Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women of Our Time awards. Meet 2020’s Finance & Commerce nominee, Audrey Chew, Co-Founder of You Tiao Man and Inspired Snacks.
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Meet Audrey Chew – Great Women Of Our Time 2020 Finance & Commerce Nominee
After spending five years working for a Brazilian mining company in China, Audrey Chew returned to Singapore in 2017 and took it upon herself to transform her father’s traditional you tiao stall business.
“I worked in commodities for 10 years, five of which were spent in Shanghai. It was an enlightening experience for me and I learnt a lot in China. I think that experience brought out the best in me. All the tenacity, the grit, and the creative ways to operate a business – I learnt it all there,” the 36-year-old entrepreneur says. “When I came back to Singapore, a lot of the food we used to love, like some of the traditional noodles or chicken rice, were already fading out, but I’ve always felt that our heritage is a very important thing that we need to preserve. Our traditions can be revitalised! So we decided to set up You Tiao Man and I moved my father’s hawker production to a manufacturing facility in Mandai.
“Our product may be very traditional, but the approach is not. We took a simple product that’s usually in the background, a product that nobody really understands or care much about – and brought it into the spotlight,” says Audrey, whose company developed charcoal you tiao and wholegrain you tiao – a first in the world (which earned the Healthier Choice Award from the Health Promotion Board).
“When I wanted to do charcoal you tiao, a lot of people laughed at me. They didn’t believe that it would work because you tiao has been consumed in its original form for hundreds of years. ‘How would people accept such a change?’ they questioned.
“But you know what?” Audrey counters, “There were a couple of people who told me, ‘Audrey, just give it a shot, what do you have to lose anyway?’ And that’s really all you need in life – it doesn’t matter how many naysayers there are, you just need one or two people to believe in you with all their heart. They are enough to be the wind beneath your wings and blow you to the front.”
It’s a good thing Audrey stuck to her guns because You Tiao Man’s charcoal and wholegrain you tiaos have become quite a hit since. “The charcoal you tiao is really quite spectacular. It looks like a regular long and fluffy you tiao, but it is black. So people are always pleasantly surprised when they take a bite!”
Today, You Tiao Man is an established local you tiao producer that also supplies to hotel and restaurant chains like Crystal Jade and Tung Lok. Last year, the dynamic mum-of-one decided to take innovation further and co-founded Inspired Snacks with her business partner, Bandana Kaur. Together, they launched yet another new product, You Tiao Chips!
“You tiao is a very traditional product, so how do you change consumer mindsets to shift it from a ‘peripheral’ product into a ‘hero’ product? Competitors doubted that it could be done, but we’ve done it,” Audrey asserts. “It’s true that it’s hard to innovate in such a traditional segment, but I thought to myself – what if you tiao could be packed into a shelf life-stable chip? What if it could be frozen and brought to Europe or Thailand?”
She adds, “I’ve met people at every turn telling me that it wouldn’t work – but then here we are. So believe in yourself and don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. There will always be glass ceilings blocking you from growth but take a chance and be brave. Innovation-wise, we’ve really taken leaps and bounds and I’m very proud of that.”
“I think that in modern times, with things moving so fast with technology, hawkers and traditional food tend to get left behind. We want to preserve heritage and traditions, and yet, it can be very hard to continue making a living through traditional business practices which tend to be less efficient in production, hence making them less profitable,” she explains. “But on the flip side, there is longevity when you inject innovation. I think the key is to inject a thought process that allows businesses to be done efficiently in a manner that’s cost effective. That way, you can preserve heritage.
“What we’ve done at You Tiao Man and Inspired Snacks, is that we’ve taken a traditional product and revamped it with the times – we’ve made you tiao healthier and more ‘sleek’ in packaging, so young people are interested in it again.”
Audrey reveals that, like many others, her business was also hit by Covid-19. “You Tiao Man is primarily a business to business supplier, so when the hotels and restaurant chains were hit hard, we were affected as well. Within a day, our business dropped by about 50 to 70 per cent.” She adds, Fortunately, we were able to pivot quickly and service the online consumer market. We found ourselves suddenly exposed to a whole new market dynamic. It’s been a challenging time for us, but we’ve also learned many valuable lessons about consumer behavior, some of which have been very heartening.”
With heartfelt emotion evident in her voice, Audrey says, “This period has been difficult for a lot of people, but we’ve also experienced a lot of kindness in the market. We will get through this.”
Empathically, she adds, “The strongest will survive, and if you are strong, please help the weak. By helping each other with acts of kindness, we will survive stronger as a nation in the world.”
The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.