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Families across Singapore (and the world!) were captivated earlier this year by the story of Yen Siow, who escaped Vietnam on a boat with her family and other refugees in 1980 and was rescued by a Norwegian oil tanker that brought them to a refugee camp here in Singapore. Yen’s family ultimately re-settled in Australia, where she grew up until she moved here with her husband and three sons in 2015. This year she decided to find her rescuers to thank them personally and, thanks to a group-sourced effort over Facebook, she actually found one of them and had a tearful reunion as he traveled through Singapore this October.  

Given this wonderful story of perseverance, it’s little wonder that Yen is a powerhouse of positivity, running her own social enterprise to encourage children’s involvement in STEM, along with looking after her three active boys, and MUCH more! Read on to find out how early obstacles in life have influenced her outlook on work, how she manages a work-life balance, and some truly awesome at-home tech activities to do with kids (can you say, Make-your-own sushi train?!)…

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Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
Prior to moving to Singapore our family lived in Melbourne, Australia where all my children were born and raised. I’m married to my Singaporean husband, Kevin who works in Change Management, and we are blessed to have three boys – Samuel (10), Emmanuel (8) and Nathanael (5).

From 2009 to 2015 I worked in various business development and student engagement roles at Swinburne University of Technology within the Faculty of Business, the Faculty of ICT and the Faculty of Science Engineering and Technology. When I moved to Singapore in 2015 I was fortunate to continue my role working remotely as the Digital Frontiers Coordinator for a further 6 months until the position ended.

I have since started my own Social Enterprise called Discovering Without Borders (DWB) – a STEM educational workshop that reaches children of all abilities to learn these subject in a fun and hands-on way. STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering Math and sometimes I also integrate Architecture in our workshops.

After years of experience running workshops in the university sector I wanted to branch out and offer a meaningful program that would reach children and offer equal opportunity to everyone to learn these subjects. I have seen the rising cost of tuition and enrichment classes in Singapore and realised that there was a segment of society who would fall behind and miss out on learning due to social, financial and physical barriers. My work as a Social Entrepreneur was to close to the gap to accessing these resources and bringing STEM learning to marginalised groups of people.

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Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Before I had children I was working as the Marketing Manager for a property company in Melbourne that built hotels and ran student accommodation services. This work involved marketing our serviced accommodation to international students and partnering with the tertiary sector to secure long term student contracts for accommodation in the city of Melbourne.

When my first son arrived in 2005 I was able to take maternity leave for six months before returning to work part-time, and was able to take at least 12 months of maternity leave with my second and third sons. Once I returned back to work I was able to request flexible work arrangements where I could work 1 day from home and 2 days in the office. This made my work and family life much more stable as I was able to manage my home commitments and still work productively by meeting all of my deadlines and taking calls and emailing from home.

How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
After having my third child I found that flexible work arrangements helped keep a pulse on what was currently happening on the work front while still meeting my family’s needs with young children.

I also put in time to exercise, which helped my physical and mental state. Once or twice a week I would go jogging just to get outdoors and clear my mind. During my runs I would pray through the things in my heart and just connect back to how I am doing in my heart for the things that really matter.

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How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?
I find expanding my circle of friends and meeting people who share interesting passions that are impactful broadens my mind and gives me a new perspective in their area of work or interest. I find my role as a mother creates that level of wanting to make the world a better place for my children, and so I purposely look for people who are pushing new frontiers to make a difference in their communities and that helps me to see through their lenses.

How has having children changed the way you define work?
My work revolves around my children’s schedule and has given me more purpose, as I realise that my children will inherit the attitude I have towards work and the opportunities I am able to open for them through my work networks. Work has given me options I did not have before, and I use these options to provide platforms to enhance and encourage a deeper level of learning and experiences for my children.

Take for instance my role as the Digital Frontiers Coordinator. I was responsible for organising high school and tertiary students to engage with technology that would enhance their living standards. This technology is not available to younger students, however with my connection to the University resources – I was able to include my children in the workshops.

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How has your own childhood and the early obstacles you faced affected both your own outlook and how you raise your kids?
My early childhood was a mystery to me as I look back and realised that my parents had hardly spoken about why we had to escape Vietnam and what had happened on our boat journey. Having said that, it was the unspoken hard work ethics and survival mentality that I witnessed growing up that really impacted my adult life and made me see how blessed I am to be here today.

My father worked in factories, on the farm and in cleaning jobs – sometimes taking on multiple roles in shift work so we never really saw him. He provided as best he could for my family as we grew up knowing we were refugees from Vietnam and Australia was our new hope and home.

My mother, on the other hand, had to care for a household of 5 children – one of which was my cousin who had escaped the war on our boat journey.

