IT CHANGED MY LIFE

It Changed My Life: Written off as a no-hoper in school, woman now runs life sciences recruitment agency

She took the road less travelled, taking eight years to complete her primary education then studying in a private school. Find out how Karen Tok went from being retrenched twice to starting her own recruitment agency for the bioscience industry.
An adventurous soul, Ms Tok is into motocross and other extreme sports such as skydiving and bungee jumping. In secondary school, she amassed nearly 50 medals and trophies in various sporting activities. The daughter of a cabby and a factory worker,
The daughter of a cabby and a factory worker, Ms Tok took eight years to complete her primary education. But that did not stop her from starting ScienTec, one of the most successful recruitment agencies in the life sciences industry here, and becoming a millionaire. She is seen here with her daughter, Catelyn, three, and their rabbit. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
An adventurous soul, Ms Tok is into motocross and other extreme sports such as skydiving and bungee jumping. In secondary school, she amassed nearly 50 medals and trophies in various sporting activities. The daughter of a cabby and a factory worker,
An adventurous soul, Ms Tok is into motocross and other extreme sports such as skydiving and bungee jumping. In secondary school, she amassed nearly 50 medals and trophies in various sporting activities. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KAREN TOK

Written off as a no-hoper in school, Karen Tok now runs a recruitment agency specialising in life sciences

Ms Karen Tok wrinkles her nose and grimaces when asked about her early years in school.

"I hated my primary school days. I often felt lousy, inferior and an outcast," she declares.

You would too if you, like her, had been written off as an academic no-hoper at just nine years old.

After taking a streaming examination in Primary 3, she was deemed fit only for the now-defunct Monolingual stream which earmarked her for eight, instead of six, years of primary education.

Secondary school was not an option; she could only look forward to vocational training at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB). "I didn't do well under Singapore's education system then. I thought I was stupid and did not dare hope to go far in my life," says Ms Tok.

But it is hard, as the sages say, to keep a good woman down.

An irrepressible spirit, a big appetite for risk and adventure, as well as a penchant for taking on naysayers, helped her shake off the "loser" label and make good.

Ms Tok, 44, is today the founder and chief executive of ScienTec Consulting, an award-winning boutique recruitment agency specialising in the life sciences.

What is even more amazing is that she built the business - valued at $10 million - with just $10,000 in working capital.

Trim and lithe, Ms Tok has the equanimity of a woman who has braved many challenges and weathered not a few storms.

She is the younger of two children; her father was a taxi driver turned hawker, and her mother, a factory worker. Home was a three-room HDB flat in Boon Lay, which had more than its fair share of gangsters and hoodlums.

Studying to pass exams was something she never quite mastered in primary school. "If I couldn't see an application for the subject that I was studying for, I saw no purpose in doing it," says the former pupil of Boon Lay Primary and Boon Lay Garden Primary.

She learnt skills such as soldering, technical drawing, woodwork, electrical wiring and tyre changing first at Jurong Vocational Institute, and later at Kim Keat Vocational Institute.

"In those days VITB was not like today's ITE," she says, referring to the Institute of Technical Educa- tion's modern campuses and updated courses. "It was embarrassing for my classmates and me to be seen in our uniforms."

With a laugh, she adds: "But I did pick up some skills. I still know how to solder and I don't need anyone's help to change a tyre on a highway."

A turning point came when she had to choose her specialisation after her second year. None of the courses interested her.

Someone then told her about a private school called San Yu High School where she could do her O levels. "That's where I did my Secondary 1, when I was 16 years old," she says.

It felt like she was given a new lease of life, she adds. Because of teachers who made subjects come alive, she thrived.

She was also a dynamo in sports, and excelled in everything from volleyball to swimming.

"I think team sports and competitions really help you develop street smarts," says Ms Tok, who amassed nearly 50 medals and trophies in various sporting activities.

Her biggest achievement, however, is conquering her fear of failure.

"It no longer stopped me from chasing my dreams. For example, I didn't know how to swim but I wanted to take part in a swimming competition. So I went to learn and train, and in just one month, I took part in a swimming meet and came in second. If you want something badly, you just go out and get it."

Nearly 20 when she completed her O levels, she was too old to get into junior college. A polytechnic education did not appeal to her, so Ms Tok enrolled for a business degree at the Southeast Asia Union College which was affiliated to the Walla Walla University in Washington.

Hungry for new experiences, she also took on a variety of part-time jobs - from modelling to waitressing and bartending.

After completing her sophomore year, she decided to complete her business degree in the United States and applied to have her credits transferred.

While waiting for her application to be approved, she took up a job in advertising sales for a hotel and restaurant directory. It changed her life; she did not go back to college.

Because one of her portfolios was seafood, she often had to hightail it to remote factories and fishery ports in Tuas.

"Very smelly and I often had to hitchhike because there was no public transport and I could not afford cabs," she says with a mock wail.

But she did not mind because she was learning a lot.

"The job involved meeting a lot of decision-makers: towkays, CEOs, marketing directors and managers," says Ms Tok. Her interactions with these senior executives, she adds, taught her a lot about commitment, sacrifice and success.

