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Female power

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 8 min read
Female power
Harpreet BEdi, CEO of Garcha Group, talks about her passion for women's rights and women's empowerment.
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Harpreet Bedi, CEO of luxury boutique hotel group, Garcha Group, knows full well the challenges faced by today’s modern woman. Having had to take over the running of the company she and her husband, Satinder Garcha, founded five years ago, she is a keen advocate for women, and women’s empowerment. Options finds out why Bedi, as she puts it, “surrounds myself with strong women”.

Plain-speaking, warm, and effervescent, CEO of luxury boutique hotel group, Garcha Group, Harpreet Bedi is a busy woman. When Options managed to catch Bedi for a quick call, she was in the middle of re-opening one of the group’s hotels, the Duxton Reserve; and in the process of launching another, The Serangoon House.

Having had to shut all of their hotels due to the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak and then providing two as quarantine facilities, Bedi nevertheless took the time to be interviewed. She tells us about her advocacy for women empowerment, women’s rights, and more.

Tell us about yourself and about Garcha Group.

I am a lawyer by education, having worked a decade in corporate America; started a few entrepreneurial endeavours, such as a luxury boutique store and a horse-therapy programme, Equal; and founded a few organisations, such as a think-tank called Bioethics Legal Research In Singapore (Belris) in 2012, as well as a new Young Presidents’ Organisation chapter, Singapore Lion City.

In my youth I’ve been a national level gymnast, and national-level medium-distance runner, varsity basketball team, and swimmer. In my adult life I’ve dabbled in polo and power-boat racing. As CEO of The Garcha Group, I am currently focused on the hotel division of the business from a day-to-day perspective (we have four Marriott collection brand hotels in Singapore, a Hilton brand in Chile, and others in the pipeline), with oversight of the other divisions including the real-estate, family-office, and innovative technologies (which is under the group’s chairman, Satinder Garcha).

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How did Equal and Belris come about?

Equal came about due to my interest in and involvement with the Singapore Polo Club (my husband Satinder has been president and Polo Captain at various times).

I wrote and ran the programme in its first year, as well as founded it. It is a horse-therapy programme for troubled teens, helping children who have fallen through the cracks, the ones who failed their Primary School Leaving Examinations due to problems within their homes and families. What they needed was some structure, guidance and a sense of responsibility, and equine therapy is a proven form of therapy.

[The pedagogy is known as equine-assisted learning, and is well-established in Europe, North America and Oceania. It is aimed at using animals, in this case, horses, to help build social-emotional skills such as managing impulsivity, persistence, empathy, self-awareness, confidence and resilience among troubled youth. Equal serves about 600 beneficiaries every year from schools, children’s homes, nursing homes and other social service organisations and is a charity with an Institution of Public Character (IPC) status.]

Belris was a non-governmental, independent, non-profit group dedicated to promoting research and collaborative dialogue in the area of ethics and reproductive treatments and technologies in Singapore. It was also an advocate of women’s rights, to fund legitimate research and educate women on ethics and reproductive treatments and technologies.

It did a lot of advocacy work, bringing to Parliament issues of women’s reproductive rights, but it was shut in 2016. It’s a pity, for it truly was what I thought I would always do, because I really feel so strongly about women’s issues. Belris was founded after I completed my Masters in Medical Law in the University of Glasgow. It came about as part of a philosophical, and very personal, reason. I had experience with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and infertility, and I wanted there to be more openness about women’s reproductive rights issues.

I do not want to be seen as critical of Singapore; I am a Singaporean myself and am very fond of my country, but some of the existing policies are still quite detrimental to a woman’s choice of what to do with her lack of reproductive ability.

[It is illegal for a woman to freeze her eggs for future use, unless necessitated for medical reasons. IVF treatment for women aged 45 or older is also not allowed in Singapore, where the fertility rate fell last year to 1.14, the lowest figure recorded in the country’s history.]

I am very big on women’s rights, women’s choices and women’s independence. I feel that women deserverespect always, but have not always received it, in some parts of the world more than others. What I’ve decided to do, since I’m re-hiring heavily now, is to open more opportunities to women.

I will hire men, but I have noticed as a female CEO that it takes a man who perhaps has been raised by very strong women to work under a woman. Second, I believe strongly that women are by nature more collaborative. Hotels are basically an extension of a home, and so why would women not be the best people to run businesses in hospitality? I’m just going all out and I’m very open about it.

And I hire many women, and we’re doing a good job. My work in reproductive rights is a big part of it, but now that I can’t [actively] do that, I figured, well, let me do what I can to help women learn to be financially savvy and independent. I want all the women who work for me to be empowered. So I constantly push them to reach their potential and push them to know more about finances and pay parity.

Women today have expectations upon them that are greater, more stressful than before — do you agree? What is expected of the modern woman today?

Expectations are only those that one puts upon oneself. I feel I am capable of managing businesses along with having a family with four children (and four dogs). I chose to move to Singapore because I needed a support system to enable me to do all this.

If I didn’t have the luxury of having teams of capable women (and men) around me, I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I do.

People often talk about worklife balance, or the difficulty in balancing family/kids and work — what are your thoughts?

I’ll have to give credit where credit is due: My house is managed by a team of capable women; my hotels are headed by a slew of very strong and capable women (and few good men); I have a supportive husband who is my confidant, friend and sounding-board; and I am blessed that my children are all very independent and self-motivated.

If I didn’t have all these people helping me, I wouldn’t have the balance I have. Although many would argue I don’t have balance because I focus more on work… but then – if you enjoy your work, which I do, then it’s natural to spend more time on that.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

It comes from Anouska Hempel (who designed one of my hotels — Duxton Reserve, Autograph Collection — and one of my restaurants — Yellow Pot). Unbeknownst to her, she taught me to stop apologising unnecessarily — to be who you are; to not be apologetic for one’s personality.

This is why for my hotels I do the screening interviews and choose only candidates who either show their personality or just need a little help to do so. For example, for something as simple as uniforms, the ladies chose a uniform which has a commonality but with an allowance for differences based on individual preferences and body shape. This allows them to feel confident when they engage with guests and allows them to express their individuality.

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What were some of your greatest challenges?

Unfortunately, I will have to say it would be general societal norms of how people (men and women) engage with women in leadership. The fall-back is to blame a woman’s opinion or manner of management as being either “too fierce” or “too emotional”.

The reality is that decisions are decisions, but for some reason as a woman leader it gets another layer of analysis based on historical perceptions of what a woman “should” do, or is capable of. I’ve been in meetings when a man has been really angry and everybody stays quiet and it’s okay.

Yet if I were to get equally as angry, I’d be termed “emotional”. I guess I figured out at age 50 that this is not about to change in my lifetime or even my daughters’ lifetimes, so the only thing you can do is to be around women who are able to be themselves. It’s an uphill battle, so I’m just going to surround myself with women and be happy.

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