What are your struggles of being a female entrepreneur?

I've heard many stories of female entrepreneurs who have it tough due to a male-dominated business world.

What're your thoughts on this? What are some of the struggles you face as a female founder?

Stefania Oprea

3 Jan, 2022

1 Answer

Melanie Loh

CEO Of Alkalifewater Group

Girl or a man?

As a corporate banker, I did great. For consecutive years I worked really hard to hit ridiculous profit and revenue targets, and I did. Of course, our bonuses payout was really great. The sense of achievements of getting promoted almost every year gave me this boost of confidence in my own abilities of learning and trust, that I could do anything that I ever wanted to if I put my mind to it. 

That was where my entrepreneurship journey started when I registered a company and decided to embark on this with the thought; this product helped my health; great margins, and if I could churn this kind of revenue for a bank, why not do it for myself?

1. It is a man’s world

The business that I went into was household electronics and water ionizers. It was a world that men belonged to and women don’t fit. Requires hardware and technical expertise, physical strength and laborious work. It was a slap in the face, going from heaven; where I wined and dined with all the people who were someone, and was placed at such a high pedestal of social ladder; I went to crawling under the kitchen sink to change filters for customers. Starting from scratch, to close a sale, I carried 10kg machines standing outside a potential client’s house under the hot sun for an hour; just to be shooed away and cold calling 50 customers a day just to be slammed down upon. I never knew about any digital marketing back then.

People don’t pick up my calls anymore, and those were the people who use to beg for help to push and approve their loans for more than USD5mil. 
You are now no one and not important. That is the harsh reality of life.

There were a lot of people who were really supportive, and there were also those who ridiculed the fact that I was a then 26-year-old young girl trying to start a business; many unkind words with giggles of “you will never make it”, or “call me WHEN you need a job”.

I was also the first female CEO who is below 50 years of age in this industry; globally. Meeting manufacturers from different countries, people didn’t take me seriously. There was many awkwardness and scepticism. I wasn’t in the fashion or beauty industry. It was a world where women were PA’s and secretaries, and they walked behind the men. It was also a difficult adjustment for my international partners when they first met me. They were shocked, took some time and effort to build that kind of relationship and trust. Respect and reputation were really hard earned.

You shake someone’s hand and sit down during a meeting, and the key person will always be searching for a man to speak to. There were also many times the presence of myself as a young female and especially a CEO made them uncomfortable.

Took many years, and I worked 3x harder than anybody else. I read so many books, and I learnt and tried how to be better than anybody else; be it body language, reputation, integrity, how I command meetings, phrases that I use, my strategies and thought processes and my ability to manage; to earn a “seat at the big boy’s table”. Everyday is still a challenge and everyday I learn to be better.

2. Sexual Harassment

As a female entrepreneur, it is always handy to have another half or be attached. I didn’t. For many years, I dedicated myself into building my business and it was always first. This was truly one of the many ugly experiences that I have encountered with that until now as I am typing this story, I am contemplating and weighing the risks of exposure. But why not. I support female empowerment and anybody has equal rights to have a voice. As much as I made a strong statement, there is an emotional element of shame of not wanting for people to view me like this. 

One of the years, I was invited to be a part of and help one of my investor’s international businesses to handle corporate finance and structuring. I was introduced to the European boss when he came down to Malaysia one day. He was more than 6 ft tall and at least 120kgs. Huge, powerful man. After the interview session during dinner at a hotel room, I was invited to his hotel room for further interview session. And I went. I wasn’t sure why I did, whether it was blind naivety or blind trust. At that period of time, it was about three years into business and it was the most difficult time filled with vulnerability of fear or failure and I wanted to grab the opportunity to be a part of an international business.

He offered me a drink and talked to me about my worst fears, my weaknesses and I cried. Looking back, it was almost like a “grooming session”. He mentioned I was lucky to have met him, and he could help in every way. He made me feel like there is hope and he could help. And then he started trying to kiss me and pinned me to the couch overpowering me. That day, I almost got raped, but thankfully, I didn’t. I fought him off and texted my investor, and he let me go. I was shaking for 3 days after that.

