Spreading their wings after flying career ends

SGSME speaks to four ex-crew members of Singapore Airlines who have started their own businesses or carried on their family businesses after clipping their wings.

THE glitz and glamour of a jet-setting life is appealing to millenials looking to travel the world and experience different cultures overseas, but besides looking perfect and donning the iconic Sarong Kebaya, some crew members have decided to take a different road.

SGSME speaks to four ex-crew members of Singapore Airlines who have started their own businesses or carried on their family businesses after clipping their wings.

1. Ili Di Chen, co-founder of Sprinkie Parties 

Q: Why did you decide to stop flying with SIA? When did you stop flying with SIA?

Flying to different parts of the world gave me the opportunity to identify gaps within various industries, one of which was the do-it-yourself, party decorations scene in Singapore. In 2012 after four years into the job, I needed a greater challenge and this pushed me to leave a very comfortable job.

Q: What inspired you to start Sprinkie Parties in 2014?

With the drive of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, I realised consumers felt that it was no longer enough to simply have a cake with candles in pictures. Consumers wanted #InstaWorthy pictures and this was something which was not easily achieved by schedule-packed 21-year-old students, busy working adults and new parents. I felt this gap was very much in line with my interests in photography and putting together creative visual displays for celebrations. 

I started out the business with my then boyfriend (now husband) from my room. As the business grew, I hired part-time staff to assist with the weekly party preparations. I still handle the conceptualisation and designs as that's where I find enjoyment. 

Ili D Chen (fourth from right in forefront) with her ex-colleagues

Q: Who are your clients?

My clients include parents, 21-year-olds, wedding couples, and more recently new parents who are looking to host baby gender reveal parties. We've also done large-scale corporate events for companies like The Walt Disney Company, Changi Airport Group, Swatch, Golden Village, Singapore Art Museum and Utraco group, to name a few.

Q: What are some challenges you face a young 'towkay neo'?

Logistics has always been a challenge as we constantly have to transport and store inventory. Being a woman does not help as a job could sometimes get very laborious especially for larger setups. We recently acquired a company van and that has helped us to drive greater business efficiency.

Q: Where do you see Sprinkie Parties in a few years?

I hope to be able to bring about a wider range of offerings including consultative sessions and turnkey solutions that will offer aspiring do-it-yourself individuals with the tools, skills and inventory to experience the process of setting up a party with their loved ones. Over the past five years, I've realised that experience is what sells.

For example, if a parent goes through a negative experience putting his or herdo-it-yourself party setup together, it is unlikely that they will do it again and this defeats the whole purpose of holding a celebration. However, if we are able to offer a solution that improves this experience, what we bring to the table is not just a beautiful setup but a bonding experience among people.

Q: Is the business self-funded at the moment? Have you applied for any grants from the government?

Yes it is self-funded. We were looking to obtain some grants in the past but we missed the boat. We've not had any investors but we've had parties who were keen in buying over the business. We might be keen on investors who share the same vision and goals.

Q: Do you plan to open more outlets besides the current one at East Coast?

No, opening another outlet is not something in the pipeline. However we might consider getting a larger space.

2. Wendy Quek, Sunlife Durian Puffs & Pastries

Q: What were you doing before you started flying with SIA?

I was at a public relations agency. I was doing that for a little more than a year. I joined them in 2013, right after I graduated. I started flying with SIA in 2015 and stopped flying in 2017.

Q: Do you run Sunlife Durian Puffs & Pastries with your parents?

Yes. At the start, the main pastry chefs were my parents. My aunt then joined in. Now, most of the production is done by my aunt. We have another part-timer who helps. Our first outlet at Causeway Point was established in 2009. Since I was 17, or one or two years into the business, I actually tried to help them in the business in terms of using Photoshop and doing posters.

Back then, I was still using PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. Slowly, when I went to university, I picked up Photoshop skills and learnt videography. I started Sunlife's website and Instagram since 2016. When I was flying, I worked on them during my days off or from the hotel room when I flew.

