Forefront

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This week, best friends and creative powerhouses Aarika and Charmaine sit down with us
to chat about balancing friendship with work, 
being mothers together and their honest opinion on gender stereotypes.

The iconic pair who are founding members of branding and marketing agency Elementary also delve into details of
what sort of style items tick their boxes, and how they have evolved through the years as friends, entrepreneurs and mothers.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
We run a branding and marketing agency called Elementary. Charmaine and her husband Derek founded it in 2013 and we have been part of the founding team since then. Together, we head the marketing department with Charmaine overseeing a lot of the creative, and Aarika looking after copywriting. Coming from video and film backgrounds, we also oversee digital content creation, especially projects that involve videography or photography elements.

Have you always envisioned yourself doing this?
C: Ever since I started working in production I always knew I wanted to do something on my own. I toyed with the idea of starting a company that would design and create Singapore memorabilia as I’ve always been interested in Peranakan culture and was wondering what I could do to make make it more relevant to today’s generation.

That initial idea eventually evolved into Elementary. It wasn’t something we thought about doing for many years, but it happened spontaneously as we always knew that we wanted to do something creative, and ideally work with friends and family. A company that feels like home and an extension of our family was one of the most important things for us.

A: I didn’t know that I would be part of a business that we would start together but I definitely knew that I wanted to do something creative. Charmaine and I worked at the same production house back in 2006, then I went to an advertising agency, and then for 5 years after, I did music full-time. Elementary felt like a good time for growth, and to step into something where I could put the skills I gathered over the years toward our own business.

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Were there any major struggles or difficulties both of you faced?
C: There were so many. Being first-time entrepreneurs, we made a ton of mistakes then, and we’re still making them today - but we’ve also learned so much along the way. One of the most challenging things was building the right team and surrounding ourselves with the right people, because we can’t do everything by ourselves, and that is something that we had to come to terms with. People who are good friends might not necessarily work well together.

Also, we function like an ad agency but no one has any ad agency background. We had to figure out on our own what kind of company culture we wanted to build, and what kind of processes to put in place that made sense to us.

How do you balance friendship and business?
C: We cherish each other’s friendship so much that we wouldn’t go to bed angry with each other.

A: We barely have any disagreements and when you get into a creative process, everyone will have different opinions and it’s allowed.

C: Yeah, it’s more of “Hey maybe this can be done better” and less of “Hey this sucks”. It’s more about how we can support each other to improve our work.

A: We’re doing this together so there is really no incentive in eating each other out.

C: People always ask if there is any jealousy and competitiveness. Yes, we are competitive people but not towards each other. Our complementary skill sets make it kind of like a yin yang situation where we make up for where the other person is lacking.

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Any advice for women who want to start out on their own?
C: Gain as much experience as possible and work for others first, before you decide what you want to do. These different experiences will help you narrow down what will and will not work for you, plus you’ll understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Be persistent and resilient as you will always encounter obstacle as you go through life. Nothing is insurmountable though - Don’t quit or see it as a ‘sign from the universe’ to give up - just power through it.

A: Having an end goal in mind will also help you overcome the challenges you’ll face. In building your team, it’s also important to recognise your weaknesses so that you can partner with people that can complement them, otherwise you’ll always be running short on one end. If you are aware of what you need help with, you’ll be better able to build a team that has your back. I also think finding a mentor is very important. Even though we have already founded our own business, there are still a lot of women who we look up to or are inspired by, and who we go to for advice. Some are also friends with their own businesses, and their journeys are equally important and finding out what they go through and how they went through it can be valuable advice. We never know when we might go through the same thing. We also love when we find women that we can bounce ideas off.

“Be persistent and resilient, because there will
always be obstacles as you go along in life. Don’t quit or see it as a sign from the universe to give up -
just power through it.”

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What is the role that fashion plays in your life? Both of you have rather distinct styles.
What is the role that fashion plays in your life? Both of you have rather distinct styles.

C: Fashion should always be fun and never cumbersome. We don’t ever follow trends or let trends dictate the way we look and dress - that would be really expensive and wasteful! Comfort, longevity and functionality are most important to me. We both have pretty outgoing personalities and I suppose that’s reflected in our style. Even on pared down days we usually have at least one statement accessory on. I believe in investing in classic, well made pieces that won’t go out of style and will last me through the years.

