She always appears well put together, never a strand of hair out of place, skin perfect, eyes sparkling. She glows. And she looks like she has just walked out of a fairytale book.
Yet when she speaks, she’s astonishingly down-to-earth, exuding a youthful, almost childlike exuberance. She’s also incredibly positive.
Meet Dato’ Elaine Teh, Executive Chairman of Octopus Distribution Networks and winner in the Nova Category of the Women Entrepreneur Awards 2019.
“I like to dream,” she tells D:CODE. “With dreams, I have a goal. And that makes me work hard so I can achieve these goals. I’m not one to analyse much but I am a risk-taker, and I can measure risks.
“As an entrepreneur I do that. You calculate the risk. You don’t know the other factors like other markets, what other human beings are thinking or doing, and many things that will affect you as you move towards your goal. These are obstacles, and they are part of your stress.
“But as entrepreneurs, we take stress as problem solving – every day we solve problems. We solve the problems and move on to another day. We should not be stuck there.”
She also attributes her qualities to her origins.
“I’m an Ipoh girl,” she declares enthusiastically. “And we are all risk-takers. You know why? We are born in a place that is full of beautiful hills. It is like paradise. Once you leave there, you’re out of your comfort zone, so it is very extreme. So we are all very daring, I think it is the environment that makes us this way.”
Indeed, taking calculated risks, working hard, putting in her best effort, is something Elaine considers vital for success. Not just in business, but for everything.
“Some people say they want to be healthy, so they get a gym membership. And then they say they have no time to go,” she says, in rapid-fire pace. “How to be healthy? Where is the effort?”
For her, it is all about balance.
“As an entrepreneur, it is about balancing our career as well as the other parts of our life, like the relationship with our family and friends,” she says.
“We want to be a rich person, but what is rich? How much must you have before you are considered rich? That is always a question mark. Isn’t it about how how much you need to use, or to have a better life?
“Maybe you want a sports car. That’s a goal, a dream, so we work hard for it. But we can keep striving and getting more and more. To a point where you say, actually, I don’t need that. What else can I do to make myself happy? At the end of the day, it is about happiness, right?”
Much more than the value of money, Elaine now sees the value of life.
“When I was 40 years old, I felt really lost. Family was OK, business was doing well, I really had nothing to complain about. However, I felt really empty. I cried. For seemingly no reason. It was all work, work, work…and nothing else. What’s next? I that all in life? Is that all we want to achieve?”
She would find happiness in doing something she was totally not accustomed to – a friend of hers invited her to join the Rotary Club of Sentosa, and one of the things they would do was serve low-income households. It changed her life.
“During the festive season, we would go to one-bedroom flats and paint for the residents there. While in the midst of painting, the auntie held my hand and said, thank you very much. I was so touched by it. Money couldn’t buy that feeling,” she says. Among that group who helped the underprivileged were lawyers, doctors, professionals and businessmen. “We did the painting with our own hands. We didn’t hire people to do it. The feeling you get from doing it is priceless.”
So for Elaine, doing more means to give back to society.
“I think it is very meaningful that you know the value of life,” she explains.
For that, she is involved in two non-governmental organisations – she is president of the Malaysian chapter of the International Women’s Federation of Commerce and Industry (IWFCI), a platform for women in SMEs to go global, and head of mission of the United Nations’ Diplomatic Council in Malaysia, which links diplomats of developed economies such as the US and Europe with those of the emerging economies.
One of the things she does in the IWFCI is to empower women.
“What is to empower women? It’s a big word. I can empower women in business to reach the next level, I can empower women who are of low income to become better off. But when you’ve reached another level, what do you do? You give back to society. But where to go and what to do? You help the poor. So I’ve set up a sewing school in Beladin, Sarawak, which is four hours by road and ferry from Kuching,” she says, explaining how she put her intentions into action.
She found a suitable venue and rented it, hired two trainers, raised money and chipped in her own for sewing machines. Now, after two and a half years, the school is currently training its fourth batch of 130 students – needy single mothers – and will soon take in its fifth batch of a six-month course.
“Priority is given first to needy single-mothers – those with low education and low income. Once those places are filled, we open it up to single mothers who may not be of low income but want a better life,” she says. She personally interviewed all candidates of the first three batches to make sure they fit the criteria, and let her trainers interview the candidates for the fourth and fifth batches. She has had associates contributing funds for materials, too.
The course, according to Elaine, is an intensive one to get students to an intermediate level where they can be further trained when employed, or charge more for their work if they ran their own enterprise.
“I tell the students, it is all up to them – I cannot force them. I keep telling them, I am just a platform for you, a hope for you all to tap on. I am giving you all hope but whether you want to take it and use it, it is up to you. It is yours to take, it is no longer mine.”
She says she likes this group of students because they are not complacent but are hardworking.
“They are hungry they want to earn more for their families, so I am very happy to set up this school and I have no regrets until this day for funding this,” says Elaine.
She’s also very pleased when the students graduate with a lot more confidence, having worked hard to pick up the necessary skills.
“I help people when they are really hungry,” says Elaine. “There’s no point helping people who are complacent because you won’t see a result.”
Like the shrewd entrepreneur that she is, Elaine wants to see results even in her endeavours for charity.
“Don’t do charity just for the sake of doing it. Do it for the results. As a businesswoman, I’m driven that way. Do I do charity and then let God measure its worth? No. I look for opportunities to help these people, and I work for results,” she says.
While she is still involved in the running of Octopus Group, she says she has, on account of a good team assisting her in the running of the business, been able to devote more of her time to charity.
“You need a plan,” she says. “And balance. Time is money but you need to find a balance,” she adds. “If you keep saying you are stuck without a plan, you will be stuck forever. You will never start.”
For now, Elaine hopes to create more platforms such as her sewing school, which she hopes to replicate in other states in Malaysia, since she already has the experience of setting one up. She hopes also to create an eco-system of giving – where like-minded people can join her in giving.
“I cannot read people’s minds about what they want to do for charity, but if they can see and believe in the platforms I have created, then they can join me. I hope to create more such platforms where people can share with those in need,” she says.
Having found so much joy in giving, Elaine would occasionally take people she thinks are depressed on her charity trips.
“They always think that everything is dark, they are negative, so I take them out to let them see something different,” she says.
On one of these trips where her group made donations of bicycles to underprivileged villagers, they came across a boy who did not even know how old he was because his father was blind and they never kept a record of his birth.
“The boy was so happy because he had a bicycle and could finally go to school. When the woman who came with me saw how bad his situation had been, she cried! It really opened her up to how fortunate she was, and that changed her,” says Elaine.