EtonHouse founder Ng Gim Choo: 'I'm glad I have had a chance to shape the world through education'
Decades since founding the first EtonHouse Preschool in 1995, Ng Gim Choo is still involved in the business. The mum of three – and grandma of two – looks back on the group’s journey, passing on the baton to her son, and paving the way as one of Asia’s power businesswomen.
Ask Ng Gim Choo the story of how EtonHouse came about and the sprightly 69-year-old entrepreneur is happy to share.
It goes like this – back in the 1980s, her eldest daughter, E-Ching, was always reluctant to go to kindergarten. “Once, her teacher had asked her to colour a picture of a flower red. She loves morning glories, so she coloured it purple. The teacher scolded her so badly,” Ng relayed.
Things took a turn when Ng’s husband was offered a job in the UK. Back then, Ng was balancing life as a mum of two along with her job as an audit manager. She jumped at the opportunity to move away, even if it meant having to give up her job at the peak of her career to become a full-time housewife. “I thought it would be good to spend some time with the children,” she said.
In London, Ng found a new preschool for her daughter. She was astonished to see how much her daughter enjoyed going to school. “On weekends, she would be disappointed when I told her there was no school,” Ng recalled. Curious, she signed up as a parent volunteer and discovered that the school’s education philosophy was very different. “They were learning through play and the teachers respected the children.”
The family subsequently moved to Hong Kong, where Ng had her third child. When they eventually moved back to Singapore, Ng tried to find a similar school for her daughter but failed to find anything that came close. She ended up starting her own several years later.
In 1995, Ng, together with her brother Jimmy Oh, opened the first EtonHouse Preschool in Singapore, adopting an inquiry-based approach to education, where children learn through play and exploration. “We have to make learning interesting for children,” she said. “No child will want to learn if they are placed in a pressure cooker environment.”
“We have to make learning interesting for children. No child will want to learn if they are placed in a pressure cooker environment.” – Ng Gim Choo
FROM LOCAL TO GLOBAL
From a single campus on Broadrick Road, EtonHouse now has 17 schools in Singapore. It has also evolved from a preschool into an international education group that offers primary (six to 11 years old), secondary (11 to 16 years old) and high school (16 to 18 years old) programmes.
In total, the group has 120 campuses globally, in countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Ng says that in particular, the brand name in China, where it has more than 30 campuses, is well-respected.
The early days of EtonHouse however, were difficult, as Ng recalled. “In our first year, we lost a million dollars. We didn’t have any track record. Parents were also reluctant to send their children to a school where all their kids do is play,” she revealed.
Despite pressure from parents to change EtonHouse’s curriculum, Ng stuck to her philosophy. It eventually paid off. When the school’s first batch of kindergarten students graduated and entered primary school, EtonHouse began building a strong reputation. “[People were noticing that] our students could speak confidently and became leaders, monitors, prefects in school,” said Ng.
Expanding the school’s curriculum to include primary, secondary and high school levels came naturally. "It was a matter of survival. Parents were reluctant to change their children’s school after just two or three years. At their request, we began extending into primary school and then upwards to secondary and high school. If we didn’t expand, we would have kept losing students."
In 2014, EtonHouse was appointed as anchor operator of E-Bridge Preschool, which aims to provide high quality and affordable infant care, pre-nursery and nursery programmes to Singaporean families.
“I never expected that EtonHouse would grow this big. Back then, I just wanted to start a good education programme in Singapore,” Ng reflected.
“I never expected that EtonHouse would grow this big. Back then, I just wanted to start a good education programme in Singapore.” – Ng Gim Choo
THE NEXT GENERATION
Ng turns 70 this year, but for the energetic business leader, age is just a number. While she is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of EtonHouse, she is still very much involved in its strategic and financial planning.
In recent years however, Ng has been steadily handing over the reins to her youngest son, Ng Yi-Xian, who came on board EtonHouse as executive director in 2015.
While she had never expected any of her children to join the business, she had hoped that at least one of them would. Her eldest daughter E-Ching works in linguistics, while second son Yi-Sheng is an accomplished writer.
