It is said that paving a career while having a family are at odds for some women. Not for Datin Mina Cheah-Foong of The Body Shop who stands as an example of running a thriving business while raising children. The brand now has more than 100 outlets in Malaysia as well as Vietnam while both her children are successful in their own right.
It may seem to be like a smooth ride but handling a worldwide brand plus being a mother of two proved to be quite the challenge. In fact, the idea of having her own business was born out of a desire for her to start her own family.
Surprised? We were too. We speak to Datin Mina to find out more on what it’s like to run a beauty empire while being a mother.
Why did you decide to bring The Body Shop into the Malaysian market?
When I was studying in the UK, I was really captivated by this poster of a whale and Greenpeace in a shop at Convent Garden, London. It was a beauty store, selling cosmetics, skin and hair care. What is a beauty brand doing with a Greenpeace poster? So I went in and it turned out to be this wonderful store by Anita Roddick, that was selling naturally produced beauty products. I started buying and using their products, even giving to friends as gifts. When I graduated and went back home to Malaysia, there was no The Body Shop around.
I was in a job that I was very stressed by, and then I started to wonder “I can’t be the only person who went to the UK and loved The Body Shop. There must be plenty of people like myself.”
It was 1984 when I wrote to them, and I got an approval almost immediately on opening a franchise in Malaysia. I was very lucky to have found something, so early on in my life that I love so much.
Did having a family affect your decision in any way?
The main reason why I chose to start my business is because I wanted to start my own family. If I decided not to have kids, I would not have gotten married. But it is because I’m determined to have children, that I thought, “I can’t be travelling all over the world, and still wanting to progress in my corporate career. At the same time, I can’t be expecting a huge career jump.”
That was the tussle, and it is the reality for a lot of corporate women. They always have this struggle between having children or a career. In my head — if I have my own business, then I can control my own time and that was the thing that appealed to me the most.
But I was proven to be naive [laughs]. It’s not a business where you can open and close the store anytime you want, retail is a gruelling business: 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Being in retail, we’re in a mall environment. We are at the busiest when it’s school holiday or festive season. My parenting style was really to bring my kids with me everywhere that I go. Time is short. Any opportunities I had to be with the children was considered quality time like driving in the car or even stuck in traffic. That’s why I’ve never complained about traffic — it gives me more time to be with the kids. We’ll just be talking in the car, singing along, just general chit chatting,
How is like to be a mother not just in business, but as a managing director of a worldwide brand?
Initially, I didn’t feel it as much. It was a very small company, with just me and a couple of people. But now, we’ve employed almost 600 people, including the staff in Vietnam. I feel a huge sense of responsibility.
Back in the day, I’ve never thought about how the future will be, like how it was just one store now then alright onto the next store that will be opening and so forth. It was really about living in the moment. Now that there are more people that are dependent on you, I feel this big sense of responsibility to ensure that there’s longevity — both in business and also ensuring that’s enough resources for the future generation. There are more than 500 people with families, that’s a huge responsibility — that is the thing that drives me now to continue expanding the business.
Your two sons (Darryl and Dexter) worked with you previously in The Body Shop, were there any obstacles when you had them on board?
They came in entry-level and they had their own bosses. I’ve always practice an open door policy. The people I had with me for many years, some of them more than 25 years, so they watched my sons grow up. They were so used to seeing them and watching them grow up — it’s like family.
The usual impression we often hear is ‘oh he is the bosses’ son, be careful about that’ and favouritism, but there was none of that. I have a very hands-off approach with the staff. When we hire people we expect them to do the best they can do. I believe no one comes to work, to work poorly. I didn’t look at their assessments, and it’s basically the same throughout the company.
What is your opinion and advice on mothers who have their children in their businesses as well?
I think it is also hard for the children. When they come in, people will automatically have that high expectations of working for a family company. If you’ve been keeping it professional, and also support your existing staff by believing that they’ve been doing it competently, fairly and professionally all this while, why second-guess them when your child joins the company? This is where you must draw the line. If you want them to truly learn from the business, that’s where they have to be. They need to understand the different aspects of the business and as long as they are aware that’s what they are doing and they are there for work, trust your line of managers and you should then just leave it to them.
Also, don’t take sides because at the end of the day, when you go home they are your children but in the office, they are still your employee. But what if they come to you about something, should you approach it as a mother or a boss? I think has always been a tension there. But in my experience with my sons, I trust the people that I work with, if I don’t second guess them about other employees, I won’t second-guess them as my sons as that is their assessment. That’s the way things are — you trust your employees, you trust their evaluation. That’s the attitude that I took. I put them under people that I trusted, I let them train them and coach them, and let it be.
What is the best thing about having another family member on board with you?
You know 100% that they have your back. And if there’s anything going on, they will let you know (laughs). These sort of informal feedback have proven to be quite useful. It can help us prevent potential issues and stop them from escalating. When you’re the boss, it can be quite an isolating experience as people don’t tell you everything that is going, and they feel that they can handle it.
Any advice for mothers who can’t decide between career and family?
You can have both. Many women have proven that. But the most important thing is to always realise it’s a choice, not a sacrifice. Approach it as a choice: you’ll have power and control over it, but if you see it as a sacrifice: you will be faced with difficulties and there will be no end to it.
It is a choice that I made and I am happy with it. If I want to put in 18 hour days that my colleague is putting in, then yes I will be there be too. Instead, I chose to go home by 7pm, so I can see my kids before they fall asleep. Don’t compare with other people. If you want to be there, you have to put in the hours.
Also, you need to choose your partner wisely. Choose someone that is going to support you and take on responsibility for child care. Child bearing and all that, there’s nothing much they can do about that. But after that, when the baby is here you got to make sure that your partner is supportive. Make sure you have a social contract with your partner, that if you both were to decide to have children, then both have to bring them up together and that is so important.
When it comes to Malaysia, what are your thoughts on gender equality in the corporate world? How can we as a society move forward?
It also depends on the company. We are women, run by women, and we pride ourselves on supporting women. If we can’t support our staff, what are we? We got to work our talk. These are the organisations we got to look at, and I think organisations are foolish if they don’t have a flexible scheme in place for women executives.
Photography: Kim Mun, Studio 20Twelve
Hair: Ivan Tong, Senior Stylist at Number76
Makeup: Alvin Loh