Once rejected for a job at HP Singapore, this 'tiger mum' is now its managing director
A "tiger mum" at work and a laidback one at home, Vivian Chua tells CNA Women what she did when HP first rejected her because she didn't have a degree and how she eventually became one of the company's top executives.
Vivian Chua has always known she would work in tech. As a child, she was the most excited when one of her friends got a new gadget. In school, computer lessons were her favourite. She always kept an eye out for the latest tech products; never mind that she couldn’t afford them.
Chua’s father was the sole breadwinner in the family and money was often tight.
Young Chua would work during the school holidays and after graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1993, she took on the first job she could: Selling industrial magnets for a small company.
It was a tough job that required her to make cold calls to businesses but one that made her resilient.
“I was turned down many times. But I learned to be convincing and relentless. I learned that I could excel in anything if I took the time and effort to really dive deep into the topic. If I understand what I’m selling, I can thrive anywhere,” she told CNA Women in an interview at the HP headquarters at Depot Close.
After three years, Chua took on a sales job at a firm owned by Singapore Technologies. There, she learned about HP.
As far as her career went, it was love at first sight. The IT company made and supplied the world’s computers, printers and servers, everything Chua had grown up dreaming about.
She applied to be a sales representative at HP, but was rejected; she didn’t have a degree.
“They couldn’t hire me then but I was determined to work at HP so I enrolled in a part-time business degree programme at the Singapore Institute of Management. It was challenging trying to balance a full-time sales job with studying part-time but it was a decision that catapulted me a long way,” said Chua.
She was still in the process of graduating when the opportunity to work at HP came knocking again. This time, she was hired.
Once in, Chua slowly began to rise up the ranks – a process she said was driven by curiosity and a strong personal brand.
Over the last 23 years, she has been promoted more than four times, and has worked in a variety of roles, both local and regional: Sales, business development, product management and channel marketing, for both HP’s print and PC business.
She is now the managing director of the Singapore branch, and cluster head for Singapore and Malaysia, which puts her in charge of driving business and ensuring smooth operations in both markets.
How can women establish their personal brand? “When people consider you for a promotion, they look at what kind of impression you leave. Every day, when you meet someone, you leave an impression. So how do you want people to remember you?” she said.
“At work, I’m known as ‘tiger mum’. It’s not because I’m fierce and demanding, but because I’m very protective,” she said.
Taking on the role of the nurturer came naturally for Chua – the second of five siblings – who grew up in a one-bedroom flat in Beach Road.
“I learned to take on responsibilities. In my daily interactions with members of the community, including butchers and fishball noodle vendors, I witnessed life in all its quirks and challenges and I developed the drive to work hard.
“Humble backgrounds are often viewed as limitations. But for me, having four other siblings cultivated my habits of teamwork and the capacity to care for others,” said Chua.
Still, Chua found herself having to adapt her “mama bear” personal brand to professional life.
“I’ve had mentors tell me I’m way too protective. One of them said I had to let people realise themselves that they have to change – that I can’t keep telling them to change.
“I’ve learned that you just need to point people in the right direction so that they can realise on their own that they have to make certain changes. It’s more powerful than telling them to change,” she said.
ON LEADERSHIP AND MOTHERHOOD
Decades of experience working in the same company is part of the foundation on which she builds her success as a managing director, but Chua insists no one is ever 100 per cent prepared for a new role.
“Before we go into a new role, there’s a lot of self-doubt. That’s perfectly fine. I find that women in particular like to make sure we’re 110 per cent prepared before we go into a role.
“But take it from me – you are never going to be fully prepared,” she said.
Despite shifting gender perceptions, the mother of two said that women who step into new roles tend to have “a lot more consideration” when it comes to their kids and family, compared to their male counterparts.
To remove “roadblocks” so that such women don’t have to choose between responsibilities at home and taking on a leadership role at work, Chua has cultivated a culture of teamwork and flexibility.
I find that women in particular like to make sure we’re 110 per cent prepared before we go into a role
“I think we sometimes overthink these things – everything can be worked out. When you enter a new role, it’s up to you how you want to manage your time,” she said.
“Balancing between school-going children and a job that requires travel, for example, can be worked out. When I took on my first regional job, I didn’t have kids yet, so I could travel a lot more. But once the kids came, I had to do a bit of coordinating."
She would weigh her options, she explained. Did she need to travel for a smaller event? Could she skip it for the one that was bigger and more important? “You prioritise and then you play tag team with your colleagues; you take turns to travel,” Chua explained.
“My style is when someone needs to be away, everyone chips in to make sure this person’s job is not left unattended. That logic is something you can build into the culture, into the system.
Inspire actively. I’m a firm advocate of sharing wisdom. I make sure to allocate some time to mentoring students
“This is how female leaders can rally.”
At home, efficiency is similarly the name of the game.
Chua told CNA Women she also plays tag team with her husband, who’s also in the tech industry and has to travel on occasion.
“I’m blessed to have a good support system. Our parents help out a lot and I have a domestic helper. My sons, who are 13 and 16, can do some things on their own.
“I’m also realistic. I knew I was not going to be the kind of mum who would sit next to their kid as they did their homework, ‘You’re on your own,’ I would tell them.”
Other than establishing and staying true to a personal brand, Chua believes women in leadership bear the responsibility of inspiring others, especially in male-dominated industries such as STEM.
“Inspire actively. I’m a firm advocate of sharing wisdom. I make sure to allocate some time to mentoring students,” said Chua, who participates in the NTU-HP Powers mentorship programme.
“Through mentorship, you also learn fresh perspectives and hear new opinions. That’s a form of reverse mentorship. As leaders in the tech industry, where innovation must always be cultivated, there is no better way to bring in new ideas than by listening to the opinions of the next generation of leaders,” she said.
“Even though I’ve spent 23 years at HP and am considered a veteran in the tech industry, the truth is I’m still learning. Constructive feedback continues to shape me into a better leader.
“To be a good leader, you have to first be a great learner.”
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.