The same little girl who marvelled at the jewellery in the showcase would one day lead the business into a new era, all while battling a landslide of gender stereotypes. In many ways, the cutting words and intense pressure formed her into a unique gem and led her to triumph.
Even as a child Pamela Seow knew she loved jewellery. When she was little, she would accompany her mother to work and marvel at the beautiful pieces of gold jewellery glittering inside the showcase while she listened to her mother explain the family business to her.
A household name amongst generations of Singaporeans, Poh-Heng Jewellery was founded in 1948 by Pamela’s late grandfather, Chng Tok Ngam. So, you could say it was through foresight that Mr Tok Ngam’s daughter, Mdm. Hwee Siang, brought her own young daughter along with her to work.
At 16, Pamela’s interest in jewellery grew when she worked part-time behind the shop’s counter. Doing this not only helped her appreciate how fine gold jewellery is crafted, but it equipped her with insight into the minds of customers.
After college and two years into her banking career, Pamela’s late uncle and then CEO of the company thought it was time for Pamela to hop on board.
But this was unlike any other job Pamela had undertaken. It came with the privilege of working closely with her family. It also came with the pressure to live up to the expectations they had of her.
Although one may think that joining the family business is an easy feat, Pamela confesses that the first year was trying for her.
Pamela says that she came into the business restless. She had a million ideas on how she wanted to change things and modernise the business.
Instead, through the amazing mentorship she received from all her superiors and peers, she soon realised that she needed to learn the business first, then gain the trust and respect of her colleagues before making any changes.
The next few years proved to be a steep learning curve for Pamela.
She not only needed to learn how to handle a heavy workload managing both merchandising and marketing and communications but being in merchandising meant she needed to learn quality control, costing and consumer behaviour as well.
Along the way, Pamela says that the management began to see her value and her strengths. It has been 11 years since Pamela joined her family’s business and the learnings she has gained throughout those years have been invaluable.
One of the most crucial learnings in Pamela’s career has been how to deal with the stereotypes she has been associated with. From the “privileged rich-kid” who gets to pick jewellery from the showcase to being labelled as incompetent just because of her looks, Pamela has seen and heard it all.
Instead of getting bitter about it, she has taken the time to understand why people are so quick to pass judgement and has equipped herself with an arsenal of ways on how to tackle these stereotypes.
Women in leadership positions are at times made to feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are. This could be because they either have to juggle their families and work, or it could be a reason as simple as how they look.
However, it is not always men who make women feel this way — It is often women themselves who judge other women, and Pamela reminds us that stereotyping is in fact, judging... and it needs to stop.
“Very early on in my career, when I was working part-time in telecommunications, doing admin work, I had my first encounter with stereotypes for women,” Pamela shares.
“I had to approach someone to ask for work, and I was told that I wouldn't be good at my job because I looked good. That was a bit of a shock for me,” says Pamela sharing that she got a conflicting opinion from a different female boss who said that people who are better looking go further in their careers.
“This was very contradictory to what the first person said to me and it was a bit confusing. At the end of the day, I formed my own opinion that it doesn't matter what you look like, people still rely on you to do your work!” exclaims Pamela.
Pamela opens up that she was very self-aware when she started working with her family. She was aware that she had a lot to prove, and she was also aware that she had to prove a lot of people wrong — especially about being stereotyped as a “spoilt rich kid.”
Pamela shares that the first thing she did when she joined the company was addressing her relatives the way her colleagues did.
“So there was no ‘mom’ or uncle’. My greatest worry was that a lot of people would just give way because of the ‘boss's daughter tag’. So I worked very hard to keep everyone’s opinions unbiased,” says Pamela.
It also helped that Pamela’s uncle kept a check on her. “My uncle always reminded me that people may always listen to me because I’m the boss’s child. He told me to look at it as an honour and a privilege, and to remember that my responsibility is much higher as well,” she adds.
Continuing, Pamela shares, “People stereotype the boss's children as spoilt and always needing to get their way. My uncle always told us that being humble is important and that it is when you actually stop, listen and gain people’s respect, that you realize that they start listening to you!”
