Every year, The Great Women of Our Time programme honours extraordinary women whose outstanding achievements are contributing to the well-being of Singapore, and the world.
The Singapore Women’s Weekly has been running The Great Women Of Our Time programme for over 15 years. During that time we’ve shone the spotlight on women who have gone on to become household names in Singapore.
So what’s special about the 10 women featured in 2022? It’s their optimism and drive. The past few years have been challenging, but they’ve carried on facing the future with optimism. Let’s get to know these women better and see how they are changing how we live;
Vinita Choolani is a passionate foodie and food-tech entrepreneur. Until two years ago she ran a successful women’s biotech company that was valued at over US$72 million. Now she’s the Founder and CEO of food tech startup Float Foods. The company has just launched Asia’s first plant-based whole egg, called OnlyEg®.
This alternative protein is made of legumes, the same plant family as peas and beans. It’s a launch of global significance, which puts Singapore ahead in the race for alternative plant-based protein foods. Vinita is a fan of plant-based proteins because she believes food is the most natural medicine. She points to antioxidants in blueberries and probiotics in yogurt and says “Why pop pills when you can eat healthy foods? There’s tons of research to show a predominantly plant-based diet reduces all sorts of chronic diseases.”
To this end, Vinita pushed for Float Foods products to contain higher nutritional levels than their natural counterparts. Eventually, the brand plans on making foods for targeted conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Sustainability is also on Vinita’s mind. She explains, “It takes 53 gallons of water to make one chicken egg. In water-scarce and land-scarce countries, we can greatly reduce this. We can make a healthy plant-based egg, and deliver it, in one day,”
Discover more about Vinita Choolani here
Lawyer Amanda Chong is Deputy Senior State Counsel (International Affairs Division) at Attorney-General’s Chambers in Singapore. Her interests in international law, criminal justice and public policy mean she’s developed an expertise in people trafficking and gender justice.
She’s also a published poet and playwright who hopes her writings will start conversations about social change. She says, “I hope to be a woman who not only professes her principles but acts on them, whether it is supporting gender equality or social justice.”
To this end, in 2014 she co-founded the non-profit organisation ReadAble. With the aim of “beating poverty one word at a time”, it runs weekly reading and language arts classes for children and women in low-income communities in Singapore.
Amanda is convinced literacy skills help level the education playing field. She says, “If a child enters primary school not knowing how to read, their first experience in a classroom is feeling like a failure.” The ReadAble programme is so successful it’s expanded to include a numeracy programme and ReadyAble, an outreach arm that helps others set up their own community reading programme.
Discover more about Amanda Chong here
Hawker culture is at the heart of our national identity in Singapore, yet in the era of food delivery, less digitally-savvy hawkers are at a real disadvantage. WhyQ is a food delivery platform that helps hawkers hop on the digital bandwagon, without being charged commission or onboarding fees, and without having to fiddle with a device.
It is also part of the SG Together Alliance for Action – Online Ordering for Hawkers. This alliance has appointed representatives from the hawker community, industry, and government agencies, to lead efforts to help hawkers benefit from going online. Fion Fong, who is WhyQ’s head of business development and strategic partnerships says simply, “I help hawkers digitize and set up their online presence.”
Fion says she wakes up every day happy to go to work – because she can see the difference her work is making to hawkers, and to Singapore’s food heritage.. “I’ve always feared spending my days doing something I don’t enjoy just to make a living. I wanted to find a sense of purpose in my career choice. I’m grateful I’ve found it”
“There is a duty to ensure that in the age of food delivery and convenience food, our local hawker culture is protected and can continue to be reimagined with every new generation.”
Discover more about Fion Fong here
Next time you go shopping or head out for a kopi kosong, think about Elaine Heng’s “to do” list. As both CEO of Retail Business at FairPrice Group and Deputy Group CEO of FairPrice Group, she is responsible for retail business strategy at FairPrice, including the success of its supermarkets, hypermarkets, Unity pharmacies and the Cheers convenience stores. And as Deputy Group CEO of FairPrice Group, she also looks after Kopitiam food courts, NTUC FoodFare and NTUC Link.
Elaine’s spearheaded many shopping innovations, including stores that feature vegetables grown and harvested in-store. During the pandemic, FairPrice also launched mobile supermarkets, as a lifeline for elderly residents. FairPrice on Wheels has been such a hit that the company plans to keep them going in estates with many elderly shoppers.
On the sustainability front, FairPrice has also launched a $1 million Sustainability Fund, to support innovative ideas. It’s also helping local food brands to grow with special displays and customer feedback initiatives. And there’s a raft of eco-friendly programmes, like reducing excess packaging and distributing unsold but still wholesome food to charities.
Above all, this mother of two believes in, ”Doing well and doing good. FairPrice is a social enterprise, so when we do well, everything goes back into our society. And that’s very motivating..”
Discover more about Elaine Heng here
Leona Hui is a former national boxer and SEA Games participant who co-founded the Singapore women’s boxing community, to encourage women here to share their passion for sport together. She’s also a personal trainer and runs her own events company..
Leona says she loves the adrenaline rush of boxing, and how its taught her resiliency, focus, and courage. “I’m very nonconfrontational. I’m a peace-lover. But with boxing, you have to face things head-on, and find a way around problems. It’s taught me to focus.”
