When she moved to Australia at age 10, Gwendolyn Ong had to suppress her cultural identity to fit in. Now, she is learning to get comfortable in her own skin, embracing both her heritage and entrepreneurial roots.
3 Aug 2022 / By SGN
10-year-old Gwen was actually pretty excited about the adventure of moving to another country.
Not that she wasn’t happy living in Singapore. To this day, Gwen carries many fond memories of her childhood pre-Australia. “I remember growing up in Pasir Ris, on the east side,” she says. “I remember singing in the choir in primary school. I remember going to the mama shop [sundry store] downstairs with my cousin and getting my favourite waffles at the food court.”
But her father, who was an entrepreneur in the travel industry, hoped to expose Gwen and her younger brothers to the wider world and immerse them in a more creative education system – somewhere English-speaking that was close enough to Singapore so they could easily fly back to visit relatives.
Snapshots of Gwen’s vivacious early years in Singapore.
Learning to fit in
The move to Perth turned out tougher than anticipated. “My parents made big sacrifices,” Gwen recalls. “My father took up whatever menial jobs he could to keep his three young children in school, and he never complained. The resilience I learned from my parents has really shaped who I am today.”
At school, Gwen went through a painful and confusing period of adjustment. “I went from being a charismatic, happy-go-lucky girl in Singapore to feeling like I was different and didn’t belong in Australia.”
She was teased about the way she looked, the way she spoke, the food she brought to recess. Very quickly, she had to learn how to fit in. “I curated a version of Gwen that was more westernised, less Chinese. To survive and thrive meant that I had to be less of my natural self – less of who I had been in Singapore.”
By the time she entered high school, and her family had become Australian citizens, Gwen knew how to play the part of someone who would be accepted. This involved cultivating a form of internalised racism that made her pleased to be “not like the other Asians”.
Whenever she went back to Singapore, she didn’t fit in there either, because she now looked and sounded like a foreigner. “In Singapore, I wasn’t considered Singaporean. In Australia, I wasn’t considered Australian. I was very displaced. I didn’t know who I was meant to be,” she reflects.
It would take her many years and a winding journey through entrepreneurship for Gwen to come to terms with her identity, gain confidence in her own skin, and let go of the fears of what others think of her.
Learning to be an entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship runs in Gwen’s family. Her father founded his travel company when he was 21; her mother played a role in joint ventures and invested in family businesses; her aunts and cousins launched their own enterprises as well.
Gwen herself started early. In primary school in Singapore, she bought scrapbook paper in bulk from the bookstore Popular and resold it to classmates at recess. Her father was very encouraging of her little business, but the school wasn’t quite so thrilled and told her to stop.
In high school, she resold handbags purchased online from China, started a baby product e-commerce store, and launched Gwenzilla, a side hustle building websites for bloggers and small businesses. When she entered college and working life, however, Gwen became wary of how others might perceive her and stopped pursuing her business ideas.
Instead, she turned to working with other entrepreneurs. As a part owner and founding member of Dapper Apps, she helped startups develop and launch over 30 mobile apps and websites. The team hit A$2 million in revenue within the first year and expanded to more than 40 designers and developers.
After that, Gwen moved to Melbourne, drawn to the urban life and bigger opportunities in a bustling city that reminded her of Singapore. She joined the tech consultancy IE and worked with companies like Toyota, Lexus, Australia Post and Bupa to deliver digital products and experiences.
When COVID pushed the city into lockdown, she dipped her toes back into entrepreneurship. She teamed up with Daniel Sterry – a colleague who shared her love for ideas and emerging technology – to launch Delicato, a grazing box delivery service inspired by the Friday evening drinks and cheese platters that IE offered at the end of each week of hard work.
The business grew via Instagram and word of mouth, and the volume of orders increased to a point where she and Daniel cut down their IE workdays to four a week. By the end of its run, when lockdowns were lifted, they were receiving corporate orders and engaging a network of drivers delivering across metropolitan Melbourne.
The duo then went on to join another colleague and his friend to develop Winebox, a subscription service that offers wine samples accompanied by tasting videos, allowing consumers to explore and learn about a variety of wines before committing to full bottles. As the startup continues to grow, the co-founders are looking at opportunities in retail and corporate sales as well as developing a wine preservation system for home use.
Learning to cultivate other founders’ ideas
During this time, Gwen noticed how often people with new ideas would look to her and Daniel for advice or support, tapping their expertise on developing products both digital and physical. This prompted them to make a big leap mid-last year: they left their jobs at IE to start Cultivate, a product studio with a mission to help innovators accelerate their development process and launch the right product to market.
Through her days at Dapper and IE, Gwen discovered her strength of being able to quickly establish a rapport with founders and teams, get them aligned on a vision, and guide them on a path towards achieving it. At the same time, she observed how both startups and corporations often go about innovation the wrong way.
“Most start with a million-dollar idea and dive right into building a product,” she says, describing how thousands of hours and dollars are invested without knowing whether the idea truly solves a problem for the customer. “80% of new products fail in-market this way, even when they’re competently executed.”
Cultivate’s methodology flips this thinking on its head to first ask: Do customers even want this? Clients are guided through a rapid experimentation process that draws lessons from failures and points towards the right product to build. “The more you learn what doesn’t work, the more it allows you to move quickly towards what does work,” Gwen explains.
Instead of an MVP (minimum viable product), Cultivate advocates building an MTP (minimum testable product) – that is, presenting the product idea to potential customers and collecting data on how much they are willing to engage with it. This reveals which ideas resonate and offers insights into what customers want, which are then used to rebuild the product and repeat the testing cycle.
“While an MVP can often take six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, an MTP is a lot more flexible and can be launched in less than six weeks,” Gwen says, noting that Delicato took just a week to launch. And success isn’t necessarily a product that raises millions of dollars; it could also be killing a bad idea and saving a million dollars in building a product that would have failed.
For Gwen, mentoring startups and innovators is a passion that she has unlocked, a source of great joy and energy. She says it’s especially thrilling to work alongside Daniel, whose strengths complement hers. He is the architect and visionary who dreams up big ideas, while she is the guide and facilitator who brings out the best in people and motivates them on the right path forward.
Their clientele is expanding steadily, and they’re developing more ideas to support the next generation of entrepreneurs, including an online learning community called Cultivate Academy and a product incubator platform that will teach innovators to run experimentation on their own.
Learning to reconnect with her roots
Unlike the side hustles that she ran in the past, Cultivate is the first major venture that Gwen has dived headlong into and taken on full-time.
In an unexpected way, starting this business has strengthened the bonds and enriched the conversations with her family, especially with her father. “We have definitely got a lot closer,” she says. “I ask him lots of questions, and there’s so much I can learn from his experiences.”
Being an entrepreneur has also sparked a lot of self-reflection, on being a woman in technology and a woman of colour in Australia. It has required Gwen to find her voice and define her identity, which has led her to embrace her Singaporean roots. “In the last few years, I am starting to recognise this part of myself that I love, to be proud of who I am and where I come from.”
More than 15 years after migrating, Gwen has started craving to learn about her culture and her family’s history in Singapore. She’s connecting more with Chinese people and picking up recipes from her mother to cook food that she misses. She says this will be a lifelong journey of learning and un-learning, of continually creating a safe space for being herself.