Written by Audra Lim and originally published on www.nanzinc.com on 15 Sep 2010.
As legal counsel for a private equity fund, Charmaine Teo, 31, would have had a high-paying and intense career in the whirlwind energy of the financial world. However, she left all that behind a few years ago to set up Between Two Trees Preschool, a school for children aged 18 months to 6 years old. Nanzinc.Com gets an insight into why she took the leap into entrepreneurship.
How and why did you set up the business?
I got involved in early literacy as a side interest which quickly evolved into a passion for early childhood education and I went back to school to study the subject. I started travelling out of Singapore to study schools in the USA, Australia and Italy as well as driving around our island-state looking at what our current schools have to offer. I decided that I could contribute to the current preschool landscape by offering a school that has our own Singaporean approach (formed and inspired by other approaches) that balances the need for creativity and results. Between Two Trees Preschool was conceptualised by my school artist and myself as a private business totally focused on providing quality and meaningful education. We hope to instill in our children a lifelong passion for learning.
What were the greatest challenges you faced in setting up Between Two Trees?
So far, one big challenge is finding staff that possess the high qualifications we require and the commitment to our school philosophy in an industry that is known for its high turnover rate.
What is your vision for Between Two Trees?
My vision for Between Two Trees has already started to materialise! It is a beautiful cosy space for young children that acts as a nurturing and provocative learning environment and third teacher, and it holds a principal, artist and teachers who respect and love working with young children. I have to say that the vision keeps sharpening as my team and I face the daily challenges that question our teaching principles. As it should.
On a larger front, I hope to push forward the profession of early years educators.
Are there particular issues you face as a female entrepreneur?
Within the child education industry, one thing that sometimes works against me is age. There are many practitioners who are mature in age and experience, which are things that I had to recognise I do not have. So I made up for this by inviting two ladies to be our advisors – one is Dr Christine Chen, who is the President of the Association for Early Childhood Educators; and the other is Mrs Wee Wan Joo, who is a past President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. They are both accomplished and powerful ladies who are able to dish out advice and opinions for which I am extremely appreciative of.
Complete this sentence: “I am able to work hard at my business and love doing so because…”
… it is extremely meaningful and humbling to see a child climb his or her own mountain and learn to do so in a positive, loved and supported way.
Could you share an anecdote of something that happened that made you realise your effort at being an entrepreneur was worth it?
It is almost a daily reminder when the children’s work on the walls in school change so frequently. I’ve realised a while back that running my own business managing schools allows me to really appreciate how dynamic and powerful change is. I find that completely empowering.
My quality of life has improved tremendously! I get to spend time with young children who are completely transparent and honest in their thoughts and emotions. I get to discuss why or how or what we should be doing to push learning within my team. I get to be a leader in my own space which means I have to push forward and yet be responsible for those who are not that ready to move with me. It is all very educational.
Are you one of those who says “I want to be a millionaire by the time I am X years old”? What is money to you?
Very honestly, I did say that after reading a whole gamut of motivational books when I graduated from law school. However, I find that being driven by passion and personal beliefs allows me to go that much further, particularly when things get difficult. Money is not real right? It is the belief in money that gives it power. We live in a world that is centred on a commercial transaction, and we need to have money to live as social beings. So the balance lies in the power of money and whatever else has meaning for me – relationships, knowledge, values, ethics and so on.
Name 3 tips for women who would like to start their own business.
I have to say I am still very much on the steep end of my own learning curve. But I have a few things that I ask myself rather religiously.
Firstly, I articulate the push and pull reasons why I wanted to start the business. Secondly, I identify my market and verify that it is an available and accessible market. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, I identify what my short term and long term success factors are.