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Motherhood and careers: can women truly have it all?

Four female entrepreneurs on striking an equilibrium.

For the new generation of working mums, the old dichotomy of work versus motherhood is no longer valid. Once the measure of a woman’s identity – before evolving into the unrealistic Supermum caricature of a corporate suited woman balancing a baby on her hip – motherhood is now about empowering women to define fulfillment on their own terms.

Four women entrepreneurs may well be poster girls of motherhood today, making careers out of their personal goals while nurturing their children with equal emphasis. Here, they share the ups and downs of their journeys, and how they’ve found their own equilibrium.

(RELATED: How Crib co-founder Elaine Kim is empowering women’s dreams through entrepreneurship)

  • Nichol Ng Food Bank SG


    Nichol Ng, 41, has always had her finger in many pies. “I’ve always known that I would be leading a busy life, wearing many hats, and that I would be running a business at some point. And early on, I knew I wanted to be a mother – my target was six!”

    What she didn’t expect was to be running her grandfather’s nearly 90-year-old business Ng Chye Mong, which, in its heyday of the 1970s and 80’s, dabbled in everything from filmmaking to construction and watch distribution. But it got hit by the Asian financial crisis and, just as Ms Ng had started university, the company went bankrupt. Her father barely managed to salvage her yeye’s original food trading business.

    But in 2002, after a few years working in marketing, Ms Ng was called in to help digitise the business, and she’s stayed ever since. She set up FoodXervices in 2007 to buy over the business; she and her brother Nicholas built that into current-day X Inc, a $65-million business with five subsidiaries across food distribution, logistics, and properties.

    The mother of three is also co-founder of Food Bank Singapore - a charity which distributes food to the needy; president of non-profit organisation One Singapore; committee member for her alumni association; parent representative for her daughter’s class – among others. “I genuinely believe that you can have both career and family. Of course, financial privilege helps but it’s not a deal breaker. It’s about what you want and what you’re willing to ‘give up’ personally. You tend to lose your old self a bit once you have kids but you’ll find a new norm.” She also credits her balancing act toher ability to get by with very little sleep, an inherent need to keep busy, and a compulsion to clear her to-do list.

    “My mother never worked – her children are her only trophy yet she has found her own self-confidence and contentment. I don’t know if I can do that. I need my career to balance myself out and find that self achievement,” says Ms Ng. “My biggest challenge is actually balancing my spouse. We married after dating for 13 years, and after the kids came, the focus was very different. It took us the first two years to find that balance, to realise that we also need some couple time. We’re still working on it,” she concedes.

    Ms Ng is also quick to acknowledge her own privileged position as business owner, and strives to create a supportive environment for her staff. X Inc’s new purpose-built building will have a fulltime nanny to ease childcare emergencies. Flexi-hours and telecommuting are already available options too. Motherhood has also inspired her to start the Juniors Club for the Food Bank – children get to visit farms to learn about sustainability, or help sort food donations at the warehouse. “I’m glad that I can make a difference to society through my charities. It’s also about showing my kids that you can have your cake and eat it, and also use this cake to help someone else. My daughters really feel that they can conquer the world so that’s very heartening to me.”

(RELATED: Grace Sai, co-founder of co-working space Found8, on accelerating gender balance)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Alphonsus Chern, Timothy David & Jeremy Kwan/SPH