It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Down and out, she finds herself

Ex-corporate high-flier, who lost her marriage and business, finds happiness as a life coach

SPH Brightcove Video
Social entrepreneur Anthea Ong went from a successful career and business, to having only $16 in her bank. But it was just the wake up call she needed.
Anthea Ong was a corporate high flyer until a very acrimonious divorce forced her to wind up her business. She took stock of her life, and now lives a very fulfilling life by doing life coaching, yoga and volunteerism. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Up on the 18th floor of an HDB block in Marine Crescent is a unit which its owner has named The Bliss Loft. The living room is uncluttered, and if you look out of the window, you see the sea.

A smiling Buddha statue sits in a corner. On the coffee table, there are Tibetan prayer bells and a vase filled with, among other varieties, heliconia and sunflower.

Ms Anthea Ong, who lives here, is a free spirit. She teaches yoga, hugs a tree every week, is vegan and can meditate for more than two hours.

Do not, however, write her off as a loopy hippie.

She was a corporate high-flier and a technopreneur. Her last job, which she left three years ago, was as managing director of an international consultancy which paid her more than $400,000 a year.

A series of events led her to junk the corporate world for a life of yoga teaching, life coaching and volunteerism.

Ms Ong with her vision board. She founded a string of community-driven initiatives, including Project Yoga-on-Wheels - yoga for the underprivileged and disadvantaged; Playground of Joy - educating children through yoga, mindfulness and play; and Circle of Bliss, which holds weekly community meditation sessions. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The 48-year-old pats the couch she is sitting on.

Some eight years ago, she says, she had lain on that same couch, overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, despair and barrenness. An acrimonious divorce and a failed business had taken the wind out of her sails.

"That same day I checked my bank balance. I had only $16 to my name," she says. "But I also realised then that I was still alive and breathing. At the point when I completely lost everything, I also found out what I truly am about."

Hers has been quite the journey.

She is the second of three children. Her father became a taxi driver after losing his construction company. Her mother is a housewife.

Her early years were spent in Toh Yi Drive off Bukit Timah where her grandparents lived with their rather sizeable brood on a big piece of land filled with fruit trees and vegetable plots.

Because she was born with a squint in both eyes, she was subjected to a lot of taunting by adults as well as children.

Some of her relatives thought she was mentally challenged and called her "sampat", which means halfwit in Hokkien.

They stopped doing so only when she started going to school and topped her class every year.

"The taunting gave me a complex but I also developed a very driven personality," says Ms Ong, whose family moved into their own three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio when she was 10.

To teachers and fellow students at Cedar Girls' Secondary and National Junior College, she was a confident self-starter, solid both in her studies and extra-curricular activities.

"But I had a deep sense of insecurity about my appearance. I even fabricated stories about having a boyfriend. Super loser, right?" says Ms Ong, covering her face with her hands to feign embarrassment.

She read business at the National University of Singapore and, upon graduating, joined United Overseas Bank where she got into corporate banking.

In no time, she was acing her Institute of Banking and Finance courses and tests.

Despite being on the fast track, she felt restless and quit after just four years. "I remember looking at the levels in the op charts. Although I was getting promoted every year, there were 12 levels. I told myself, 'no lah'," she says.

"I was also angsty and wanted to travel. I told myself I was going to get out of this big ocean where I was a little fish and be a bigger fish in a smaller pond."

She joined a conference organiser AiC, which later became Terrapinn.

"As conference manager, my job was to create conferences and events so I had to read the trends and know what the next big thing was going to be.

"The job exposed me to a lot of sectors, from disaster recovery to theme parks to credit cards. I was paid a basic salary and a huge profit share. Essentially, I was running a business because I was looking at marketing, venue, creation of content."

By 25, she was already general manager earning a five-figure salary. Barely a couple of years later, she was made managing director of the office in Indonesia.

Her smarts earned her the attention of the company's founder who got her over to Sydney - where she was based for two years - to start a new business in financial training.

Not long after, she helped to negotiate a partnership with the New York Institute of Finance, and became the managing director of this new set-up in Singapore in 1997. The Middle East and Asia-Pacific later came under her purview too.

When there was a corporate reshuffle three years later, she took a redundancy deal to the tune of a whole year's salary, as well as a $25,000 outplacement package.

It did not take her long to find another job as managing director of an e-learning outfit.

Her career was going great guns but her love life was less than ideal. Although correcting her squint at 30 did wonders for her self-esteem, she still nursed a chip over her attractiveness.

A relationship went south after eight years. "We are very good friends now but when we broke up, he said, 'Anthea, I will never be the boyfriend you have in your head'," she recalls with a sigh.

In 2002, she decided to take on the world by becoming a technopreneur. With a former classmate from university, she set up e-learning company Knowledge Director.

It was a bold move for a 34-year-old who had no computer background, and who was already making more than $20,000 a month.

