The Life Interview With Kristie Lim

The Life Interview with Kristie Lim: A class act

Ex-lawyer Kristie Lim grew tuition centre Mind Stretcher from a bomb shelter in Bishan to a 15-branch business and a presence in China

It is 5pm on a Tuesday and a class of 10 students are going through an English-language cloze passage about the Peruvian lost city, Machu Picchu.

But instead of memorising facts or going through a worksheet, these Primary 4 children - all pupils at home-grown tuition centre Mind Stretcher - are taking a different approach, by watching YouTube videos about the site and exploring the terrain virtually through Google Maps.

For Ms Kristie Lim, ex-lawyer and founding principal of the Mind Stretcher chain, the philosophy of her business has always been simple: to provide a sound standard of education for everyone.

And for the 49-year-old entrepreneur, that has never wavered - from when she started Mind Stretcher in a bomb shelter in Bishan in 2001 to today, as the woman behind a booming 15-branch business with regional campuses, science labs, 200-capacity seminar rooms and a presence in China.

I might have been an accidental entrepreneur, but it goes to show how far you can go if you are disciplined about your goals and have your mind set on achieving success. You have to be willing to take risks and try things out. Just dreaming about it is not enough.

MS KRISTIE LIM, on succeeding despite challenging circumstances

Ms Lim's commitment to meeting the needs of every child was what pushed her to invest $1 million in 2015 to launch the Mind Stretcher MS e-Study Buddy app in collaboration with local education consultancy firm Amdon Consulting. The in-house digital platform is offered free to all students and since late last year, has been used to teach classes at the chain's 15 branches across the island.

Says the mother of four children, aged 24, 22, 18 and 17: "I realised early on that a one-size-fits-all curriculum will not work and that technology can really help to make education accessible. Building our own platform has allowed us to provide a consistent level of teaching at all our centres, which has fundamentally always been our goal."

Her three older sons are serving national service and her daughter is studying commerce at the University of Melbourne.

And with a healthy annual enrolment in classes - from pre-school to Secondary 4 - there is no doubt that the centre has come a long way from its humble bomb shelter beginnings.

The 1,800 sq ft basement space where it started did not have any windows and could be accessed only by passing six public toilet cubicles.

"It definitely was not ideal," says Ms Lim with a laugh, recalling those early days in 2001. "It didn't help that we were out of sight of passers-by, which meant our marketing efforts quite literally started from ground zero."

Those days in many ways reflected her own humble beginnings in life as the youngest child of a housewife and taxi driver. Living with her parents and five siblings in a four- room Housing Board flat in Hougang, she felt little pressure to do well in school or succeed academically.

"My parents were focused on just providing for us, so they never guided me or my siblings when it came to schoolwork," says Ms Lim, who is the first university graduate in her family.

"I was in many ways raised by my older siblings and in my early years as a student, I just found myself going through the motions with no real preparation for classes or exams."

Luckily for her, when she was posted to Serangoon Secondary School, she found herself in the best class. Surrounded by classmates who were focused on schoolwork, she became more motivated to do well.

Armed with 10-year-series books and practice examination papers, she set aside time to study every day. She also had to train herself to focus on her work, even when faced with distractions such as the television blaring at home.

Her efforts paid off when her O-level results were good enough to get her a place at Temasek Junior College. There, again placed in the best class, she continued to work hard and was accepted by the National University of Singapore to read accountancy.

She stayed at her first job - a management trainee position at DBS Bank - for three years before realising her career did not fulfil her, despite the generous pay. She wanted to be challenged further.

At 27, she decided to take up a second degree in law and enrolled for a correspondence course with the University of London. It was also during this time that she got married and had her first child.

All was going well for Ms Lim - she found a job practising family law in a local law firm - until her marriage began falling apart and she got divorced.

With sole custody of her four children, the youngest of whom was just eight months old, she knew she needed a job that would not only allow her to put food on the table, but also give her the flexibility to spend time with her children.

Inspiration for a new venture came from her experience in raising her oldest son, Moses, a bright and exceptionally fast learner.

"Because he knew his alphabet by the time he was one and was reading at 1½ years old, I was constantly doing research about educational materials and enrichment classes which could whet his appetite for learning," Ms Lim says.

