Olivia Lum: a rags-to-riches tale

Earlier today I was interviewing Olivia Lum, founder and chief executive of Hyflux, a global water treatment and filtration company based in Singapore.

Listed in the FT’s ranking of the top 50 women in world business last November, she also represents Singapore in this year’s Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year awards, to be announced in Monte Carlo on June 4.

Her story is extraordinary. Adopted at birth, she grew up with other adopted siblings in an illegally built, makeshift house with neither electricity nor water (except what leaked in through the roof) in a small village in Malaysia. After five years of primary education, it was suggested it was time she went to work and contributed to the family finances, as her siblings did.

She tried rubber-tapping. Working from 4am to 8am, when school started, she attempted to satisfy both the family need for money and her own ambition to remain at school. But the tiny wages paid to child rubber-tappers meant this could not work. So she persuaded her teacher to allow her to set up a table selling papaya to schoolmates. The money she earned paid for her school bus ticket and books and covered her contribution at home.

Later she would leave a safe job as a chemist with GlaxoSmithKline, sell her house and car and found her own company with S$20,000 ($16,000). Today her company employs more than 1,200 people and her membrane systems are installed in 400 locations around the world.

“My childhood taught me that it is not very comfortable living without money,” she says. “When you go to school and a classmate has new shoes and you don’t have shoes at all, it makes you think: ‘Why not me?’

“When I started out, money was an important driver for me. Now I get satisfaction from being able to give people in my company opportunities they might not otherwise have. Sometimes we can help them find talents they didn’t know they had.”

There aren’t enough women entrepreneurs like Olivia Lum. “There is an unspoken expectation that women should fulfil a social role at home,” she says. “It is a chicken-and-egg problem. Most entrepreneurs are men, and women entrepreneurs have to rub shoulders with them. In Asia especially, women are not comfortable with that. Until there are more women entrepreneurs it will continue to put people off.”

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

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Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.