Josephine Ng on workplace, women, and leadership


About Josephine Ng

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We came across Josephine on a TV special on Singapore’s women CEOs. She retired from running an ad agency, and now runs a social enterprise that provides development opportunities for women of any age. She and her husband run this business together. It’s a simple idea – they run expert-managed alteration houses in Orchard. The venue looks less like the regular alteration house we would have been to and  more like a classy fashion house.

You can read more about Alteration Initiative and Josephine Ng at http://www.alteration.com.sg/

 


Interview transcript

(00.15)

Dhanya: What’s your story? What was it like growing up?

Josephine: We used to run our very own marketing agency. It’s basically marketing and nothing to do with social entrepreneurship. It’s nothing to do with alteration or fashion.

As for growing up, I was always very independent. I grew up in a 3 room flat. After completing my A levels, I did 2 years of flying. I earned enough money to pay for my university. I worked for a couple of years after university and then started my own marketing agency with my then boyfriend, now husband.

I think we have worked very hard, but we have also been very fortunate. Things have been smooth for us. After running our agency for about 6 years, it was acquired by a multi national. So from very average beginnings, we earned comfortable money. After having worked for just 6 years, we were able to have enough wealth to even retire. This journey made us feel very fortunate.

It was at this point, we wanted to give back to the society. That was the motivating factor for starting a social enterprise. This was back in 2009 – we weren’t very familiar with the whole social scene. I had never worked in the social circle, never volunteered myself, so we didn’t know where to start.

That was the time NUS launched their social entrepreneurship and philanthropy center. We attended the event and learnt the idea of social enterprise. We found a fit in this sector.

We have business skills, and we could create something which was continually sustainable. So we said, this is the way we want to give back to the society. The next step was to figure out a business concept and the group we wanted to help. Business concept wise, we felt there was a huge market gap for high quality alteration. If you look at Singapore, or even Asia – alteration has been very hole in the wall, very messy, they would start looking for your things everywhere. There would be threads all over the place.

This experience matters in the decision people take for buying expensive clothes. Knowing they don’t have a place they would like to go to, there are afraid to buy clothes. So they are not sure if it can be altered properly. This was a very good commercial gap we felt we could fill.

As for the group of people we wanted to help, we sought to speak to social initiative experts. Single mothers were a group of people who came up. They would like flexible work hours, and ideally work from home even. So we put sewing and single mothers together. If they have the basic skill, we could help them improve/teach them and help them earn a decent living.

And that’s the story of how alteration initiative was born.

 

(04.42)

Dhanya: So whom do you pick? Who are these women who work for alteration initiative? 

Josephine: Initially, when we started we worked with voluntary welfare associations and government agencies. We worked with CDAC, CDC, NTUC WDS group, Help Every Lone Parent, PBIS asylum. We basically approached government agencies and help agencies and asked them whther they have beneficiaries who would like to have an opportunity to learn or upgrade themselves. So we conducted what we called work trials. They come in, they interview and they get better. Besides that we started getting a lot of media attention for our story. We got media publicity from the likes of straits times and CNN. With all this attention, women who thought they needed the opportunity did approach us directly as well.

We started expanding the circle of people we helped. Besides single mothers there are a lot of disadvantaged women as well. Currently our beneficiary group includes matured women. More than 50% of our staff includes women above 59 years of age, formerly employed women who for whatever the reason can’t go back to their employment. These are people who stopped working for 10-20 years and did very small projects at home. It gives them a chance to integrate back into the society. That’s the reason why we expanded our circle.

 

(06.39)

Dhanya: So you give them a formal training, is that right? Now, do you make your own clothes or do you only alter?

Josephine: Alteration. Our social mission is to provide training and employment opportunities for women in need. Our business mission is to provide high quality alteration services. We stress a lot on fine alteration. When they first come in it’s a huge culture shock for them, with or without skill. Even with skill they find that we are very particular about our workmanship. Every little thing matters in our work – the thread colour, inseam finish, outside finish, straightness of line. Besides workmanship they also have to be very used to our processes. You imagine someone who isn’t used to something like that. They might be from very backend kind of environments and hence it becomes a huge culture shock. Our process go as follow certain number of steps, and when in doubt you ask for help. We are getting them to become problem solvers.

One of the things I am very proud of doing is this – of creating women who can think about what they are doing, and not do it blindly. They learn to put in the extra effort, to show care.

 

(08.47)

Dhanya: I work with in a managerial role with a team of very young people. The company has the ideal state it wants them to reach and then there is the reality state they are in. For me it’s a fight to get them to reach the ideal state. Are there any tricks you use to achieve this feat?

Josephine: It was a huge learning process for me. It’s very different from managing a team of executives at an ad agency. Those people would do the extra needed by default. Suddenly I was working with a team of women who were not educated. Most of them would not even have passed primary school. They spent all their life in a very different environment as us. I find that the way I need to work with them is very different.

I have changed so much in this process. I put in a lot more heart than I used to before. Because leading by example is so important. Right from day one, I will put in the extra effort to think through.

I remember this as our very first experience. When we redecorated our workspaces, we thought a lot about the customer’s view. Coming from an ad agency, that was very important to us, the ambiance. We spent money on doing up the decor and the especially the lights. When they went in, they asked why the lights were so dark, and why were the cabinets all black. To them the setup of the tailor’s work station was important. And we ended up realizing how our thought process went against what was really important.

It takes effort and thought to put yourselves in their shoes and think about what is important to them. So that’s it for me – thinking of what the staff really needs and helping them do their job better. We need to be considerate and pay attention their needs. If this attitude comes from the management, then we hope that they will embody this behavior too.

 

(12.03)

Dhanya: So leading by example you say. As a woman doing all this, have you felt that this job has been tougher?

Josephine: This job has been easier for me as a woman, actually. This is just for me. This is an initiative entirely for women, meant for empowering women. In alteration initiative, it is way easier to handle both men and women customers as well. Even in the agency days, given that you are good and you can do things well, you get more face being a woman.

If you are young, then it’s a different story, you have to do more to prove yourself more. But overall, I don’t think being a woman has given me a disadvantage.

 

(13.30)

Dhanya: How is a typical Josephine day? Do you stick to routines?

Josephine: Oh yes, it’s a very full day for me. We have 3 locations, the workshop and 2 retail outlets. Every morning before 8, I will reach the workshop. I sit down with my workshop manager there to run through any thing she wants to clarify with me. By 9+ I will leave the workshop and go to the lucky plaza outlet. We repeat the process, and I reach mandarin gallery outlet by 11. I stay here till 8 pm and that’s when my day ends. That’s my typical day.

 

(At this point our video device died on us.. leaving no more video. We apologize..)

Dhanya: I am down to my final question. Do you have one idea or learning that you’d like to share, from all these years?

Josephine: Creating value is the ultimate aim. When we worked with the clients in our Ad agency, it was about making sure we served our stake holders and created value for everyone in the project. When it comes to Alteration initiative, we are creating value for our women and for our customers. It’s always about this one thing – whether we are doing enough to create value.

Another fact that helps is probably this – that we ran our ad agency in survival mode. However Alteration Initiative is in giving back mode. We can literally see the value we are creating in our women.


We need to be thankful for all the opportunities we have been given, even if it is was us who made good use of it. Your genuineness resonated with us, so loudly! Thank you for talking to us, Josephine. We wish to pay it forward too.

Real Leaders Team