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'Sisters, mothers and nannies'

Certain qualities are shared by successful entrepreneurs the world over, such as boldness, drive and creativity. But between male and female entrepreneurs, are there any qualities that are not so evenly distributed?

At the recent Women Extraordinaire Forum 2012, Adrienne Ma, founder of luxury retail business Amma, said female bosses more naturally show their staff that they care.

“Guys may sometimes feel uncomfortable saying ‘how are you’ or showing that they care,” Ma said. “I always try to accommodate my staff’s needs … Having a family-friendly environment helps retain staff.”

To give her staff more flexibility, she initiated a “Results Only Work Environment” programme that lets them go home early as long as their work is finished on time.

Ma was one of four speakers at “The Making of Women Entrepreneurs – Creativity” session, held on the second day of the forum organised by WealthAsia. In total, 20 sessions were held, featuring 50 successful women.

Judy Leissner, president of Grace Vineyard, a winery based in China’s Shanxi province, said she spends a lot of time counselling her staff.

“You get a feeling of what people are thinking. You know the personality of your core team. You have an assessment of a person. Intuition is one of a woman’s strengths,” she said.

Jennifer Liu, founder and chairman of JWF International and Sir Hudson Hospitality – which runs Caffe Habitu – said a strong management team of women suited Habitu with its many young employees.

“We are sisters, mothers and nannies to these young kids. We have to love, guide and coach them, and help them plan their career paths,” Liu said.

“Generation XYZs don’t just seek a salary. They need to be in love with what they are doing and know why they are doing it. They need a lot of guidance and this is what women are good at.”

Esther Ma, CEO and founder of public relations firm Prestique, said that comparing the successes of male and female entrepreneurs missed the point. There is more to business than profits and as long as someone follows their passion, making money is not the main concern.

“I’m motivating my colleagues to get involved with CSR [corporate social responsibility] and give back to the community through volunteering or donations,” she said.

Serving the community is also high on the agenda of Ivy Wong Stephens, the owner and founder of, an online butcher’s service. “We pay our staff fairly. We pay for our goods fairly. We prepare our food in a way that is not mass-produced. There’s an element of cost in it,” she said. Her company provides organic and free-range products focusing on small shipments on a seasonal basis.

Among the issues discussed at the forum was product differentiation. Liu said she aimed to provide a personalised taste for her customers by letting her team invent new cakes and sandwiches.

“This was completely against what MBA education says about why the bigger coffee chains become successful. It says that because they are standardised … they can copy and paste [formula] very fast. We do everything slower and from scratch. People want things with more passion and a human touch,” Liu said.

Philippa Huckle, founder and CEO of The Philippa Huckle Group, said the investment advisory firm keeps high standards by partnering with key staff.

“If you want to maintain a brand, you have to have quality control. I took the view that to achieve this required delegation through partnership,” she said.

She also wants her staff to be specialists in their fields, though she admits it feels strange when they start to know more about an area than she does.

“I’m used to leading meetings, but in one client meeting … there was a moment when [my colleague] said she wanted to add something. Off she went talking in detail about this area that has always been my area of expertise. It was a weird feeling that she’d gone past me,” she said.

Talking about management issues, Leissner said that when she took over her father’s winery in 2002 at the age of 24, her strategy of befriending staff in their 50s didn’t go well.

“In China older people like hierarchy … so I hired a lady in her late 50s and asked her to say all the things I wanted the team to do,” she said. Over the years she built a reputation of her own which helped her command more respect.

Edith Law, executive director of fashion brand Ztampz, said that when she started her business with her sister, they could only afford to recruit young people. Hiring and firing was an issue, but she is glad to have grown with many members of her team.

“I try to give my staff a chance. Everyone has weaknesses … but I try to make sure I pre-empt things,” she said. “I set frameworks. I speak out if they don’t go in the right direction.”

Some speakers, such as Liu, saw their businesses as their “babies” and had no intention of selling them or retiring. Others, such as Huckle and Adrienne Ma, had retirement plans.

Ma is thinking of giving the majority share of her business to key staff members while remaining a minority shareholder.

At Huckle’s company, key members are her partners. “My ambition is to sit on the board and attend the four board meetings a year. The rest of the team will run the company like a well-oiled machine,” Huckle said.