Technopreneur overcomes tough background to win Best Start-up award
Miss Samantha Dorcas Soh, 22, overcame family struggles, like her father's cancer and bankruptcy, to become one of the youngest female technopreneurs in Singapore
At 22, when most of her peers are just starting out in their careers, Samantha Dorcas Soh is already one of Singapore's youngest female technopreneurs.
As one of six co-founders of online shopping rewards site ShopBack, Miss Soh and her team have won two Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation (SITF) awards - a gold for Best Start-up (Growth Stage) and a silver for Best Innovative Info Comm Products (Consumers) - at the SITF Awards 2015 ceremony last Thursday.
The feat is remarkable as ShopBack is only a year old, but has already expanded into Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
The company, which has generated $25 million in sales from January to August this year, offers shoppers cashback on their online store purchases, rewarding customers with commissions it receives from merchant partners like UK fashion and beauty giant Asos and holiday booking site Agoda.
It has given users $1.2 million in cashback since its launch last September.
But there was a time when Miss Soh and her family struggled to make ends meet.
When she was about five, her father was declared a bankrupt after his business failed. He worked as a chauffeur, while her mother worked as a kindergarten teacher to support their four children.
Miss Soh recalled that when she was in Primary 2, her family of six rented a three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio.
"We all had to share a single bedroom. My parents slept on a double mattress, and my three brothers and I shared roll-out single mattresses on the floor.
"It was very cramped, and there was no room for a desk for studying. We stayed outside as often as we could, because it was so crowded at home."
Times grew even tougher when Miss Soh's father, Mr Micky Soh, was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer a year after moving in. Thankfully, he recovered after surgery less than a year later, and his cancer is still in remission.
"My dad is really strong. Just one week after his surgery, he was back at work because he understood he needed to earn money for the family."
School life was also challenging, as the family could only afford one set of school uniforms each for Miss Soh and her brothers.
"If my uniform got torn or dirty, I would just have to keep wearing it," she said. "Fortunately, our schools were kind enough to support us by donating used uniforms, textbooks and things like that."
After scoring 217 points in her PSLE examinations, Miss Soh went on to Orchid Park Secondary. At 16, she worked as a retail assistant in Takashimaya during her school holidays to supplement the family's income.
At 19, Miss Soh graduated from Temasek Polytechnic and started working at local online fashion retailer Zalora as a graphic designer. Within a year, she was promoted to lead designer, despite being the youngest on her team of four.
"Even though I was the youngest, I was actually among the first to join the company," Miss Soh said humbly. "I was just happy that Zalora was kind enough to hire me and accept me when I had so little experience."
At Zalora, Miss Soh met her ShopBack co-founders and they decided to start South-east Asia's first online shopping rewards site.
"It was difficult to leave Zalora after I had just been promoted - and it took me three months to convince my family it was a good idea," she said.
"My parents were worried it was a risky venture, especially since my dad's own business had failed. They made sure I had enough savings, and a back-up plan and finally gave me their blessing."
As its creative director, Miss Soh designed the ShopBack website from scratch, something she had never done as she had only worked on graphic design. With support from her team members, she re-designed the site four times over the year.
ShopBack's country head for Singapore, Miss Josephine K. Chow, 27, praised Miss Soh for being flexible, sharp and easy to work with.
"She is one of the few designers who understands user experience and user interface really well, which is especially impressive at her age," she said.
"I feel there is a lot to learn from Sam; knowing her background makes me feel that a lot of us take our life for granted."
While Miss Soh is excited to have her hard work recognised by the SITF, she is determined to continually improve the site as "we can always do better."
Her advice for budding entrepreneurs: "The secret is to focus. Concentrate on the skills you're good at, and don't focus on your inexperience. There are many opportunities out there for you, and you have to grab them while you're young," she said confidently.
"Being young is a benefit, not a limitation. Make more mistakes while you're young, as you have time on your side. Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you've been given."
"Being young is a benefit, not a limitation. Make more mistakes while you're young, as you have time on your side."
- Miss Samantha Dorcas Soh's advice to budding entrepreneurs
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated ShopBack generated $4 million in sales last year. ShopBack has clarified that it generated $25 million in sales from January to August this year.