eight S’porean Entrepreneurs Who Made It Massive Regardless of Being College Dropouts


The most famous early school leavers in the world must be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Both Zuckerberg and Gates left Harvard while studying to start their company, which has since made an indelible mark on the global technology industry.

However, you are not the only ones who have failed to take the academic path.

Here is a look at eight Singaporean entrepreneurs who dropped out of school in order to go into business afterwards.

Ian Ang – Secretlab

The Gaming Chair Company Secretlab was born out of a love for gaming.

Ian Ang, its co-founder and CEO, set out to build the perfect chair for gamers when he was 22.

He played StarCraft II competitively and although he had completed his elementary, secondary and tertiary education, he stated that he was “not a good student”.

Photo credit: Secretlab

After the National Service, he enrolled in business at Infosys while working in business development at gaming PC startup Aftershock.

One day he was decorating his room and putting together his play setup when he realized that the only thing he was missing was the chair. With that he decided to create his own gaming chair.

He dropped out of his course in 2015 shortly after launching Secretlab.

Since then, the startup has sold more than a million chairs and the company is now worth S $ 300 million.

Earlier this month, he was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year in Singapore by EY professional services organization, beating seasoned businessmen.

Zhang Yong – Haidilao

Zhang Yong was born in 1969 in a rural province in Sichuan, China, and is a high school dropout.

The billionaire worked as a welder in a government-run tractor factory and didn’t dine in his first restaurant until he was 19.

However, he was disappointed with the dull customer service and inconspicuous food.

Zhang Yong haidilaoZhang Yong, Co-Founder and CEO of Haidilao / Photo credit: Graham Uden for Forbes

As a result, in 1994 he decided to open a four-table restaurant called Haidilao, which would offer its customers free services such as manicure and snack platters.

It soon became the largest hotpot restaurant in town and began to expand rapidly. Offices were opened in countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the USA, Japan and Hong Kong.

Zhang Yong and his wife, who is also his business partner, have a combined net worth of $ 19 billion. That makes them the richest in Singapore, according to Forbes’ 2020 Singapore Richest List.

Rachel Lim – love, bonito

Back in 2006, when the Singapore fashion e-commerce scene was still in its infancy, Rachel Lim had worked with sisters Viola and Velda Tan to set up a blog shop.

Called BonitoChico, they sold imported clothing to make extra pocket money. The blog shop started and they saw the opportunity to expand it.

Rachel was in her senior year at the time and it was difficult to balance school and work.

Rachel Lim loves sweetRachel Lim / Photo Credit: Prestige Online

She knew that if she missed the opportunity to grow the business, she would regret it. Eight months before graduation, she dropped out of school to officially start Love, Bonito in 2010.

She even borrowed a five-figure sum from her mother to break a bond.

Today, Love, Bonito, is a multi-million dollar fashion powerhouse that has opened several physical stores in Singapore.

Sam Goi – Yih Jia tea

In 1955, six-year-old Sam Goi came to Singapore in a small boat from Fujian, China.

He dropped out of high school at 19 to help his father’s grocery store.

He then moved into frozen food when he overtook the high-performing food company Tee Yih Jia in 1977 with a combined loan of S $ 450,000 from the bank and his father.

He bought Tea Yih Jia and turned the company into a global player.

Sam Goi Tea Yih JiaPhoto credit: Forbes

Tee Yih Jia started out in 1969 as a “small, semi-mechanized factory” producing spring roll cakes for the Singapore market.

In three years, Sam redesigned the business by automating its manufacturing processes and increasing production from 3,200 Popiah hides per day to 25,000.

He became known as the “Popiah King” for tea Yih Jia’s famous frozen packaged Popiah buns.

Today he is the 18th richest in Singapore with a net worth of $ 2 billion.

Choo Chong Ngen – Hotel 81

Choo Chong Ngen is one of seven children born in 1952 to a carpenter and a housewife.

When he was 10 years old, Choo started selling ice cream to make his own pocket money. Since his parents could not afford to send him to school, he later dropped out of school to become a fishmonger at the age of 14.

The following year he worked for his neighbor in a textile company, where he received only S $ 30 a month.

Dissatisfied with the meager salary, the entrepreneur borrowed S $ 6 and invested S $ 50, which his mother had given him, in his own textile business.

