This month’s That Mama is Min Siah of Starter Lab Bakery in Singapore and Bali
Bread lovers rejoiced earlier this year when the renowned Bali Bakery Starter Lab opened a Singapore location serving up their famous sourdough breads, sandwiches and “posh toasts.” The brains behind the operation is co-founder Min Siah, who moved here with her 3-year-old son, Kali, and started both bakeries with her former partner (and famed baker) Emerson Manibo. Born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, Min formerly led a high-flying corporate life in Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney, but followed her heart to Bali, where she eventually started up Starter Lab. Below, she dishes on the trade-offs between well-paying corporate jobs and working for oneself, and the awesome challenge of raising a small child in the process. We particularly love her apt Sliding Doors reference! We caught up with Min at Starter Lab’s Havelock Road location on a recent rainy afternoon. Read on for a healthy serving of mama wisdom, and plenty of mouth-watering food shots!
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I was born in Malaysia, am the only girl amongst 3 brothers, and moved to Perth when I was 6. Soon after studying Marketing and Media, I took off to Queensland and unlocked my wanderer’s soul. I moved to Melbourne to study Hospitality Management and ended up with a Business degree from RMIT, but it wasn’t long after that I left for Hong Kong. Strangely, Asia was the place I swore as a child I would never live in and now there’s no other place I’d rather be.
In Hong Kong I worked for SPH Magazines, travelling the world, living a glamorous life of spas and 5-star retreats. Soon after, I moved back to Sydney to grow in my career at News Corporation, working in their national advertising division representing Woolworths Group and David Jones. It was a formative experience surrounded by the best minds in the game, but I couldn’t shake my homesickness for Asia and found it hard to stay tied to what I considered a plain vanilla life.
When a role at Singtel presented itself, I jumped on it – Singapore represented a fairly young, transitioning and evolving hub for someone in their early 30s. Not surprisingly, the corporate world took its toll and I was left asking myself: “How am I caring for myself? What am I contributing to my community, am I bringing good to the world?” – Sadly, the answer was, not enough.
So I quit my job, freed my spirit, and moved to Bali, taking a year out to do absolutely nothing except what I chose to do.
My father was a successful businessman and civil engineer, who taught me how to be ethical, analytical, compassionate and sharp. Growing up and even to this day, my mother gifted us with a deep appreciation of food, smuggling unknown spices and magic whatnots through Australian immigration in the early 80s. She would cook family recipes that connected us to our Malaysian heritage. She taught me the meaning of being hospitable, generous and selfless. Both have undoubtedly shaped me into both the person and the businesswoman I am today. It is no coincidence I ended up back in the food industry sharing the love of bread and Emerson’s craft in Bali and Singapore.
I’ve always identified more as Australian than Asian, but since living in Bali and Singapore I’ve been lucky enough to explore and embrace my cross-cultural upbringing and have found a comfortable balance between the two.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
My focus on where I wanted to go pre-baby was very much standard. Work hard, work up, work forward, earn more, spend it on the good life (travel, food, experiences). Whilst it’s a decent living, I thankfully listened to the need to change it up. There are definitely days I question whether I’ve made the right decision, though.
Leaving Singapore at the height of my career, single, earning six figures and able to go home and switch off had its perks. Returning back as a single mother with two businesses in two countries has been a huge “sliding doors” experience. Remembering what was, and embracing what is has been quite the transition. I guess this can be applied to most of motherhood in general.
I’ve had to learn so much in a very short time. Mostly about prioritising and ramping up my own efficiency in the moments that count because time is limited when at work before switching to mama mode. I learnt the hard way not to wear both hats at the same time, as nobody gets the best out of you. Including you.
I’ve also learnt to be better at cutting out the bullshit; being a straight shooter, making faster decisions, becoming more intuitive and trusting in my mama superpowers. I also feed into the energy that drives my motivation and decisions and the place it comes from… I do this for my son Kali, my team, and my personal happiness, and learning to not necessarily place them in that order.
