A former private equity and hedge fund investor who has worked in various roles in the financial sector, Anthony shares with us why he chose to enter the preschool industry upon his retirement. Education to Anthony is about educating children to come up with ways to resolve real-world problems. Both he and his wife have introduced practices drawn from personal experiences in their school. From raising their children to working in the preschool industry, they have found that while challenges do exist inside the industry, everyone can try to bolster the dynamism within the preschool industry.
Ultimately, it is about empowering children with the right mindset and skills to help them connect the dots as they navigate the world.
Born in Hong Kong, you grew up in the United States; you worked in countries like United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, China and Taiwan as an investment banker, private equity investor, Head of Mergers and Acquisitions and Corporate Development and entrepreneur. Share with us about your experience of growing up in America and working in these countries. What are some key attributes you have developed as a result?
Growing up as an immigrant in the 80s to pursue the American Dream was indeed a valuable experience that has influenced all aspects of my life. Living through the American Dream that anything was possible as long as I work hard is still ingrained in me today. As a minority who was “fresh off the boat” from Hong Kong and did not speak English, I had to struggle for everything I wanted. At one stage, I wanted to run home to Hong Kong, but my father would sit me down and share accounts of when he moved to Hong Kong from our ancestral farming village in the 1950s. He shared that he too was considered inferior amongst his peers when he moved to Hong Kong, and significantly worse than where I was when I moved to the US. My grandfather was still a farmer, my grandma was a domestic helper, and my father has lived in the dorms since third grade. He told me the US is my new home, and I must adapt to it. If I go on looking forward, work hard and fully take advantage of my surroundings and resources available, I will turn out fine.
My father remained in Hong Kong to work while my mom, sister and I lived in the US (back in the days it was common to have an “astronaut family”). My parents joked that I had been promoted to “man of the house” at the age of 8. Growing up, everything I needed required more effort than if I was in Asia. The closest market to buy Chinese groceries was at least 10km away. Looked upon differently and unable to communicate, I found it challenging to just make a friend. It was a constant hustle to be recognised and respected as a minority.
I was in the English as a Second Language program for three years with other immigrants who did not share a common language with me. We got along by playing sports because we could interact without verbal communication. Often the laughing stock, I was embroiled in fights with people of various ethnicities – Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Middle Easterners, and so on. I could not understand why I got entangled in these fights, and I did not even know how to ask why. Early on I knew there was no way out – America would be my new home, and I had to adjust and eventually prosper in it. There was a chance that my family would move to a new city again so that uncertainty propelled me always to plan ahead. Finally, I started befriending people who laughed at me. I assimilated and studied their cultures to get along with them.
Like most immigrants, it was difficult to fully grasp my identity, especially when people ask “Where are you from?” I was Chinese, held a Hong Kong passport, but even so, I was neither Chinese nor British by nationality because, at that time, Hong Kong was still a British Colony. On the other hand, I was trying my hardest to fit in as an American, but my skin is yellow, and English was not my mother tongue. As a child, this was a convoluted concept for me to navigate. Looking back, my multi-hyphenated identity became an asset that helped me fit in with different cultures and facilitated my ability to work globally. It instilled a sense of awe in me no matter where I was in the world or who I was with – I wanted to assimilate with those close to me because I was eager to learn about them. My upbringing in the US prepared me to be a global citizen. I feel that the world is my home.
There is no better place to start a finance career than in New York. It is a jungle that amalgamates the brightest, hungriest and most competitive minds. In this Mecca of finance, young professionals globally want to acquire and perform two things – learn and win. Working in the financial sector in New York was an incredible training ground for me. In aggregate, these factors inspired me with the continued drive to learn about the world. Everyone is unique with his own story, and I wanted to learn about it. Looking at the US from Asia, I miss how the US appreciates one for his story rather than merely his intelligence or good grades. It is about how far you can go based on where you started, your own volition and the resources you can garner. The narrative that someone shares with me shapes how I hire people and who to invest in.
After the US, I moved back to Asia. China was a revelation even though I had studied at Tsinghua University in Beijing and spoke fluent Mandarin. A once in a lifetime opportunity, I was on the ground to witness China emerge as a superpower.
