In September this year, EtonHouse Founder and Managing Director Mrs. Ng Gim Choo won the prestigious EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in the Education category. It is an annual awards program that honours Singapore’s top entrepreneurs for their contributions to the economy and society. We are truly inspired by her journey towards this incredible success. She shares with us her story.
Tell us something about the EtonHouse approach
I believe that inquiry based learning is the best way forward for children. It makes learning a joyful experience and encourages curiosity in our students, helping them become lifelong learners. The world is changing at a fast pace, what we learn today may be obsolete and irrelevant in the near future. We have to keep our learning journey constant.
We wanted to make the EtonHouse education accessible to more families in Singapore. In 2014, we were awarded the AOP(Anchor Operator Scheme) status by the Singapore government and launched E-Bridge Pre-School to scale up the provision of good quality and affordable early childhood care and education services for more families.
Today, we reach out to more than 3000 students through the E-Bridge preschools.
What inspired you in your entrepreneurial journey?
I believe growing up among business-minded individuals inspired me.
We had a family business- ‘Oh Guan Hing Sesame Oil’ that was started by my grandparents about 100 years ago. I lived and breathed in a business environment from a young age. My grandma educated me on running a sustainable business whilst my father educated me on product quality, customer satisfaction and consistency in branding and packaging.
EtonHouse was inspired by my daughter’s educational experience in the UK. She enjoyed kindergarten so much that during weekends she would put on her uniform and say she wanted to go to school. Upon learning that school was closed on weekends, she would be disappointed. I was surprised that she wanted to go to school even during the holidays. I then decided to be a parent volunteer and was exposed to a world where children learned through play; which was a joyful experience. I couldn't help but compare this to the learning style in Singapore over twenty years ago, when it was very stressful for children.
When we came back to Singapore, my daughter wasn’t keen on going to school. During a painting class, she was told to colour the flowers red however she loves Morning Glories and coloured it purple instead. She was chided by her teacher. After which, she refused to go to school. This inspired me to set up EtonHouse.
Being involved in educating children is extremely rewarding and fulfilling. I believe education is the way to change the society. Our schools continue to touch the lives of numerous families around the world. This inspires me greatly to provide the ultimate care and education for our students.
How did you turn challenges or roadblocks into opportunities?
There are many challenges when you start something new. One has to be very focused, disciplined and passionate. Without which, you cannot persevere to succeed.
Suffering a loss of 1 million during the first year of operations
When I started EtonHouse 24 years ago, we lost 1 million in the first year. I knew that if I continued to run the business for the next three years I would have incurred additional losses of approximately 3 million. Upon investigating, I learnt that I could run a child care center instead of a kindergarten, which allows us to operate for longer hours and be sustainable.
It was a risk, parents were not pleased about the increase in fees. However, we eventually won them over and were able to cater to the needs of many families who appreciated our preschools that came with child care services.
Going to China
We opened our first school in Suzhou, China in 2003. It was the year of the economic crisis and SARS outbreak. We couldn't visit the school to supervise the renovation work, and our China colleagues couldn’t visit Singapore for training. When the quarantine was lifted I visited the school, and was shocked; the architecture was not ideal. The toilet had doors that were too low, the play equipment was installed too close to the curb and the entire structure did not comply with the safety standards despite clear communications with the contractor.
We had more staff than students and worked very hard to raise the school to the ideal standard. After a lot of hard work, we recruited 80 students. At the end of the year we had 150 students followed by 300 students and a long waiting list thereafter.
When the economy picked up, more MNCs started setting up in Suzhou. This was also driven by the government’s efforts to attract more foreign companies. We were in a good position to cater to the needs of international families moving to Suzhou.
When we expanded into Chengdu, a disaster struck China. Following the news of the earthquake, my colleagues advised me not to go. I insisted that I had to go as planned. My colleagues in Chengdu risked their lives to remain in school until the last child was picked up during the earthquake. How could I not go?
I then visited Chengdu in May 2008 with my husband. We took our teachers to the earthquake campsites to do voluntary work and offer education programs to the children affected by the earthquake.
That year the teachers worked and eventually the school enrolled 200 students the following year. My visit touched the teachers’ hearts and motivated them to work hard. Today we have four schools in Chengdu.
I learnt that in every crisis, there are opportunities.
On expanding to K-12 schools
We started as a pre-school and but parents wanted a progression into the primary and senior years. This inspired us to strategise and expand to K - 12 schools. We were also able to retain our pre-school families. Had we not extended our education to primary, secondary and high school it would have been very different today.
How is nurturing your business similar to nurturing a child through education?
There are similarities and differences.
The main difference is if the business isn’t doing well, we can shut it down and reduce our losses. However, similar to bringing up a child, you will want to continue to nurture your child even when times are bad. Parenting is a lifelong commitment.
There are many similarities.
Curiosity: we encourage children to ask many questions, as entrepreneurs do .We have to always think outside the box and try new things.
Values and culture: we need to instill the right values in our children so that they grow up to be responsible people. In an organisation, we need a strong culture to achieve great things. Children are constantly observing their parents’ behaviour. We need to be good role models. It is important to be consistent.
Respect: respecting children is a core value at EtonHouse. We believe children have 100 languages, 100 ways of thinking and a 100 ways of expressing themselves. If you respect children, they will respect you in return. Similarly in a company, we need to respect our colleagues and recognise the strengths of each individual.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
Being an entrepreneur is a lifelong learning experience. I am privileged to learn from colleagues from all over the world, those who are passionate, talented and committed to quality education.
My journey as an entrepreneur in education has inspired me to give back to society. After all, education and charity are two sides of the same coin. How can one build character without a generous heart to help the less fortunate?
We started the EtonHouse Community Fund - an independent charity with IPC status to help underprivileged children. From this, I hope that young entrepreneurs will be motivated and inspired to give back to society.