“I grew up with my mum as my role model,” shared Yi-Xian. “She had to wear many hats. She brought up three children. She is also a wife, daughter and daughter-in-law. At the same time, she also founded a large education business. She may have been tired, but she was never shaken.”
It was a fateful Christmas trip back to Singapore that pushed him to leave his job in investment banking in the US to join his mother in the business. “I was back on holiday and my mum had swallowed a fish bone. I had to rush her to the A&E and when we were seeing the doctor, I noticed that my mum looked pale and weak. I remember thinking to myself, what would happen to the whole organisation if something happened to my mum?”
After leaving his job, Yi-Xian took a year off to travel around the world before relocating back to Singapore and joining EtonHouse.
“At first, I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit into the organisation,” Ng admitted about her son joining the business. “There's a saying that goes – the first generation builds the business, the second generation spends, and the third generation destroys. But we had an agreement that if it didn’t work out, he would go back to his comfort zone.”
Since then, Yi-Xian has forged his imprint on EtonHouse by identifying new business areas for the group. He spearheaded the launch of Middleton, an affordable international school brand under the EtonHouse banner targeted at expats whose local contracts do not include schooling fees for their children. There are currently two Middleton schools in Singapore, with a third scheduled to open soon.
“I grew up with my mum as my role model.” – Ng Yi-Xian
PASSION, PHILANTHROPY, FAMILY
These days, Ng devotes a sizeable portion of her time on philanthropic efforts through the company’s charity arm, EtonHouse Community Fund (ECF). The organisation was founded in 2015 with the aim to make education accessible to every child in Singapore.
Programmes include Joyful Learning, which partners with social agencies in Singapore to engage children with stories, instilling in them the love for reading and learning. The organisation also launched the Mindful Movement programme (another brainchild of Yi-Xian) aimed at helping youth in rehabilitation homes manage their emotions.
“As we are in the education industry, we feel that we should share programmes that EtonHouse has developed to underprivileged children,” said Ng.
When she’s not at work, however, you’ll find Ng engaging in some of her many hobbies, which include golfing, cooking, Chinese calligraphy and floral arrangement (she has a diploma in the latter). “I think it’s important to have other interests besides work,” she said with a smile.
While Ng used to travel for work at least half of the year, the pandemic has helped her to slow down a little. Her secret to staying fit and healthy? Sleeping early and waking up to go for a walk, which helps to clear her mind.
“One has to exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet. Having a healthy mind through positive thinking is also important. Some people worry a lot and they can’t sleep, but I don’t carry my problems to bed,” she advised.
Ng also finds joy by spending time with her grandchildren, a pair of twin boys, whom she sees at least four times a week. “Being a grandmother is like falling in love all over again,” she quipped. “It’s wonderful to watch them grow up, learn and pick things up. Children are just so intelligent.”
“As we are in the education industry, we feel that we should share programmes that EtonHouse has developed to underprivileged children." – Ng Gim Choo
‘AN ACHIEVEMENT FOR ALL WOMEN’
From auditor to housewife to educator and businesswoman, Ng has had quite a career. Some of her many accolades include the 2019 EY Entrepreneur of the Year award, a recognition of her accomplishments in the education sector.
In November 2021, Ng was one of three Singaporean businesswomen named in Forbes’ 2021 Asia’s Power Businesswomen list. It was an accolade she was surprised to receive.
“There are many women who deserve recognition. In a way, I think this award is an achievement for all women in Singapore. A lot of women from different walks of life have done great work in society, even those working quietly at home to bring up their children.”
Ultimately, Ng believes that “women can perform outstanding work". "But we cannot do it alone,” she added. “We need a supportive environment in order to do our work well.”
On the personal front, Ng feels blessed to have achieved what she has set out to do. “I am very honoured that EtonHouse is a brand that’s recognised by many, and that I have had a chance to shape the world through education,” said Ng.
“Women can perform outstanding work. But we cannot do it alone. We need a supportive environment in order to do our work well.” – Ng Gim Choo