April 4, 2020

Engineering Yourself to Success: Lunch with Michelle Cheo

Podcast Episode

Welcome to today’s episode of Lunch with Aunty. In this episode, Michelle and I discuss gender imbalances in education, how to grow a company exponentially and the power of female CEOs in Asia, tune in to find out more about this phenomenal CEO. 

‘If you only see the world as it is you will only ever see the world as it is, but, if you look at the world and see how it can grow exponentially then that is the world you will live in.’
- Michelle Cheo

This is Hannah Sheehy and welcome to ‘Lunch with Aunty’. ‘Lunch with Aunty’ is a podcast in which I interview people in a variety of fields each successful in their own way and really ask the questions ‘what do you do?’ and ‘how did you get there?’

Whenever I am back in Singapore, my mum always says that I have to meet with Aunty so-and-so or Uncle so-and-so to figure out and understand what they do. I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by brilliant, successful people, like aunty Michelle, throughout my childhood, but I always found it easy to just know, ‘she’s in oil’ or ‘she’s a banker’, rather than ask actual questions to these exceptional people. I am now, as a seventeen-year-old, getting to the stage where I need to decide what my first career is going to be, and I thought a good place to start is figuring out what the people around me actually do and I thought why not make these lunches educational not just for myself but for others.

My first guest is Michelle Cheo, or as I know her, Aunty Michelle.

A little bit about Aunty Michelle - she is CEO of Mewah International Inc, an agriculture-business focusing on edible oils and fats, before that she had a career at Exon-Mobil for six years. Before her career, she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from Imperial College in London with first degree honours. In 2004, she continued her education obtaining an MBA from Insead. Last year she won the Women’s Entrepreneur Award and is all around an inspiring female role-model for those around her. Welcome to ‘Lunch with Aunty’ aunty Michelle. 

Hannah: Firstly, I would like to throw it right back to before and during university, if that’s alright? So how did you decide on Imperial? And how did you decide on a STEM degree and more specifically Chemical Engineering? 

Michelle: I am very lucky as from a young age I have always enjoyed mathematics. I know from my friends, that there were often people who did not support STEM, but I was very lucky that my mother saw my interest in mathematics and encouraged me to get a degree in engineering, and since then Imperial has always been the dream location, so it was the goal that I worked towards. 

Hannah: More out of curiosity, what was the gender split in your uni lectures? 

Michelle: When I was at Imperial because I was doing Chemical Engineering the gender balance was actually very good. At that point in time, Imperial had not opened its school of medicine so it was a very engineering-focused school and the other engineering disciplines had only 5-10% women, so chemical engineering was comparatively very good by having 25% women. I have to admit I talked a lot about soccer in my university years, much more than I knew about it. 


Hannah: Did you find your degree useful? I suppose this question is two-fold, firstly, did it open doors, was the piece of paper itself useful? And secondly, was the content useful on the day to day? 

Michelle: I have to admit that I do not remember much of the content from my university degree courses, but I always remember the first course I did in Imperial on material balance and I have used it everywhere, so as a concept I have used it everywhere. It was actually at my first job at Exxon (Exxon-Mobil) that was truly amazing. It was that job where I really learnt, that far outweighed my education from everywhere. I think that its because Exxon is a company with a long, long history, they had a culture of education embedded in the company and it is something that engulfs a person. There was a lot I learnt practically at Exxon that I still apply to this time. 

Hannah: Fast forward a few years what made you decide to further your education at Insead, what was your main take away from this prestigious MBA? (or as my biased dad would say the best MBA in the world)

Michelle: I think that if you are in engineering that the world can be very narrow, so Insead was good because it enabled me to meet a lot of different people, a lot of whom were from financial or management backgrounds, so it broadened my circle. 

Hannah: So I did a little stalk of Mewah’s website last night and I saw that it opened its first refinery in 1987 and since then production has multiplied by 25 times, can you talk about this transition and the transition since you joined in 2004? For example, what were the challenges you faced bringing this company into the 21st century? 

Michelle: I think ultimately in life, whether it is in a career or in studies, the most important thing is your attitude, whether you have the attitude to keep changing. In Mewah we believe it is how you see the world. If you only see the world as it is you will only ever see the world as is. However, if you look at the world and see how it can grow exponentially then that is the world you will live in. That, for me, was the key take away. 

Hannah: I know from my mum that you recently started a female chapter in your member’s organisation YPO, which I think is fantastic by the way, but why do YOU think it was an important step to take?

Michelle: Honestly, YPO is a very American centric organisation. We wanted to replicate a lot of their successful systems in Asia. First of all, I enjoy hanging around your mother and her counterparts because although they are all type A personalities they are all driven and focus on improving oneself. So after eight years, it was how to bring these brilliant minds together. One of the things that we wanted to do was to form closer bonds with women around the region and the women’s platform allows us to do that. Possibly surprisingly to your listeners, in the percentage of women entrepreneurs in YPO Asia - pacific ranks second in the world. We actually do very well in Asia when it comes to women in high power positions within the workforce. 

Hannah: You have three gorgeous and lovely daughters, any tips on how you manage to balance being a super-mum and super-CEO? 

Michelle: First of all, I let them do whatever they want. I am very lucky, like most in Asia, because of my family’s support and domestic help (more so than in the west). When I was deeply involved in my career I was lucky that my mother stepped in and was the supportive grandmother, which really helped me be able to give my all to my career at that point in time. Their grandmother also imparted her own wisdom on my daughters and instilled our family values. I am very grateful for what she has done. Also, I married a very supportive husband which was very important, it is the whole family dynamic that lets me do what I do. I have been extremely lucky to marry someone who truly sees me as an equal. 

Hannah: What does a typical day, global pandemic aside, look like with aunty Michelle?

Michelle: I try to wake up early, and if I am lucky I have time to go to exercise. I spend time with my eldest by dropping her off to school. I break up the day into three parts, the morning session, the afternoon session and the evening session - that’s how I get stuff done. 

Hannah: Lastly, the CEO answers aside, do you have any book recommendations, I hear you read a lot, for everyone listening at home? 

Michelle: People should read according to their interests. I like politics, stories about people and history - those are the three facets I tend to enjoy. I enjoyed ‘Zero Marginal Costs to Society’ by Jeremy Rifkin which looks to the future. I loved all the autobiographies that I read, for example, ‘Finding my Virginity’ by Sir Richard Branson which was about his own crazy journey. I like reading about politics, not to criticise but to understand, for example, I recently read ‘War on Peace’ by Ronan Farrow and ‘The Accidental Superpower’ by Peter Zeihan. All of this reading, I think, just broadens the mind. A recent passion of mine has been the history of the Middle East. For me, it is just important to get multiple opinions on situations. 

Hannah: That is absolutely fantastic and is all my questions for today. Thank you for taking the time! 

Find out more about this amazing CEO: 

Michelle Cheo Hui Ning, Entrepreneur Award WEA 2019

Bloomberg Profile

Meet Michelle Cheo, YWLC mentor and CEO of Mewah International Inc.

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