Up close with Karen Tok:
Her Entrepreneur Journey
What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
I love learning about how businesses fill gaps and bring value to the consumer. This interest was further fuelled in my first job as a media sales executive, when I was selling advertising space - most of my immediate clients were business owners. I was so inspired by their experience that I spent most of my time after work learning about journeys as entrepreneurs during the first 3 years of my career.
I recognised that I had limited knowledge in building a business; so between the ages of 26 and 29, I immersed myself in numerous business-related workshops and books, which really helped me later on in building my business.
Entrepreneurship was not an option. It was The Path."
Why Life Sciences Recruitment, especially when you did not have relevant experiences?
While not really knowing what business to embark on, I knew it needed to have these 3 criteria:
1) A sunrise industry that fills a niche in the marketplace, instead of being a "me too" company.
2) A company that exerts a positive influence on people and promotes the growth and development of both individuals and their communities, either directly or indirectly.
3) It should be scalable beyond the owner's involvement.
Instead of relying solely on my available skills and resources, I focused on what could be the growth markets in the following 10 years, so I could ride the wave of emerging growth. I finally narrowed down to Recruitment in the Life Sciences which meet my business startup criteria. Life Sciences was one of the growth pillars identified by the Singapore government in the early 2000s. Recruitment services can have a positive impact on one's personal and professional life, through successful job placement, we help individuals to identify their strengths and find them the most fitting career. It is also a scalable business through the effective use of people, processes and technology.
First What, Then How"
First What, Then How"
What were the biggest hurdles to building your business initially and how did you overcome them?
There were lots of challenges at various stages. I shall highlight a few.
Limited working capital and manpower at the start up stage:
I had to take on multiple roles, pick up new knowledge from a wide range of industries, such as IT, accounting, marketing, sales, operation, as well as product knowledge in the fastest speed possible before I ran out of cash. I worked about 18 to 20 hours a day during the first 2 years.
Limited talent pool:
Life Sciences was a virtually non-existent industry in Singapore when I started out. The industry required a high level of technical skill and industry knowledge often involve candidates with PhDs and strong management expertise within the same industry. I innovated a global search methodology in order to adapt to the industry needs: "regional placements, global talents" - a strategy that became the winning formula during the early stages for retained searches. This was particularly successful as cross-border search was uncommon then.
Expansion and Diversification Challenges:
The landscape for the recruitment business in Singapore has become increasingly challenging with a surge in international agencies from US, UK and Australia, as well as more local agencies jumping on the bandwagon. Additionally, search firms and recruitment agencies were facing a talent shortage. Furthermore, HR departments were relying more on internal referral schemes and in-house candidate sourcing. It was critical for ScienTec to become highly efficient and provide even more value in our service delivery in order to thrive. To build a sustainable business, we worked on maintaining the leading position in the niche fields, and at the same time diversify its portfolio horizontally and vertically to offer more strategic HR support services, and increase the number of industry specialization.
What are the most influential factors in your business' success?
I realised that as the organization grew larger, the owner should have less influence on the day-to-day operations in order to empower the leaders, encourage ownership of the individuals, though still working together towards a common goal. Therefore, it is critical that we have a clear common vision and solid corporate values to guide our organizational behaviour. We invested a great deal of time and effort to identify a set of values that not just forms a positive internal culture but also able to directly influence the external brand experience.
“THE BRAND PILLARS are DESIGNED TO DELIVER THE ULTIMATE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE”
Today, the four powerful core values and three brand pillars we instituted resulted in a high level of employee engagement and also have a great impact on customer experience, forming the pillars of success for the company.
People First as our Building Block for Success"
We inculcate corporate mindfulness and a learning culture where knowledge is shared freely to ensure our talents are continually growing and unlocking their potential to perform. Promising individuals are given the opportunities to lead after undergoing leadership coaching. We created training programmes such as ‘Boot-camp’, Train the Trainer’, ‘Train the Expert’ programmes to increase our employees’ capacities to contribute. All this time, we consciously built a fun, rewarding and meaningful work environment, with new initiatives introduced yearly.
