In all corners of the world, entrepreneurs are playing an integral role in the development of communities, economies and industries. And it all starts with engagement. For Rosemary Tan, a member of EO Malaysia and EO’s Global Chairman, the art of engaging has helped her find success and significance in business and beyond. In this featured interview, Rosemary shares the highs and lows of her entrepreneurial journey, the value of EO leadership and how through engagement, she continues to find new value in herself, her business and her life.
Your family has played—and continues to play—a major role in your life, encouraging you to get the most out of everything you do. How have they contributed to your success?
RT: I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my family. I am the oldest of six siblings, and am blessed to have everyone so close by; we stay in touch regularly and meet every Sunday for a three-generation dinner. My grandma taught me how to seize every opportunity and ‘taste’ everything in life at least once. My dad, who was a successful entrepreneur, taught me the value of hard work and that experience is the best MBA you can get. And my mom, who’s a paraplegic, taught me the power of perspective and to always lend a helping hand. I am truly blessed for the strong foundation my family has given me, as well as the many lessons they’ve provided over the years. My family inspires me to engage the world every day to see what it has in store.
You were forced to shut down your first business due to Malaysia’s economic climate. What did this business crisis teach you early on about entrepreneurship?
RT: After earning a degree in management from Pace University and an applied science degree in interior design from the Parson’s School of Design, I decided to venture into entrepreneurship. I wanted to make a mark on my own, so in 1990 I took on Crimson Rosella, a gift-trading business, with Stephen, my husband of 24 years. We supplied gift-wrapping paper and gift products to most of the major department stores in Malaysia. A few years in, Asia began experiencing a financial crisis and Malaysia’s currency started to devalue significantly.
All of our margins and profits were wiped out, since most of our products were imported. We didn’t have enough cash flow to keep the staff and sustain the cost of running the business, so we were forced to close. This experience taught me that I can’t control external conditions, and that when faced with business crises, cutting your losses is not necessarily a failure; its survival, and it gives you a chance to start over.
In 1996, you were introduced to what was then known as YEO. What inspired you to become a member, and what were you hoping to get out of the experience?
RT: I remember like it was yesterday. I received a call from Ronnie Lin, one of EO Malaysia’s founding members, who was asking me to attend a recruitment event. I had heard about their chapter learning events and Forum, and the concept of engaging local entrepreneurs intrigued me. If I had a resource like EO while I was running my first business, maybe things would have been different. I could just hear my grandma’s voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘Try it— you never know!’ So, I gave it a shot. I really just wanted to see who this Ronnie person was, and I wound up staying the entire time, listening to members and chapter leaders talk about the value of EO. I was so moved by everyone’s testimonials that I decided to seize the opportunity. I joined EO, knowing that if I didn’t like it, I could always quit. Well, here I am today, on my 17th year with the organization, and it’s been an incredible journey so far!
You’ve achieved incredible success in business and EO …were things always so smooth?
RT: Not always. One of the hardest times in my life was in 1999/2000, when I was transitioning from my family business to establishing Palam Mesra, a niche residential property development company I started with Stephen. The work with my family no longer gave me satisfaction. What’s worse, my relationship with my family and husband was at a very low point. I felt very disconnected, relationally and vocationally. I felt like I was a failure as a daughter and wife. I didn’t know what to do, so I looked to religion for answers. It was then that I found my identity in Jesus Christ. I started to embrace the fact that I am His daughter, and that I will always be loved and treasured no matter what happens. And the more I learned, the more I realized that I was wonderfully made for a purpose.
Parallel to my spiritual journey, EO really stepped up and helped me find my footing, while at the same time discover my true purpose in business. EO let me focus on something other than myself and my unhappiness for a change. I kept busy with leadership roles, and started to understand the importance of engagement; specifically, the value engaging brings to your life when you step outside of your comfort zone and explore what EO and the world has to offer. When I started to engage and focus on others, I started to find real value in myself. And I discovered that while one person can make a difference, when people who share the same commitment to change come together, so much more can be done. That encouraged me to stay active in EO and take my entrepreneurial journey to the next level.
When you think about your EO journey so far, what one experience best represents the power of engagement?
