In this second edition of my Women Work series, I’m thrilled to share the genius of Lelian Chew with you. As one of the women in business I admire most (for so many reasons, not least of which is her fashion sense), Lelian stands out to me as a female leader who creates her own destiny. From seeing and filling a gap in the event planning market, continually learning from trends and people across many industries, to ‘doing the hard things,’ she continues to inspire and empower myself and others to do the same.
I hope the interview below leaves you with a little sparkle and dose of motivation. I know it did me.
Seven years but it does feel much longer than that!
Tell us about what you do and why it’s important.
I am the founder of The Atelier & Co. which houses The Wedding Atelier and The Floral Atelier, operating out of Hong Kong and Singapore, and soon to launch in Shanghai.
The Wedding Atelier (TWA) is a luxury wedding company that plans and designs spectacular events around the world. Our services include, but are not limited to, location scouting, budget management, invitation production, venue design and event execution.
The Floral Atelier (TFA) specializes in beautiful floral creations. All TWA weddings around the world are supported by TFA’s floral and styling capabilities. TFA also has a retail floral arm focused on gifting. We are fortunate enough to count luxury fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Tiffany & Co. as loyal customers. We create magical moments that usually happen only once in a lifetime. I can’t imagine many things more important than this!
Tell me when you had the first ‘ah-ha’ that made you realize that this was more than a passion, but a viable business that could grow.
I left a decade-long career in Goldman Sachs in search for another opportunity, so there was never an option for my next venture to be a mere hobby. There were many other options that presented themselves, but this one was particularly interesting as it allowed me to combine my commercial know-how with my personality (I’m a hopeless romantic, always inspired by love).
After getting my feet wet with a number of weddings, I realized that amidst a sea of “mom-and-pop shops” in the event management and design business, what was really missing was a professionally run, inimitable company that focused on the most discerning clients looking for exceptional service and results. We were laser-focused with our unique proposition and offerings from day one, and very thankfully, the clients followed.
When The Wedding Atelier won Luxury Travel Guide’s “Global Wedding Expert Of The Year” (a first for an Asian company), I knew we were onto something. And of course our cover together on Martha Stewart definitely left a mark, too, KT! I remember you calling me at midnight my time to break the news (I was still in office working on a proposal) and how my tears welled up immediately. We worked so incredibly hard on that and it was definitely a big milestone for the company.
What is one habit that has helped lead to you running your successful business?
As a business owner, it is essential that I keep learning. Learning is an opportunity for me to gain new inspiration and to understand up and coming trends in the industry. This can be through reading, traveling, collaborating or attending conferences around the world. I always try to make it a point to agree to two speaking engagements yearly.
I keep a keen eye on global trends – not just on weddings, but art, food, culture and fashion too. All these impact what people want, and without this deliberate habit of continuous learning, new ideas and inspiration will be a lot harder to come by.
What’s the best investment you’ve made in your business in the last twelve months?
We’ve experienced growth over the past 18 months and investing in a group of professional team members is key for the company to grow sustainably.
Of course I have the same concerns that all business owners have: When do we hire? What if business doesn’t come in after the hire? I’ve learned to take that leap of faith, knowing that hiring is the strongest force of motivation for me to ensure business must come in. I have a team depending on me, failing is not an option.
We are now nineteen personnel strong across our two offices in Hong Kong and Singapore and even through these current trying times, I am very confident of company’s prospects.
You’re starting your business again at the beginning, you’d definitely do these three things first…
1. Know Your Weaknesses. Know that you can never do it all. And you shouldn’t—as we all only have 24 hours in a day. Especially as a founder, you need to be very selective about how you spend your time. When I first started the business I failed to recognize that I can ask for help, by hiring or from my fellow industry mates, I felt like I could do it all. This wasn’t the most efficient use of resources. Play to your strengths and have others complement the areas you need to hone.
