From growing up in a kampung, to seeing her life fall apart at 33, when she got divorced with 4 kids to look after, and then again jumping blindfolded into a ‘business’, Kristie Lim has seen it all.
We ask this very inspiring and successful businesswoman in Singapore, founder of the Mind Stretcher chain of education centres, how the journey has been so far.
I read that you grew up in a family of 6 children. What are some valuable lessons you learnt in your childhood, that helped shape the entrepreneur and mum that you are today?
“We were typical kampung people who were relocated by the government from a kampung in Lorong Lumut (a road which does not exist anymore; it used to be behind the rubbish dump at Lorong Halus).
I am the youngest of six in my family. We were definitely not rich, but my dad could support our family by working very hard as a taxi driver. After the relocation, our family became a typical HDB-dwelling family, like most other families in Singapore.
Life for me growing up in the kampung was relatively carefree. We did not understand the value of studying and so there was no stress for my siblings and me! What was inculcated in us however, was the very important value of living harmoniously. Being at peace and living happily with one’s family is sadly one of the most underrated values in most societies today. That was the single most important value that I tried to inculcate in my kids when they were growing up.
Nobody in my family realised the value of education as we were all kampung people. So my siblings and I just went through the motions in school, without really studying or understanding why school was important.
That changed when I read my first story book in Secondary 3 (and that too, because I saw everybody in my class reading, and I read purely out of peer pressure!). From that point onwards, I got hooked to reading, and the more I read, the more I understood how important education was in paving one’s path for a better future. So in that sense, I have always been passionate about education.
To be frank, my childhood experience did not shape my entrepreneurial instincts. What shaped it was my circumstances later in life when my marriage broke up. That instinct came as a result of having to survive and make ends meet, not because I was naturally inclined to start a business.
Divorced with 4 kids
When you got divorced, you had 4 children to look after. How did you brave this tumultuous part of your life? What survival tactics did you need?
I became a single mum at the age of 33. My youngest child was only one then! Emotionally, it was very, very tough. I was actually very scared to set out and move on my own, especially since I did not have just one kid, but four young kids to support.
But one has to accept reality and move on. Nothing is permanent in our world. There was simply no other choice. On hindsight, this was probably the best thing to happen to me – as it taught me the key lessons of always needing to be financially independent, resilience, perseverance, and the need to always look forward, and not dwell in the unhappy past.
Crying over spilt milk or dwelling over what could have been, is a very unproductive exercise and leads one nowhere. I will be forever thankful to my sister who lent me some seed money to help me start Mind Stretcher during those extremely tough years. She even helped me out in her free time, in spite of having a very hectic work schedule herself.
Birth of Mind Stretcher
How exactly did Mind Stretcher happen?
“I had to do what I did, not because I wanted to, but because I had no other choice. It was a matter of survival. I had four mouths to feed (six – if you include me and my domestic helper) and I had to pay the HDB installment for my Sin Ming flat.
Education was my passion. So when I had to decide what to do after my marriage broke up, I decided on setting up a tuition and enrichment centre. I thought that such a business would enable me to have more flexibility when it came to taking care of my four young children as well as educating them along the way.
How wrong I was! Running a fledgling business, especially in an arena as competitive as this private education industry, was an 18-hour, 7 days a week affair, especially for the first 6 to 7 years. It was really tough.
I conceived the name Mind Stretcher because in my mind, I wanted to try to help stretch the abilities of all children, whatever stage of development they may be at. We have to understand that all children develop at a different pace and we must never rubber-stamp or classify them as being in a certain category. I would classify me as a very late bloomer, where studies and education are concerned as well.”
Initial days of Mind Stretcher
“Mind Stretcher started off in a bomb shelter below a flat at Bishan street 22, near the Bishan Salvation Army. It was near where I stayed in Sin Ming and its relatively low rental made it practically the only place I could afford with whatever savings I had.
My sister also lent me $50,000 to renovate the bomb shelter and create classrooms in there. It was she and my two elder kids who helped me act as flyer distributors to all the flats around the bomb shelter for the first few years.