RT: Before I started Palam Mesra, I attended the EO Disney University. It was 1999, and along with 150 EOers, I learned at the hands of the Disney Institute. At one point, we were taken behind the scenes to discover how Disney leaders instilled commitment and pride among their more than 35,000 ‘cast members.’ I learned that Disney was building a township called ‘Celebration,’ so I decided to check it out. I fell in love with it on the spot! The architectural concept, thoughtful planning, sustainability factors and how the streets and buildings were handicapped-friendly … I was instantly inspired! At that moment, something clicked in my head— this is how I want to make my mark as an entrepreneur. I had finally found my benchmark.
The township helped me identify the kind of development I wanted to build, and the kind of impact I wanted to make as a woman entrepreneur in Malaysia. It also helped shape my business vision and mission as an entrepreneur. Thanks to the University, a seed had been planted in my head about what could be … I left the event knowing I wanted to design housing projects that were environmentally friendly, and that catered to kids, the elderly and the handicapped. My mom suffered a spinal injury when she was 16, and is wheelchair-bound, but that didn’t prevent her from living a full life. As she got older, she championed on behalf of all handicapped people in Malaysia. I wanted to honor her convictions, so I applied what I had learned at the University to my first project—Mesra Terrace. While it doesn’t come close to Disney quality, it set a precedent in Malaysia and really stands out!
When I look back at this EO experience, I recognize that who I am as an entrepreneur and everything I’ve accomplished in my industry … none of that would have happened had I not traveled halfway around the world to attend the University. If I didn’t decide to engage EO and sign up for the event, I wouldn’t have found the inspiration I needed to develop my business. I wouldn’t have found my focus as an entrepreneur, a focus that has helped me achieve success for more than a decade.
You’ve accomplished a lot since you first joined EO, electing to serve in various leadership positions along the way. How has EO leadership prepared you for your current role as Global Chairman?
RT: Looking back at my EO leadership journey—from Forum Chair and Trainer to Chapter President and Director—I have so much to be thankful for. The number of years I put in and the roles I held helped me gain organizational knowledge and historical insight, while my own member experiences helped me see things from both sides. What benefited me most was my perspective. I knew that I would only get out of EO what I put into it, so I accepted every opportunity EO gave me, and saw each of them as a chance to become a stronger, more 360° leader, entrepreneur and human being.
By serving in various chapter and Global leadership positions, I discovered so much more about myself than I anticipated. For example, I learned that even when I feel insecure, if I just put my heart into what I’m doing and try my best, I will have more capacity than I think. And I learned that walking the talk motivates others and builds trust. I also learned that my expectation for success is different from others, and that’s okay. Finally, I learned that my time and effort is always worth it if what I do only impacts one person or one Forum at a time. My EO leadership experience taught me all of this and much more, and now I get to apply my learning on a bigger scale!
Engagement has always played an important role in your life and work. Is that why you chose “Engage the World” as EO’s call to action this year?
RT: Engagement is such a big part of entrepreneurship— we must constantly go out of our comfort zone to seek solutions, create relationships, explore our strengths and ‘find new wings.’ I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today if I didn’t decide to say ‘yes’ to the world and make myself available to what life has to offer. By doing so, I found gems in the form of lifelong memories, experiences and friendships. I also found a support system in EO, a second home in my chapter, a blueprint for my business and a greater awareness of my community. When we engage the world, we change how we see the world; we gain new understanding that helps us become stronger entrepreneurs. In many ways, ‘Engage the World’ is EO360° taken one step further; it’s a chance for all of us to get more out of EO and our entrepreneurial journey, while giving back to those who will follow in our footsteps. My hope is that this call to action motivates members everywhere to step up (into leadership) and step out (beyond their Forums, chapters and regions) to take full advantage of what EO has to offer, while using EO as a platform to impact others.
When your chairmanship ends and your journey as an entrepreneur winds down, what do you hope your legacy will be?
RT: I hope that as Global Chairman, I will have helped increase the circle of influence for EO, especially when it comes to supporting the ecology of entrepreneurs. And that through our call to action, we’ve better engaged our extended family—former members, past leaders, our community and even YPO members—while challenging EOers to go beyond local and take advantage of our global platform to gain new perspectives and accelerate their learning and growth. As an entrepreneur, I hope to leave this organization and a piece of the world better than I found it. I hope that by leveraging my experiences and skills, I can help others find their full potential and empower them to seize their moment. When we seize our moments, there’s no telling what amazing things will happen. I seized the moment by joining EO, engaging in leadership positions and becoming Global Chairman. I’m not sure what the future has in store for me, but I’m ready to tackle it!