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Three tries and 20 years: The story behind talent advisory PPEARL

Jovi Ho
Jovi Ho1/14/2022 8:0 AM GMT+08  • 5 min read
Three tries and 20 years: The story behind talent advisory PPEARL
The leadership style of SMEs here is still very much about command and control, says this founder. PPEARL hopes to change that.
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Hardy folks make the best entrepreneurs, and Natasha KK Mak-Levrion bears all the marks of a determined founder.

After two successful starts, the CEO of talent advisory and consulting firm PPEARL is now in the third iteration of her company.

This comes after more than two decades of growing her family, while juggling side businesses like homeschooling services, art and drama camps and even a spa.

As Mak-Levrion describes herself on professional social network LinkedIn: “We love change and wear it like a comfortable, familiar cloak.”

“One of the threads in my life is that I have always fallen into things,” she tells The Edge Singapore. “They were never planned. I just made the best out of every situation. I’m thankful to all the people who helped me along the way, who have given me opportunities.”

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Mak-Levrion may make herself out to be a sanguine character, but she also draws from a tenacious spirit. She worked four jobs while studying for her double degree in journalism and industrial and organisational psychology at the Ohio State University in the US. “Learning how people work was very interesting to me. I wanted to do everything; I even wanted to be a vet. My parents were like, ‘Can you just graduate?’”

She almost settled for a job in the US but was back in Singapore eventually, where she worked before founding her own firm. After a successful stint at Andersen Business Consulting and organisational psychology firm SHL, she decided to strike out on her own, young and armed with an enterprising spirit.

A career in a big corporate environment was not her cup of tea, she adds. “I didn’t enjoy the office politics, but it gave me a lot of grounding; It shaped a lot of who I am today, along with honing valuable process thinking skills.”

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In 2004, Mak-Levrion moved to Malaysia to start her business, with herself as the sole employee. It was hard work but rewarding. She also fell in love with the country. “My clients took a chance on a young twenty-something and were so warm, supportive and helpful.”

From just herself, PPEARL grew to include 23 staff and 30 associates.

Mak-Levrion worked for seven years on the first generation of her company before it was acquired by Talent2, where she then served as director for assessment and consulting in SEA.

With social media still in its nascent stage then, the world felt “so much bigger”, she says. “If I were to change anything from my founding years, I would have networked with businesses different from mine, outside my field.”

With two young daughters at home, Mak-Levrion worked freelance for four years from 2013, attaching herself to other consulting companies. “That gave me a lot of time to spend with my kids.”

By then, she had just exited a two-year spa venture. Started in 2008, the spa aimed to hire former convicts, train them and have them take over the business. The venture failed miserably. “It was an expensive but good lesson and sharpened my business sense.”

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Not one to sit still, Mak-Levrion realised she could run homeschooling programmes while caring for her kids. From 2013 to 2017, she taught art, drama and English reading camps attended by over 250 children, some as young as eight months old.

When her daughters started attending primary school, Mak-Levrion felt the corporate world calling once again. After working with Sephora, PwC and a leadership development subsidiary of Temasek Management Services, she dusted off the plans of her first company, now 16 years old.

“I started it just like the first PPEARL, by growing a team. A strong team and culture is the bedrock of every business,” says Mak-Levrion.“I’m more bullish now; I have more clarity about what needs to happen. We’re growing faster than the first time.”

Today, PPEARL’s presence spans across five countries and specialises in leadership development, talent advisory and placing facilitators, coaches, trainers and thought leaders in projects and roles.

Clients worldwide look to PPEARL to deliver cutting edge consulting work, organise workshops, leadership programs and team-building events. “Clients love that we have an extensive reach to thousands of Experts globally because we do not push a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.

Following the abrupt shift to remote working last year, she believes clients are now looking for different solutions. “Virtual is virtuous; programmes can be more or just as efficient online.”

With logistics and location settled, what other obstacles stand in the way of Singapore’s SMEs? Mak-Levrion thinks access to experts is very limited here. “SMEs are very reliant on grants for training. But, if you only rely on national grants, you’ll only get access to certain experts.”

“The leadership style of SMEs here is still very much about command and control. You need to build a learning and coaching culture from the ground up." Currently, we are advising many clients on change management, hybrid work and teaching leaders how to be effective hybrid leaders, she adds.

And as she sees herself as a "leader who eats last", Mak-Levrion does not believe in starting a business solely for profit. “It’s about creating a business with a team of people who are my family, who benefit even more than I do.”

“Work is life, I don’t separate it. You have to enjoy it, and I have a life with PPEARL.”

Photos: Albert Chua / The Edge Singapore

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