Believe in the power of community. On some days when you feel big goals are impossible, or when you feel like giving up, you need to lean on your like-minded community. You can even “borrow” motivation, and in turn “return” with your own inspiring stories to pay it forward.
In this special column called the “TLC x Fempreneurs Series”, we will be featuring inspiring Female Entrepreneurs (Fempreneurs) in short. You will be able to have a sneak peek at their mindsets and their daily habits.
Meet Ong Shu Hwai (Durablinds)
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am the Founder and Managing Director of Durablinds Trading Pte Ltd, the exclusive distributor of Ziptrak® and Glass Curtains® in Singapore and Malaysia. We aim to help homeowners best protection for their semi-outdoor spaces so that they can convert an otherwise underutilized area into great lifestyle spaces like new dining, work, or play area.
What got you started on your business?
In 2010, I noticed a gap in the market; living and dining spaces within new high-rise developments were shrinking, while semi-outdoor spaces like balconies and patios are becoming more spacious while internal living areas are becoming smaller.
After realising the problem, I searched for a solution to help homeowners create a more liveable space for their homes. I found the product Glass Curtains from Europe, a slide-swing-stack, frameless glass system, and introduced it to the Singapore and Malaysia market. Glass Curtains were so well received that I started looking out for alternative products that would deliver similar benefits – helping owners reclaim the use of semi-outdoor spaces.
It then led me to discover Ziptrak, the original track-guided blind system from Australia, in 2017. Being able to help homeowners turn a previously “unusable” space into a whole new dining, work, or play area is most rewarding to me because I take great pleasure in helping my clients create new spaces through the use of durable, elegant products and smart designs.
Before you started on your business, what did you do on a full time basis?
I began my career in the hospitality and tourism industry in Toronto, Canada, after getting my degree there. Since eight, I was mostly away from my parents and I had very limited resources; I was left to pretty much fend for myself. To make ends meet, I took on multiple jobs while I was still studying full-time. Upon graduation, I remained in the service industry for almost a decade – six years in Toronto and another three years after coming back to Singapore. The long and thankless hours eventually took a toll on me and I decided to switch careers in search of a better work-life balance.
With the help of a mentor, I pivoted to a career in interior design in 2001, after months of training and learning the ropes. My newfound passion for interior design proved rewarding. I eventually started my very first company, Blueprint ID, in 2003 and grew it by focusing on customer service. The years I served at multiple firms and at Blueprint were where I had to pick up all the necessary skills on my own, including both the hardware and the software. My hustle had paid off – by then, I was already pulling in between five to nine projects each month purely through client referrals.
What were some difficulties you faced in your life and how did you overcome them?
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, at least at first.
In 2010, I embarked on a joint venture with a business partner to bring Glass Curtains, a European brand of sliding glass panels, into Singapore. While it was a 50/50 partnership on paper, the reality was that he pretty much just rented out a corner of his office for me to showcase the Glass Curtains while I had to do everything on my own, including forming my own team and personally training the workers on the installation process to ensure quality control. All this while, I was never a part of his “boy’s club” and was eventually forced from the corner of his office to another part of the workshop where the installers were exposed to the elements when working. Despite all these, I managed to drive an increase in Glass Curtains’ sales and business flourished.
This was when my partner finally saw the success and demanded that I sell Glass Curtains to him at cost so that he can take the business further under his own brand name. When I refused to oblige to his plan, he resorted to more aggressive methods to force me to leave the company. This included intimidating text spams, sending nine men to the office to threaten me and my then admin, as well as breaking into the workshop and helping himself to the tools and components. This episode lasted for months until I finally managed to get myself out of the situation, but not without setting myself back $100,000 in legal and administrative costs.
Through this ordeal, I grew even more resilient and knew that it was up to me to ensure the success of my own business. I could not let down the brand, my employees, and most importantly the many clients who had purchased Glass Curtains and count on us to ensure the longevity of their installation.
I’m not discouraged by the setbacks, I have learned to be more careful in choosing partners to collaborate with.
Separately in my personal life, I was told early on during my first marriage by doctors that I was infertile and will never be able to bear children. As someone who absolutely adores children, this was a huge blow to me but I didn’t want to stop trying. After getting married to my second husband, I was blessed with a miracle baby boy. It’s been 6 years since I had given birth, and I have been reaping the rewards of motherhood every day since.
