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Singapore's 'trailing spouses' swap brunch for business

Image courtesy of Ni-Night, Singapore

A number of "trailing spouses" in Singapore are turning their hands to business, eschewing a common image of expat wives following their husbands around the world to do nothing more than have coffee with friends.

Take Kelly Hamilton, the managing director of The Experience Architect, a firm that provides marketing, PR and advertising services.

"I was motivated to start my own business so that I could have the flexibility to work on my own time," said the 31-year old New Zealander, who moved to Singapore for her husband's career in 2010. "Being transferred was the perfect catalyst to take a risk, put myself out there and give it my best shot before starting a family."


Singapore, a financial hub in Southeast Asia, has encouraged companies to hire foreign professionals, also known as 'foreign talent' to help drive economic growth in recent years.

The city-state had a population of roughly 5.4 million in 2013, up from about 4.03 million in 2000, according to government data. The number of permanent residents stood at about 531,000 last year, a rise of 85 percent from 2000.

And it's no surprise that a number of professional women, especially those with young children, are attracted to new enterprises once they become trailing spouses, experts say.

"Expat women, especially those who are trailing with their relocated partners, often have significant qualifications and professional credentials but are limited by their personal priorities," said Jacqueline Low, chief operating officer at Janus Corporate Solutions, a corporate services firm in Singapore.

"As the proportion of the expat population has increased recently, we find a corresponding upward trend in the number of expat women interested in setting up their own businesses here - especially in areas like consulting, trading, F&B [food and beverage], blog shops, lifestyle services etc," she added.

Read More Office smackdown: Parents vs childless workers

Majella Skansebakken, an Australian expat who set up children's furniture store Ni-Night, says that she gives talks once or twice a year about starting a business in Singapore and gets a lot of interest from partners who want to start something new but don't want the pressure of working full-time.

In fact, the term "momtrepreneurs" has sprung up to describe those moms, not just in Singapore, who have gone down the path of setting up a new business.

"I like to drop my kids off at school and pick them up. I like to be at their events," said Skansebakken, who has lived in Singapore for 13 years and has three children. "I am in constant contact with the shop, constantly checking emails but that is on the go. Physically I sit down two days a week at the shop. To give that up and have a massive job where I'm working five days a week would be hard."

Read More Women who try to have it a ll will likely pay a mommy penalty

Business-friendly Singapore

Singapore's affordable home-help allows many momtrepreneurs to strike a work-life balance, experts say.

Singapore is also the most business-friendly economy in the world for local entrepreneurs, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation said in a "Doing Business 2014" report in October.

"We're regarded as a small enterprise and there are initiatives that have helped us, for example we employ workers over a certain age and get rebates for that," said Justinna Pank and Emma Thomas who set up scooter supplier White & Black Trading, in 2007 shortly after relocating to Singapore from the U.K. with their husbands.

"The only thing we'd brought over for the children on the plane was the scooters and people would stop us and ask where we bought them from," said Pank. "We both talked about this when we first met and Emma said would you be interested in doing something here and I said yes."

In the fourth quarter of 2013, an 8.61 percent increase in newly formed business entities was registered in comparison to the same period of 2012, according Janus Corporate Solutions.

"Singapore has always been attractive for setting up shop. The benefits Singapore has in being in a strategic and easy-to-access location, business-friendly rules, reasonable tax rates and good IP protection makes it attractive," said Low at Janus.

Read More 5 countries that gained the most millionaires


Starting a new business venture in Singapore was not without trials for those women setting up a new venture.

"We didn't pay ourselves for the first two to three years, said Pank and Thomas at Black & White trading, which is the official distributor of the Micro scooter in Singapore. "We've always said to each other we're doing this for the love and not for economic gain and I think that mantra keeps us going."

The Experience Architect's Hamilton added: "I really worked around the clock for my first jobs but they paid off and I have created some great loyal clients."

Ni-Night's Skansebakken said that difficulties with suppliers had been a challenge for her but added that Singapore was the best place to start a new business.

"The Asian market is fantastic and there are so many beautiful products that can be brought in. It is hard work, don't get me wrong but the big thing is to try," she said.

Her advice to those Singapore expat wives with a good business idea: "Do it, do it."

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