I reminisce taking 4 hour minibus rides on rough dirt roads filled with livestock and staying in motels with barely any running water. I spent three months working in Xinjiang and enjoyed the scenery and time spent with ethnic minorities. Because China was less structured and less transparent than what I was accustomed to, I was trained to make decisions with limited information.
I then worked in Melbourne and Sydney, which resembled the US. I like Australia very much because it resembles the West Coast, which is where I grew up – great weather, very chilled and laid back. Before coming to Singapore, I was in London. The UK is the gateway to continental Europe. There is so much culture and history, and I was able to apply it in context. Having spent almost half my life in the US, assimilating into Australia and UK was fairly seamless, aside from the difference in accents which influenced English pronunciation and spelling. Western countries tend to be more structured and transparent. People are friendly and receptive to meeting and learning from new people. To sum up, the key attributes I developed from spending time in these places are getting out of my comfort zone to adapt, resilience and a voracious appetite to learn new things. Above all, I learned that what does not kill you only makes you stronger!
Your wife is the Curriculum Director at Little Sage International Pre-School. Like you, she worked previously in the corporate sector. Was she a motivation for you to enter the preschool market, despite your experience as a senior executive who worked in various corporations?
Our children are our greatest motivation to enter the preschool industry, but my wife’s profession made that transition easier for me. Many concur how vital educators are, yet they are highly underpaid. Frankly, many people, including myself, who claim they agree with this do not know what that means. I realised how underpaid teachers are when I saw it first hand with my wife who took a pay cut from her corporate job, woke up before 6 am, did not take any MC or annual leave and worked until 10 pm to grade papers and respond to parent complaints. Though she had 2 months of summer vacation, that did not neutralise the other sacrifices she made as an educator daily. I had heard educators generally do what they do out of passion, and I finally knew why. I was eager to work with such passionate people.
Secondly, my wife has demonstrated that career changers like herself can add a unique and valuable perspective to education. Education is ultimately about preparing students to solve problems in the real world. She was able to apply her work experience to her teaching style, allowing students to apply many concepts to real life. Using empirical evidence rather than abstract research to teach is highly beneficial to students. Having seen her journey gave me more confidence that I can do the same.
As you have spent most of your time abroad, could you share with us the differences in the preschool education landscape between those countries and that of Singapore? What are some reasons that influenced your decision to become the owner of a preschool centre in Singapore?
In the US and many commonwealth countries, there is no such concept as Primary 1 ready. Children are not required to know certain concepts by the time they enter first grade or Primary 1 as we call it here, and there are no standardised exams that count towards advancement until much later. A child technically does not need to know any English or numeracy to start primary school. Therefore, preschools in many western countries focus on play. In China and other North Asian countries, preschool is to prepare children for Primary One. Generally, preschools in the US, commonwealth countries and China are privately run. That means they do not get subsidies from the government. It is purely supply and demand-driven. Unlike Singapore, working moms do not receive a subsidy towards childcare. Those who have low income may have a chance to qualify for government support.
Little Sage was founded because having witnessed the various education systems and their outcomes and approaches to living a rewarding life, I wanted to teach the best of both worlds – focus on being a moral citizen, playing hard but learning even harder.
While I spent half my life in the western world, I feel their style of early childhood education is too play-based. Nevertheless, the ability to think creatively, adapt, problem solve, perform under pressure, and fail require play and experiential learning. In the same vein, I like how Asia is strong in nourishing discipline, focus and work ethic during the foundation years.
Furthermore, my wife and I strongly believe preschool years affect a person for the rest of his life. The Chinese saying “三岁定八十” or “age 3 determines 80” is indeed very true. Most of our personality, character, emotional intelligence and language ability are formed in preschool years because 90% of the human brain is developed by age 6. We could not find a preschool in Singapore that fit what we want for our children. Besides, while there is no single pedagogy that is superior to the other, I am confident to say based on empirical evidence, people who are successful in life regardless of the careers they pursue share common attributes. Little Sage was founded to educate my children by combining the best of what the world has to offer while sowing the seeds with the foundation for success beyond just being Primary One ready. As Singapore is now my home, I also wanted Singaporean children to benefit from this journey as well.