As part of that focus, Leona’s also initiated the SG Women’s Boxing training programme in 2020, “To bring together women from all walks of life” through a shared love of boxing. As she explains, “Life is a journey, so I tell myself to switch from a ‘goal’ mindset to a ‘growth’ one and celebrate the little wins along the way.”
“Things may change or plans get disrupted, so it’s important to be able to adapt, evolve and grow.”
Discover more about Leona Hui here
Dr Ayesha Khanna says she is on a mission to amplify human potential with AI or artificial Intelligence. Addo AI, the company she co-founded, is now a global leader in artificial intelligence and data science, with headquarters in Singapore and teams of data engineers and architects around the world. She explains,”We specialise in helping companies use data to become more profitable, more efficient, and more customer-centric.”
Mother to two children, a boy and a girl, Dr Ayesha is also an adviser to many governmental and private boards, and has a special interest in promoting the ethical use of AI. She’s the Founder of 21C Girls (21st Century Girls), a charity that collaborates with Ngee Ann Polytechnic to teach girls and young women coding and artificial intelligence.
she explains, “When we survey the girls before the course, they often say they are not very confident about tech or their future careers. After the course, they say they are very confident. That boost in confidence is what I want, so they are fearless and can go after their dreams.”
Read more about Dr Ayesha Khanna here
Bot MD integrates hospital information and records that are usually spread across multiple systems into a single chat interface. You can think of it as a Google Assistant for doctors. Just by messaging on their phones, medical staff can get instant answers to a host of questions, from hospital call rosters to information on medicines, hospital guidelines, patient reports, and more.
Founded just four years ago, Bot MD has grown fast. It’s been used by over 18,000 clinical users around the world, including Changi General Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and NUHS in Singapore.
Dorothea – or Dot – as she prefers to be called, says “Being able to help thousands of patients, by empowering doctors and nurses, is really cool.” Since starting Bot MD she’s also launched a new product called Bot MD Care. It was first used during the pandemic to help doctors monitor the vital signs of COVID-19 positive migrant workers in Singapore.
Dot explains, “We use the same A.I. to power popular chat platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber to help doctors, pharmacists and nurses deliver patient care and education at scale.” Now she’s focused on scaling up Bot MD and Bot MD Care to hospitals and clinics all over the world.
Discover more about Dorothea Koh here
Although she trained as a lawyer, in 2013 Liling took a leap of faith and launched Cicheti, an Italian restaurant known for its homemade pasta on Kandahar Street. The Cicheti Group of eateries now includes Cicheti, Bar Cicheti and Wild Child Pizzette, which opened in August 2021 on Circular Road. All offer variations on Italian food with an artisanal twist.
And in 2022, Liling opened a fifth dining concept in buzzing Joo Chiat. Forma is an upscale trattoria helmed by an all-local team of chefs and pasta makers.
For Liling, sustainability is key. She serves fresh artisanal pasta and biodynamic and organic wines from small, sustainable vineyards. Her restaurants are decorated with artwork by Southeast Asian artists and furnishings by local firms. “I’m a Singaporean. I want to showcase us,” she explains. “I’m proud we stuck to our guns and built a respected brand centred on Italian cuisine… but doing it on the shoulders of local talent is something I am extremely proud about.”
Discover more about Ong Liling here
Founded in 2015, She Loves Tech is the world’s largest tech start-up competition and accelerator focused on women. The programme is now active in over 50 countries, and the founders are committed to building an ecosystem for technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Leanne is excited by the challenge of changing lives. She says, “ We set out with the big goal of closing the gender gap for tech startups. I can’t express how challenging, yet rewarding it’s been.”
Leanne’s other work also changes lives. A trained psychotherapist, with a special interest in counselling young women and girls, she’s on the Strategic Resource committee for Assisi Hospice, and is a volunteer mentor at Young Founder School, which helps teenagers learn about entrepreneurship. Leanne is also a motivational speaker who gives talks for organisations as diverse as the Obama Foundation, Microsoft, The Singapore Tourism Board, and Facebook
What unites all these activities is Leanne’s belief that every experience is an opportunity to grow and, “bring your authentic self to your work.”
Find out more about Leanne Robers here
Marine biologist and self-confessed “seagrass nerd”, Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub works across tropical marine habitats, in mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass ecosystems.
At DHI Group, a global company delivering solutions for water environments, Dr Siti specialises in the development of data-driven and science-based solutions to improve environmental stewardship and ecological conservation.
She is also an international expert in the ecological role of tropical seagrass. Few of us even know this underwater grass exists, but Dr Siti points out that tropical seagrasses are vital to the health of the ocean. As well as cleaning and oxygenating water, seagrasses provide a habitat for marine animals. “Seagrass meadows are the fish nurseries for 30 per cent of global fisheries. Even deep-sea fisheries rely on seagrass in some way,” she explains.
Seagrass also reduces coastal erosion and reduces bacteria in the ocean, so the water we swim in is healthier. In fact, it’s so important to the health of the planet – and yet still so little understood – that Dr Siti co-founded Team Seagrass, a volunteer group of citizen scientists who monitor the health of the seagrass meadows around Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Find out more about Dr Siti Maryam Yaakum here.