How Karen Seah Has Succeeded at Being a Serial Female Entrepreneur in Singapore
When Karen Seah was gifted Cookie the chihuahua by her sister five years ago, everybody laughed at the incongruity of seeing the silky slip of a dog tucked under her arm. After all, the founder of production company Refinery Media has always cultivated a tough-as-nails persona. Plus, she had always owned larger pit bulls or Dobermans as pets.
But surprising even herself, the duo quickly became inseparable. Since then, the sweet-natured canine has also established itself as Refinery Media’s unofficial “emotional support dog”.
Indeed, when Seah brings along her pet for this shoot, everyone is hopelessly charmed by Cookie’s puppy-dog eyes. Seah says, “Cookie has grown up on set and is a constant fixture. She has helped our stressed-out cast and crew. She knows her part, which is very cute to see.”
This defying of expectations is certainly right up her alley. After all, she has made it her life’s work to be a disrupter. One of her earliest shows was the 2009 reality modelling competition SupermodelMe, which was released as a web series at a time when network television was the norm. Most recently, The Apprentice: One Championship Edition, a reimagining of the American version, was filmed in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic against all odds.
“The project is not merely a show, it represents so much more for the industry and the world, in putting together a current gold standard for a production,” she says. The team worked extensively with the Singapore government to put together a series of health and medical protocols to ensure everyone was kept relatively safe from Covid-19 exposure.
“We have contributed to creating an ecosystem which proves Singapore is probably one of the safest locations to film productions and also to stage events, such as the upcoming World Economic Forum.”
Even before becoming a showrunner extraordinaire, Seah’s unconventional spirit has shone bright in her work as a nightlife and F&B maven both in Singapore and abroad. While she was a student at the University of Melbourne pursuing a PhD in social psychology, she paid her way through school by launching Asian “club nights”—where she would book out a venue and sell tickets to students.
As turnout ballooned to the thousands, she decided to buy over a club in the city’s South Yarra district. “In the early 2000s, there were very few big clubs and it was unheard of and risky for a young Asian female to open an Asian-focused club in Melbourne. No one could understand it,” she recalls.
But her target clientele sure appreciated her efforts at creating a club for them—and they turned up in droves to propel Salt nightclub to success. She went on to spearhead other well-regarded nightspots in Kuala Lumpur, including the launch of Zouk Kuala Lumpur, where she was instrumental in establishing the club’s inimitable culture at that outpost.
Creating F&B Buzz
In 2006, Seah returned to Singapore, aiming to leave her nightlife days behind. A foodie at heart, her plan to launch a restaurant with a group of friends led her to an “inaccessible” location, next to The Saddle Club at Green Fairways, off Bukit Timah Road. She recalls, “They said this obscure location was very risky. I said, ‘I love it!’ They said no one would come here. I said, ‘That’s the best thing about it!’”
Defying convention once more, she launched Mimolette, where its rustic colonial setting amid verdant greenery made it a popular brunch destination right off the bat. In true Karen Seah style, she also added her own irreverent twist to the concept by introducing Friday night parties that quickly became the most coveted invite in town. “This really created a new type of scene. By night, we turned Mimolette into a small room, private members, guest list-only type of party,” she recalls.
Under her F&B group Refinery Concepts, Seah launched more concepts, each of which pushed boundaries in its own way. There is the cheekily named modern Japanese eatery Kinki as well as premium Japanese steakhouse Fat Cow that became so well‑received, it reclaimed the derogatory connotations of the word “fat”. The group also acquired The Marmalade Pantry, Oriole Coffee + Bar and Bedrock Bar & Grill.
Refinery was acquired by Kitchen Language, the franchise and restaurant arm of Far East Organization, in 2014 before merging with Singapore-based investment company Commonwealth Capital in January to form Commonwealth Concepts. Seah remains a shareholder.
“That was how the food business grew very quickly from one concept to a few notable brands and eventually became significant enough for others to take notice,” says the savvy businesswoman. “Ultimately, I always look for ways to elevate the business and go international with a strategic partner. It’s not just about money but the resources and the goals to do more. I want to grow brands beyond our shores.”
As her F&B empire was gaining renown, Seah concurrently launched Refinery Media in 2009. “When I was a kid, I was always taking photographs and watching movies, so doing something media‑related has always been my dream,” says Seah, who holds a bachelor of science in photojournalism from Boston University.
She aimed to achieve something “different and non-traditional”. Seah explains, “I wanted to explore the space of digital online content. It was very early days then when people did not watch YouTube videos for more than two minutes at a time, but my bet was that this was going to change, which it did.”