But she had a lot of faith that her product learningDirector - a user-friendly Web-based app for creating e-learning content and games - would propel her into the big league.

"I invested $50,000 and didn't draw a salary for four years. If you're talking about opportunity costs, it probably cost me $1 million," says Ms Ong, who had a two-storey office in Joo Chiat and a team of more than 15 people.

The product won an award from Innovators and Entrepreneurs Association and the company was soon counting the likes of Citibank and Singapore Power as clients.

Ms Ong was en route to the big league when she negotiated a deal with an international computer giant to have the product embedded in one of its software programs.

"It was a 50-page contract," she says.

Life was made sweeter when, through a friend, she met an American e-learning consultant and married him after just seven months in 2004.

But things fell apart when she went to Bali to celebrate her wedding anniversary on the weekend just before the launch of her collaboration with the Internet giant.

Due to a technical oversight, the product was loaded on an unsecured website. The Internet giant found out and the deal - with potential earnings worth millions - fell apart. "Overnight, we went into the dungeons," she says.

To pick up the pieces, Ms Ong decided to switch tack, and go from e-learning to educational consulting. She managed to bag three high-profile education transformation projects - using technology to boost learning in classrooms - in Singapore, Taipei and Kaohsiung.

"I thought we were starting to turn around. But as life would have it, I discovered my husband's infidelity," she says. "The night I found out, I thought I was actually having a heart attack."

It took more than a year before she mustered the strength to walk out of the marriage.

"I was trying to deal with my own issues. I was making excuses: 'I couldn't see myself coming out of the marriage; maybe it was a one-off; maybe he will change.' "

But when she finally filed for divorce, her ex-husband responded with six legal suits against her company, all served on special occasions such as her birthday.

It took more than a year, several court appearances and tens of thousands of dollars before her legal troubles were over.

"I was barren and in despair, very displaced. It affected the way I was running the business," says Ms Ong, who was forced to call it a day in 2008 after a creditor sued to have Knowledge Director wound up.

A regular yoga practitioner, Ms Ong says yoga helped prevent her from going into a downward spiral in her darkest period. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

What saved her and changed her life, she says, was yoga.

In 2006, she started learning ashtanga yoga - which included lessons in breathing and meditation - at Ananda Marga Yoga Society of Singapore.

"I believe I did not go into a downward spiral because I was practising every day. The only time I felt sane was when I was practising."

Then came that fateful day when she was lying on her sofa with the realisation she had only $16 to her name. "I was feeling that deep sense of loss of self. I was attached to my identities as married woman, high achiever, innovator, and then I realised I was not defined by all those things and I was so much more than that."

It marked the start of her recovery. She took on corporate social responsibility projects and started volunteering with the likes of Very Special Arts, a charity which provides arts and education programmes for people with disabilities, and served in various organisations including Unifem and Wings (Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully), where she was president for two terms.

In 2008, she decided to rejoin the corporate sector and became managing director of Omega Performance, an international consulting group for banks and financial institutions. "Before I got on board, I told them the job would just be one-third of my life. The other two-thirds I would give to service to humanity, and self-development," says Ms Ong.

Ms Ong speaking to cancer survivors at Hush@Parkway Cancer Centre. One of her goals is to support others in need. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANTHEA

She got her mojo back in the corporate world, and was amply rewarded for what she did. She also travelled extensively (she has scaled all the "holy mountains" on her bucket list, including Mt Sinai and Machu Picchu) and got herself certified as a micro-finance trainer and a life coach.

She founded a string of community-driven initiatives, including Project Yoga-on-Wheels - yoga for the underprivileged and disadvantaged; Playground of Joy - educating children through yoga, mindfulness and play; and Circle of Bliss, which holds weekly community meditation sessions.

"I'm not an accolade collector, okay? I just wanted to learn, it's interesting lah," says Ms Ong, who gave up alcohol, cigarettes and her car and became a vegan.

After more than five years, she decided to leave the corporate world.

"I can live with very little now. I've survived with just $16. What else can scare me?"

She now makes a living as a life coach. Two years ago, the husky-voiced woman set up Hush, a social enterprise which hires deaf servers to guide participants through tea sessions which encourage mindfulness and self-reflection. The venture - which recently received a grant from The Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) - now conducts about three sessions each month for corporations and has about 30 trained tea servers on its roster.

Meanwhile, she is content to follow her heart and go where her spirit takes her.

"My biggest wish is that with my experience and the skills that I have, I'm able to support other people who are struggling and tumbling and help them see the goodness and strength in themselves."

Social entrepreneur Saleemah Ismail, 47, has known Ms Ong for a long time.

"She was a person who used to mask her insecurities by being bossy and getting people to do her bidding. But Anthea has undergone a transformation. She now listens and emanates silent love."

Ms Ong knows people laugh at her for being such a multi-hyphenate.

"The human experience is a multi-dimensional one. Who says we must have that one job?"

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline It Changed My Life: Down and out, she finds herself. Subscribe