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Pushing boundaries

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 10 min read
Pushing boundaries
Founder of The Great Room, Jaelle Ang, on how she quells the naysayers and pushes the boundaries towards success
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Jaelle Ang, co-founder and CEO of The Great Room, is used to people telling her “it’ll never work”. That was what they said when she started the co-working space in 2016. Now, The Great Room operates in three cities and shows no signs of slowing down, even as the world grapples with a pandemic. We find out how she quells the naysayers and finds the determination to be an industry trailblazer.

There is something very determined about Jaelle Ang, the co-founder and CEO of co-working space The Great Room. Friendly and warm, articulate and direct, this 40-year-old mother of four is an entrepreneur and architect who seems to have it all. But look closer and you’ll see a core of pure iron will as she has battled the naysayers to get to where she is today.

The Great Room, which offers flexible work space to multinational corporations, corporates and entrepreneurs, now has seven locations across three cities — Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore — and is growing. But things were different when it first entered the market in 2016. Back then, US co-working giant WeWork made its first moves into Asia while smaller, boutique co-working spaces also sprang up. All these companies aimed to revolutionise the workplace.

See also: Singapore coworking reaches next-level luxury with Raffles deal

However, Ang was undeterred by the competition, as she always knew there was enough pie to go around and opportunities were a-plenty.

“Flexible working real estate in Asia is now at 2%-3% of total commercial real estate. It is slated to be at 30% by 2030, in other words, it will now be 10 times in the next 10 years. It is the largest disruption that the antiquated commercial real estate has seen for a long time,” she tells Options. “And with more uncertainty — geopolitical, pandemic or more frenetic business cycles — the only way to counter that is building agility in how companies consume real estate.”

At the same time, Ang believes work spaces are sometimes sterile and uninspiring. “So we knew that if we want to fulfil the growing demand for flexible work spaces, we would want to do it in a very different way.”

“In Asia Pacific, the largest, fastest-growing and yet underserved segment in flexible working is the ‘grownup’ and enterprise segment. These are the Fortune 1000 and aspiring Fortune 1000companies who want it all — a high performance environment with the soul of a start-up,” she adds. “More than ever, people are demanding more and more from their life whether it is work or play and the blurring of boundaries. This is a great opportunity for an operator like The Great Room to lead the notion of “it’s all work, it’s all play.”

Indeed, Ang is proud to say that The Great Room is “a relentless, naive but important pursuit to make the work environment inspiring and human-centric”, while being powered by technology and design. Perhaps it is this instinct for opportunity that led Ang to The Great Room.

Trained as an architect, she worked in a bank for a few years before moving to Bangkok in 2009. Lured by a sweeping riverside plot of five hectares with a fish market and hundreds of squatters, she went about orchestrating the development of what would be one of Bangkok’s largest mixed-use developments, the Chao Phraya Estate.

Located along the Chao Phraya river in Thailand, it is one of the country’s most luxurious estates. Encompassing over 14 acres of prime waterfront land, it features two world-class hotels — the Four Seasons Hotel and the all-suited Capella Hotel — and an ultra-luxury 73-storey residential tower.

“Watching how hotel brands and design can transform spaces, really laid the foundation and inspiration of creating The Great Room for me. We know that the high value part of what we call work no longer happens behind the computer. Work is being with other like-minded or diverse people, having ‘casual collisions’ and pushing boundaries. Everyday!” she adds.

Blending inspiration from the best offices, luxury hotels and business clubs, The Great Room, she says, is purpose-built to change the way we feel about coming to work. “It’s a beautiful combination of hospitality, flexibility, efficiency and design sensibilities. The Great Room is co-working, rethought and refined.”

Juggling responsibilities

The journey did not come easy for Ang, however. The Great Room was launched when she was pregnant with her twins. Juggling a career and family was not easy.

“As a multi-hyphenate entrepreneur and mother, I still have an unreasonable belief in having it all. I believe that one can have it all, just not all at the same time. I had a moment, when I was a young banking analyst at Citibank, and there was a big town hall with the CitiGroup CFO Sally Krochek,” she recalls. “I still remember that moment so vividly. Somebody in the audience asked a question, like, how do you find that balance? She herself has, I think, two or three kids and she’s a global leader. And she said, with utter seriousness and conviction: There is no balance. Don’t have that image in your mind. There is no balance, don’t seek it, it would drive you nuts.”

