Women In Business. Is it too late to start your own business?

entrepreneurship

In this interview, we will be speaking to Madam Fadilah A. Majid. After 27 years in her writing career, she decided to be an entrepreneur and is currently the Managing Director of SpaJelita Pte Ltd, the only Arabian spa in Singapore. In addition, she is also the Vice-President of the Malay Chamber of Commerce (SMCCI), the Chairman of DEWI@SMCCI, and the Director of Business Development for Bizmedia Publishing. Madam Fadilah also leads SMCCI’s Wellness Cluster.

You can watch the full interview here:

Could you give a quick introduction for those listeners and viewers who may not be familiar with you?

Assalamualaikum I am Fadilah Abdul Majid, the Managing Director of SpaJelita which is a women’s and an Arabian spa, the first in Singapore. Before that, I was in Berita Harian for 27 years which was where Umar and I got to know each other. At Berita Harian, I was the Business Editor of a subsection called Ekoniaga, one of the most important desks and we focused on business issues, employment, and the economy. Then, I decided to be an entrepreneur which was not easy because I loved my job as a journalist and later as a business editor. During my time at Berita Harian, I was very involved with writing stories about the Malay community especially the business community and SMCCI. The people that I was in contact with were those from the business world and from the government as we were always linked with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) as well as the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Also, we would be the first ones to report on any government policies about the economy, employment, Central Provident Fund (CPF), inflation, etc.

I miss everything (from my time at Berita Harian) whether it be managing the yearly budget that we had or running the financial planning conference for 10 years. The conference was an achievement and something that I treasured because through it, we educated the community on their CPF, investments, the best ways to make money, etc. During my time there, I realized that one of the weaknesses of our community is that we tend to trust people and put money into investments too easily which can cause problems if subsequently, those investments are lost. This was why we decided to start the financial planning conference because we wanted to inculcate the right investment principles in the community.

As mentioned, I left Berita Harian after 27 years to start my entrepreneurship journey and my interviews with business people in Berita Harian also encouraged me to choose this path of entrepreneurship. I interviewed many successful business people from different races about their journey to success and learned a lot from them. However, merely interviewing someone is different to running your own business as the latter requires you to put what you’ve learned into practice. I joined entrepreneurship at the age of 49 or 50 which is a bit later than others — I hoped to have been as young as Umar when he became an entrepreneur because then I would have had a longer journey and more room for mistakes.

After leaving Berita Harian, I set up Bizmedia Publishing which was my first company as an entrepreneur. Bizmedia Publishing did a few projects together with Umar, one of which was  the Islamic conference that was very successful. This company was set up with a few of my colleagues who had also left Berita Harian and we have been doing quite well — we have had a lot of projects. In addition, we have written, edited and published more than 5 books. However, the journey was not easy for Bizmedia after I decided to buy SpaJelita because the latter was taking up a lot of my time so now Bizmedia is managed by my partners.

Honestly, I did not know that I was going to be the owner of SpaJelita. After 27 years as a business editor, I was very tired and so I decided to give SpaJelita a call to see if they had a free appointment slot because a few years ago when I wanted to go, I could not. Luckily, there was an appointment slot available this time so I went and ended up falling in love with the spa. I found it beautiful and the ambiance as well as service was good so I decided to become a member. A week later, the then owner came and said that they were looking for someone to buy SpaJelita because they were moving to Indonesia. I was very excited as it was another opportunity to show my entrepreneurial skill so I decided to buy the spa after about a month of consideration. One important thing that I’ve learned from my Berita Harian days and dealing with business people is that you must take risks because failure is failing to take risks so you have to try. Thus, I decided to follow that principle with regards to the spa and I was very excited at first but after a month, I realized that things were not as easy as they seemed. It really takes someone special to run a business and requires a lot of perseverance. During this period, I was quite shocked, a bit depressed and I said “Oh my God, there are so many things that I have to do to improve the spa with the government rulings, policies, the spa insurance, etc”. There were so many costs and aspects that I didn’t realize were there because it was something entirely unfamiliar and new to me. However, unfamiliar does not necessarily mean bad because when something is unfamiliar, you tend to learn a lot from your experience with it. I believe that my experience in Berita Harian was an immense help when running the spa because I learned a lot from business people so running the spa became easier. Nevertheless, the first 3 months were hard but I believe that there is always a solution to any problem so I began to be more positive and found ways to solve the problems.

