Tjin Lee — The Rebel Who Went From Poor Student To Dauntless Entrepreneur

You could call her a rebel entrepreneur.

It is her unconventional approach to both life and business that makes her one. Tjin Lee is also a passionate advocate of the notion that school grades don’t sum up a person’s abilities and intelligence.

According to Tjin, soft skills are the future and young people need to do more to build and develop their soft skills early on.

Apart from being the managing director and founder of the award-winning Mercury Marketing & Communications, Tjin Lee is also known for the Audi Fashion Festival — or the Singapore Fashion Week, as it’s known today.

In recent years Tjin has ventured into various social enterprises such as CRIB, with the aim to empower women to become successful entrepreneurs.

The AMG team was privileged to meet up with this gorgeous maverick recently to talk about her journey as an entrepreneur, her future plans and to get some very pertinent advice for young women.

Tjin Lee Gives Advice On How To Stay Relevant In A Changing World

Tjin Lee – The definition of beauty with brains!

From “poor student” and a rebellious worker to a dauntless entrepreneur. How did she do it?

“I didn’t get the grades and I marched to the beat of my own drum. It didn’t mean I was bad in class or that I wasn’t intelligent, but I was too independent to be a typical student in our system.”

Recently Tjin shared a post on her blog which said that the traits that categorised her as a “poor student” and a rebellious worker, were the very strengths that made her a dauntless entrepreneur.

“I was always the child who asked why, or isn’t there a different way to do something, and when I was an employee I had many questions too, ‘why do we do it like this, isn’t that a better way to do it, can we try this way…”

It was this unorthodox way of thinking that made Tjin who she is today, and it is what drives her to keep changing and growing.

In today’s day and age change is the only constant, and staying relevant isn’t just a problem entrepreneurs face. Many of us face this challenge in our day-to-day jobs.  

We asked Tjin Lee for her secrets on how she has managed to not only grow her business, but how she manages to pivot and reinvent herself to stay relevant.

In conversation with Tjin Lee

“This was me, about 5 years old. When I thought I could become anything I wanted. This was before school taught me that I was ‘mediocre’.” (Photo credit: Tjin Lee’s IG)

Tjin Lee’s advice to stay relevant in an ever-changing business landscape

1. To stay relevant, reverse learn

“I learn a lot from my team. If you’re really dealing with the future, learn from the next generation.”

The team at Mercury comprises mostly millennials and Tjin shares that she has much to learn from her young team. She believes that leaders shouldn’t think they’re right all the time, and to stay relevant they need to be open to learning from their team.

2. Know when to move on

“One of my proudest moments as an entrepreneur was when I knew that I had reached the pinnacle of what I was aiming to accomplish and made the decision to move on.”

Tjin shares that we need to be able to take the skills we’ve gained from past experiences and apply them to something fundamentally different.

In 2010, Tjin was successful in bringing Roberto Cavalli’s 40th anniversary collection show to the Audi Fashion Festival in Singapore ahead of the rest of the world. 

Tjin carried on for another 7 years, with the designers getting bigger and bigger. “My pinnacle fashion week was Singapore Fashion Week in 2015 with American legend, Diane Von Furstenberg, British superstar designer Victoria Beckham and appearances by SKII ambassador Cate Blanchett and LÓreal Celebrity Yoon Eun Hye.”

In 2017 it became apparent to Tjin that it didn’t matter how big or how amazing she made the fashion week, it wasn’t the answer to building success for local designers.

“That was when I decided to stop doing the fashion week as we weren’t building an environment that was conducive to Singapore designers.

“You can build upon your experiences even if they were failures. It’s not a mistake if it’s a lesson.” Tjin Adds.

Tjin Lee Gives Advice On How To Stay Relevant In A Changing World

Tjin with part of her team from Mercury PR. (Photo credit: Tjin Lee’s IG)

3. Acknowledge your limitations

“You cannot start a business only thinking about the end. You have to start a business that you’re passionate about and have a vision for.”

Tjin confesses that she didn’t know the ABCs of running a business when she embarked on setting up Mercury. Her biggest setback was understanding her limitations and finding the right partners with complementary skills and talents.

Tjin says every new business needs the “ABC”:

A – Angel investors

B – Business manager

C – Creatives

“I am a ‘creative’. There was no one to tell me that I was missing a business manager, or that my cash flow wasn’t healthy. I stumbled in the dark for 10 years wondering why I was generating so much revenue and seeing so little profit. That was because I was not good at managing my own business.”

4. Soft skills are the future

“Jack Ma said soft skills are the future. It is not about academics anymore. Mindset shift is slow to come I plan to drive that through Life Beyond Grades.”

Talking about her own experience managing the Audi Fashion Festival, Tjin shares that she failed at landing the tender to run the festival once. However, this didn’t dampen her spirits. “I decided after the second time when it was cancelled that I would drive it independently and hence it became Audi Fashion Festival in 2009 and later Singapore Fashion Week in 2015″

She adds that persistence and willingness to pivot and reinvent herself are some of her strongest entrepreneurial traits.

“In entrepreneurship, those who excel are those who dare, those who are risk takers, those who are driven!”

In conversation with Tjin Lee

Tjin is all smiles with Roberto Cavalli in 2010.”It was one of my lowest points, when the company was down $1M. Look at my smile, you’d never know #Grit #resilience,” She writes. (Photo credit: Tjin Lee’s IG)

5. Be innovative and don’t hesitate to reinvent yourself

Tjin Lee’s career is all about innovation. “At the end of the day persistence will pay off more than talents. If you look at businesses that have succeeded and why they’re still around, it is because you are willing to learn from your mistakes, innovate, change, pivot and keep growing.” Tjin adds.

She is now channelling her energy into social causes she believes in and help young people. Apart from CRIB, next in on the cards for Tjin is the education movement called Life Beyond Grades.  

As you would have guessed, this movement is one that is close to Tjin’s heart. It was her childhood experience with education that was the driving force for this.

She also points out that today the pressure to “fit in” is more pertinent than ever. With depression on the rise, it is more relevant than ever to start this movement now.

Talking about Life Beyond Grades, Tjin says, “I want my child to learn and not feel judged just because he didn’t get an A. I want my child to have a childhood and to play.”

Tjin Lee Gives Advice On How To Stay Relevant In A Changing World

“I hardly ever look for experience and qualifications — the right attitude and can-do personality will outweigh those anytime,” Tjin says.

6. Carve your own niche

“Stop comparing. Find happiness in small things but at the end of the day you realize it’s the small things that are the big things.”

Discussing pressure to fit in, Tjin feels that the lure of social media and its false ideals hamper us from being original. She adds that Instagram in specific is the unhealthiest of all social media platforms and it creates a compare and despair mentality.

“Don’t spend too much time on social media. You are comparing your behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel.

“Social media can be very misleading setting very unrealistic expectations for young people and if you spend more than 2 hours a day on social media that is too much!”

From our chat with Tjin, the most remarkable thing we noticed is that this is a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum. Her thoughts on being authentic and curious speaks volumes to young women of today.

We wish Tjin all the very best with Life Beyond Grades and can’t wait to see what she does next!

Watch Tjin’s favourite TED talk here:

What do you think of Tjin Lee’s advice?

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