own distinct strengths, and is uniquely positioned for different market segments: Learning Vision provides on-site early childhood education services to corporations, hospitals, government agencies and institutions of higher learning. Pat’s Schoolhouse caters to the premium market, and Brighton Montessori implements the Montessori approach. Then, we have Odyssey the Global Preschool – the Ivy League of preschools, and The Children’s House – Malaysia’s most prestigious brand in early childhood education.
My entrepreneurial genes are from my parents- themselves entrepreneurs; growing up, I used to help them with their small business. It afforded me an abundance of insights that no institution could offer, and taught me how to set myself up for success.
2. How did you expand your business across the borders?
I have always believed a global exposure enables us to benefit from a wider range of perspectives. Concurrently, we also wanted to take advantage of Singapore’s reputation as a regional education hub. Parents from other countries willingly enroll their children in Singapore’s schools because our country is recognized as having one of the best curriculum in the region.
People assumed I had good networks to be able to penetrate the international market. However, our success to compete internationally was not attributed to only a network of connections. Rather, it was mainly driven by sheer hard work and meritocracy. We have to be good and competent in what we do. Even if you have good networks, your business will not thrive if you lack commitment and competencies.
We started with 8 to 10 employees and now we have 1,700, across 57 centres in Singapore, 13 in Malaysia, and one centre upcoming in China in September. We are also planning to launch our centres in Japan, especially now, when there is a huge demand for childcare. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started a campaign to empower women and boost the economy by encouraging higher female participation in the labour force. He has also campaigned to increase childcare slots. We are excited to capitalize on this opportunity.
3. Can you describe the culture of your organisation?
We have a performance-driven culture. As a private company, we do not rely on other bodies or organisations for funding, so we have to work ten times harder than other childcare brands. To drive this, our bonus for all levels of staff are performance-based.
In terms of hiring, I personally feel that paper qualifications are not enough on their own to ensure success. In fact, sometimes, those with paper qualifications can be very rigid and go ‘by-the-book’. I do feel, however, that papers will boost confidence and self-esteem, thus, it may help to a certain extent. Discipline and willpower are what’s needed for success.
4. What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business? How did you overcome these challenges?
Getting good teachers has always been a challenge but that is a challenge anywhere in the industry. Previously, quality was not a priority since parents only needed space to place their kids. Now, operators need to ensure that centres provide quality teachers, safety and cleanliness. Compared to the past, the whole industry today has evolved and parents’ expectations are higher.
Another challenge I faced at that time was that, as a minority, it was not easy to start a business. Back then, when parents called me to ask if I owned the company, I had to say no and claimed that it was owned by a group of professionals instead. I knew I had to prove myself first. Now, I am proud to say that I am Malay and I own the company.
I do feel that minorities have to work harder. You can’t change the perception of others, so you have to change yourself. You have to go all out to win. You have to prove yourself first, and you cannot make the colour of your skin be a hindrance.
If you feel that you are not treated well, you have to speak up. You have to demand and ask, or else people will take advantage of you.
5. What are some of your proudest business achievements to date?
There are many achievements that I am proud of: firstly, we pioneered professional childcare in Singapore, committing significant investments to upgrade our teachers. For this, we received the National Training Award by the then PSB 20 years ago, paving the way for us to become the first childcare provider to be awarded the People Developer Standard. Over the years, the company has also received numerous awards for excellence, including the Singapore Quality Class (SQC), Outstanding Programme Award, ECDA Award for Excellence in Teaching & Learning, and even Best Employer Award – and we’re the only company to win this twice. These awards firmly position us as the recognised market leader and trendsetter in Early Childhood and Teacher Education.
6. From your personal encounter and experience, do you think gender discrimination within the labour force exists in Singapore?
In my opinion, there is no such thing as gender discrimination at work. At the end of the day, it is about drive and competencies. We cannot be preoccupied with what others think of us. It is how you carry yourself that matters.
7. What advice do you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur?
You need to study the market thoroughly, and have a good business plan; with this, you then run feasibility studies and financial analyses. You must know how much money you need because you do not want to be cash-strapped. Then execute your business plan, and track your milestones closely.
The first six months will see losses. At any point when your milestones are not reached, for example, when revenue missed target, you need to find the fundamental problem. If the losses consistently recur and cannot be recuperated, dispose the business and move on.
There are a lot of opportunities out there as investors are ready to pump money into good business ideas. What you need are good ideas and good people to execute the plan.
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She graduated from UniSIM with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is currently pursuing her Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
Photo Credit: Karyawan/Ms June Rusdon