As a woman in a predominantly men’s world, Ellen Teo quickly realised that in order to survive, she had to shed her inherently soft-spoken persona and adopt a louder, more assertive voice. After all, when women fail, the natural refrain is that “this job shouldn’t be done by a woman.”
But her more confident persona, too, rubbed some the wrong way. “If you’re successful, confident, and loud. People will say ‘this woman, not easy, must be a b*tch,” Ellen said with a wry chuckle.
Despite these comments, Ellen remains undeterred; after all, she has her sights fixed on more important things – as the Executive Director of Union Power, she’s responsible for propelling the growth of her company, and her plans are grand indeed.
Leading the Charge to Conquer Sustainable Energy
Rather than staying under the wings of her family’s well-established company, Union Energy (a Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) provider), Ellen chose to stretch out on her own and establish Union Power, going up against already-established giants in the electricity sector.
With Union Power, Ellen’s goals are simple: provide value to her customers. But in order to do so, Ellen has embarked on an uphill climb with her latest initiative – Union Solar, providing sustainable and renewable energy to households and businesses in Singapore.
While the layman might think that solar energy is a low-lying fruit in Singapore with our endless summers, Ellen quickly debunked these perceptions. Challenges in solar energy are aplenty in Singapore, with factors such as our low cloud cover, small size, and lack of skilled labour (in this field) all serving as hindrances to the implementation and efficiency of these solar systems.
Yet, I quickly realised while speaking with Ellen that she wasn’t one to dwell on the challenges, no matter how insurmountable they may seem. Instead, Ellen would much rather focus on how she can turn these challenges around for herself and her business.
“Every challenge is an opportunity,” she emphasises. “There are ways to overcome.”
Unfavourable geographical location affecting the energy output of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems? Install more efficient systems.
Small physical size affecting the implementation of PV systems? Look for rooftops that are present all across our tiny island-state.
Lack of skilled expertise and manpower to install such systems? Training might take time, but it’s already in the works, and is most definitely not a showstopper.
Having a can-do and problem-solver attitude has no doubt helped Ellen propel her company into becoming a significant contender in the electricity market despite their young age, but Ellen’s positive frame of mind extends beyond her role as an executive director.
Ellen’s Key to Success: Turning the Negatives Positive
There’s no winning in being a female leader; you’re criticised when successful for being too assertive or bossy, and you’re condemned when failing. But Ellen takes it all in her stride.
“It’s just perception,” she shares. “I take it as a compliment. I find that everybody perceives you differently, there’s no right or wrong. You just have to take it as it is, don’t dwell on it.”
Despite acknowledging these drawbacks, Ellen was just as quick to turn things around and speak instead about the upsides of being a female business leader.
She says of her personal experience of being a female leader in the electrical industry, “I don’t think that being a female in this male-dominated industry has disadvantaged me, personally. On the contrary, industry veterans are more willing to share experiences and offer some guidance along the way.”
Having been navigating a men’s world for the past 23 years, Ellen has undoubtedly gained a wealth of experience on how to use her unique skillset to her advantage. For the benefit of all the women out there (and myself) grinding it out in the workforce, Ellen highlights some of the natural inclinations women have and how we can use them best.
“[Women] typically excel at soft skills and have higher emotional intelligence… today’s leaders require diverse skill sets, so I find that in a male-dominant industry, having a female can actually enrich conditions that lead to more robust strategies and discussions, as well as more innovative and comprehensive solutions.”
She goes on to add, “Most women have some eye for detail, but at the same time we’re able to step back and use our emotional and soft skills to motivate our team members to magnify that detail and work on it.”
Of course, some of these are sweeping statements that may not apply to all women, but these skills that Ellen have highlighted can come in handy regardless of gender.
Ultimately, the best leaders will need to possess traits that are both typically masculine and feminine, much like how Ellen isn’t afraid to be opinionated and empathetic all at once. And to lead her company into the new frontier that is sustainable energy, Ellen will definitely need to have all her cards at hand.
An inspiration for the next generation
In all the hats that she wears – executive director, female business leader, or working mother of four, Ellen approaches it with the same positive sensibility, gusto, and grit.
She encourages the younger generation to do the same; “Step out of your comfort zone,” she urged, “when you do things that are different from others, you create a footprint for yourself. Dare to be different.”
There is no doubt that challenges are part and parcel of one’s foray into the working world, or any new environment. However, Ellen strongly believes that resilience and tenacity are fundamental to success.
It’s her mantra in life – to wake up and “tell yourself that nothing can take you down.”
With her fierce determination, it’s no wonder that Ellen continues to thrive as a woman in a man’s world, even as she leads Union Power to compete with the Goliaths in the energy market.