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Interview with Derrick Lee: From Operations Executive to Aspiring Hawker

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Leaving his executive position at an oil and gas company to set up a Food & Beverage (F&B) business, NUS business graduate Derrick Lee has no regrets about such choices made in the different stages of his life. The Ridge is honoured to meet up with Derrick Lee to find out more about his eventful journey thus far.

1) What did you specialise in when you did your business degree in NUS?

I chose not to specialise in anything upon graduation as I matriculated into NUS with the firm idea of wanting to learn from a broader spectrum of the learning curve. I believed that learning a broader spectrum of things in business would further enable me to have a good knowledge of business in general. I saw it as an advantage as it equipped me with the necessary skills I needed to know as a businessman. I was able to grasp different concepts holistically. In other words, I really was what they say, “Jack of all trades, and a master of none”. Indeed, I kept to what I wanted to achieve in NUS.

2) Why did you choose to study business? Were there any influences or turning points that led you to be interested in business?

Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to start my own business. I am eager to learn everything and desired to have as broad a world view as possible, because I was already very sure that I was going to do my own business. I did not want to be confined to just one area of specialisation. Choosing business was due to multiple factors. Initially, my very first ambition was to be a pilot, but that did not materialise because of my short-sightedness and back injury. I knew very well then that to pursue that profession would be futile. Then business caught my attention when I saw a few of my uncles running their own businesses and I got to witness them running their own businesses. That piqued my interest in business and my love for business grew ever since.

Another contributing factor was the chance to study an elective subject called ‘Commercial Studies’ back in my secondary school days. This opportunity gave me a taste of what business was all about and I was exposed to business knowledge and commercial activities at that young age. This was also a strong deciding factor that made me apply to polytechnic instead of the junior colleges after I received my O’Levels results. On choosing the right polytechnic for myself, I went with Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP)’s Diploma in Business Management as my first choice as I was deeply attracted to the new premises and exciting internal and external industrial attachment programmes. I reckoned that the attachment programmes will give me a better exposure to the world of business and leave me with valuable real world experiences. The student-run Cheers outlet store also caught my attention and I eventually managed to get involved in the operation of Cheers in one of my semesters in NYP.

During my time at NYP, I also managed to intern with an oil and gas company and learnt how they managed their businesses in the Asia Pacific region. At the end of my three month long internship, I was offered a job there after graduation but I did not take up the offer as I wanted to further my studies.

3) What activities did you partake in NUS? Share with us your fondest memories.

I spent most of my time focusing on my studies in NUS. This was because I did not stay near to the campus and it was a disincentive to be too involved in numerous school activities as my commute to and from school amounted up to almost three hours.

Despite that, I managed to make life-long friends in NUS. I remember fondly that my clique of friends and I never fail to attend lectures together. Furthermore, we enjoyed exchanging perspectives over meals. It really brings a sense of great joy and comfort to know that you always have a stable group of friends who meet up regularly to study and help each other along the way. We also made it a point to celebrate each other’s birthdays every year.

4) What is one key takeaway you took from NUS? Share with us some obstacles or struggles you had to face in NUS.

One key takeaway I took from NUS was that one has to be resourceful. I came from a polytechnic and most of the time, information was spoon fed to us. However, university students are required to embrace independent learning and find out things for themselves. There really was less independent learning in my polytechnic days. I gradually realised that it was really useful to learn how to be resourceful and discover new knowledge by myself. Slowly, I adapted to the learning methods in NUS and managed to secure relatively good grades.

Being resourceful is also one good value to have in your career. I am very sure that your boss will appreciate you if you are resourceful enough to solve problems on your own.

5) What was the motivation behind starting your own chicken rice stall at Ci Yuan Community Club?

I chanced upon the Fei Siong Food Management entrepreneurship programme in mid-2015 and immediately applied for it. The programme caught my attention as I found it very refreshing an idea. As I was always clear that I wanted to start my own business, I left my position at an oil and gas company after three years and dedicated myself to the young hawker’s programme. As part of the first of its kind programme, I was paired with a veteran chicken rice stall owner in one of the stalls managed by Fei Siong Group and picked up skills from Mr Foo. After familiarising myself with the needed hawker skills, successful hawkerpreneurs like myself from the training programme will then be in-charge of running our own stalls at Ci Yuan Community Club. The programme had to ensure that the apprentice hawkers got the basic skills right before opening their stalls for business. Being the pioneer batch of the programme, I also felt that more could be done to improve the structure of the programme if it were to hold a second run of the programme.

6) What are the core values you stand by? Any words of advice for young undergraduates who are still exploring career options after NUS?

I cannot stress enough the importance of being rational while pursuing one’s dreams. This is because I strongly believe that you should pursue a pragmatic option and not be overly-ambitious or idealistic. Often times, your dreams may not be a good mode of income generation and you will be forced to be realistic. Ultimately, you have to be answerable to yourself.  It is always good to keep your feet on the ground.

That being said, it is also imperative to have passion for what you are doing. It will be easier to sustain your interest in it if you have passion for what you are doing. In addition, integrity is a value I strive to uphold because that will make people respect you. Your strength of character is very vital.

Resourcefulness is also another value I hold closely to my heart. You have to be able to find things out for yourself and be independent to survive. Therefore, the values that I keep close to me are rationalism, passion, integrity and resourcefulness.

On words of advice for young undergraduates, I will reiterate the point of being practical and rational. Invest in yourself wisely and never stop learning beyond your area of expertise. Do not give up easily and focus on making your goals a sustainable reality. Be open-minded to options and never be afraid to try new things.