Cover Photo: Refinery Media

From killer nightclubs to booming food and beverage concepts, Karen Seah never fails to deliver her best in everything she creates. Here is how she has done it throughout her career

How I’m Making It is a weekly series in which Tatler speaks to influential individuals about their unique journeys and what keeps them going.

As the founder and executive producer of Refinery Media, a production company that has produced ground-breaking shows that include The Apprentice: One Championship Edition Season 1, Amazing Race Season 5, Asia’s Next Top Model Seasons 5 and 6 and more, Karen Seah has certainly earned the respect of most in the media industry. 

However, the gritty showrunner’s climb to the top, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated industry, was far from easy or straightforward.

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Seah’s career, surprisingly, began in the nightlife industry. While she was completing her PhD in Social Psychology in Melbourne, Seah decided to launch a concept called, “club nights”. In it, she would book out venues and sell tickets to students who were interested. 

When her turnout started to increase, Seah decided to buy over a club and set up Salt Nightclub in the city’s South Yarra district. The Asian-focused club continued to do well till it was shut down in 2003. 

Undettered, Seah went on to launch multiple nightlife concepts in Kuala Lumpur (KL) including Nouvo and even Zouk which she led for just over six years. 

“After I left Zouk KL, I decided I didn’t want to be in the nightlife business anymore but I also did not know what I wanted to do,” Seah shared.

Not one to stay stagnant, Seah decided in 2006 that she wanted to leave her nightlife days behind her and decided to branch out into the food and beverage industry. 

Seah began her foray into the industry by setting up Mimolette Bar and Restaurant, a rustic establishment that soon became a popular brunch spot for locals looking for a unique weekend treat. 

Under Seah’s talented watch though, Mimolette continued to grow and at one point, introduced Friday night parties to its repertoire. By night, the family-friendly brunch spot turned into a private, guest list-only party spot and invites were highly coveted as you can probably imagine. 

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In 2011, Seah decided to fully commit to her food and beverage venture by setting up Refinery Concepts.

Under Refinery Concepts, Seah and her team launched restaurants such as Fat Cow, a Japanese steakhouse, Oriole Coffee + Bar, Bedrock Bar & Grilll and Kinki

In 2014, Refinery Concepts was acquired by Kitchen Language, the franchise and restaurant arm of the Far East Organization. They later merged with investment company Commonwealth Capital to form Commonwealth Concepts and Seah remains a shareholder there.

It was in 2009 when Seah decided to once again change course and explore the world of, surprisingly, production. 

“I have always been vividly passionate about content production and consumption so I decided to set up Refinery Media and take a chance on my dreams,” Seah shared before adding that this was not her first foray into the media industry. 

Seah actually has a degree in photojournalism and one of her first jobs was as an in-house photographer for a local magazine where she took portraits of personalities. 

“It was like testing deep waters with both feet, not knowing what to expect. I had a compelling idea in 2009 that one day everyone was going to watch entire episodes online on YouTube and I decided that I wanted to make a reality show to cater to a diverse audience," Seah said while admitting that online content at that point was not at all seen as a sustainable. 

“I was constantly overanalyzing my career switch and dealing with uncertainty based on intuition. The most glaring challenge of course was that I had never made a reality show before,” she continued with a laugh. 

At that point, going against the traditional television production method and making a show for an online platform was risky and to her, sounded pretty unrealistic. 

“A big challenge was finding a team who had the same gumption and beliefs as I did to be able to monetise content at the scale I intended to,” Seah confessed.

However, determined as she always has been to defy odds, Seah went forth, assembled her team and eventually produced Supermodelme, a reality modelling competition that appealed to both genders.

As it is with almost anything she laid her hands on, Supermodelme ended up being a resounding success and was picked up by cable and television channels around the world such as AXN, Celestial Tiger Entertainment and NBC Universal.

The show ran for five seasons and ended up earning many awards including a nomination in the non-fiction category at the International Digital Emmy Awards.

The production company went on to produce numerous other shows such as Cesar’s Recruit: Asia Season 3, The Amazing Race Asia Season 5 and Cooking for Love.

Its hard work eventually paid off when Fox approached the production company to take on Asia’s Next Top Model seasons 5 and 6 which it did with gusto. 

Seah’s production company actually improved the show drastically and it reflected in the fact that it achieved its best ratings yet under its watch.

However, Refinery’s biggest challenge yet came when they were approached by One Championship to produce their first television show for them.

“We were thrilled and at the same time extremely nervous because it was during the height of the pandemic. There was a lot of uncertainty stemming from the lack of travel and other logistical deviations,” Seah said. 

“Nonetheless we managed to successfully produce the show against all odds and also showcase the magnificent locales of Singapore simultaneously,” she continued. 

The show did so well that even before filming wrapped, Netflix approached the team about adding the show to its platform. Needless to say, the show gained much success and garnered an estimated four million viewers on premiere night, according to One Championship. This beat out other famous reality competitions such as America’s Got Talent Season 20, Masterchef Singapore Season 2, The Voice Season 20 and more. 