A year later, a client - which deals in cleaning equipment and products - poached her. Three months later, she was sent to Brunei to start a branch.

"My then boyfriend asked me if I was sure I wanted to go to Brunei. I told him, 'Don't get in the way of my career'," she says, breaking out into a chortle.

"We broke even in three months. I learnt one thing: When interesting opportunities present themselves, just grab. The worst thing that can happen is you fail," says Ms Tok, who was posted to Jakarta after Brunei.

Over the next couple of years, she honed her sales and marketing skills in various industries, including the Internet and audio-visual.

By then she had developed a keen interest in business. From the age of 25, she started splurging on business books, financial literacy and management courses, as well as personal development programmes.

On a hunch, she decided to take a break from work to travel when she was 29. "I wanted to but couldn't think of any businesses to start. I told myself, 'Maybe it's because I have a regular pay cheque. I'm not hungry. Let me go on a holiday and spend what I have saved and see if I get desperate.'"

Strapping on her backpack, she went to places like Bali and Shanghai. She also spent one month going to remote villages in Nepal where she met entrepreneurs as young as 10 years old.

"It removed my fear of going without a secure job. But I came back with no more money and no good idea," she says with a laugh.

Back in Singapore, she decided to jump on the dot.com bandwagon. However the two start-ups - a spotcasting outfit and a software solutions company - she joined both folded within six months.

"I was retrenched twice in one year. But the upswing is that with each retrenchment, I got two months' extra salary. So I decided I needed to start a business with the extra cash," she says.

Around this time, she came across a newspaper report which highlighted the Government's push to make sectors like biosciences and manufacturing major economic pillars.

It did not matter that she knew nothing about recruitment or the biosciences. She wanted to ride the next big wave.

She roped in a friend who worked in a recruitment agency, plonked $10,000 of her savings as working capital and borrowed $20,000 from her mother for a security bond to start ScienTec in 2001.

The friend developed cold feet after one month and left. With a computer she built herself and a used printer inherited from a friend, Ms Tok started operations in her bedroom.

It was very much a one-man show; she did sales, accounting, IT troubleshooting, all by herself.

She cold-called pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Wyeth, marketing herself as a "specialist in the life sciences".

Because she had to screen candidates, she moved to a tiny room in a large office suite in UIC Building.

"I worked almost 20 hours a day. It cost too much to take cabs home so I would sleep in my office in my sleeping bag," says Ms Tok, who had to plough her salary back into the business for many months.

Amazingly, within its first year of operations, ScienTec became one of the biggest suppliers to Wyeth.

Her reputation spread and she hired her first employee at the end of the second year. She came to the attention of the Economic Development Board (EDB), which connected her to potential life-science investors setting up operations in Singapore.

For the first seven years, she made do with four staff members but landed several large-scale retainer and start -up projects.

"Because I was in a space where no one could tell me how to hunt, I did in the way I thought it should be done. I developed the skills to hunt for talent regionally and also started pitching for global and regional jobs," she says.

In 2009, on the advice of a mentor, Mr Eg Kah Yee, chief executive of listed semiconductor design company Key Asic, she took the decision to expand.

"He had always given me sound business advice. Whenever he was in town, he'd meet me at McDonald's and we would talk about business. I call them my MBA classes.

"He told me being small was risky and that I had to take it to the next level."

It was, she says, a scary proposition. "I had to put back everything I made to expand," she says.

But her derring-do did not fail her. After all, this is a Krav Maga exponent who is also into extreme sports including motocross, sky diving and bungee jumping.

Mr Eg, who was ScienTec's chairman for a few years, says: "Karen is very strong. If you're strong but have the wrong concept, it will be a disaster. But if you're strong, and have the right idea and concept, that's a different story.

"What she has is determination, mental strength and capability."

Within two years, her staff strength grew from seven to 25. Today, her firm employs 40 staff and has an annual turnover of about $7 million.

In 2014, Will Group Asia Pacific - a subsidiary of Will Group Inc which is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange - acquired 60 per cent of ScienTec which was valued at $10 million.

The deal, which took just four months to broker, was too good to refuse, she says.

"I still have 40 per cent and they would let me run it as it is. It takes away some of the stress, makes it less risky for me and also allows me to look at expansion and focus on building leaders," says Ms Tok, who makes community work a regular staff activity at ScienTec.

Already a wealthy woman from shrewd property investments, the mother of a three-year-old girl, Catelyn, has become even wealthier with the deal.

So why work?

"Because I enjoy working," says Ms Tok, who is married to a Briton - Mr Mik Mullins, a private investor specialising in technology equity.

"I'm motivated by opportunity and inspired by possibility."

• Come chat with Wong Kim Hoh in person on June 12 at the Singapore Coffee Festival. Details and tickets at http://sgcoffeefestival.com.sg/

VIDEO: How Karen Tok built a $10 million company. http://str.sg/43gJ

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Can't keep a good woman down'. Print Edition | Subscribe