A: Fashion is a way for us to express ourselves. My wardrobe is very colourful. It’s rare to see me in all black, and on the rare occasion I do, I’ll have bright accessories on.

C: We’re also big on vintage clothes. I like to buy second hand clothes, stuff that is pre-loved.

A: I love finding pieces at vintage stores and flea markets when I travel. I like pieces fun pieces with character, but I also have a lot of reliable staples that will last me years. Ultimately, I also believe in an outfit that is comfortable.
 

“Motherhood helped us grow and made us a lot stronger. I feel like we’re in this together.“

What are the turning points in your life?
Both: Motherhood.

A: Motherhood helped us grow and made us a lot stronger. I feel like we’re in this together. It’s helpful when your best friend is going through the exact same thing as you. Our families are also very similar; we both are the eldest of 4 children and our moms are both very big characters in our lives. Our journeys have moved at quite a parallel throughout our lives. It’s really helpful work-wise too. We both understand when the other needs help with our workload. Our parents and in-laws help us with the kids but they also travel a lot too so there are days where it’s impossible for us to go to the office, and having to work from home has to be the option.

C: Sometimes even before she voices it out, I ask her “Hey do you need more time with this project?”.

Are there any traditional stereotypes or societal moulds that you feel strongly about?
C: One of the things that has always irked us is when people call us mum-preneurs. A: An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur.

C: We don’t enjoy the idea of being labelled a female entrepreneur. But we’ve also discussed it and understand why it is necessary. Being a mom and an entrepreneur at the same time is something that is quite common in our circle, and we are very fortunate that that is so. For a lot of other women, the same support network does not exist, and that is why they need role models like “Female Entrepreneurs” and “Girl Bosses” to inspire them as aspire towards.

A: We are fortunate that this is not a narrative that we have to breakdown on a daily basis, but we do recognise that it is something that is very real for some women.

C: Obviously gender stereotypes is something we wish we could do away with too. We constantly try to inculcate this in our children. I have a girl and Aarika has a boy and girl. Even at their young age (2, 4 and 5) it’s during these formative years that we really need to impart this to them. Girls are no different from boys.

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A: Gender equality and parity are issues are that are very important to me especially because I have a girl and a boy. As much as I tell my daughter that she can do anything, I also tell my son that he can too. Yes, women are strong and are capable of achieving anything they put their minds to, and while I think my son should know that about his sister, he needs to know that the same opportunities are available to him too. I hope to teach both of them to always respect each other and recognize that everyone has an important role to play in society.

C: Being a strong woman doesn’t mean that you have to take men down or see them as the enemy.

A: Our fathers are huge role models to both of us, and our husbands play a very big part in our lives. I don’t think we will be able to do what we do without them.

C: Men are often completely excluded from the conversation about female empowerment. When you get asked about the one person who inspires you, people often expect your answer to always be a woman. They ask, “How do you do what you do?”. It’s because my husband helps me out. Sometimes people don’t want to hear that answer.

A: Yeah sometimes it’s easier believing that we’re superwomen but we’re not - we’re human. Stereotypes exist but it doesn’t mean that you have to abide by them. You have to recognise that not everyone is what you perceive them to be. Every time I show up, people are shocked because I don’t look like a Lee. I feel like that has always made me extra mindful not to have any pre-conceived notions of someone before I meet them.

C: I feel like as I’ve grown older, I’ve allowed myself to be a lot more open to others and not form preconceived notions of them. And this has resulted in me living a much richer and fuller life than before.

A: Now we are friends with a lot of young people as well – it keeps things fresh and helps our business too. When you do branding and marketing you need to always be on the pulse of things so it helps to be around people who are in the know. It also helps us stay relevant (laughs). When you have a real relationship with someone, be it a videographer or brand manager, it opens doors for more things to happen.

C: It’s nice talking to younger people, because it’s nice to have a fresh perspective on things. Plus their energy rubs off on you.

A: As you get older, becoming more confident in what you like and dislike shouldn’t stop you from being receptive. We may not be out partying four nights a week anymore but we still find time to hang with our friends and support them in their ventures which sometimes include late night events like Emo Night and HipHopKTV. You can still make new memories with long-time friends. Don’t shut yourself off to the happenings of the world.


“You can still make new memories
with long-time friends.”

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