When the show ended, it garnered a total of 30 million views in Asia which was about three and a half million views per episode.  

“We couldn’t be more proud of the response as well as the accolades that followed suit. It was very overwhelming when we won two Asian Academy Creative Awards for the show and we are now equipped, with even more conviction, to break the mould and create more content for our viewers to enjoy,” Seah gushed. 

True enough, Seah has always been about breaking the mould. As a woman who has almost effortlessly soared to the top of every male-dominated industry she has found herself in, Seah is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

“I have been brought up with the idea that I am capable of anything I set my mind to and this is often challenged but when I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, it’s easier to drown the noise to make mine heard,” she shared before adding that she has not been a stranger to people’s ungrounded prejudice.

“I have developed skin thick enough that bolsters my competence for people to focus on my capabilities and not my gender, age or race,” she affirmed confidently. 

“Ideas are not monopolised by a single gender and someone else’s domination isn’t reason enough to follow the voice that tells you to follow your dream,” Seah said.

“Women have been working hard to break the stereotypes globally, whether it’s Selena Gomez with Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why or Shonda Rhimes with her enviably inspiring portfolio or Mindy Kaling’s chart-topping productions. I’m no different.”

Today, Seah is enjoying working towards several new shows which cannot be announced yet while also balancing her various other existing ventures and businesses which include being a founding partner of digital bank Sygnum.

In honour of International Women’s Day, Tatler spoke with Seah to find out how she does it all.

What is a typical morning like for you?

Karen Seah (KS): I am an early riser, so usually I’ve finished reading all my emails before breakfast.I have a routine to prepare food for my pet birds, let them out for a bit before enjoying breakfast with the birds and the dog while catching up on news. I will usually work out after breakfast.

What do you usually have for breakfast?

KS: I am a creature of habit and stick to having two boiled eggs and a coffee daily.

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What does a standard workday look like for you?

KS: In production, there is no such thing as a standard work day. When we are not in the middle of filming, I’m working from home and running meetings with clients and my team. During production, which is usually a schedule of two months at a go, we are on our feet for 12 to 16 hours a day.

How would you describe your working style?

KS: I’m not a micromanager. It is very important for me to be able to trust others with their work and I appreciate everyone’s input as it lends a fresh perspective. I tend to make decisions quickly and decisively.

What time do you usually have lunch? What do you usually have for lunch?

KS: There is no fixed timing as schedules during production can be hectic. During production, I eat whatever the crew eats and we prioritise carbohydrate intake for the extra energy. Off production, I am deliberately health conscious and enjoy having salads whenever I can.

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Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?

KS: Underrated. Everyone needs to take time out to get rebalanced and refreshed. I’m a firm believer in taking time out regularly to reward yourself for the hard work you’ve put in. I am currently on a two-week-long road trip in the United States and already feel rejuvenated and synergised to work harder once I’m back at work.

How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?

KS: I am very passionate about what I do so sometimes it’s hard to set blocks of time for different tasks especially if I have to liaise with people internationally. However, I don’t answer calls past 10 pm and I will also never call my staff or partners after 10 pm unless it is absolutely necessary. I think rest time after working hours needs to be respected. 

How do you chase your dreams?

KS: You do it a step at a time. I have stayed true to my ultimate vision but in the lead up to achieving that, I encountered many obstacles to navigate through that l overcame when I remembered what’s at stake. Don’t watch the clock. Instead, do what it does and keep moving.

Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?

KS: Yes I’m a believer in taking calculated risks. Some people have an appetite for risks while others do not and I think it boils down to experience and conviction in your own beliefs. I think that risks are necessary in order to achieve big gains. 

How do you deal with your shortcomings?

KS: First, I acknowledge I have shortcomings. I am not ashamed about my shortcomings and strive to continually work on myself to explore different dimensions of my character that perhaps inhibit me from greater achievements. I also take pride in being self-aware and think I have evolved significantly from who I was when I just started my career.

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What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?

KS: Managing a company is about people management.

How do you unplug?

KS: I go for hikes, walks, travel and enjoy food.

How do you stay grounded?

KS: Work out, focus on self-care, spend time with family and avoid unnecessary drama.

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How do you manage stress?

KS: When it comes to coping with stress, I’ve realised that sleeping enough is the secret to managing stress.

How do you stay motivated?

KS: I’m motivated from the moment I wake up. Being motivated is a mindset.

What is one item that has changed your life for the better?

KS: The iPhone has definitely changed my life in terms of accessibility and organisation.

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Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?

KS: Just like everyone, I too have doubts. On a daily basis, there are various doubts that seep into decision making related to capacity and ability. What I then do is reason with myself to overcome those doubts and if I can’t overcome them with patience and logic, I try a different approach that delivers the outcome I desire.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?

KS: I think my greatest accomplishment is my agility and resilience in the face of adversity. Changing careers twice required a lot of initiative, acumen and self-belief and developing that to be who I am today is my greatest achievement. I’ve hit rock bottom several times and managed to pull myself out.

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

KS: Say a prayer.


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