Who inspires you?
There are many people who had inspired me. But the first to have done so was my father. He thought me all the language of taking ownership of my destiny and overcoming adversity. His life story inspired me to stay strong and resilient, to ever be inquisitive, and embrace the zest for life.
Next is my husband, Kelvin. He shows me how to let go and have fun; I was always quite serious and hard on myself as a person. He also introduced to me the concept of breaking everything down into baby steps, this helps me to regulate my stress so that I can stay focused on creating the outcome I want. Finally is my darling son; whose character is starting to form. I see it as my responsibility to help mold his values and habits yet give him his space and independence to come into his own. He inspires in me a presence of mind when I spend time with him, curiosity, and a fun-loving zest for life.
What excites you most about your industry?
My focus has always been on helping homeowners to reclaim the use of semi-outdoor spaces and turn a previously “unusable” space into a whole new dining, work, or play area. This brings me great pleasure in helping my clients create new spaces through the usage of Durablinds.
What is your vision / personal motto?
There are many and if I really had to choose one, it would be this: You only have one life, give it your best shot! To live is a privilege, make it matter to you and your loved ones.
Do you have any word of advice for other ladies who are starting their business/ starting to pursue their dream?
Be brave. It is okay and natural for us to feel intimidated and unsure in this male dominant industry. Overcome this with intense curiosity, accumulate knowledge and persevere with your innate feminine gift of empathy, negotiation and influence (of course not limited to these!).
It took me almost a decade into my working life to realise that I didn’t want to work for anyone again, and I finally took that leap of faith and chose my passion. 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.
How do you think you can help ladies to feel confident and empowered?
I believe women can do just as great as their male counterparts and be just as hands-on even in male-dominated industries. Up till today, I am still actively involved in all the projects and will personally head down to worksites to take measurements and supervise my contractors. Go against these stereotypes if it’s where you believe you have passion in and watch yourself flourish. The only “muscles” you need are between your ears.
What have you learnt recently that you hope the other ladies can take back?
What is one thing you are grateful for?
I am grateful for many things. If I have to choose one, for the purpose of talking about the company, it would be my partner Kelvin. During the budding year, he encouraged me to trust my gut instinct and go for Glass Curtains. When I was facing the legal tassels with my ex-partner, he was my pillar of support.
After having our son, with me overwhelmed in the demands of the company and motherhood, he sacrificed his own career aspiration, left his corporate job, and jumped into a completely different industry to learn everything from scratch. Subsequently, he encouraged me to pick up Ziptrak and we flew to Australia to pick up the brand. Now, Kelvin is synonymous with Ziptrak brand in Singapore and Malaysia; and to the success of the business.
I am grateful for his involvement and support; he had made this adventure, amusingly engaging, yet fun and rewarding at the same time!
What do you do in your free time as self care? How do you unwind?
I’ve always been interested in dancing from a young age and started attending social dance parties when I was in Canada. Back in 2009, I started dance class in Singapore. Incidentally, that’s also where I met my current husband, Kelvin. It’s been 10 years since we first started dating and till today, we still attend our weekly social dancing sessions.
When I have free time, I love to cook for my family and friends. I also love to visit good dining establishments or grocery stores and check out new cooking inspirations. I enjoy relaxing with my son and husband in front of the TV as well.
In terms of self-care, I just like to feel clean, neat, and tidy. I do often cut and dye my own hair. I will occasionally indulge in getting my hair, nails, and lashes done only if it is convenient to do so.
Let us know more about what you do!
Connect with Durablinds!
Are you a Fempreneur too?
Connect with us – we’d love to feature you! Say hi to us at [email protected] or reach out to us via our social media.
Read TLC x Fempreneur Series:
- Margaret Wu, For Beloved One
- Hong Choy Yin, Tots Society
- Pearline Foo, Spring Breeze Marketing
- Evangeline Leong, Kobe
- Maddy Barber, Madly Gems
- Ezza Yusof, 2morrow Official (Malaysia)
- Julie Yim, Lilin+Co (Malaysia)
- Nadia, HelloBello (Malaysia)
- Zairin Azman, UMMA (Malaysia)
The rest of the Fempreneur interviews can be found here.