Keep innovating, never stand still and scale only from a solid foundation"
What is the driving force behind your active community participation?
We stay true to our belief in putting “People First, Always” through meaningful CSR activities to impact deserving communities, ranging from the pioneer generation to children with special needs.
The idea came when I saw an advertisement on the MRT titled “charity starts from home” with a picture showing a hairdresser trimming an elderly’s hair. It struck me that we could make use of our recruitment expertise to train the jobless in job-hunting skills. I was 3 years into the business with only 5 employees then. Our first project was offering job-hunting, resume-writing & cashflow-management training to people under the St. George Crisis Center’s care. Since then our CSR has grown in scale, with larger community projects involving 50 to 60 people and even involve shutting down operations half-a-day every quarter to gives our employees the opportunity to engage in a variety of meaningful activities. Some activities we conducted include grocery shopping trips with the elderly, excursions with children from troubled homes, home makeovers for the underprivileged, etc.
What were some of your most satisfying moments in the business?
Reading happy client and candidate testimonials
Seeing my employees realise their true potential. Those who drive themselves to achieve impossible results inspire me a great deal.
Learning that the candidates I have placed contributed a great deal to my clients or have been promoted in an organization.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away."
What are some of your personal values as a businesswoman?
In business, I think dependability and integrity are very important qualities. When I was in school, I used to think that most business people were dishonest, and they had to be so in order to succeed in a competitive business world. Early in my career, I was lucky to meet and become friends with many successful business owners who valued integrity and did not have to cheat to succeed. At every level, business relationships should be win-win; be it between the company and employees, investors, clients and suppliers, business partners and so on.
"It is not our strengths but our weaknesses that make us better people". Strengths can make us lazy, because we can always fall back upon them. Weaknesses call for extra effort and once we take action, a whole new world opens up for us.
What advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but it can be for anyone.
1. Once you decide to be an entrepreneur there should be no turning back. It is not enough to ‘try’, as it takes a lot of hard work and commitment for it to work.
2. It is important to decide if you want to be self-employed or a business owner. Being self-employed means becoming your own boss and your business only generates revenue when you work. On the other hand, a business owner creates a business with processes to automate it, so that it can run on its own without the owner. Depending on which you choose, it changes the entire business direction, financial plans and required commitment.
3. Continue to review and innovate your processes and best practices for powerful results.
4. Critical to have successful mentors to learn from. If you can’t find one that has all the areas, find one for each area.
5. Build true service value, set high standards, always listen to your customer and focus on customer experience.
6. Don’t just recruit the right people - develop and inspire them to greater heights.
What are some books that have significant influence in your professional and personal life that you would like to recommend?
Good to Great by Jim Collins
First Things First by Stephen R. Covey
Principle Centered Leadership by Stephen R Covey
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II & James H. Gilmore
Cash flow Quadrant and others by Robert Kiyosaki
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Power vs Force by David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D.
The Path to Love, Deepak Chopra
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra
Death The Final Stage of Growth by Elizabeth Kubler Ross
The Wheel of Life by Elizabeth Kubler Ross
Conversation With God book 1,2, 3 and others by Neal Donald Walsh
WHAT PEOPLE SAY about karen
"Very few people have the opportunity to report to a business leader who can truly coach and bring out the full potential of an individual. I am one of the lucky few, and I am very grateful for her mentorship and guidance which made me who I am today. She is one of the greatest motivators I have ever met. She is a motivating leader who leads with passion, drive and empathy. She helped us “over the hump” and inspired us to achieve more than what we thought we could. She is someone who is able to set clear vision and also execute the right strategy to take the company to new heights. She is also an intelligent and detailed person with a strong work ethic and positive outlook in life."
— Shennon Loh,
Senior Team Leader,