Growing up in Hong Kong meant I spoke Cantonese, so I learned Mandarin as an extracurricular activity growing up in the US purely out of personal interest. Eventually I was natively fluent and used it to build my career. I was so interested in it I chose Chinese history and literature as one of my college majors. I can now collaborate with seasoned local Chinese teachers to help children achieve true bilingualism. Hence, true bilingualism became another impetus for me to start a preschool. Due to my personal experience of learning Mandarin in an English speaking country, I was confident that there are more useful and engaging ways to teach bilingualism than what I have observed. As English is the predominant language in Singapore (like the US), in the mind of educators, Chinese is taught as a second language. However, I staunchly believe children can be native in multiple languages if they learn them appropriately during preschool age.
The competitive preschool education landscape includes Partner Operators, Anchor Operators, and government childcare – what makes Little Sage International Pre-school different?
Firstly, all our blood and sweat is invested in the school. We come in with all hands-on deck. As mentioned, we decided to leave our full-time careers to start a school to benefit our children and other children in Singapore. Unlike many operators, profitability is not our priority. Instead of thinking about return on investment, I always think about what is the return for my children and their classmates in our school.
We go to bed every night and wake up every morning thinking about how the school can be better. I truly believe the parents sense our passion because it permeates throughout the organisation. Our passion and success are seen in our parent testimonials. My wife and I have incredibly high standards of the things we do, and Little Sage is no exception.
Secondly, our integrated, holistic curriculum is unrivalled. Besides educating children holistically and preparing them to be more than Primary 1 ready, which we have a strong proven record of repeatedly delivering over 20 years – Little Sage also equips children with skills and values that are necessary to thrive in the real world regardless of what they do in the future.
I always tell parents Little Sage is not about giving them a checklist, but to equip children with the ability to look at the world from above, so they know how to build an entire forest rather than just planting the trees in front of them. A large part of that has to do with emotional intelligence, embracing discomfort and failure, dealing with people and global immersion.
We emphasize tremendously on moral character and the concept of giving in early childhood. Ultimately, I want my children and their classmates to be moral citizens. From day 1 we teach them about sharing, kindness, patience and integrity.
The senior management at Little Sage use their collective personal and work experiences and resources gleaned from working globally. We help children understand how people fail before they succeed and why certain people live such fulfilling lives. They all possess SAGE – Strategise, Adapt, Grit and Eager to Learn and Improve, which is what we instil in our students.
In some of our lesson plans, the Objective would state, “let children be uncomfortable and let them overcome it…. let them realise failing is normal and getting up is an instinct.” We emphasise “Failure is the mother of success” – some aspects of what we teach may sound unconventional but necessary to excel in the real world.
Regarding language immersion, the Little Sage curriculum is genuinely bilingual and effective. I know a lot of people who spent years learning Chinese only to loathe it and develop only basic proficiency vs some who spend a much shorter period learning it, and are enamoured with it and develop fluency. I strongly believe I know why some lean towards it while others shy away from it.
At Little Sage, Chinese teachers always speak Chinese to students. The same applies to English teachers. Language immersion should mimic how students learn Chinese in China just as how they learn English in the US, UK, or other commonwealth countries. Learning Chinese in a country where the predominant language is English requires a lot more than hiring native teachers and coming up with a robust curriculum. It is about understanding the psychology and challenges of the student and customising a curriculum to tailor to their needs. It is about execution down to the minute details, how it is applied in context and the philosophy that it can be taught as a primary language rather than a second language.
From a safety and routine care perspective, we pay attention to every grocery item being ordered because our children eat the same food. If something is broken, it is fixed immediately. With COVID- 19, we have put in place safety precautions since Chinese New Year that exceeded what the government requires.
Finally, based upon the experiences of my wife and me working as senior executives in different countries, coaching numerous young professionals and our education at our alma maters – Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University – we have infused elements such as critical thinking, teamwork, leadership and embracing challenges into the curriculum. These are experiences and knowledge that no preschool can teach based on research. That is why we created our curriculum, with the support of highly seasoned and passionate Singaporean early childhood educators.
One thing we can ensure parents is we will never stop striving to be number one.
