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Woman Business Owner Elim Chew, CEO and Founder, 77th Street Retail

Elim Chew (EC): When I first started my hairstyling career, I was 19, and-and I actually wrote down my dreams. I learned it from a friend who said everything you want, write it down so I wrote down that my dream that I want to be a millionaire by 25.

EC: I’m born in Singapore, and I come from a middle income family of five, and my parents, my brother, and my sister, and grandparents have a clinic, which is a dispensary. And my father runs the dispensary and my mom has a little hair salon. So I guess we are in a little bit into business right from a very young age. I have a nature of more rebellious every year in school, I just scraped through – but somehow I managed to pass.

CARD: Elim moved to London In 1983 where she and trained to be a hair stylist.

EC: Everybody was so well dressed, the color of their hair was different, the clothings and– really wow me. And I was very conservative then. And then I started to change. That’s how I got led into fashion.

CARD: After 3 years, Elim returned to Singapore and opened Elim Hair Salon.

EC: Coming back to Singapore, I realized it. There was not much trends in fashion here. So everywhere I go, everybody was pointing at me. I had purple hair and blue hair. People start asking me, “Oh, where do you buy your jacket? Where do you buy your bracelet? Where do you buy your accessories?” And I said, “UK.” And then they said, “Can you sell it to me?” I said, “A hundred dollars.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll buy it off you.” It was like, wow, you know, I bought that for maybe $20. And I take it off and I sell it to them. And I– Then my sister was living in London, and I called my sister and said, “Can you send me like 20 (you know) accessories, or 50 accessories?” And we started thinking, ‘Why don’t we start a business selling fashion accessories from the UK?”

CARD: The first 77th Street store opened in 1988

EC: We attracted a lot of young people. Everybody thinks we’re a cult because we are selling things that nobody has seen before, nobody have heard of and things are weird. 77th Street it’s actually embracing a whole culture and youth and young adults. It’s music, it’s entertainment it’s all about fun and-and enjoyment.

When we first started out it was all about cash flow – we must have enough money to start out. But I was glad about having the hair salon So Elim Hair Salon was like a cash business. And then with the cash we buy products to sell in 77th Street. So it was actually sustaining 77th Street for a while, until 77th Street take off.

EC: In the early days when 77th Street first started, I lost myself. I wanted to have fame. And I said, “I want to be like Vidal Sassoon, the best hairstylist in the world.” So every night I was out there partying and drinking and getting myself drunk. And then I came across a pastor and then he started to mentor me. And then I stopped partying and drinking, and that how I started to start going back to church. In church we were taught about giving back to the community. That is our driving force behind what 77th Street is doing.

EC: We started a place in our biggest shopping mall in VivoCity where we bring all the less advantaged people who are making their own handicrafts and products to sell and market their own product in this space. There’s no upfront payment. Whatever they sell, they pay 20% to the shopping mall and most of the income, they keep.

I love (you know) social enterprises, the model of social enterprises. You actually give the poor the dignity and the pride, the self-esteem, to say, “I’m not taking handout. I’m making my own living.” And then you see them grow.

CARD: Today 77th Street has 12 stores in Singapore

EC: Where I am today, is really, really, really just about hard work. It’s not about how well you do in school, because I never did well, but I am willing to commit my time more than anyone else. You know I encourage everyone now to write down their dreams and how you’re going to get there. It’s literally like a map where you want to go.

Question: Were you a millionaire by 25?

No, I wasn’t at 25, but I think, I guess about around 27. I was slightly late.

Credits

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp
Director of Photography – Jerry Risius
Production Assistant – Erika Howard
Assistant Editor – David Scorca
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
City News
Getty Images
Get Singapore
Yuliana Guitarwu
Hong Huazheng
International Co-operative Alliance
Denise Tan
Kiki Tay

© Ambrica Productions

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