April 25, 2020

Co-Life and Generation Four: Lunch with Michelle Yong

Podcast Episode


Michelle is just brilliant. In a lot of ways, she’s who I want to be when I grow up. 

Michelle Yong after writing her thesis on the ‘Third Generation’ curse of family businesses joined her own family business Aurum and started to practice what she preached. Whilst there she truly became an entrepreneur in her own right. In the last five years, she has founded Core Collective and Found8, both companies focus on co-existence. 

In our interview, we chatted many different topics but ultimately it left me utterly inspired. One of the things I found most inspiring was how she managed to build these successful businesses whilst having children. Michelle was eight-months pregnant when I interviewed her and getting ready to welcome her fourth son into the world. Her team even has a bet going as to how long she will take on maternity leave as apparently the most frequent time is five days. It is truly brilliant to see a women ‘do both’. As females, I think that is is really easy to think we have to choose between being a good mother and being a high-level employee and it is stories like Michelle Yong’s that reinforce that the idea that you can only be a mother or boss is far from the case.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Lunch with Aunty. 

Hannah Xx 

Interview Transcript* : 

Hannah: How was your time at Sevenoaks? How was your time moving to England?

Michelle: I always knew I was going to university in England. My dad and younger brother were actually there. We thought that boarding school would be a good way for me to adjust to a new country and new culture. A halfway house, in a good way, of sorts. I wanted the experience as well. I went for L6 and U6 (Sixth form). 

Hannah: Which house were you in?

GIH (me too) 

Before I chose Sevenoaks I shopped around to more traditional boarding house as it was more progressive and close to London. In other schools you could only go out during Exeat but at Sevenoaks you could go out every weekend, that was definitely a pull factor. 

Hannah: And you played rugby whilst there? 

Michelle: I played Rugby, Tennis and Netball whilst at Sevenoaks. 

Hannah: How was the transition to university? and how did you decide on Economics, Accounting and Law?

Michelle: Before Sevenoaks, I thought that I was going to end up in a London University, but one of my best friends was a girl who lived in Bristol and while visiting her I fell in love with city and campus lifestyle. 

Hannah: Did you go to Oxford afterwards? 

Michelle: I actually worked for a private-sector think tank after Bristol. I worked with a few professors and got my work published. I was thinking about becoming an academic and that’s when I went to Oxford. Whilst writing my thesis at Oxford I realised that I definitely did not want to become an academic. But that then inspired my next move. My thesis was about the ‘third generation’ family business curse. Now I am in the family business applying what I wrote about in my thesis. My theory was that in generational family firms because of altruism and you love your parents you as a business leader would not engage in moral hazards. It is all about the principle agents. You care about your parents in the second generation but by the time it gets to the third generation you care less about your third aunts and uncles such that the love of the previous generation is less than that of the current generation and that equation kind of reverses. So my theory is to keep all businesses within two generations, as a result, I started three businesses within the last five years. 

Hannah: I would love to hear about the businesses that you have set up. From what I can gauge their not similar to the businesses from your family company. For example, I love Core Collective. You really are an entrepreneur in your own right, I was wondering if you could talk a little about that?

Michelle: I do have the very fortunate support of my family. I think coming from a family that is able to provide the resources and connections and platform to support these businesses. Actually all these businesses have foundations in real estate. Instead of just building principle spaces we build community and opportunity. Our purpose is broadened. All businesses aim to build supportive environments that create change and advance communities and advance growth. These are the things we aim to maintain as a sort of DNA , a common thread throughout the companies. We want to become the vision of the co-sharing world. So we have co-working in Found 8, now co-wellness and co-fitness in Core Collective, Co-living & co-learning through investments and we are exploring the next business in co-retirement. We have been doing a project with SMU final year students. 

Hannah: How is it balancing being a mother and working?

Michelle: I am still figuring it out. I would not say that I have a very balanced life. Being your own boss you never really get turn off. The running joke at the moment between my team is that they are wondering how many days maternity leave I will be taking (Michelle is 8 months pregnant with her fourth child). My first baby I took a month then I had to go back to work. Baby number 2 came two weeks early and I hadn't handed over to the team yet so I was back in work 5 days later. Baby number three I thought I took a month but my team reminded me I only took 5 days. So who knows for baby number 4. It does mean that I get to take the babies to work. 

Hannah: How old is the oldest? 

Michelle: 7 and a half. 

Hannah: So four under 8? 

Michelle: Yes 

Hannah: Now you are working from home now is the time managing? Being 8 months pregnant and having three little ones at home but still working full time.

Michelle: We have been very busy with the homeschooling. Thankfully they have brought forward the June holiday. The balancing has been quite difficult. Number 1 and 2 officially have homework. I have to do Mandarin as my husband is British so he can’t do it. My oldest is the one bugging me to do homework with me and number 3 sees his older brothers and gets me to do work with him now as well. It is very cute, we never usually have this time together. However they never really respect when I say I have meetings. They have learned to pick the lock on my bedroom door, so they have learnt that. 

Hannah: At least they're learning something. 

Michelle: So it is not always easy to be able to focus on work.

Hannah: How was it moving your business online?

Michelle: Our business by design was not meant to be online. Instead we are trying to provide online platforms to continue to engage the members of the community, on both a social and business level. They didn’t give us much time to prepare for the lockdown, but for CoreCollective we now have online classes, and we managed to get them up and running - it is broadening reach. This is no replacement for the actual service but what is being created is that we are forced to think outside the box. We are taking this chance to reinvent ourselves. Trying to understand what the post Covid world will look like and how we can adapt to it. 

Hannah: What’s your advice for people my age? 

Michelle: I think it really hard to know what you want to do. You still have years in university. You don’t have to have your career route planned out. 

I wish I had spoken to more people to understand what their day to day looked like. Growing up in Singapore everyone just assumed I was going to be a businesswoman. So when I did Economics, Accounting and Law I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But studying and careers have very little carryover. Yes, it helps I can read a balance sheet and understand law terms but it is not that important. So do something that you love. It is probably the only time that you have that liberty so I am glad I chose Bristol over London as I loved my time there. 

I actually tried to drop accounting and then law and just do economics. I was not allowed. So I had to push on but I wish I had just done economics as that is what I enjoyed most. Speak to people and hopefully, you will find what you will enjoy for the rest of your life. 

* The text has been edited to convey the same meaning of the conversation and is not an exact transcript