When Ong Shu Hwai stepped into the world of local home expansion over a decade ago, it was a man’s world. Back then, the industry saw her as a “fresh young girl” who did not know what she was talking about.
“One of the biggest challenges that I faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry is that women don’t often get taken seriously,” as Ong puts it. Today, she is the managing director of Durablinds, and is paving the way for women in this predominantly male-centric industry.
The 46-year-old mum to a six-year-old boy manages her business and home, successfully raising both her creations.
theAsianparent recently had a chance to chat with the mumpreneur to learn more about her work and home management, and her leading charge in a male-dominated industry.
Here is an excerpt from the interaction.
Strong Beginnings In A Male-Dominated World
Image courtesy: Ong Shu Hwai
In late 2016, Ong founded Durablinds and introduced Ziptrak, the original track-guided blinds from Australia, to Singapore. She has been extremely successful at that, breaking quite literally – the glass ceiling.
Since its inception her company has managed to triple its revenue in just two years, and continues to experience 50 percent year-on-year growth.
TAP: How did you manage to successfully build your own home solutions empire?
Ong Shu Hwai: I began my career in the hospitality and tourism industry in Toronto, Canada, when I was studying for my degree. I remained in the service industry for almost a decade – six years in Toronto and another three years after coming back to Singapore.
With the help of a mentor, I pivoted to a career in interior design in 2000 and eventually started my very first company, Blueprint ID, in 2004.
It wasn’t long before I started nurturing a keen interest in helping homeowners reclaim the use of balconies, which was still a foreign concept. This passion led to my discovery of Glass Curtains®, a European brand of sliding glass panels, which I decided to bring into Singapore in 2010.
This also led to my discovery of Ziptrak, the original track guided blind system from Australia, in 2016. Today, I am the founder and managing director of Durablinds Trading Pte Ltd, the exclusive distributor of Glass Curtains and Ziptrak in Singapore and Malaysia.
Initial Challenges That Paved The Way For Success
TAP: What were the initial challenges you faced as a woman trying to make your mark in this industry?
Ong Shu Hwai: One of the biggest challenges that I faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry is that women don’t often get taken seriously. Most of the contractors, vendors and workers were males, and I was never a part of the “boys’ club.”
Back then, they tended to see me as a fresh young girl who did not know what she was talking about and it took a lot of time and effort to show them that I was capable and knew how I could help streamline their processes.
The most significant barrier on my entrepreneurship journey was probably the fact that we were entering a virgin market back then. Despite my background in interior design work, which helped a little.
My team and I were essentially learning the glass and aluminium trade from scratch. We didn’t know anything.
Unlike most interior furnishing companies, the glass and aluminium trade allows very little tolerance for error. Think about it this way; if you’re installing simply a normal fabric blind without tracks at the side, even if your measurements are off by a centimetre (which is preposterous by our standards), you’re likely still going to be able to fit it in.
Neither Glass Curtains nor Ziptrak can tolerate even the slightest error. Too large and you’re not going to be able to install the product at all, too small and you’re going to have angry customers upset with a bad finish. Both our products are very unforgiving – especially Glass Curtains.
While business is booming, Ong’s desire to be a mother was only fulfilled after a long fertility battle.
The Journey To Motherhood With Fertility Treatments
Image courtesy: Ong Shu Hwai
TAP: Your fertility journey wasn’t easy, what were the challenges?
Ong Shu Hwai: I have always loved children and wanted kids of my own. But suffered multiple fertility treatments and had medical conditions that meant having children would be near impossible.
In fact, I did give up hope of having children of my own after my first marriage ended in 2010.
Five years later, however, I met my second husband and was unexpectedly blessed with Marcus, my miracle baby boy. I cherish every waking moment that I get to spend with him.
TAP: How did this journey impact you mentally? What’s your advice to women going through the same?
Ong Shu Hwai: I had my fair share of struggles in the beginning. I was filled with self-doubt, both about myself, and my value as a woman. After embarking on a self-discovery journey, I’ve come to the realisation that in spite of the hurdles life has thrown my way, I’m still a strong, resilient woman capable to overcome all challenges.
Not being able to bear children does not make me any less of a woman. And that’s how I was able to come to terms with my infertility.