(Related: 10 Women Who Are Shaping Singapore)
SupermodelMe was created based on a utilitarian criteria—she figured a reality modelling competition would appeal to both genders and could easily incorporate product placements. To finance the show, she cajoled clients from her F&B Rolodex into taking part as sponsors.
It was subsequently picked up by cable and TV channels around the world, including AXN, Celestial Tiger Entertainment and NBC Universal. During its five-season run, the show garnered various awards and was nominated in the non-fiction category at the International Digital Emmy Awards. But when Asia’s Next Top Model subsequently launched during SupermodelMe’s third season, attention switched to the international franchise.
“It was tough when Asia’s Next Top Model set foot in the scene, and it was very hard to be compared and then looked over by brands,” says Seah. “Back then, few cared about a locally-made show format.”
Still, the production company went on to produce a string of well-received shows, including Cesar’s Recruit: Asia Season 3, The Amazing Race Asia Season 5 and Cooking for Love. Vindication arrived when Fox network approached Refinery Media to take on Asia’s Next Top Model seasons 5 and 6, although as a result SupermodelMe was subsequently put on hold.
“Our story is the David versus Goliath story. We re-versioned and improved the show and gave them the best ratings they had,” says Seah with pride. “And every contestant in those seasons, such as Maureen Wroblewitz, Adela-Mae Marshall and Layla Ong, have gone on to become influencers in their own right.”
Fundamentally, what I set out to achieve in everything that I do is to put Singapore on the map.
Changing the Narrative
Fast forward to 2021 and attitudes have changed dramatically. “Local original content is now revered,” she observes. “Asian faces are no longer playing the sidekick, they are now the main stars. I believe representation will continue to get better—Crazy Rich Asians opened the doors to more interest and demand to see more Asian faces on screen and the curiosity of Asian stories.”
In 2019, she wrote and produced her first movie, The Century Egg, a touching tale about food, love, loss and redemption in Taiwan. She is also musing the possibility of reviving SupermodelMe now that homegrown concepts are more well-received. This year, she hints that she will continue to explore new ways of melding her various passions such as food and television together. “I am happy to stay my course in each sector but continue to push boundaries more.”
In the meantime, The Apprentice: One Championship Edition, which is hosted by One Championship chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong, is already showcasing a different facet of Asian representation. She observes, “How many Asian hosts do you see on reality TV globally that are straightforward and tough talking? You didn’t, until Chatri. I believe this will open more doors to people realising not all Asians are nerds. They can be athletes, technopreneurs and Type A personalities.”
Sityodtong, who worked closely with Seah through the filming, voices his support for her vision. He says, “Karen defines the word passion. She is tough, honest and kind, and is truly a world-class executive producer with extraordinary creativity, excellence and execution. She is a master storyteller and really understands the art of content creation.”
Asian faces are no longer playing the sidekick, they are now the main stars.
Support from her parents
Seah credits her moxie and grit to her parents, DBS chairman Peter Seah and fashion designer Mylene Tan, who have always been supportive about her career choices. Her father gave her a loan for her first nightclub venture in Melbourne. She says, “My parents thought I was taking a big risk. But they were willing to let me try as I had proven to be quite entrepreneurial based on the success of my club nights.”
Her creative streak and tenacity, she says, comes from her mother, who used to design and run a girl’s apparel brand called Miss Muffet in the 1970s and ’80s. “I don’t think we give her enough credit, but she is the true entrepreneur in the family,” says Seah, who has vivid childhood memories of travelling with her mother to China and Hong Kong for factory visits. “It took real guts for her to strike out on her own in the ’70s and looking back, that has really impacted me.”
More recently, she has begun walking in her father’s footsteps too. In 2018, she became the founding partner of digital bank Sygnum. With a laugh, she says she sent her father a message saying, “Dad, I’m a banker too.”
Ultimately, I always look for ways to elevate the business and go international with a strategic partner.
It is the world’s first digital bank to obtain both a Swiss banking licence from the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, or Finma, and a capital markets services licence from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. “This industry is the future and Sygnum is paving the way to bridge the gap between traditional and future banking in Singapore and beyond by empowering investments in the digital asset economy with complete trust,” she says.
Indeed, no matter what she sets her sights on, she has one big goal.
“Fundamentally, what I set out to achieve in everything that I do is to put Singapore on the map.”
The April 2021 issue is now available with our compliments on Magzter.
- PhotographyJoel Lim
- Art DirectionMatilda Au
- Photographer's AssistantAntonio Lam, Shana Chee
- StylingJoey Tan
- HairJunz Loke using Kevin Murphy
- Make-UpLarry Yeo using Make Up For Ever