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They found success by following their hearts

If all roads lead to Rome, similarly if you trace the success paths of these three opportunists who dared go against the grain, you will find they all lead back to NTU. Meet a food artist with 300,000 Instagram followers, a young CEO who has enough to retire, and a legal eagle who studied accountancy
by Peter Yeo

Bent on bento

It’s often been said that the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach but good food can also lead to a novel career path.

Food artist Shirley Wong, better known as Little Miss Bento, said her lunchbox adventure began in secondary school, when she would make love-filled lunches for her then boyfriend.

Packing lunch became the norm for the NTU communications graduate when she began dancing professionally after graduation.

“Artistes are very poor. I didn’t even have to pay income tax,” she reminisces. “I had a Japanese colleague who also brought her own lunchboxes. She didn’t make any cute things, but everything looked so well designed and plated, and so delicious that it inspired me to start making my own lunches.”

The habit continued into her full-time job as a communications manager at a public agency. “I was not going to sweat for 10 minutes walking out to get food. So I decided to bring my own. I figured I was already spending so much effort making it, why don’t I make it more interesting? My first bento was so ugly, but I was very proud of it,” she adds.

Since then, her impossibly cute hand-made bento creations featuring kawaii rabbits and bears have taken Singapore by storm.

“This is something I really didn’t expect to go into. It’s an absolutely different kettle of fish from what I’d been doing throughout my career. It is still a learning journey,” the self-taught food artist, blogger and cookbook author tells us excitedly. But it wasn’t an easy decision for Shirley.

Before Little Miss Bento, Shirley’s life was wrapped up in the heady world of corporate communications. “It was scary to leave my job to do this full-time. I had a comfortable and stable income. But my food-art hobby was filling up my weekends and time outside of work, and I felt like I was working 24/7. I told myself that if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always be looking back and wondering if I made the right decision. So I took the leap. Besides, I am not against the idea of going back to corporate life in the future,” she says.

Shirley is thankful for her media training at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, where she graduated from in 2005. “Many people in the media have said I am natural and easy to work with during interviews,” she laughs. “Sometimes, when I see a cameraman angling for a shot, I’ll stop moving. Or when I see a photographer approaching, I’ll slow down if I’m demonstrating how to make a bento, or freeze, so he can get the shot.”

“I also learnt the importance of building a brand. Aside from effective communication, it is also about finding a personal style in my content that speaks volumes. These are some of the things we pick up in university,” says Shirley, who has more than 300,000 followers on her Instagram account and 50,000 Facebook fans.

She keeps her creations fresh by keeping up with pop culture and current trends, especially since her work features most prominently on social media. “I even did a Game of Thrones bento even though I don’t watch the show,” she says.

“You just have to be more aware of what’s current, and what are the things people are looking out for.”

Keep thinking out of the bento box, Shirley.

AI don’t need the money

She speaks at a thousand words per minute, and probably thinks at a faster rate. At 25, NeuralBay founder and chief executive officer Annabelle Kwok has already chalked up a LinkedIn account that would put most industrialists to shame.

Her introduction to the corporate world began after she took the minor in entrepreneurship programme at the Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre as an NTU undergrad. Impressed with her performance, the centre invited her to provide consulting services to multimillion-dollar companies through a global consulting association run by students.

Armed with an applied mathematics degree from NTU, she jumped into her first start-up, SmartCow, to revolutionise deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI). Her latest AI company in vision analytics, NeuralBay, teaches computers to recognise humans, objects and text in images and videos, then translate that information into data that companies can use. And did we mention she was already a sought-after talent even before graduation, with tech giants including Microsoft vying for her attention? If that’s not impressive enough, she tells us she’s been invited to judge this year’s President’s Science and Technology Awards, the highest honours given to exceptional research scientists and engineers in Singapore.

“I didn’t study business. I pursued mathematics. I’m a science person. So how did I learn to talk to people and make business presentations? It’s from my theatre training. And when you learn acting, you have to ask yourself: Who am I? What’s my character? You understand human nature, and that cuts across everything from business to computing,” she explains.

These soft skills were developed at NTU, where she picked up singing and theatre during her theatre production days as a resident of Hall 8 in her first year, as well as method acting when she went on exchange at the University of California, Los Angeles, in her second year.

Before launching SmartCow, she even joined a local circus, Bornfire, started by a friend, to expand her skills.

“When you’re learning to juggle, you need to identify a problem spot – for example, your weaker hand may not be able to catch the ball or it may be flying outwards. So you need to adjust to let it fall in the right place. You learn awareness, and you’re picking up different skills. And because it’s not a critical skill, you learn to have fun and take it easy too,” she laughs. “Oh, it also trains your muscle memory and resilience because you need to practise a lot.”

“It’s a non-linear way of learning. Besides training in the arts, I also learn from sports. I like to run,” says the Taekwondo black-belter and licensed windsurfer who plans to run a marathon in North Korea come April. “But you need to know how far you can push yourself and when to stop or you’ll get injured. Many people in the tech start-up scene are burnt out because they don’t pace themselves. All these life lessons translate to my success in my businesses,” she adds.

Annabelle maintains she’s not in it for the money, and candidly adds she can retire from her tech investments. “I’m not running a non-governmental organisation – it’s still a business. The companies I deal with know I’ll be the one fronting the company for the immediate future. I’m trustworthy and legitimate. I still need to earn money to support the staff and keep the business running. But, personally, I don’t need to work for money.”

Sounds like a good place to be in.

Raising the bar

If you ever doubted the value of interdisciplinarity, just look at Vikna Rajah.

Named in Prestige Magazine’s 40 Under 40 list last September, he went to NTU as an undergraduate to train to be an accountant. He fell in love with the tax and commercial law modules he took at the Nanyang Business School and decided to pursue law after graduating.

“Many people were surprised that I chose to study law for another five years, instead of jumping into a high-paying corporate job. But I allowed myself to indulge in my ambition. I looked within myself and asked honestly what my true passion in life was,” says the litigation attorney.

Today, he advises clients on tax matters as well as guides ultra-high net worth individuals and trust companies in wealth management and succession planning at one of Southeast Asia’s largest law firms, Rajah and Tann, founded in 1954. He is an equity partner at the firm and heads its Tax, Trust and Private Client practice.

“It is crucial to have an accountancy background so you can understand tax cases in their entirety. It’s a huge advantage for lawyers to be able to make sense of balance sheets and be comfortable with financial statements,” he explains.

When he realised his heart was set on law, he took all the necessary steps to achieve it – regardless of costs or time. He admits his rise at his law firm was expeditious.

“I’m grateful for the exposure and unwavering support my partners have given me from the day I joined them, and to be involved in growing the firm’s Tax, Trust and Private Client practice. As a result, we were named Singapore’s Tax Disputes and Litigation Firm of the Year.”

Vikna believes in giving back. He leads a charity dedicated to helping children and youths from less-privileged backgrounds break the poverty cycle, and volunteers at the Law Society of Singapore, mentoring fledgling lawyers.

When asked what advice he has for his juniors in NTU, Vikna says: “Free yourself from any self-doubt or inhibitions. Allow yourself the freedom to think about what you’re passionate about, and what you want to achieve in life. Then set goals to fulfil your passion.”