Ladies First: Mercury Founder Tjin Lee On The Importance Of Co-operation Over Competition
After six years at Singapore’s leading luxury retailer, Club 21, Tjin Lee struck out on her own to found Mercury, an experimental marketing agency for luxury fashion and lifestyle brands, in 2000. What she found, though, was a culture of cut-throat competition. “Women’s instincts at the time were still to compete instead of lifting each other up,” she says. “There wasn’t yet a culture of sharing.” Lee, never one to see a problem and not strive to solve it, sought throughout her career to prove that “there’s enough space for everyone at the table”.
When Lee gave birth to her son seven years ago, she became aware of how lucky she was as a young mother who was also managing director of her own company. With a team of more than 50 people, she had the luxury of crafting a flexible schedule to suit her needs as a new mother, while many of her friends did not. “I saw how distraught these women were at having to choose,” she says. “And I realised entrepreneurship could be incredibly empowering for women, so that they could prioritise their children without giving up their careers.”
Lee started Creating Responsible, Innovative Businesses (CRIB) a non-profit enterprise that now boasts more than 300 members across the fashion, tech, sustainability, health and wellness sectors who are encouraged to share their database and employ or invest in each other’s businesses. “CRIB was a way to promote a spirit of collaboration and to give women another option,” she says.
She began to witness a change in mindsets when she saw women from small businesses tagging each other on Instagram. “It’s so important to remind each other that just because someone buys your earrings, it doesn’t mean she can’t buy this other brand’s necklace,” she says. It’s an attitude she hopes to foster in her younger women as well, through both the Young Women’s Leadership Connection mentorship programme—which pairs young women with female executives like herself for nine months of career guidance. “When I became a boss myself, I was determined to be an accessible one,” she says. Lee created a flat hierarchy and even sits at the centre of the room, what she calls the bull pit, preferring to be entrenched in her staff’s daily interactions rather than be a distant “school principal” figure. “I’m a big believer in young talent and reverse learning. There is so much to be gained by sharing, whatever your age and wherever you come from.”
Instead of hosting a spectacular jubilee for Mercury’s 20th anniversary this year, Lee finds herself throwing her years of media experience into saving her industry, which has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. “I saw all these people complaining about [the lack of government stimulation] and I thought, ‘Why complain? Let’s do something about it.” Lee launched a social-media #SaveEventsSG campaign after this very interview. “I put out a petition last night and already have close to 2,000 signatures,” she says. “I got our events team to produce a video which I’ll roll out on social media and tag our prime minister. When he starts seeing himself mentioned in hundreds of posts, he’ll have to watch my damn video, whether he likes it or not.”
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