They press on to make their dreams come true

Mr Veera and Ms Beevi are among the 90 outstanding entrepreneurs who received awards on Saturday. Mr Veera did not give up even when the financial crisis took a toll on business and Ms Beevi struggled for years before her restaurant became a success.
Mr Veera and Ms Beevi are among the 90 outstanding entrepreneurs who received awards on Saturday. Mr Veera did not give up even when the financial crisis took a toll on business and Ms Beevi struggled for years before her restaurant became a success.PHOTO: TAMIL MURASU

Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards honours 90 outstanding entrepreneurs

A single mother who grew up poor, Ms Kader Beevi opened her first restaurant 22 years ago in the belief that she could earn a brighter future for her four children.

Her home-cooked briyani rice was a hit with the patrons at Tampines, but Ms Beevi struggled to manage the business and was forced to sell her flat to keep the eatery running into its ninth year.

"Business came, but we had no people to run the show," Ms Beevi, 58, recalled. Hiring workers was no mean feat, and sometimes they would simply not show up for work. She wanted to recruit foreign workers, but she was not sure how.

"I only have a Primary 6 certificate," said Ms Beevi. It did not help that her former husband from an arranged marriage had prevented her from working.

But things turned around before the last financial crisis, when one of her sons completed his studies and joined his mother in running the restaurant.

Today, Saffrons Restaurant employs more than 60 staff, and takes catering orders and wedding catering contracts. Three years ago, Ms Beevi opened her second restaurant and a central kitchen in Siglap.

Ms Beevi, a grandmother now, was one of 90 outstanding entrepreneurs from the Indian community to be honoured at the first Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards on Saturday night.

The Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry organised the awards and the winners were selected by a panel after public nominations. Mr S. Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry), attended the awards ceremony.

"I feel happy, this is the first time I'm getting something like this," said Ms Beevi. "The last 10 years have been good. I have failed before, yes, but I came back from it."

Another award recipient, Mr Veera Sekaran, had a path to success that is just as unlikely as Ms Beevi's. The managing director of vertical greenery specialist Greenology was the middle child among nine children and the only one who made it to university.

But he might not have earned his botany degree from the National University of Singapore if not for a chance encounter during his last days in national service.

Mr Veera recalls sitting around in camp with some friends and striking up a conversation with a man who turned out to be a lawyer. When it became apparent to the lawyer that Mr Veera might give up his place in college because he could not afford it, the man told Mr Veera that he would be his sponsor.

Mr Veera said: "Afterwards, I went back to pay him back, but he said to pay it forward (help someone else in turn)."

Later, Mr Veera became head of horticulture at the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, where he was tasked with indoor and outdoor greening for the airport terminals. Then he started his own business but the 2008 financial crisis soon reared its head.

"Businesses were not keen on our systems. It was three years before we made any headway into the market," Mr Veera said.

But he pressed on, and today sells vertical urban farming systems in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

"They came looking for us," said Mr Veera. "We're a small company but we're known for the quality of the work we do. We can tier vegetable plots so that you can harvest for 5 sq m from a 1 sq m plot."

Greenology makes close to $2 million a year in revenues, and employs 40 staff, mostly trained professionals in architecture and science.

Mr Veera said: "I'm glad to be recognised at this time because it's good to show kids, entrepreneurs, people who are struggling and think that they can't make it, that if you put your heart and soul into it, you can make it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'They press on to make their dreams come true'. Print Edition | Subscribe