Pamela Lim – In Straits Times, NewAsia Biz Woman
She struck gold in the male-dominated IT industry. She bucked convention by having four children. She defies time management by cooking breakfast each day. CORINNE KERK looks for the superwoman in Pamela Lim
HER first job was as an air stewardess with Singapore Airlines. The science graduate thought it was her dream job, as she wanted to “fly in the kebaya”. But on the first day of work, Pamela Lim asked when she would be promoted. “I said, ‘what if I worked very very hard and do very well?’,” she recalls. “But back then, they told me promotion is done batch by batch.”
That was all Ms Lim needed to switch careers. Which is not a bad thing, considering the career-minded woman was eventually to become one of the founders and group chief executive officer of Ebiz Solutions – now renamed 3rd Frontier.
3rd Frontier supplies technology so companies can offer Internet-based financial services such as banking, stock and forex trading through personal computers, handheld computers and handphones. The three-year-old company was involved in launching the world’s first mobile-trading solution, providing solutions for complicated trading requirements.
With clients like Citibank, UBS Warburg and GK Goh, 3rd Frontier is reportedly making annual revenues of some $15 million, is profitable and has a positive cashflow. With about 130 staff in Singapore, Hongkong, Malaysia, London and Sydney, more than 70 per cent of its business is now generated outside of Singapore.
But what is running a business like for the gung-ho, 35-year-old mother-of-four?
“We serve financial institutions, which are still very traditional, very conservative,” says Ms Lim. “The systems we sell are very high in value and go into millions. So buyers will want to meet the CEO of the company. But one look at me, and I can tell they’re thinking, ‘how did she get there?’. Many of these are old men, top men in the bank. They don’t talk about my company or products, but about my appearance, such as ‘you look so young, you look like that poster girl’, and so on. But my style is, I must get their respect in the first five minutes.” She does that by ignoring their personal comments and concentrating on e-commerce talk.
“As a woman entrepreneur, you must know your own stuff better than anybody else,” she says. “Fortunately in IT, there’s no handicap. If you lose two years, it’s okay, that’s history anyway in Internet time. Just read, update yourself, be very knowledgeable and you’re back. IT is about knowledge.”
Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years, says the MBA holder and former IBM and Citibank staffer. She feels there is much less bias against women today in Singapore.
“In the past, there were too few women who used their fullest potential to achieve in the business world,” she says. “They have their reasons and their priorities are different, but they are not less smart. Maybe they feel time is better spent at home, which is something I respect.”
In fact, Ms Lim says that families should come first in every society. “You have to first build a family, then the society will be strong. If everyone goes to work and the children go astray, it’s wrong. The society will collapse.”
Ms Lim goes a step further – she wishes more women will stay home. “If a woman can cope with both work and family, that’s okay. But if she cannot cope and it is at the expense of her family, and her relationship with her husband and children is gone, then it’s better for her to stay home. It’s a grave mistake to choose business over family.”
Having said that, she feels modern technology now allows women to balance family and work.
“Given this kind of opportunity, if women spend the effort and time to discover themselves, they will find businesses that will work for them. In fact, I’m now helping my 65-year-old mother start a small food business because she wants to.”
Although the busy career woman has two maids to help her out at home, the bubbly Ms Lim says she enjoys a good relationship with her children.
“I always believe that in whatever I do, I have to do it very well. I breastfed all my four kids for one year each, I review all their school work and they don’t have a tuition teacher because I don’t believe in that, I go with them for all their music lessons, my husband does the marketing and I cook their breakfast and plan all their meals. We even bake our own bread at home every day.”
With the birth of every child, she would carry her breast-pump everywhere. “Even when I travelled, I would pump the milk and freeze it to bring back to my babies. Often, I would get a fever because of engorgement, or too much milk. And once, it was a bit embarrassing because while I was doing a presentation, my milk wet my blouse. So I apologised and explained that I was breastfeeding. But I think people respect you for that.”
The refreshingly candid Ms Lim admits her lifestyle is hectic, but fun. “The family can stress you out more, or, it can de-stress you and help break the cycle of work.”
For a woman who used to sleep only four hours a day because her mind was “always working”, Ms Lim now clocks five hours of sleep every night, which she finds sufficient.
At 3rd Frontier, she is the youngest member in the management team. But as CEO, she manages men who are more experienced than she is. “I don’t feel inferior. My job is to make decisions, be accountable for them and steer the company. Their job is to operate. They can’t replace me not because I have the best skills, but because of my different skills. To be CEO, you have to be a visionary, a dreamer. You must be able to see what other people cannot see. Of course, I’ve made wrong decisions, but I just have to be sure I am fair and ethical to investors, staff, clients and partners.”
She feels that women have an advantage over men in that they tend to have stronger communication skills, are good listeners and better judges of character. “These are very good business skills,” she points out.
Even her husband, chief operating officer, has to accept the decisions she makes as boss. But he isn’t less successful than she is, Ms Lim points out. He’s just in a different role.
“He was director of operations for IBM Asia Pacific before he joined us after our fourth child was born a year ago. He is more successful than I am, and had always drawn more salary than I did. Now, we get about the same pay, but I don’t pay myself the most here. There are other people who draw more salary than I do, including my people in Hongkong and London.”
While she makes the decisions in the office, Ms Lim’s husband is clearly head of the household at home. “At home, all the final decisions are made by him, and the kids know that.”
In her view, a wife’s role should be like the one described in the final chapter of Proverbs in the Bible. “A woman has to make her family proud of her, but it doesn’t mean she cannot support the family in terms of going out to make money. At the end of the day, you want your children to be proud of you, and your husband to sing praises of you. As for men, their first responsibility is to be head of the family, and it is important for them to be respected by society.”
Although she could have stayed on in IBM and worked herself up the ranks like a friend of hers did, she has no regrets coming out to weather the storms of entrepreneurship.
“My friend is very high ranking now, but her environment is so protected compared to what I’ve been through; getting stepped all over, bitched about and dealing with people who try to steal our software,” she says philosophically. “But what’s the point of having too cushy a life? Then I wouldn’t have become what I am today, I wouldn’t have learnt. Hopefully, when I die, I die a better person. To each her own.”
Ms Lim is still in touch with some of her stewardess friends, a few of whom are still flying. “Are they less successful than I am? No, they are successful in their own way, they are happy. Different people have different targets in life. But would I do that? No. When I was younger, a man had offered to make me his kept woman. I told him: ‘I’ll make more money than you’.”
Confident words from a confident woman. No doubt she is well on her way to achieving that by now – husband and four kids in tow.