As you know, I’ve always been a fan of SMCCI and during my Berita Harian days, I’ve always reported about them, their movements, and programs. I contributed to articles about how the Malay community should move forward as well as the problems faced by the business community and I enjoyed that because I was able to pen down my thoughts and share it with others. I felt that the next step for me was to join SMCCI to see what was actually happening and find out how I can best contribute to the community because before this, I was just writing from a third-person perspective. Initially, when I first joined SMCCI, I was one of the Directors but after serving for 2 years, they asked me to take on the role of Vice-President (VP). One thing that I noticed when I joined SMCCI is that there is a strong network available so if you are someone who actively goes for meetings and workshops, your network will definitely grow. Also, I suggested to SMCCI to set up a wellness cluster because after I bought over SpaJelita, I became depressed and felt alone in the market as I did not know how to solve many problems so I thought that having a support system would be helpful for anyone who might be suffering. In my opinion, the Malay community is good at the beauty and spa industry/business but they are not united so when someone faces a problem, others cannot help. Hence, I suggested the formation of a wellness cluster because I thought “Why not use the existing concept of clusters formed for different industries in the Malay Chamber of Commerce (SMCCI) for the wellness/spa/beauty industry?”.

Eventually, the cluster was set up and it is very active. I felt that I was not alone anymore and that made me enjoy what I was doing. It also allows those involved to exchange ideas with each other so I think that through this wellness cluster of SMCCI, I have become a better entrepreneur and my journey has shortened since joining the cluster allows one’s network to grow and it indirectly expands one’s customer base. Having said that, you should not join SMCCI simply to grow your brand but rather through contributing to SMCCI, people will get to know you and subsequently, your brand will grow as an indirect consequence. After the cluster was created, we were able to do several things to help the industry move forward and after 3 months, I felt that I was quite confident when running the business. Now I’ve been running the spa for almost 7 years however, the spa has been around since 2007.

You mentioned about the switch from a stable career that you liked to something entirely new and your experience with that. One solution that you raised was having a peer support group with other business owners. With COVID-19 happening, there are probably a lot of business owners who are facing terrible situations, what would your advice to them be? How do they move forward? 

That’s a good question. After I took over, I found out what were the problems business owners faced and I interviewed some of them, learning a lot during my first few months. As I ran a financial planning conference, I am very conservative when it comes to spending. The first thing that a person needs in order to start a business is capital despite what others may say. If it is possible, do not take bank loans because whenever situations like COVID-19 arise, you will be in trouble. Hence, try to have some savings and start your business using that because then you are not answerable to anyone if there is a problem. This point was also raised during my interview with Mr. Mustaq from Mustafa Center as when I asked him if he borrowed money from banks and he replied with, “I don’t like to use other people’s money when I run a business because I don’t want to be responsible to them if I lose money”. Thus, try to use your own money and be wise about how you spend it.

I took what he said to heart and applied it when I took over SpaJelita. As I mentioned, I’m very careful with my spending and take care of my finances. I think there are 3 things to keep in mind when running a business before even talking about the situation with COVID-19. Firstly, your books and accounts must be in order. Proper accounts must be kept so you know where your money is going. The second point is about sales and revenue because you have to have sales and if you do not, then you need to think about what you have to do to improve the situation. The third point is about manpower because when running a business, you cannot do it alone so you need a good team that works not just for money but also has passion for what they do. If it is only the owner who has passion for the business and their staff do not, then it is just going to be a business and it might not succeed in the long run. I did not want this to happen to me because I’m already 50 so, I told myself that I’m not going to fail and to do all that I can to ensure the spa stays strong consistently year after year.

I had this mindset so COVID-19 came as a shock. Although we did face some financial issues before, we overcame them but COVID-19 was unexpected. We started to feel the pinch in March when the government started encouraging people to stay at home and to avoid crowded places so people did not want to go out even though the circuit breaker was not introduced yet. The economy had been slowing down since January but when COVID-19 hit, it got worse and we felt the pinch. Then in April when the circuit breaker was introduced, we had to close down during the second week so for 3 months we had no sales. However, we were lucky that we took care of our cash flow so we have reserves in case of any problem and we can pay our staff. Rental though was a bit of a problem for many businesses including SpaJelita as our rental is quite expensive so I was worried. This was why a lot of businesses could not cope and the number of companies that closed down during this period was around 8000+ in Singapore alone. After all, if a business is not having sales and still has to pay rent or is not receiving any rental rebates from their landlord, then the business may not survive. However, I was very lucky that we have been with our landlord for 15 years and have a good relationship with him so he gave us a rental waiver for 2 months. I must also add that we are grateful to our government for their innovative way of handling the crisis as it has helped many businesses to stay afloat. The government introduced the Job Support Scheme (JSS) where they pay for our staff’s salary and that has allowed us to keep our staff instead of letting them go. I believe one’s staff should not be the scapegoats when things go wrong and I consider my staff as family so I try my best to keep them with me. With JSS, I’m able to pay them — albeit not the full amount — but even if they get only 75% of their salary, they are grateful. I do feel for them because they also have their commitments and bills to pay so having JSS has helped.