What I felt was such an insult to my pride that I was defined as a sexual prey rather than someone with brains that could offer value to his organisation. I felt humiliated, scared and angry. I grew ever stronger since, I realised that not every older powerful man are mentors and someone you could learn from. I stopped being naïve.

3. Bullied, taken advantage and demoralised

There was one of the worst years into the business that I was left alone to carry the company’s overheads alone and I turned to a friend to have a partnership, and somewhere along the way, I realised that I transferred the ownership of all my company’s stocks over to that person for free, and when I wanted to take it back, the stocks were locked and kept away from my reach; I had to pay about shortly less than six figures to retrieve it. And I did. 
Lesson learnt from this is, be smart. Make sure you are equipped with financial and legal knowledge. Never be in a vulnerable position and in need as people will always take advantage of you. It is a cut throat business world. 

I had a vendor and a friend who I engaged for marketing services for many years and we supported each other’s business. Recently I decided stop using his services and moved it to be managed inhouse, and he flipped and made life difficult for me. We aren’t friends anymore out of a sudden. He insulted my decision and made unkind remarks on how I am running the business to the ground; deindexed my website from google, blocked my number when I emailed and texted him to request for the access to my websites back. They also did not handover our email address management admin access. 

In the midst of gender disparity, if I was a man, there might have had a “bro code” or mutual respect that little uncalled for situations might not happen. Are women supposed to be pretty and soft or the support, instead of the lead? Is this pure taking advantage and disrespect, knowing that females would not make a big hoo hah about small situations like these? 

From this I have learnt to choose your partners or people you deal with for business carefully, regardless of how powerful they are. If you happen to encounter mentors and partners who would want nothing from you other than to see you excel, and who is wholeheartedly supportive throughout thick and thin, you be forever loyal and do the best that you can ever do. Count your blessings and always be grateful. Give back if you can, and never forget your roots when you are successful. Don’t harm people or don’t take revenge, because what goes around will eventually come around.

4. Does a female with power, independence and strength emasculate a man?

There are always silver linings in hardships. The years of ups and downs, struggles and hardships, having to have been shoved and pushed over, has made me to who I am now. Mentally strong, grit, independent and in-built perseverance. I have been trained well by my guardian angel mentors and partners to be sharp, efficient, professional, knowledgeable and decisive. Thrown into a hole just to ensure I get the strength and grit to bounce back up to be 5 times better and powerful. Constantly challenged and pushed to the best of my ability and given constructive criticism to lead better and to breed and groom next generation leaders. I have older men and women who have way more experience and who is better than I am, in my team who reports to me.

Like a trained assassin (metaphorically) who has forgotten about many other little things in life, how does the softer things in life fit into this? Love and heart, trust and relationships. How do you have a softer side when your role of what defines you; represents strength, power and leadership? How do you act like a girl when you are required to be a man, and how do you not emasculate another?

It was a real difficult adjustment from me when I gotten attached and found love. It felt like the whole world was shook and everybody was affected. Every day I learn how to juggle two faces of sweet, soft and loving, and the next; effective, efficient, lead and to inspire. In the midst of striving for my ambitions and company’s growth and launch new businesses; every day I try not to drown and demoralise another; to ensure my husband is nowhere “seemed” less than who I am and mutual respect is carefully balanced. Every day I try to remember the female traits that I use to have before business life threw me into a hole and made me a warrior. 

Thankfully, I have the most understanding and loving husband, who respect my job requirements and accept me for who I am, which comes with responsibilities and what feels like the weight of the world.

I am not there yet, but I can’t help to wonder, how do I be a mother while being a single operating partner for the group?

Will investors invest in mothers? Will shareholders be sceptical towards your leadership ability when you have half the weight of family obligations?

How would have that been different if I was a man?
Some thoughts to ponder upon.

I hope that my sharing of in-depth ugly stories could help and inspire strength and guts to all female entrepreneurs. Dare to try and dare to speak up. Because I survived and so will you. We all have a voice. 

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