8 S’porean Entrepreneurs Who Made It Big Despite Being School Dropouts

The world’s most famous school dropouts have to be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Zuckerberg and Gates both left Harvard during their undergraduate years to start their business, which has since made an indelible mark in the global tech industry.

However, they are not the only ones who have not taken the academic route.

Here is a look at eight Singaporean entrepreneurs who dropped out of school and went on to become entrepreneurs.

Ian Ang – Secretlab

Gaming chair company Secretlab was born out of a love for games.

Ian Ang, its co-founder and CEO, set out to create the perfect chair for gamers at the age of 22.

He played StarCraft II competitively and although he finished elementary, high school and college, he said he was “not a good student.”

Ian ang secretlab
Image Credit: Secretlab

After national service, he enrolled in an Infosys business course while working in business development at Aftershock, the gaming PC start-up.

One day, he was decorating his room and putting together his play setup when he realized that the only thing he was missing was the chair. With this he decided to make his own gaming chair.

He dropped out of his course in 2015, shortly after the launch of Secretlab.

Since then, the startup has sold over a million chairs and the company is now worth S $ 300 million.

Earlier this month, he was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year in Singapore by professional services organization EY, beating more experienced businessmen.

Zhang Yong – Haidilao

Born in 1969 in a rural province of Sichuan, China, Zhang Yong is a high school dropout.

The billionaire worked as a welder at a government-run tractor factory and didn’t dine at his first restaurant until he was 19.

However, he was disappointed with the lackluster customer service and unimpressive food.

Zhang Yong haidilao
Zhang Yong, co-founder and CEO of Haidilao / Image credit: Graham Uden for Forbes

As a result, he decided to start a four-table restaurant called Haidilao in 1994, providing customers with free services like manicures and snack platters.

It quickly became the biggest hotpot restaurant in town and started to grow rapidly. It has opened branches in countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States, Japan and Hong Kong.

Zhang Yong and his wife, who is also his business partner, have a combined net worth of US $ 19 billion, making them Singapore’s richest according to Singapore’s Forbes list of richest in 2020.

Rachel Lim – Love, Bonito

In 2006, when Singapore’s fashion e-commerce scene was still in its infancy, Rachel Lim teamed up with sisters Viola and Velda Tan to start a blog.

Called BonitoChico, they sold imported clothes to earn extra pocket money. The blogshop took off and they saw the opportunity to develop it.

At the time, Rachel was in her last year of college and it was difficult to juggle school and work.

Rachel Lim loves bonito
Rachel Lim / Image Credit: Prestige Online

She knew she would regret it if she missed the opportunity to grow the business, so eight months before her graduation, she dropped out of school to officially launch Love, Bonito in 2010.

She even borrowed a five-figure sum from her mother to sever a bond.

Today, Love, Bonito is a multi-million dollar fashion powerhouse that has opened several physical stores in Singapore.

Sam Goi – Tee Yih Jia

In 1955, six-year-old Sam Goi arrived in Singapore on a small boat from Fujian, China.

He dropped out of school at age 19 after Secondary IV to help with his father’s grocery store.

He later got into frozen food when he set out to overhaul the underperforming food company, Tee Yih Jia, in 1977 with a combined S $ 450,000 loan from the bank and his father. .

He bought Tee Yih Jia and turned the company into a global player.

Sam Goi tee yih jia
Image Credit: Forbes

Tee Yih Jia started in 1969 as a “small semi-mechanized factory” producing spring roll pastries for the Singaporean market.

In three years, Sam redesigned the company by automating its manufacturing processes and increasing production by 3,200 popiah skins per day to 25,000.

He became known as the “Popiah King” for Tee Yih Jia’s famous frozen packaged popiah rolls.

Today, he is the 18th richest in Singapore with a net worth of US $ 2 billion.

Choo Chong Ngen – Hotel 81

Choo Chong Ngen is one of seven children, born to a carpenter and a housewife in 1952.

At the age of 10, Choo started selling ice cream to earn his own pocket money. As his parents could not afford to send him to school, he then dropped out of school to become a fishmonger at age 14.

The following year, he worked in a textile company for his neighbor where he was paid only S $ 30 per month.

Unhappy with the meager salary, the entrepreneur borrowed S $ 6 and invested S $ 50 his mother gave him in her own textile business.