And that has always stuck with her, says Ang. “We’re always trying to find that sweet, sweet balance. And actually, it’s a trap.” It was a mentor of hers who told her about the theory of the ‘glass balls’ and ‘rubber balls’ in one’s life. “It is important to seek the deepest clarity of what are the glass balls and rubber balls in your life right now. I have five balls in my life — health, spouse and kids, family, career and social. I always remind myself, for example, that my health is the glass ball — if I drop it, it could break irreversibly. My career is a rubber ball, it is likely that I will hit the ground at some point in time, but I can and will bounce back.”

These ‘balls’ you hold in your life can change according to circumstances, too.

“When I was carrying my twins, at that point, it was a glass ball. Having a premature birth, for example, could change irreversibly for yourself and the babies. But once they’re grown, you could shift gears and potentially that could be a rubber ball, you don’t have to catch everything and if you need help, you can take it.”

However, what’s important is that no matter what, you must be the one choosing which things in your life are the glass or rubber balls. “They may change but you want to be the one choosing what drops. You don’t want to just let it happen to you,” she says.

Being judged

Without a doubt, today’s woman has expectations upon her that are greater, more stressful than before.

“Never before has there been a generation who has access to so much education, information and career highways. As to be expected, with greater opportunities come greater expectations of the modern woman,” says Ang. “While there are always pressures to excel on all fronts, I also believe in ‘No pressure, no diamonds.’ And that I can be anything I want to be, but I’ll have to work at, on, and around it. Consistently,” she says. “I am a really hard worker with an almost blue-collar work ethic, possibly from my younger competitive swimming days. But I don’t beat myself up for failing and I have long dropped the shackles of being perfect to stop me from pursuing intriguing adventures.”

“So I am an imperfect entrepreneur, wife, mother to 4 kids, daughter and friend,” she says, smiling. “And I always surround myself with kindred spirits who are extremely interesting, smarter than me, insane or all of the above; my Young President's Organisation community fits right in there!". Ang is also a member of the YPO, which is a global leadership community of chief executives.

But above all, it’s about letting go of judgment on yourself, because there will be a lot of that from all sides. “You know what, you’re going to get judged anyway. Whatever choices you make, you are going to be judged for it. I am never going to be that perfect mother, entrepreneur, CEO, leader, wife, daughter — I just can’t be,” she says. “It’s easy to say it, but actually, I’m still trying to master how I feel about it. But the thing is, you are going to get judged anyway. So you might as well get on with it.”

Over time, you learn when to be a magnet, and when to be Teflon, she says. “You learn when to attract good energy and encouragement — and there are a lot of generous people, who say good and encouraging things — and then other things, just don’t take it too hard, be like (nonstick) Teflon and just let it roll off.”

This is because the naysayers or the self-doubt in your head will be plenty and loud, she adds. “They’re always naysayers along the path. When we started The Great Room, we were the real underdog. People were going, “Oh, you know, co-working spaces wouldn’t be in an A-Grade office, nobody does that, it’s all in the industrial and cheap places.” Then we started and we had some good responses. We got a bit of traction, and then WeWork came in-- then the naysayers were, “Oh no, you’re going to [fail], because the big [companies] are coming in.”

See also: WeWork sells majority stake in China business for US$200 mil

At every point, says Ang, there will be those who will predict doomsday for your company, as it were.

“But, actually, the naysayers are almost like your signal back — it actually signals that you’re taking some big stakes, and you’re doing something that could be seemingly unreasonable but will pay off if you get it right. It’s almost a bit of validation that you’re doing something worthwhile.”

Ultimately, the best advice Ang has ever gotten is to be “long term greedy”. “I apply it to many areas of my life. We all love instant gratification. But let’s learn to be long term greedy. I am and love being long term greedy. It is a real super power. Instead of wanting what I want now, long term greedy is getting all that you want but over the long term,” she says.

“I was long term greedy, I don’t need to decide my future with consensus. Most counter-intuitively, I have taken pay cuts three times in my life, each one is at least a 50% pay cut, but each time I see it as investing in myself or investing in an opportunity,” she says. “I have been richly rewarded for it, accumulating wealth far more than I sacrificed, and each time within two years.”

“But I am only able to do that because of the long view I take of wealth creation and the willingness to scale back my lifestyle and take a hit temporarily. And really, in my younger days, endure my friends asking if I’m slumming it again,” she chuckles. “In the end, the longer the view, the wiser the intention, and the kinder you are to yourself and the people around you.”

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