Cynthia Chua is the founder and CEO of the Singapore-based Spa Esprit Group, a conglomerate of beauty, lifestyle and F&B brands. Cynthia put her degree in economics and statistics from the National University of Singapore, and her training in the banking and marketing industry to good use when she opened the first of her lifestyle outlets, SPA ESPRIT, in 1996 in Singapore’s bohemian hub, Holland Village.
She has since grown the Spa Esprit Group to be Singapore’s very own homegrown brand with a diverse portfolio of 17 distinct lifestyle brands with more than 100 outlets in 9 cities worldwide.
We have a quick chat with Cynthia on being a female entrepreneur and the brains behind the brand STRIP, known for its wacky use of the orangutan in its marketing campaigns.
You started your business in 1996, way before the kind of accessibility and technological advances that modern entrepreneurs enjoy. What was the catalyst of the leap from the banking and marketing industry?
I dabbled in marketing in a corporate environment when I first joined the workforce and realised that it did not suit me. I love dreaming and have a dogmatic way of doing things. Since I like doing things my way, I realised it was best to start my own business. In 1996, I started Spa Esprit, a unique and uplifting day spa that was very different from other similar establishments as most spas tend to gear towards the “zen” concept.
What were the general reactions back then from friends and family? Any memorable negative reactions or discouragement?
Strip is a pretty tricky brand as Brazilian waxing was a taboo among Asian women when we started in 2002. When I first started the brand, everyone said that I was crazy to provide such a service, that only Caucasian women will patronise the brand. But our top-notch treatments, paired with great media endorsement and quirky marketing campaign propelled the brand. To date, we have presence in over 10 cities across the globe, including London, New York and Shanghai and I am happy to say that over 80% of our customers are local men and women.
You’ve continued to grow your portfolio by starting up different kinds of businesses. Why the diversification, and how is starting up a business today different from two decades ago?
For me, beauty and food goes hand in hand. It is all about a lifestyle and something that I personally love. The difference is when you face manpower issues, rental hikes, etc, this is the part where the business becomes very challenging.
What has your experience been like as a female entrepreneur? Is there a glass ceiling even when you’re calling the shots?
No, I don’t feel discounted in any way. In fact, many people always think that it might be a negative but I actually feel that women have certain benefits; people tend to be more supportive and try to look out for you because you are a girl. I believe that passion, rhythm and tenacity are needed to make a business successful. You must absolutely love what you do and believe strongly in it but passion is not enough if you do not have tenacity to see it through.
You started STRIP to raise awareness on women’s personal grooming. In this day and age, there’s more and more push towards women *not* needing to pay as much attention to grooming, in the name of sexual equality and feminism. What is your response to that? Is female personal grooming going to go out of fashion?
Personal grooming is never a trend; it is about a want and a need to take care of yourself. It is about confidence, comfort and taking care of you.
You’ve been going at it alone for just over 2 decades now. Tell us about the hardest times you’ve had to go through, and what/who would you credit for helping you get to where you are today.
I never did this alone. I have a great team of staff that work alongside me to make things work. I am a visionary; I share my vision with my team, inspire, lead and motivate them to work with me to turn my vision into a reality. I am also always surrounded with people who love me, support me and inspire me.
We’ve seen a lot of businesses that fail when they try to expand. What is your philosophy when it comes to expanding a small, successful business?
Don’t be too hasty and greedy. I am not driven by my profits; I am driven by a dream to make things happen. Take your time to understand the market and your business. Be very involved and work on every level so you can understand and learn the business, it takes 10,000 man-hours to make a business work.
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