Ultimately the change has given me immeasurable inspiration and drive no corporate desk job ever will.
As a single mama, what are the biggest challenges of raising a young child on your own? How do you make it work?
Whilst I might be single, I don’t do it alone. I’m lucky to be co-parenting our beautiful son with my ex-partner Emerson and a village of kick-ass mama friends, nannies (when in Bali), family and school teachers – it really does take a village.
The biggest struggle for me is finding time for myself, and that’s highly dependent on me having the discipline to say “no”, to know what gives me joy and what I personally need (this is a re-discovery in progress), and also dependent on others and their support. I think it’s fairly normal to lose your sense of self in order to give to, grow and nurture a young child, but embracing a new me coming out of the baby vortex was something I worked hard to get to.
I’ve learnt over time that nurturing my personal wellbeing, knowing my boundaries and standing strong in my space – especially to not play into the drama of others -allows me to be the best version of myself for others, most especially for Kali.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having your child?
Physically, I got my shape back over the 17 months I breastfed him. The lifting, bending, swinging and carrying definitely helped. I am still working my way towards getting back into Yoga.
Mentally, there were long periods where I felt foggy, slower, less tolerant and a whole lot dumber. Hormones and lack of sleep were probably main contributors but at some point I had to let go of unrealistic expectations of what I should be achieving as a mother and a businesswoman.
Emotionally, the last three years has been a fast and hard riding rollercoaster – practising mindfulness, being solutions-focused, and accepting what can’t be was important. It’s not been easy but I would experience it all 100x over for where I stand and what I have in my life right now .
How has having a child changed the way you define work?
It has forced me to get to know my limits at work. And quickly. To set realistic deadlines and to redefine what is really important, to outsource, to trust people more to do the job, to cut that which is no longer serving and most importantly, to pick my battles. My time has become more precious as it’s no longer mine alone as I give most of it to Kali, so I make decisions and move at a pace that will protect what’s also his.
Running a business has become all about fostering relationships, softening and hardening. It’s another form of parenting in a way. I’ve had to minimise anxiety at not being able to cross everything off on the list. I’m learning to stop and celebrate the wins more and make sure I take time out to breathe, take pride in what I have achieved and accept help graciously.
Work is now a way of living and thinking that goes beyond what I would have willingly put in working for someone else.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Apparently I’m good at thinking 10 steps ahead and pre-empting multiple outcomes. I think this has served me well so far, whether it’s preparing for the day, preparing for a shift in staffing, negotiating a sale or making sure Kali doesn’t pee his pants on our way out. It’s definitely not 100% fool proof.
Do you ever bake with your son? If so, what are your top tips for getting kids into the kitchen?
Kali has always been free-range in the bakeries, both in Bali and Singapore. The staff adore him and it’s mutual. Since he was able to talk he would ask to “Mix Mix” and be given a little bucket and he’d help himself to flour, bran, water and make a big mess.
My tip is to tuck away your need to follow the recipe or jump in to help them out; let them make a mess, with guidance they can discover how it all comes together and what that feels like. Messes are always easy to clean and worth the joy and discovery that comes from the process.
The food and restaurant scene in Singapore seems so daunting and competitive. What inspired you to open your bakery here? Any tips for other mamas looking to open their own business?
Owning your own business can be a lonely path so surround yourself with a panel of advisors or confidantes, whether professional or friends and family. You will always question if you’ve made the right decision and it helps to have a cheering squad or a critical voice behind you. It’s good to find a partner to share the load but sometimes finding a partner is as difficult in business as it is in love.
I chose to open in Singapore because I’m familiar with the market, I’ve established a strong network here, there was great demand for our bread despite there being plenty of good bakeries, and because we currently have a unique product in Asia.
I’d like to think we come from an authentic place and a genuine love for sharing a product that people are excited about.