I remember one time when I was 6 years old and we had moved out of the refugee centre into a room unit accommodation where six of us shared a double bed. My father was stopped at a traffic light and a Caucasian man approached and asked if he needed any help. It must have been quite strange for my father to have a Caucasian man speak to him – and so in his broken English my father explained our living conditions and brought the man to our home. The very next day the man and his great big truck arrives at our unit and he unloads furniture, beds, mattresses, a fridge, washing machine and stereo! My father was overwhelmed with gratitude as he really did not know this stranger and did not think that anyone would be so kind as to donate all the furniture! My father told me that the sign on the big truck read “The Salvation Army” and for many years we didn’t know what or who they represented.

Today – I serve and give back to the Salvation Army through providing STEM workshops pro bono for the children who live in The Gracehaven home shelter. My children donate their birthday money to help provide beds for the homeless in their red shield appeals. I often share this story with my children to remind them that the kindness of strangers impacts not just one person, but many families to come, and the same spirit of giving and sharing must be instilled in our hearts as we came from humble beginnings through many acts of generous sponsors and donors. We soon moved out of that small unit into a 3-bedroom, government rented home and my parents enjoyed having their own beds again!

lego table at that mama yen siow's house

What prompted you to establish your social enterprise, DWB? Do you have any advice for mamas interested in starting up their own social enterprise organisation?
I started DWB as I wanted to provide a fun, kinaesthetic workshop for children who may not have access to STEM subjects through financial or physical barriers. I use a Social Enterprise model that focuses on providing 50% of my workshops to fee-paying families and schools and the remaining 50% of my workshops are run on a pro bono basis for marginalised groups to ensure children of all abilities are given equal opportunity to learn.

I partnered with local start-up firms in the STEM fields, sought advice and mentorship from the Pro Vice Chancellor of Digital Frontiers in Swinburne University, and proposed my business plan to RAISE – the Social Enterprise arm of the Singapore Government to access funding as seed capital for my own start up venture. I was awarded a start-up grant in January 2016 which has helped in meeting my operational costs and have since been able to run a successful business in reaching thousands of children for STEM education.

My advice to mothers who are interested in starting their own Social Enterprise is:
1. Find out what the needs are in the community and do a proper check to see if it meets your own personal values and mission in life.
2. Ensure your own family life is stable and that you have sufficient support with school, and childcare to balance your work and family life.
3. Keep communication open and honest with your partner so that he supports your work even if he is not involved in your work.
4. Look at the various business models around you and start researching which model would best sustain your social enterprise and meet your social “needs” and financial needs.
5. Begin with the end in mind so that you have a timeframe to build the business and to sell it off or wind it up after you have reached your goals.
6. Research what grants are available for your business and speak with the experts from RAISE who can offer free advice on your Social Enterprise.

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I wish I had more time for… Reading – just for pleasure and not for research for my work…

I always feel saner after…. A good run or aerobic/cross fit class

What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I live in Bukit Timah and I love the proximity to Turf City/the Grandstand as my children have their soccer activities there and we save time on driving! Three boys doing three sports each week takes up a lot of time!

Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Going to the local Sengkang public pools and enjoying their six mega rides at a fraction of the cost!

Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Singapore?
Spize restaurant at Temasek Club.

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
So far it has to be the hiking and waterfall trails in Johor Bahru for easy access and affordability, and Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand for being off the beaten track (it’s a small rural town on the border of Laos).

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
We go out once a month for a massage and a dinner date. We try and jog together once or twice a month as well as we both like to jog – it’s just therapeutic and a nice way to have a conversation – and we jog at a conversational pace so it’s quite relaxing when you are in sync and exercising together.

Favourite date night restaurants?
Any Japanese restaurant that has good sashimi.

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Always feed your children their dinner first when they are young so that you don’t have to deal with fussy eaters at a restaurant or a friend’s home and they can have extra food if they are hungry. This way you can eat in peace and not worry about their meals, and they can certainly have more food if they are still hungry.

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women:
Make sure you do something you love every day, so that your own tank is full and you can give to your little ones because you’ve had a good chance to be re-charged. This could be incorporating an outdoor morning walk, baking something you love to eat, knitting or even painting your nails! Just find something you love to do and make time to do it for 30 minutes each day so that you are recharged and can give out of a full love tank.

As a mama I wish I were better at… Taking my kids on holidays on my own so that we would go exploring a lot more together. I freak out a little when I have to go overseas by myself with my three boys as I find the travel, waiting time at customs and navigating a new place too much work and it defeats the purpose in having a holiday when I have to “work”!

that mama yen siow plays with two of her sons

What’s your favourite family ritual?
Eating and cooking together – my children and I cook together at least once a week and it would be either a sushi night where we make our own sushi train with tracks, battery operated trains and small plates of home made sushi and we would sit and enjoy the plates racing pass us and eating each other’s sushi.

Our other cooking night would include taking out the electric wok, sitting on the floor and having all of our ingredients ready to put in the wok and we just stir fry our own noodles or rice and everyone gets a turn at making their own “street” food.

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…. My work and if I have prepared all the materials for my next workshop

My favourite moment of the day is… When I drive my three children to school as we get to talk or listen to music together and they are all sharing about their day.

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