Q: How were sales then in 2009?

Back then, it was very traditional and through word-of-mouth. My parents had their own struggles. I remember there was a point in time when they had to sell the car just to make ends meet. Sales is now definitely doing much better. We even have extra capital for me to start this outlet (at Toa Payoh). Sunlife is profitable at the moment.

Q: Who are your customers?

In the past, when Sunlife first started, it was the older crowd like those 40 and above, and not so tech savvy, or heartlanders who pass by the shop. In the last two to three years, there were a lot of young mothers who do baby showers and they spread the word about Sunlife too. We were quite surprised also.

Q: Will you take over the business from your parents?

Hopefully yes, between my brother and I. My brother works full time as an accountant.

Q: What are some challenges you face as a young 'towkay neo'?

There is a lot of rising cost in terms of ingredients like butter. Also, durian is seasonal. Another challenge will be to keep up with technology. I'm trying to incorporate e-payments considering retail sales and how young people are now going cashless. Currently, all our outlets only accept cash. There are, however, costs incurred like commission and administrative fees and getting my parents to be receptive to these new technologies. Hopefully this can be rolled out within the next month.

Q: Where do you see Sunlife in a few years?

I'm hoping to open at least another few more outlets to target different regions of Singapore such as Clementi or Punggol.

3. Gwendolyn Toh, co-founder of Dr. Lash

Q: What were you doing before you started flying with SIA?

I graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic and was a piano teacher while I was studying. I joined SIA after that and it was my first full-time job. My last flight was last September so I officially left SIA in October 2017.

Q: What inspired you and your husband to start Dr. Lash? When was the company established?

It all started out from a sponsorship, and I was invited over to try out my first eyelash extension. I didn't like it and I was always on the lookout for a place that I liked best. I then decided to do it on my own after tons of research. We officially opened on Dec 16, 2017.

Q: What are some challenges you face a young 'tokway neo'?

I would say the most challenging problem is managing people, or more so manpower in particular. Serving customers has always been a joy for me, however, when it comes to a team, it is a whole new ball game.

Q: Where do you see Dr. Lash in a few years?

My dream is to expand to the western and northern parts of Singapore as well as other parts of Asia. We hope to expand to China or Australia in the years to come.

Q: Is the business self-funded at the moment? Have investors approached you?

Yes it is self-funded. We do have a few investors who have approached us, but currently that is an option we will consider in the future.

Q: Are you planning to open more outlets?

Yes we are. Probably looking at next year.

4. Ruben Brandon, co-founder of Wildmarket and Wildbar

Q: What were you doing before you started flying with SIA?

I was a manager at an Italian restaurant. I was flying with SIA for almost 10 years before I stopped in October 2016. As my business ventures grew, it became harder to juggle them and flying, so I had to choose one. That said, I did love the opportunities to travel while flying.

Q: What inspired you to start Wildmarket with your co-founder? 

My business partner was in the coffeeshop business and I had several years of experience in the nightlife scene, so we thought it will be interesting to merge the two and start something different.

Q: How were sales in the last financial year?

I can say that the numbers were pretty decent. Our business is profitable.

Q: How do you stay competitive in the food and beverage scene in Singapore?

Stay flexible and adapt to any and all changes. We're always open to ideas and asking how we can make them better or more interesting. We try not to take anything for granted or get too complacent.

Q: What are some challenges you face as a 'towkay'?

Keeping up with constantly changing and evolving trends in Singapore - everything moves quickly, whether physically in the F&B scene or electronically on social media.

Q: Is the business self-funded at the moment? Have you applied for any grants from the government?

Sort of. We haven't taken any grants actually but it is definitely a consideration for new ventures.

Q: What about any investors? Have they approached you?

Yes. While we've met some people, the discussions haven't progressed yet.

Q: Where do you see Wildmarket & Wildbar in a few years?

It'd be great to open in different districts around Singapore, with new concepts.