2. Don’t Ignore Social Media. As hard as it may be, try your best not to be bogged down with everyday tasks and find time to document your work. The world needs to see what you do and learn about your philosophy. We’re trying hard to catch up in this aspect and I’m learning everyday that sharing about what we do is just as important as us doing it.
3. Always Be Present. Being a business owner will consume you. The highs are higher and the lows are lower than anything you’ll ever experience. I’ll be the first to admit that it is sometimes impossible to maintain a work-life balance, so how I’ve come to manage this is to always be present in my current situation. If you’re with a client, give him or her 100% of your attention. And when you’re spending time with loved ones, do the same and don’t be distracted by anything or anyone.
When was the last time you were frustrated with your business and what did you do to get un-stuck?
I’m at a stage of my business where things move very rapidly and it’s common for potholes to appear without warning. When I get stuck, I go back to fundamentals and think back about why I started the business.
Just like a person, the business and the brand should be made up of core values and beliefs. Stay true to these and ensure it consistently defines how you tackle situations, how you connect with clients and how it drives your business.
When all fails take a break and come back to things in the morning. A long, hot shower with my favorite candle burning and a good night’s rest always help me to look at things in a different perspective when I wake.
A book or article that we should all read?
“The E Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It” by Michael E. Gerber.
It’s an easy read and simple enough for everyone to digest. I humbly recommend it to all who come to me asking how they should start their brand. It teaches a founder what his or her role should be in the company. Be very clear about this from day one and it will help provide clarity at your crossroads.
What’s your mantra lately?
We just opened our new 7,000 square feet headquarters in Singapore and I have a rainbow wall of quotes that I live by! Two of which are Do The Hard Things and Leave a Little Sparkle.
Do The Hard Things – Nothing good comes easy so I’ve been deliberately reminding myself to make that difficult phone call or take on that seemingly impossible task just to challenge myself. It’s good to be uncomfortable!
Leave a Little Sparkle – And at my current stage and in these unprecedented times, I feel it’s important to inspire – my team, my vendors, the industry. So it never hurts to leave a trail of goodness or sparkle, as I like to call it. We all can do with more magic in our daily lives!
How does your business do good?
It’s important for me to lead by example here so that my team, our clients and the communities we operate in understand what the Company and I stand for.
The events and floral industry are unfortunately not highly regulated professional industries. Having gained institutional experience for a decade before this, I have a good handle on what can make or break a business. I ‘give back’ by mentoring many fellow business owners, hoping that my mistakes can be their springboard for a smoother success. The speaking engagements I take on yearly is meant to allow that to be shared with a wider audience.
How is your team navigating the COVID-19 crisis?
It’s a trying time and it pains me to see the events industry globally suffering. Just like everyone else, I’m still grappling with the crisis as it unfolds.
But compared to the rest of the world, here in Asia we might be slightly ahead of the curve in dealing with this, only because we’re now into our third month of crisis management. I shared my detailed views on navigating through these waters on an Instagram post recently, but in summary, Communicating, Streamlining, Recalibrating and Sharing have really helped steer my way. Check out the post if you’d like to learn more about my methods in detail.
Drink of choice?
I don’t do alcohol but everyone knows I am hopelessly addicted to Boba Tea!
One thing that’s on your bucket list?
For the team and I to plan and design a wedding in every continent. We’re halfway there!
A word to describe the season you’re in?
Love. I’m in the business of weddings, what can be more befitting than The Season of Love?
Read the first edition of the Women Work series here, featuring Carats & Cake Founder and CEO Jess Levin Conroy.
've spent the past decade capturing love and chasing beauty across the globe, and I believe every story like yours is different and special, and deserves to be told exceptionally.
Drawing on years of experience in the fashion and editorial photography industry, my photographs are graceful, honest and boldly natural, while completely intentional. Whether it’s the opportunity to narrate the retelling of once-in-a-lifetime wedding days, or the ability to communicate issues of global importance, or all the stories in between, I look at photography as the method by which I get to leave the world a little better than I found it.