COVID-19 has affected the businesses globally; how have you kept inspired and motivated as a preschool operator during this period?
COVID- 19 affects everybody, and we are no exception. Firstly, this school was built primarily to impart our view of education and superior quality of service to our children and their classmates, so that will not change. My enthusiasm and passion have not waned a bit. I view this as an excellent time for the company to inflect as I believe crisis begets opportunities. This is the time to differentiate our offering, and that inspires me.
Moreover, this is the time for me to step up. I need to ensure my staff maintain a sense of security now and provide them with the opportunity to grow. A true leader can only emerge in times of adversity, and motivating the staff when they need it most and seeing them still enthused about what they do is what keeps me motivated.
Finally, watching my children smile when they continue to learn and see their teachers and friends via e-learning during these two months reminds me of why I am excited to wake up every day as a preschool owner. To soothe my children, I show them photos of the school, and they automatically calm down and start talking about school. At least I have been doing something right. Getting compliments and positive Facebook reviews in the last few months put a bigger smile on all our faces.
You talk about ‘Raising a Globally Competitive Child with a Positive Mindset’, what does that mean during these trying times?
In these trying times, it is about adapting, embracing discomfort, and looking at the glass half full. Humans are an incredible species because of our ability to evolve and change. Now it is time to use that ability to the fullest. Every year hundreds of millions of children live in conflict zones where they could die from sudden attacks any time. Yet life goes on. We are uncomfortable about the situation today because it is novel, and thus, many live in constant fear perpetuated by reading articles that justify their concerns. However, if we mentally embrace this discomfort and uncertainty by accepting that the virus is here to stay instead of hoping it will disappear quickly, I think we will feel more comfortable and be able to move on with our lives. Our perception of reality will reset, and we will progress. This is the new norm, and anything better than the current situation is an upside.
Regardless of how difficult life in Singapore, maybe, we should remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be here in such testing times. If we look at Singapore from a global perspective, while it may not be the best, it is unequivocally better than 95% of the world. Finally, such a crisis provides us with the opportunity to reassess our purpose in life and be grateful for things we may have taken for granted. Therefore, the glass is always half full.
Secondly, I highly commend the Singapore government for having done an incredible job supporting its citizens and businesses. In many countries, childcare gets zero support, not to mention the other non-essential industries. A meaningful percentage of childcare in other countries will be insolvent with thousands of teachers permanently losing their jobs. With that perspective, I am incredibly thankful and excited to be part of the childcare industry in Singapore.
Online learning has now become an integral part of education, do share with us your thoughts on how it works for the preschool sector?
Online learning has its merits and drawbacks. We were fortunate to have spent a tremendous amount of time training the staff and preparing for online learning before the circuit breaker. For early childhood education, the challenge is keeping children engaged (we all know children have short attention spans!), content delivery and absorption. We must ensure that it does not become another conduit for additional screen time. Besides, teachers are more stressed because teaching online means parents can see the minute details of how a teacher teaches, not to mention having to devise creative and entertaining ways to engage children without physically being there. If the child is not fully engaged, parents may blame the teacher.
Teachers need to treat themselves as TV hosts to engage the child as well as the parent. That requires a different skillset and mindset aside from merely being a seasoned educator. Often the lack of discipline and engagement from children during an online session is because the child is at home with relatives rather than at school. The younger a child is, the more the parent will need to be understandable and assist offline.
Cybersecurity and hygiene are critical concerns – staff at private preschools do not get training support from the government, so operators need to concoct their own cyber policy and training program. Hacking is often a result of poor cyber awareness, which can be mitigated via proper training.
How have you and your family kept active during this circuit breaker?
Every day my wife and I try to take our two little ones out for a short stroll around the neighbourhood. Getting fresh air, seeing greenery, and seeing wildlife is key to mental health. I still try to work out at home. Comically I use my children as my weights, while they enjoy it as playtime with daddy. I take the time at home to do something I enjoyed as a child but never had the time to do regularly – play the violin and sing. With kids stuck at home, they had to put up with my rustiness initially. But over time, they realise there is no escape from my music dissonance! Now my daughter enjoys dancing to the music, holds the microphone and sings Chinese nursery rhymes with me while my son jumps to the beat.