How do you think the beauty/spa industry will change with the COVID-19 situation? It is after all a very personalized and close contact service industry so while other businesses can go online and have remote workers, the spa/beauty industry probably will not be able to do so. Do you think things will change greatly or will it remain the same fundamentally with more safeguards in place? 

I don’t expect things to change drastically because the spa services require a “personal touch” so to speak. It will be difficult to change the industry and use robots or digital tools to carry out the services offered. Of course, safety measures will have to change and actually, the spa industry has already implemented some of them so for example, we do not allow those who are sick to come but there are a lot more things that we can implement like SafeEntry (the national digital check-in system to prevent and control the transmission of COVID-19), etc. The question was if we would have customers when we opened and eventually when we opened, we were fully booked because people were tired and had gone for 3 months without their massages and facials. I foresee the beauty industry growing because people are starting to appreciate this industry more after having gone through a period of not having its services available. Thus, we do see overbooking for spas but the costs have to be maintained because it can get quite high. The thing that will change is the digitalization of operations as in digitizing the way you operate with customers, the way customers buy items, etc. I feel that the changes will be more on the internal operations side and not so much on the business model side of things.

Let’s talk about women in business. As you are the Chairman of DEWI@SMCCI (the Women’s Wing of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce), a founder, and a woman, could you tell us what are the main challenges women face and what can be done to overcome them to help more women operate in an open and level playing field? 

When I was in SMCCI, I was not directly involved with DEWI but I took over DEWI after 2 years in Malaysia and we focus on activities that help to develop and empower women to become entrepreneurs. Our programs help women to start their own businesses, grow them and they can even go overseas to expand their businesses. After joining DEWI, I see that there is a lot of potential for our women and we cannot underestimate a woman’s skill in entrepreneurship as they are very good. At times, I think that they are better at men because they can rise to the challenge when faced with problems. Some of them are doing it as a way to supplement their income while others are doing it full time because they want to develop their business so they might be at different stages but all of them aim to increase or supplement their families’ income. When we talk about the challenges that women face, there is a general expectation by men that women are supposed to do all the household chores and child-rearing but today’s generation of men or specifically husbands are very supportive of their wives and they do their share of household chores and child-rearing as well. This gives women more opportunities to show their skills in business because without their husbands’ approval, it can be very tough. I have seen women who ended up divorced because they went into business without their husbands’ approval and there were a lot of internal problems so I think for women to go into business, the basic Islamic principles have to be there. At the end of the day, it goes back to your family and how your family chooses to manage things. There are more challenges for women but if their husbands are supportive, then there is a higher chance of them growing during their entrepreneurship journey. I believe that one’s family should come first, then one’s business, and I see a lot of women managing this well. Of course, there will be stress for example, when they are taking care of their kids and have to bring them along so these are genuine problems that women face. Also, women want to have more capital because when they initially start their business, it is often from home but when they want to grow, most of them become home-based businesses (HBB). There were HBB issues that arose during COVID-19 and a lot of these HBBs are run by women. Our study has shown that many women start their business from home and continue to do it from home while some grow and decide to have their own shops. This shows that women have the skills but how do they grow from there? What we need to do is have women network with others and increase their capabilities i.e financial knowledge so once they get everything ready, they are ready to grow and go. When you asked me about the position of female entrepreneurs in the community, I do not see any difference, I think our community is quite generous and accepting of female entrepreneurs. They encourage women to go into entrepreneurship so I do not see any barriers from that side. I feel that the barrier is within the individual and not the community. It is up to them whether they want to do it or not. As for the government, I think that they are always encouraging women to go into entrepreneurship. Even in SMCCI, we have another wing (DEWI) to encourage them so they can come to us if they face any problems and we will see how we can help them.

Given the COVID-19 situation where there is a lot of work from home happening, HBBs need not be small businesses. For women who have responsibilities at home, I think this can be potentially a paradigm shift where you can run a huge business from home without having to go out, and over time, it has become more acceptable to do everything from home.

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