This was essential to create some form of awareness, as bomb shelters in that area were all underground and nobody would see our learning centre. Only people who lived in that block of flats knew that Mind Stretcher existed because of the signboard at the door leading down to the bomb shelter.”
Today, Mind Stretcher is the education centre of choice for many parents in Singapore, with as many as 3 campuses and 12 centres island-wide!
Challenges of a mumpreneur
For a mumpreneur, a single mum at that, the challenges and roadblocks are many. Any advice and tips to other mums on how they can start their own business, and still take care of their kids?
“I dare say that most women would rather spend time nurturing and taking care of their kids, and I was no exception. I only did this because I really had no choice. That said, it has been a life-changing experience for me and I am thankful for all the life lessons I picked up along the way. These life lessons are things which I could have never picked up by reading or through textbooks.
I do not profess to be an expert in this area. But for those who would like to take the plunge, this is my advice:
- Think carefully: What is it that you really want? Each person’s situation and wants are unique. It is very hard to do a business and take care of the kids at the same time. Some sacrifices (one at the expense of the other), would be necessary.
- Are you ready to swallow the bitter pill of failure? There is no guarantee of success in any business. Some people can’t take failure very well. So if you are one of those people, then starting a business may not be for you as you can get easily discouraged, and highly depressed.
- Do a business that you are really passionate about: As it is only your passion that can sustain you when the days are dark. My chief motivation for starting Mind Stretcher was to provide a roof over our heads, and put meals on the table for my kids, and it was also something I liked doing. It was not because I viewed it as a “business venture”, as never in my wildest dreams did I envisage that Mind Stretcher would get so popular with parents and students.
Life as a single mum
As a single mum, what are the issues you faced when dealing with your children?
“I have 4 children, Moses, Isaac, Joseph and Rachel. Quite coincidentally, all three boys are in the army now!
The main issues I faced when they were growing up were:
- Absence of dad: How to explain to them that our family was not the ‘typical’ family, as there was no father figure. I was the both the father and mother rolled into one.
When they were younger, my kids found it slightly embarrassing that for every function or parent-teacher meeting in their schools, I was always the sole parent. I sometimes had to make them understand that it was perfectly okay to have just one parent caring for them.
- Why we had to scrimp and save: There was absolutely no room for frivolous indulgence; only expenses which were necessities would be considered. Through all these, I am glad that they have eventually learnt and appreciated that nobody is entitled to be born with silver spoons in their mouths. One must take nothing for granted and be always willing to work hard for our own future.”
Single mum rights in Singapore
Do you think there needs to be more advocacy for single mum rights in Singapore? Are the current laws enough or can more be done?
“To be frank, I am not too conversant with the laws for single mums in Singapore. When I became a single mum, all I was interested in was how to make Mind Stretcher survive and pay for our bills!
We do not live on social welfare and there is no real free lunch in this world. As such, I did not familiarise myself with all the laws and regulations for single mums in Singapore, in the hope of fighting for my rights.
However, I do know from the news last year that single mums are now entitled to the full 16-week maternity leave. That is definitely a step in the right direction. Sometimes, single mums are not single mums by choice, but by circumstances which they did not want. I fully support and applaud this move.”
Advice for mums
So what advice would you give single mums or any mum going through a crisis?
Kristie gives these valuable tips:
- “Don’t bottle everything in: Talk to a close friend or family member. My sister was my confidante in those “crisis” years.
- Move on: Don’t look back. Wishing that things may turn out for the better and reverting to the past is many a time just “wishful thinking”!
- Never ever be financially dependent on a man: Nothing is permanent in this world. Even the most ideal so called “made-in-heaven” marriages do break up, for one reason or another. I am sure all of us know a few of these stories. A woman needs to be financially independent just in case something happens. I learnt it the hard way.”
“Looking back, we have had a lot of blessings compared to many others. What some would classify as a psychologically damaging experience for me is really nothing and pales in comparison to the great sufferings of many other people in our world today. I am very thankful for all the help that everyone has rendered us in our journey.”
Also READ: Inspirational mumpreneurs in Singapore!