Choo Chong Ngen Hotel 81Photo credit: Forbes / Hotel 81

He made his first foray into real estate when he was 21, buying a retail unit for a 10-year bank loan and renting it for up to S $ 2,000 per month.

He reinvested his earnings and by the age of 30 bought over 30 retail units, each asset earning a constant monthly rent.

Then, inspired by staying in a cheap Tokyo hotel in 1991, Choo decided to start his own chain of budget hotels.

This chain of budget hotels became the infamous Hotel 81 of the Red Light District, which became part of the Worldwide Hotels group in 2018.

Today the tycoon is Singapore’s 14th richest man and has a net worth of $ 2.6 billion.

He has also made generous donations to universities in Singapore because of the lack of opportunities to study at a young age.

Hoon Thing Leong – Kim San Leng

Hoon Thing Leong came to Singapore on a ship from Fuzhou, China, when he was only five.

His father had arrived about 20 years before him and was working hard to save money and open the Kim San Eating House in Hougang.

Hoon Thing Leong - Kim San LengPhoto credit: Skillsfuture and Rice Media

After graduating from elementary school, Thing Leong enrolled in secondary school but dropped out before completing second secondary school.

He then started working in another café that his father had founded as a Kopi-Boy in Jalan Besar.

It was hard and the work was arduous. His days started at five in the morning and ended late at night. After butchering as a coffee boy for seven years, he decided to give it a try himself.

With some money borrowed from his father and his own savings, he opened the Jin Fa Coffee Shop when he was 23.

In 1990 he bought the Bishan Kim San Leng for a whopping S $ 3.52 million, which is S $ 2 million more than the starting bid.

At this point he had already taken over his father’s business and also ran 11 other coffee shops.

Since then, Kim San Leng has become a household name and has at least 30 stores in Singapore.

Chua Thian Poh – Ho Bee Land

Chua Thian Poh came from a family with 14 children. His mother was an immigrant from Fujian, China who came to Singapore after World War II.

Chua was a high school dropout who made his first million at the age of 21 making hooks and spikes for the lumber industry.

Chua founded the luxury real estate developer Ho Bee Land, known for building high-end condominiums in Sentosa.

Chua Thian Poh - Ho Bee LandPhoto credit: Ho Bee Land

Under his leadership, Ho Bee Land has added properties in cities such as London and Munich to its asset portfolio.

In 2020, it was ranked 34th on Forbes Singapore’s 50 Richest List with a net worth of $ 1.2 billion.

Dennis Foo – St. James Holdings

“Nightlife King” Dennis Foo has built and managed some of Singapore’s most popular nightspots such as St. James Power Station and Shanghai Dolly.

As an art student, however, he dropped out of university to pay off the debts of his mother’s goldsmiths.

He sold insurance for a while and was also the director of a factory that built filing cabinets.

Dennis Foo St. JamesDennis Foo, former CEO of St James Holdings / Photo credit: Dennis Foo

In 1979 his father died of cancer. Before his death, he asked Dennis to run his restaurant business in Changi Village, which was founded in 1979.

Dennis worked for Europa as a cashier and bartender. When he took over Europe from his father, he turned it into a lounge.

In the mid-1990s, the Europa Group was the largest pub and bar chain in Singapore with over 10 popular nightspots.

However, after a series of legal disputes over ownership and various stock deals, Dennis was scarred. His wife encouraged him to work instead towards building an even bigger Europe.

This spurred him on to found Devil’s Bar and later St. James Power Station in 2006 as part of a joint venture with local retailer FJ Benjamin.

He retired as CEO of St James Holdings after a reverse takeover deal for $ 1.56 billion with real estate developer Perennial Real Estate Holdings.

Entrepreneurship requires sacrifice

Entrepreneurship can emerge at a young age for enterprising teens who tend to start their own business early on.

In a class obsessed nation, dropping out of school is viewed as deplorable.

Therefore, many entrepreneurs have tried to strike a balance between school and work in their company.

Often one has to give way to the other. After all, it is about compromise and sacrifice.

However, we are by no means suggesting dropping out of college to start a business.

Study can take place at any time and at any age, but a rare business opportunity doesn’t come twice. If the opportunity arises, it is best to take it.

Selected image source: Dennis Foo / The Edge Singapore / Ladyboss Asia / Forbes / Prestige Online / Skillsfuture / LinkedIn




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