“I have personally experienced the challenges of being a women entrepreneur,” says lawyer Rachel Eng, who serves as the chairperson of the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network. Here, she details why there was a need to set up the initiative and how it works to support female entrepreneurs, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region
As a corporate lawyer with close to 30 years of experience, Rachel Eng has met many entrepreneurs—both male and female—as well as business leaders across various industries. “Over the years, as a mergers and acquisition (M&A) and capital markets lawyer, I have interacted with entrepreneurs from the start-up space to publicly listed companies,” she shares. “Such extensive exposure has helped me understand the business and personal challenges faced by entrepreneurs.”
Eng is also no stranger to the hoops that many women have to jump through in traditionally male-dominated environments. These struggles have never set her back, however. She steadily rose through the ranks, making headlines as the first female to be appointed managing partner, and later deputy chairman, of one of Singapore’s Big Four law firms, WongPartnership LLP.
In 2018, she left the law firm for her current role; Eng is the founder and managing director of Eng and Co. LLC, a Singapore law firm that’s part of the network of member firms of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited (PWC).
Years deep into a career where she continues to make history, her past experiences has aided her greatly in her current role as the executive committee’s chairperson of the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network (SG-WEN), she reveals. “Having managed law firms, and in recent years, founded my law firm Eng and Co. LLC, I have personally experienced the challenges of being a women entrepreneur, allowing me to relate to the challenges faced by our SG-WEN members.”
Launched by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), SG-WEN was established in late 2021 with an “aim to coalesce the women entrepreneurs in Singapore and connect them with other women entrepreneurs, business leaders and trade associations in the Asia-Pacific, in particular the ASEAN member states”.
I ask Eng why she saw the need to establish SG-WEN, and her reply is firm. Women in Singapore make up 44 per cent of the nation’s workforce, but only a quarter of business owners are women, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs.
“This disproportionate statistic runs contrary to the fact that the women workforce in Singapore is a highly educated one,” says Eng. “No doubt there are a number of existing entrepreneur associations in Singapore, but they are typically dominated by male entrepreneurs at both the executive committee as well as the members levels.” She felt that there was a gap “which may be served by a network like SG-WEN where we could advocate not just for women leaders in general but more importantly, for women entrepreneurs and the unique challenges they face”.
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Eng has always been a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusivity; when she was at WongPartnership, she also helped the firm champion award-winning progressive initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion for women in the legal industry.
The lawyer currently also serves as a council member for the Council for Board Diversity Singapore; she was the chairperson of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council Women Working Group in 2018; previously, she had also taken part in the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations' (SCWO) BoardAgender, a mentoring initiative that drives leadership and facilitates networking opportunities for senior female professionals.
Here, Eng delves deeper into her role at SG-WEN, how the network is supporting female entrepreneurs, and some upcoming initiatives that could help make lasting progress.
Tell us more about your role at SG-WEN.
Rachel Eng (RE): As the chairperson of SG-WEN’s executive committee (exco), I work closely with my exco to drive the formulation and implementation of SG-WEN’s strategy and goals. As SG-WEN is a network under SBF, I also work closely with the SBF team.
As a Singapore representative at the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, I noticed that our fellow ASEAN countries have established women entrepreneurs associations and networks to drive women's economic empowerment at the national level. I am grateful to have been able to form SG-WEN with the support we have received from the Ministry of Trade & Industry, Ministry of Social and Family Development and SBF.
How does SG-WEN work to support female entrepreneurs, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region?
RE: SG-WEN will focus on supporting women entrepreneurs in four key areas. First, championing women's business issues through engagements with senior government officials as well as data-driven advocacy through surveys. Secondly, knowledge sharing through fireside chats and networking events to spur business transformation and growth. Thirdly, promoting collaboration with other women groups in Singapore, including the women groups of trade associations and chambers, and networking with AWEN and other overseas groups. And lastly, recognising women entrepreneurs for their achievements and successes.
Who are some of the other members in SG-WEN? How does the initiative work as a team?
RE: My exco includes Ang Shi Hui (Klareco Communications), Jocelyn Chng (JR Group), Irene Boey (Integral Solutions Asia) and Olive Tai (Synagie).
Each of my exco members leads a subcommittee, namely, Membership, Communications & Stakeholder engagement, Marketing and Research. As volunteers, we have a common objective of wanting to help women succeed. We contribute to SG-WEN by leveraging our respective core skills.
As a leader yourself, what are your thoughts on some of the most admirable qualities a leader should have?
RE: I think a leader should have a clear head and a kind heart. He or she should lead with clarity and serve with humility.
A leader should be open to ideas, be empathetic and compassionate, and be able to foster a safe environment for diverse views to be surfaced and discussed.
At the same time, as the world is changing so quickly, a leader must be confident, decisive and courageous in order to drive and make things happen.
What are some tips that you have to help women thrive in male-dominated fields?
- Work hard and be professional. Do not expect special advantages, earn them instead! I believe that respect is not given but earned. Tap on your strengths —for example, women leaders tend to be more nurturing. Use such qualities to your advantage to build a strong team around you.
- Be aware of societal stereotypes and gender bias. While being conscious of the stereotyping and unconscious or subconscious bias, use your strong EQ and people skills to overcome such bias.
- When an opportunity knocks on the door, seize it! Take advantage of every good opportunity presented to you in your career. Believe in yourself.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your position?
RE: In SG-WEN, we have managed to build a sizeable community of women entrepreneurs in a short span of six months. When I sense the friendship and camaraderie building up among our members, it is incredibly heartwarming.
We empathise with one another on issues we previously faced alone and, moving forward, we can leverage on each other for support to overcome challenges in our respective workplaces.
SG-WEN started from a small core team of five of us, and we have now expanded to just under 300 members. Knowing that my work in igniting the spark to get this fire going has contributed to the creation of such a community is the most rewarding aspect of my position.
What are some plans you have in the pipeline for SG-WEN?
RE: As we move into an endemic world, I hope that we can organise more in-person events, and where possible, overseas trip to other Asian countries. This will help to realise our goal of facilitating networking for our women entrepreneurs with the rest of ASEAN. I also want to raise the profile of our Singapore women entrepreneurs by encouraging stronger support and participation in AWEN’s annual Women CEO Award and ASEAN Business Awards.
Since our launch last September, we have been spending time with intermediaries and partners to explore various ways to collaborate, whether to set up training courses tailored for women entrepreneurs or coaching seminars on topics of interest to our members. We also wish to identify potential partners to work on research and surveys pertaining to issues relating to female entrepreneurship. We hope to build a strong and close community of advocates who come alongside to promote the potential of women entrepreneurs and to help them succeed in their businesses and continue meaningfully to society.
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