Cover Photo: Courtesy of Yan Lim

The iOli Communications CEO, media trainer and mother of four shares the work habits that she's had to unlearn in her 17-year career and her hopes for future female leaders in the PR industry

From a young age, Yan Lim was fiercely independent and hardworking, having grown up in a Thai settlement in Besut, Terengganu under the care of her grandmother, a rubber estate worker who also sold kuih-muih to help put Lim and her siblings through school.

Lim's good grades eventually earned her admission into the International Islamic University of Malaysia to study law. Although financial problems compelled her to drop out, Lim enrolled herself in a smaller university and paid her way through the courses, landing a job as a Fuji Xerox customer service representative at the time. 

She was 20 years old when her first business venture came to life. Juggling the newfound responsibilities of motherhood and running a small tuition centre teaching English and Maths classes, Lim used the earnings from her tuition centre to pay for college.         

"To be able to say I funded my tertiary studies on my own is something I am really proud of till today, I probably overshare it just a little," she laughs. "But honestly, who I am today came from the values and lessons I learned from that very difficult time in my life." 

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Today, she is the CEO of boutique public relations firm iOli Communications, which she founded in 2015 with a vision to help pave the way for more female PR practitioners to enjoy a successful career without having to sacrifice their personal goals as women, especially for working mums. At present, iOli Communications is a majority female company with a flexible, remote workplace model. 

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Named the Outstanding ASEAN Woman Entrepreneur at the ASEAN Women Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2019, Lim is also an advisory board member for Girls In Tech Malaysia and honorary secretary of the Women Entrepreneur Network Association of Malaysia. On Instagram, she describes herself as 'overachiever' and 'beach bum' in the same breath, which prompts the question: How does this high-energy lady boss squeeze in a spare second in her busy schedule for some R&R every once in a while? 

Below, Lim shares what shapes her work ethic and the mindsets she's had to 'unlearn' about taking breaks as a business leader.    


What changes did you want to see in the PR industry when you first started your company? 

When I founded iOli Communication, it was my aspiration to accelerate the advancement of women in the workplace, especially PR practitioners. To be clear, there are already many female leaders in PR and communications roles. But I wanted to see more leaders who would help empower the younger generation to practice PR without the same old negative mindsets. You know the one I'm talking about? That take-it-or-leave-it mindset that agency people don’t have a life.

I was at three agencies and I had to endure a lot of that. Once, when I was pregnant with my third child, there was this client that I had helped bring on board. Despite the fact that all the pitching,  the proposals and the documentation was done by me, the credit eventually went to a male coworker of mine. Why? Because he apparently decided to go with the client for a drinking session after work where they supposedly sealed the deal.  

When I started iOli Communication, I felt that we needed more conversations about these issues to should take place among female leaders. Like, as a women, you already have position and power in this industry, but a very different point of view compared to our male counterparts.

Do you believe that being busy equates to success? 

I don’t believe being busy equates to success. But I do believe in order for you to be successful you have to be productive. Being a hard worker and a workaholic are two different things.

Conversely, does taking a rest from work mean compromising on success?

When I started my PR agency, I was very influenced by start-up culture. It's common knowledge that when you get invested in by venture capitalists or angel investors, you have to show that you're working around the clock. That was me initially. I wanted to show I was doing well and we needed to work hard to position the brand to get more clients. 

It was tiring and my mental health took a backseat. I've realised over the years that physical health and mental health are equally important. There were moments where I had to tell myself, 'You're not slacking, you're taking a rest,"

That said, the luxury of taking a rest hinges on the state of your business, doesn't it? Back then, I couldn't afford to take a break. Today, the team is much bigger, they can operate independently even if I step away. When you start out in business, you have to work hard, there's no way around it, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take care of your mental health. 

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What has been the most challenging experience of your career so far, and how did you get through it? 

Three years ago, I lost my brother. It was a very painful experience, but it also helped me to stretch my perspective on life and people. I know the time to grieve is really important, and I’m still going through that, step by step. But I also had to ask myself, 'Who will I be, where will I be, when the dust settles?' It taught me that time is the most precious commodity, because unlike money, we can’t make more of it. 

What are some work habits or mindsets that you've had to unlearn in recent years? 

There are many. One is micro-management—not only does it wear you down mentally, it hurts the trust you've built with your team. The second is not having a clear line between work and personal matters. 


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