AsianScientist (Jun. 13, 2011) – Last week, a woman who grew up without running water at home beat 49 other finalists to become the first woman to win the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Of The Year 2011 award. She was Olivia Lum, who won recognition for her Singapore-based water-treatment company, Hyflux.
“As the first female World Entrepreneur Of The Year, Olivia is a wonderful role model for entrepreneurs and for women across Asia and the world. This can only accelerate the growing global trend of more and more women building great businesses,” said Maria Pinelli, Ernst & Young’s Global Vice Chair for Strategic Growth Markets.
Hyflux was founded by Lum in 1989 with two staff and start-up capital of US$15,000. Today Hyflux has become one of the world’s leading desalination suppliers. It is publicly traded with revenues of about US$450 million, employing more than 2,300 people in operations and projects in Southeast Asia, China, India, the Middle East, and North Africa.
These are remarkable achievements for anyone, especially for an orphan hailing from a small Malaysian village – Lum was one of five orphan children raised in a ram-shackled hut by an elderly woman she called ‘grandmother.’ Her early life was rough.
“The one big luxury was knowing that we had sufficient resources for the next few meals,” Lum said to MoneyWeek in 2009. However, the family was rarely afforded this luxury as her ‘grandmother’ was a compulsive gambler who lost her life savings and the roof over their heads by the time Lum turned three.
At 15, Lum moved to Singapore in pursuit of a better education and opportunities on the advice of her teachers back home. She attended high school and university in Singapore, financing her education by running a snack stall between classes. Her determination paid off and in 1986, she graduated with an Honors degree in chemistry from the National University of Singapore.
With her new qualifications, Lum began corporate life as a chemist with GlaxoSmithKline. Three years later, at the age of 28, Lum left her well-paying job and sold her apartment and car to start up a company now known as Hyflux.
Today, Hyflux is strategically positioned for the uptrend in the water industry and to capture growth opportunities in key markets. Its spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship drives its technological advancements in membranes, commercialization of applications, project management, operations, and maintenance. Hyflux was recently selected as ‘preferred bidder’ by PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, for the country’s second and largest desalination plant.
Despite her successes, Lum has paid tribute to her humble roots through her community contributions. Under the leadership of Lum, Hyflux has sponsored and spearheaded multiple corporate citizen projects, focusing on the environment, education, entrepreneurship and community relations. In 2010, Hyflux contributed to fund-raising events, which benefited wildlife conservation, eldercare, rehabilitation, and knowledge and skills development. The company also supplied its portable track membrane water filters to aid humanitarian efforts for disaster relief in Qinghai and Haiti.
On receiving her latest accolade, Lum said:
“I’m very happy to accept this award on behalf of all the employees at Hyflux. For me, this reinforces there are no difficulties you can’t overcome when you have faced the challenges of hunger and poverty. It is a great honor to have been selected from among such a fantastic group of entrepreneurs.”
Source: Ernst & Young.
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