Cheryl Yeoh is embarking on what will be her greatest journey of all – motherhood – and she’s thankfully prepared for it with lessons from her own mother.
Cheryl Yeoh has birthed and mothered a long, impressive list of companies and projects.
She’s founded a digital wallet and a list-making app; set up an entire start-up hub to incubate entrepreneurs and accelerate the scene for the Malaysian government; done marketing and consulting for a software engineering school; advised and invested in many more start-ups locally and internationally; and is currently building an “Internet of Blockchains” while simultaneously trying to pave the way for Silicon Valley Bank to enter Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand to help nurture the start-up ecosystem over on this side of the world.
She does it all while embracing her newest role as a mother to Charlize Mae, her first-born with husband Jason Sew-Hoy.
But this isn’t a story of how a woman can have it all – in fact, Cheryl believes in the opposite (we’ll get to that later). This is the story of how she started, and how she intends to raise her daughter like herself – intelligent, confident, ambitious and fearless, among other things.
And like it is for most people, boy or girl, man or woman, it started with her mother, Audrey Chan.
“When I grow up, I want to be just like my mum”
It’s hard to believe but selling trinkets was what sowed the seed to her entrepreneurial streak.
“My mother used to set me up to sell stuff at the flea market,” Cheryl tells with a laugh.
What further nurtured the sprout of interest was watching her mother as a businesswoman lead a team in her then job as a database marketer.
“She’s a working woman and a leader and that was definitely one of the most impactful memories for me growing up, which led me to my aspirations to be an entrepreneur,” Cheryl shares fondly. “She’d bring me to her office and I always remember feeling proud about my mum. I’ll chat up all her colleagues and ask them very adult questions, thinking when I grow up, I want to be just like my mum.”
Beyond setting an example, Audrey also let Cheryl set her own boundaries and be responsible for her own decisions as she entered her teenaged years.
“I was never rebellious because I’ve always had freedom,” Cheryl divulges. “It’s funny because we grew up in an Asian household where Tiger Mums are known to be the parenting style, but I have no secrets from my mum – it’s one of the things I’m proudest about.”
Cheryl remembers vividly how, despite being the eldest daughter of three siblings, she had no curfew when most of her friends did. While her friends experimented with cigarettes and fell into wild partying, she was never tempted.
“Kids just want to do whatever they can’t do,” she theorises. “Because I had so much freedom from my parents, I didn’t abuse it. I respected it.”
On top of that, she appreciates the close bond her mother’s trust had formed between the two of them. So close are they that not even the topic of boys and sex eludes their conversation growing up.
“As a teenager, it meant a lot to me that she shared her dating stories with me because it made me comfortable sharing mine. That’s how we bonded and how I learnt. She’s like my best friend. I tell her everything,” Cheryl tells. “I was never afraid of being reprimanded. When I told her something, she was always like a friend to listen and give advice.”
“I want to be able to do that with my own daughter.”
“I don’t want just being a mum to be my identity”
Cheryl’s opportunity to be everything her mum is to her came in March 2018, when little Charlize Mae entered her life, already with a full head of hair.
She was pregnant very soon after her wedding but she didn’t need the time to adjust.
“I think I was ready a long time ago. I’ve always wanted kids,” she opens up. “It’s something about your own flesh and blood, your own legacy, about being able to mould a blank canvas into a better person and let them flourish into their own person and watching that grow. There’s no doubt I always wanted a few kids.”
She went into it anticipating all the challenges of motherhood but little did she expect the toughest to be breastfeeding.
“Everyone focuses so much on labour, the pregnancy, the birth, but nobody talks about breastfeeding. It was really tough the first 2-3 months and I really felt like giving up or supplementing it with formula,” she admits.
Google became her best friend that taught her about the 24-hour system in breastfeeding, the period of time in which your body takes it cue on how much milk to produce. Conditioning her body to overcome it was almost as hard as it was surprising to her that so few new mothers know about it.
Then there was the small identity crisis she underwent when Charlize was about 6 months old.
“I felt a little guilty for wanting to go back to work,” she tells. “I used to be such a workaholic and was able to assign most of my mindshare to my work. For my first few months on maternity, it was complete bliss being able to focus on just the baby, but it also got me really antsy. I knew I still had so much to give, and wanted to get back to work. It was tough to leave the baby during the day, but I’m very lucky that my mum helped out for the first 8 months while I got back into the swing of things.”
The reality is that she thinks women can have it all, but maybe just not all at the same time. She thinks that there’s a time and place for everything in life, and it’s ultimately a personal choice.
“You need to prioritise,” she reasons. “Before baby, I was prioritising my work. Post baby, I am prioritising my family. What that means for me now is I will probably be really focused at work during the regular 9-5 hours but from 5-9pm, I’ll be 100% present for my husband and baby. Knowing me, I might resume working again from 9-12am, but at least the baby will be asleep by then. And weekends will also be dedicated to more family time.”
That doesn’t mean she’s taking a break, quite the contrary. Her work keeps her going so it will always be important to her.
“I don’t want just being a mum to be my identity. I’ve always been a CEO, a founder. I want to continue creating an impact in the world,” she clarifies. “How can I still do that and be a mum?”
Her solution is simple: her career right now needs to share the limelight with baby Charlize.
“To me, I focused so many years on my career. Now, I’m not taking a break as much as I can shift a little bit of my focus towards more family and be an entrepreneur again when I’m ready.”
“Who I want her to be is who I have to reflect to her”
She now has her answer and she’s also making sure to stick to the plan by putting into place the steps that will get her there, beginning with focusing on herself.
A slippery slope most new parents fall into is prioritising the child and only the child. That’s the fastest way to kill a relationship with one’s spouse and, with it, whatever condusivity of the home you’re supposed to build for said child to grow in.
“Priority actually goes to the relationship between me and my husband. If we don’t preserve the romance and how important we are to each other, that’s not ideal,” she explains. “You stop doing and saying nice things to each other then what happens is you’re not going to be good parents because you won’t want to do parenting together anymore. You’ll start living separate lives.”
She and Jason are so committed to prioritising each other that they do a check-in with each other once a month where they sit down over wine and give each other feedback on how the other is approaching their relationship, work and life.
“We give each other feedback and be open to feedback. It’s self-reflection,” she tells.
It’s important to the both of them to be constantly kind to each other too because they know their daughter is always watching and learning.
“We’re always very conscious about how we are towards each other, like our habits, how we treat each other, what we do because babies are sponges,” she exemplifies. “We want to lead by example.”
Daughter, mother, wife, entrepreneur. Whichever hat she puts on, her ultimate goal is to achieve smooth flow.
“Sometimes life can feel like such a struggle. You’re struggling to prove something to your boss, your career, your relationships.,” she reflects. “I want to be in the stage where I’m breathing, I’m not fighting, I’m not rushing, I’m not panicking but just doing things calmly.”
She doesn’t articulate it, but even as she says the above, her mind is on Charlize and who she will grow up to be.
“Who I want her to be is who I have to reflect to her. I have to be very calm and not be paranoid. I don’t want to be overly protective. That will raise more responsible kids,” she says.
Cheryl Yeoh has birthed and mothered a long, impressive list of companies and projects, but none has proven as fulfilling, meaningful and important to her as Charlize, we can tell.
Photography: Xerxes Lee of Awesome Image
Art direction and styling: Gan Yew Chin
Videography: Felix Khu
Hair and makeup: Ling Chong