It was actually hard to deal with an unexpected pregnancy, in fact. I had found ways to embrace my singlehood, and I filled my days with passion, adventure and travel. The disappointment from previous failed pregnancies, I think, made me expect that this would be an ectopic pregnancy.
My advice to women going through infertility, or struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, would be – Celebrate the fact that you have more than one role, you are multifaceted.
You are more than a mother, a wife, an employee, a daughter. The lack of one facet in life doesn’t make you inferior in any way at all.
Wearing Different Hats At Home And Work
TAP: How do you balance your many roles as a woman, mother, spouse, and professional?
Ong Shu Hwai: I’m greedy – I enjoy every single role and am naturally inclined to spend time with people. Spontaneity, breaking down any challenge into baby steps and setting aside time for specific things have helped me to stay focused and achieve the outcomes I want especially since I wear many different hats.
The many roles that I take also gives me a holistic perspective and approach.
My husband and I will arrange our schedule so that we can send Marcus for activities ourselves, and also spend time with him on evenings and weekends.
I am also an avid cook, and I will make sure I find time to cook for my family. My husband and I will also sneak off on our occasional date nights on the social dance floor, or for dinners, to make sure we don’t just spend time at work, but also outside of work.
The Secret Sauce To Success And Balance In Life
TAP: What’s your secret to success?
Ong Shu Hwai: Since young, I have had an entrepreneurial spirit cultivated into me by my dad and an inherent need to strike it out on my own. It didn’t take me long into my working life to realise that I didn’t want to work for anyone again, and I never looked back since.
There will always be doubters and naysayers. But always trust that you have the ability to do anything you set your mind to and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I embrace my feminine power to be soft and firm at the same time. To have the tenacity to tolerate yet have the wits to take a strong position on what matters to me – successful relationships.
Having a real appreciation for life and value-adding to people by providing service and grace; makes me happy.
TAP: What has been the most significant barrier you’ve faced as a woman or as a mother?
Ong Shu Hwai: I had actually always wanted to be a boy, as my father valued men. In fact, I spent years feeling inferior as a woman. It took me years of working to change my self-limiting beliefs and embrace my talents.
As a mother, it was the guilt of being away from my child and questioning if I would be a good enough mother since I spend so much time away from Marcus.
TAP: Who inspires you the most and why?
Ong Shu Hwai: I am inspired by the need for growth and the self-fulfilling notion that I can achieve it as long as I put my mind to it. I seek clarity, truth and authenticity.
There are many people who inspire me. Whether it is the late Lee Kuan Yew – I buy into his thoughts on meritocracy even as hard as it is to implement in a culture of entitlement.
Or people like Oprah, Brené Brown, and Caroline Myss; the odd people here and there who make small changes to everyday life.
I am also inspired by my family and friends, who inspire me in the way they cope with everyday struggles.
World Can Change For Mums Only If Family And Spouses Provided Quality Support
TAP: How can women overcome personal barriers in life?
Ong Shu Hwai: Be brave! It is okay and natural for us to feel intimidated and unsure, be it embarking on the motherhood journey or a career in a male dominant industry.
Overcome this fear with intense curiosity, strive to accumulate knowledge and persevere with your innate feminine gifts like empathy, negotiation and influence – just to name a few, there’s definitely so much more.
Most importantly, cherish every moment you have with your loved ones. When you do, you’ll see how it helps to nurture meaningful, successful relationships. And how those relationships help you relish life accomplishments.
TAP: What do you hope to change for mothers and women in general?
Ong Shu Hwai: Sometimes women lose themselves in marriage and parenthood during the stressful period of becoming new mothers.
It would make a world of a difference if spouses and family members provided quality support.
Many of my employees are mothers themselves, and each of them has their own special story. I try my best to–and believe that I do–provide them with a culture in which they will flourish.
In fact, many of my leaders in the organisation are mothers.
TAP: What kind of future do you envision for your kid?
Ong Shu Hwai: I want my son to embrace self-expression, and to appreciate the simple things. I hope to groom him into one who is self-sufficient and confident in his own merits.
Most importantly, I want him to know that his relationship with me is a safe space. And that I will always be his anchor point.
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