Hubert Burda Media

Jaelle Ang: Working Together

The founder of The Great Room shares how serendipity, grit, generosity and going with the flow have shaped her life.

It’s no coincidence that The Great Room feels like a luxury hotel with its art by locally based artists, retro-chic furniture and view of Chinatown and the Singapore River.

“People love meeting in hotel lobbies — whether social or business,” says its founder and CEO Jaelle Ang. The Great Room, which opened in June, doesn’t just tap into the economy of sharing real estate in the CBD and office support services for increasingly mobile and fast-growing new economy businesses. It’s also changing the way people feel about going to work and creating opportunities for encounters that could lead to new ideas and collaborations.

A concierge takes care of all things office-related so that members — from FinTech rising star Xero to hospitality brand Design Hotels,  who have dedicated bases there — can concentrate on their core business. Perks include Monday breakfasts to go with the free Papa Palheta coffee and events from whisky-tasting to yoga. 

Two weeks after hospitality specialist Distillery Studio was signed on to design the space, it announced its merger with office designer Hassell, whose work includes Google in Singapore and Alibaba in China. “It was pretty iconic — a marriage of hospitality and workplace,” says Ang on gaining the best of both worlds.

Ang and her co-founders have their sights on growing The Great Room into a management brand — “the Four Seasons of the co-working world” — across different cities. Her partners are her husband and Wharton-trained CFO Yian Huang, and his sister and director of business development, Su Anne Mi.

Ang says she couldn’t have forseen how her experience — an Architecture degree, an MBA from London’s Imperial College, and work in mergers and acquisitions, and emerging markets at Citibank and Credit Suisse — would come together to give her the advantage of understanding both aesthetics and numbers needed to do real estate.

Harvard-bound to do a Masters in Real Estate in early 2009, Ang was holidaying in Las Vegas when she met a Ben Taechaubol, who was there for work. “He said: ‘You can’t learn real estate in a classroom. Come do something real’.” So she went to Bangkok to see land by the Chao Phraya river and, after a few meetings, left Credit Suisse, “a big branded job in a reasonably glamorous industry to go to a no-name company in an emerging market” with only the notion of “building something incredible on land that was still a smelly fish market.”

“We were barely 30-years-old and people thought it was foolish to start a real estate company,” she says.

Country Group Development PCL, where Taechaubol is CEO, is now listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET). Its mixed-use luxury development includes a Capella hotel, Four Seasons hotel and the first Four Seasons Private Residences expected to open in 2018. Ang recently relinquished her role as head of development though she remains on their board — as its youngest and only female member.

Serendipity was also at play when Ang and Huang went to Uganda for their honeymoon. They made a friend on a plane – a man who had been away for two years, working as a military contractor in Iraq — and together, went on long trek visiting his family. They also ended up at a school with 30 Aids orphans. “Lots of kids were not coming to school. And after realising that they know how to milk goats, we decided to set up a breakfast programme of goat’s milk and eggs to keep them coming. And having full tummies would help them pay attention in school. So we bought goats and hens, and hen feed for a substantial time.”

My first experience at being an entrepreneur was…when I studied at Raffles Girls’ Secondary School. We would buy cheap HB pencils, then spray, carve and personalise them with names. We’d sell them for 10 times the price for charity.

My growing up years were…privileged. My parents were very generous with resources and time. Dad used to cover China for BP and when he and mum left Singapore, my younger brother and I stayed in a hostel through secondary school.  We were the only Singaporeans there; everyone was from different countries, scholars who were very independent and worked very hard. Maybe we got a bit of grit from there and we learned to fend for ourselves.

I’d like my children to inherit…humility, hunger and grit. This generation has so much for them, they don’t have to fight for anything. Grit is going to push you through difficult times to keep you going.

Our great fear is…that our children will feel overly entitled and not have generosity. So their birthdays are not about them, because they always receive throughout the year. When our elder daughter Ying turned one, we took the children from the home Sunbeam Place to Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden. Instead of birthday presents, our friends picked things from our list to sponsor for the day, like transport.

I believe in…fostering art and creativity in children. When I was 21, I started Art Bug, a pioneering art and design school for children, and educators for children. I sold it in 2012. I’m currently on the board of the non-profit Playeum that advocates creativity and time for play, with the goal of building the next audience — our children — to support our arts scene.

People don’t realise that I…enjoy playing domestic goddess and cooking Peranakan and Thai food. My mother, very traditional and Shanghainese, would say: “I don’t care what you do or how much you make. You better make sure that you can feed your husband.”