Whatever stereotype is pushed upon us, at the end of the day it is our skills and capabilities that will speak volumes. Through Pamela’s example, it is clear that she didn’t make it to where she was because of her surname.
She was determined on making a difference at Poh Heng, and she worked hard to make it happen. When Pamela joined Poh Heng, it was in its 60th year of business.
She proved she had the relevant skills that were important to grow the company and appeal to the millennials, whilst keeping her grandfather’s original philosophy that trust was the key to success, alive.
“We still need to balance the fact that we are household brand, and that we are still the most famous chain for gold jewellery. We need to continue to upkeep that and see how much further we can go,” Pamela reveals.
Under Pamela’s leadership, Poh Heng launched a few new jewellery collections targeted at the new generation of gold buyers. To tie in with taking Poh Heng into a new era, Pamela also spearheaded store upgrades.
“We still made sure that we cater to traditional customers as well as making our stores inviting to our younger clients,” adds Pamela.
“Obviously coming in as the younger generation, I had a different take on a lot of things. I felt that sometimes people thought I didn't know the business. These were assumptions they had of me.
To me what was important was gaining the respect of my peers because I was also the youngest in the family,” Pamela stresses.
Pamela says that there are certain qualities like empathy, attention to detail and the ability to multitask that women inherently possess. But these are often misconstrued as being overly emotional, micromanaging and being “spread too thin.”
Pamela points out that we should own these traits and see the positives in them instead of apologising for them.
“Us women tend to be more emotional because that is our nature and I don't think that is something that should be seen as a weakness. We are natural multitaskers because play several roles in our lives,” stresses Pamela.
She continues saying, “Female bosses are sensitive enough to be able to see if the dynamics of the team is off or to know if someone is not feeling too good emotionally. I think that is a very strong point of a woman boss. Unfortunately, not a lot of people see it that way.”
On the flipside, Pamela says that women get called out if they stand their ground as well. “If a woman is more firm at a meeting or presentation when expressing her opinion, she could be labelled as being fierce!” Pamela points out.
Aside from not apologising for these traits, Pamela’s advice is to show emotion when it needs to be shown. She says she makes an effort not to be petty and emotional for the sake of being emotional.
Like Pamela, many women leaders deal with both spoken and unspoken stereotypes at some point in their careers. This can result in disappointment and disbelief to outright anger — even in the most resilient of us.
But what matters most is how we respond to such situations.
Always remember that we need to champion the change we want to see. If you want to change a particular stereotype, being one isn’t going to solve it! This doesn’t mean you need to shrug off or ignore comments that are passed either.
Pamela advises that women should find their voice and learn to speak up when needed, expertly balancing candour with empathy and tact.
Pamela points out that another stereotype she has had thrown her way was the “travelling executive” one.
“Every time people hear that I’m travelling they point out that I’m lucky I get to travel. It is funny because I travel economy class and I travel to the least glamorous places in cities. When we touch down, we start working!” she muses.
Through the years Pamela has gotten used to hearing these comments and says that explaining things works most of the time. But there’s something else that works even better — humour!
“Being in the family business, many outsiders think that I don't have to work and still get paid. Another thing I hear is that I get to pick jewellery from the shop and bring it home. That is not how things work!” Pamela chuckles.
“I try to see the humour in it — especially with the privilege stereotype. I liken my ‘privilege’ to that of the chairman of a bank. Would they get to take money from the bank as and when they wanted to?” smiles Pamela.
She continues saying, “It does keep me in check, however. I make sure I don't put these judgments on other people in similar or even different situations.”
“Judgment is the root cause of how stereotypes are formed. This world has become very judgemental and I think that awareness and empathy are very important values to have.
It could be as simple as being aware of how people around you feel,” Pamela adds thoughtfully, bringing our discussion to a close.
Have you had to deal with gender stereotyping like Pamela Seow? Tell us more by leaving a comment below...