"Over the years, that also gave me a good nose for how to tailor educational materials for the different learning capacities of my other children."

Her research about tuition and enrichment classes was also what helped her spot major gaps in the market.

For one, most tuition agencies at the time operated under a food- court model - leasing out a space to part-time teachers and operating on a profit-sharing basis. Agency owners would get a cut of the teacher's pay, regardless of what was being taught to the students.

Others offered no set curriculum and just went through school textbooks or assessment books with students, with no value-add.

Making learning fun through innovation

Says Ms Lim of the tuition industry in the early 2000s: "There was very little standardisation available. You had to hope you had a committed teacher or else there was little or no additional enrichment - less so if you had a fast learner who would want to learn beyond what was being taught in school."

To combat this, she came up with the idea of a tuition centre that would offer its own in-house standardised curriculum, one that she created based on the guidelines of the Ministry of Education (MOE). She also came up with the unique selling point of a separate banded "higher achiever" curriculum, teaching advanced topics to children like her son who were gifted learners.

Over the next year, she also consulted MOE-trained teachers to create a syllabus that would benefit any student, regardless of his learning capacity. She also incorporated studying techniques she had used herself as a student, to help students study smarter even outside the classroom.

Her goal to help each student was reflected in the name of her centre - Mind Stretcher - as she believed that the mind of every child could be stretched based on his aptitude.

With financial backing from her sister, Ms Lim set up her business in a bomb-shelter space she found in Bishan, picking a location with many good schools in the neighbourhood. She spent $50,000 renovating the space.

On board were about 50 MOE-trained teachers who agreed to teach Ms Lim's syllabus at Mind Stretcher on a part-time basis.

Then came the challenge of bringing in customers, one that remained for the next few years.

"In the education sector, reputation is everything. But because we were new and finances were tight, we had no money to spend on advertising," says Ms Lim.

She distributed flyers door to door every morning at housing blocks in the neighbourhood and roped in friends and family to help out.

"This was before social media and it was the only way I could directly reach out to potential clients," she says with a laugh. "It became my morning exercise - I did it for nearly six years after opening the business."

And though the uptake was slow in the beginning, inquiries started rolling in when parents heard about Mind Stretcher's unique teaching proposition. Four years later, Ms Lim had enough students to open a franchised branch in Jurong West.

Today, 15 years after it started, Mind Stretcher has a staff of more than 300 and 15 branches across the island, including three regional campuses in Toa Payoh, Tampines and Clementi. The campuses include facilities such as science laboratories, 200-capacity seminar rooms and up to 32 classrooms. Three years ago, the brand also opened two branches in Shenyang, China.

Within the classroom, Ms Lim continues to make lessons more interactive and tangible for students. Besides her investment in the MS e-Study Buddy, she also removed all whiteboards from the classrooms five years ago, replacing them with large touchscreen boards so that videos and interactive graphics can be used in class.

It is this drive to constantly innovate and do better that has been the biggest inspiration for Ms Elaine Heng, who is Ms Lim's colleague and vice-principal at Mind Stretcher.

"She constantly reminds us not to rest on our laurels and to find new ways to tackle challenges that might come up from time to time," says the 37-year-old, who joined the company three years ago.

"Even personally, I've grown in the business, from a curriculum writer to looking over academic matters and teacher training. Now, I am helping with marketing the business. Kristie is the sort of boss who is constantly pushing herself and all of us to be better and, for that, I could not be more grateful."

It is a sentiment shared by Mr Moses Soh, Ms Lim's oldest son. He recalls his 10th birthday when his mother tricked him into thinking they could not afford a birthday cake and gave him a small chocolate tart instead.

"I remember feeling so heartbroken, but then had my day turned around moments later when my mum surprised me with a blackforest cake," the President's Scholar says. "That just speaks so much of her character - she has always done things with a positive approach and a sense of humour, despite the many challenges we have faced as a family."

Looking ahead, Ms Lim plans to expand the business in South-east Asia.

She says: "I believe in constantly taking stock of the business and making sure our students and parents are getting the best value. Education helped me turn my life around and that is what I want for every child as well - for learning to always be a fun and enjoyable process."

Correction note: This story has been edited to change the honorific for Ms Elaine Heng. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'A class act'. Print Edition | Subscribe