Choo Chong Ngen 81 Hotel
Image Credit: Forbes / Hotel 81

At 21, he made his first foray into the real estate industry, buying a sales unit on a 10-year bank loan and renting it out for up to S $ 2,000 per month.

He reinvests his income and buys over 30 store units by the age of 30, with each asset earning a constant monthly rent.

Then, inspired by a stay in a cheap hotel in Tokyo in 1991, Choo decided to create his own chain of budget hotels.

This budget hotel chain became the infamous Red Light District Hotel 81, incorporated into the Worldwide Hotels group in 2018.

Today, the mogul has a net worth of US $ 2.6 billion as the 14th richest man in Singapore.

He also made a generous donation to universities in Singapore because he had not had the opportunity to study when he was young.

Hoon Thing Leong – Kim San Leng

Hoon Thing Leong arrived in Singapore on a boat from Fuzhou, China when he was just five years old.

His father had arrived about 20 years before him and had worked hard to save money and open the Kim San Eating House in Hougang.

Hoon Thing Leong - Kim San Leng
Image Credit: Skillsfuture and Rice Media

After finishing elementary school, Thing Leong enrolled in a secondary school, but dropped out before completing secondary education.

He then started working in another cafe that his father started in Jalan Besar as kopi-boy.

It was hard and the work hard. Her days started at five in the morning and ended late at night. After working for seven years as a waiter, he decided to fend for himself.

With some money borrowed from his father and his own savings, he opened Jin Fa Cafe when he was 23.

In 1990, he acquired the Bishan Kim San Leng for S $ 3.52 million, $ 2 million more than the original offer.

By this time he had already taken over his father’s business and also ran 11 other cafes.

Since then, Kim San Leng has become a household name and has at least 30 outlets in Singapore.

Chua Thian Poh – Ho Bee Land

Chua Thian Poh comes from a family of 14 children. Her mother was an immigrant from Fujian, China, who came to Singapore after World War II.

Chua was a high school dropout who made his first million at the age of 21 making hooks and spikes for the forestry industry.

Chua then founded luxury real estate developer Ho Bee Land, known for building upscale condos in Sentosa.

Chua Thian Poh - Ho Bee Land
Image Credit: Ho Bee Land

Under his leadership, Ho Bee Land expanded its asset portfolio to include properties in cities such as London and Munich.

In 2020, he was ranked 34th on Forbes Singapore’s 50 richest list with a net worth of US $ 1.2 billion.

Dennis Foo – St James Holdings

“Nightlife King” Dennis Foo has built and operated some of Singapore’s most popular nightclubs, such as St James Power Station and Shanghai Dolly.

However, when he was an arts student, he dropped out of college to help pay off debts incurred by his mother’s goldsmiths.

He sold insurance for a while and was also a manager of a filing cabinet manufacturing plant.

Dennis foo st james
Dennis Foo, former CEO of St James Holdings / Image credit: Dennis Foo

In 1979, her father died of cancer. Before his death, he asked Dennis to run his catering business in Changi Village, which was established in 1979.

Dennis was already working at Europa as a cashier and bartender. When he took over Europa from his father, he turned it into a living room.

In the mid-90s, Europa Group was Singapore’s largest chain of pubs and bars with over 10 popular nightclubs.

However, after a series of lawsuits for the property and various stock transactions, Dennis was scarred. His wife encouraged him to work “to build an even bigger Europe”.

This prompted him to create Devil’s Bar and then St James Power Station in 2006 as part of a joint venture with local retailer FJ Benjamin.

He retired as CEO of St James Holdings after a $ 1.56 billion reverse takeover deal with real estate developer Perennial Real Estate Holdings.

Entrepreneurship requires sacrifices

Entrepreneurship can come at a young age for enterprising young people who tend to start their own businesses very early on.

In a country obsessed with grades, dropping out of school is considered a deplorable thing to do.

As a result, many entrepreneurs have returned to the balance between school and work on their business.

Often, one or the other must give way to the other. After all, it’s all about compromise and sacrifice.

However, we are by no means suggesting that you have to give up your education to start a business.

Study can take place anytime and at any age, but a rare business opportunity doesn’t come twice, so when the opportunity does arise, it’s best to grab it.

Featured Image Credit: Dennis Foo / The Edge Singapore / Ladyboss Asia / Forbes / Prestige Online / Skillsfuture / LinkedIn

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Jothi Venkat

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