Enterprising grandma, botanist among winners at Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards

Mr Veera (left), founder of Greenology, and Ms Beevi (right) director of Saffrons Restaurant with their Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards.
Mr Veera (left), founder of Greenology, and Ms Beevi (right) director of Saffrons Restaurant with their Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards.PHOTO: TAMIL MURASU

SINGAPORE - As a poor single mother, 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 Six 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-ever Singapore Indian Business Leaders Awards on Saturday (March 19) night.

The Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce & 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 ever failed, 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 of 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."

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 five square metres from a one 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."

marilee@sph.com.sg