I wish I had more time for…
Waxing? No seriously, self-care. And I will always wish for more time with Kali.
I always feel saner after….
A week by myself in Bali. Like any relationship, breaks from the kid are important. Creating a little distance (even an hour) revives the good vibes.
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
We are in an old, spacious walk-up on Grange Road. It’s close to school, Starter Lab Bakery and central to Orchard Road, the gardens and the CBD. It’s tree-lined and a little private as there are no restaurants or bars in throwing distance. We love that Tanglin Mall is down the road and our absolute favourite wholefoods store, SCOOP.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
- All 4 of the wildlife parks (Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park). We have an annual pass and have definitely gotten our money’s worth from it.
- Scootering/Skateboarding at Somerset Skate Park or along Robertson Quay
- Special kid events at Forest Pavilion like nature painting on fans
- Special events like storybook theatre at Woods in the Books
- Sunsets at TBC to get a little taste of Bali, and Kali loves a boogie
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Kali eats wherever I do. We were recently at the swanky Antidote Bar, Fairmont eating scallop and kropok whilst he bounced up and down on their fancy plush bench sofas. Not ideal but no harm done and the staff seemed to love it.
These suggestions are a little more kid friendly:
- Super Loco Weekend Brunch – Super healthy and a tasty kids’ menu
- Baker & Cook Dempsey – for their playground and the trees
- Riders Café – great food and he loves the pony rides
Prior to Singapore you were living in Bali, what are your favorite kid-friendly restaurants and activities there?
Kids are treated as mini-Gods in Bali. They are genuinely loved and welcomed so anywhere you go will be kid-friendly. Now that the expat population has exploded, along with the rise of the little ones there are too many cafes to name but here are a few favourites specifically dedicated to kids in my area:
- Parklife: Family friendly green haven with playground, jungle gym and restaurant
- Sunset Coconuts at the Japanese Warung (food shop) on Echo Beach
- Udara Resort (Seseh) Breakfast – wander through their rock pools and explore the trippy design
- Como Beach Club weekend brunch (Play by Como kids’ club)
- Royal Sporthorse Bali (Pererenan) – pony rides and mini farm
- Parachute Berawa – open grass area and an urban farm
- Tamora Gallery – shop, playground and skatepark with great food options
Do you have any tips for working mamas in Singapore?
Outsource as much as you can financially support so you can enjoy as many moments with your kids as possible. I used to say “I’ll never employ someone else to look after my child” (how much that has changed!). Having a third carer can be just as important for your child’s ability to trust and communicate with influencers outside of their parents.
Likewise within your business, you cannot do everything even with superpowers. Trust, guide and empower people so that you can eventually be replaced or redundant
I still struggle to separate work brain from mama brain, but this part is the most important. When you are in work, be in it. When you’re in Mama mode, hide all devices, look them in the eye and really be in it. Wanting to be in the other whilst being in one makes for a miserable tug-of-war. Make the moments you have to bond count.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Tell that guilt fairy to f*&# off, then go and find what gives you joy and do it.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
A friend of mine went through an unexpected and serious operation when her child was 5 months old. I ended up breastfeeding her baby in Bali whilst still breastfeeding Kali and from there an unsurpassable bond formed between us all that I am eternally grateful for. Both babies were breastfed exclusively and on demand. From this scary and beautiful experience it became food for thought… my advice would be to introduce your baby to a bottle even if you never intend to use it.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Getting to bed earlier.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Picking Kali up from school and watching his face light up the moment he sees me, and the moment of anticipation when he runs towards me for a cuddle.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
I am hit constantly with questions like “How do I raise him to be a conscious & kind human being” and “How will I empower him to blaze his own path, to respect and listen to women…”
My favourite moment of the day is…
When Kali wakes up before I do, cuddles me and says “It’s moooorning time!!!” (also my least favourite moment of the day).
Thank you so munch to Min and Kali for sharing your time with us — keep an eye out for them at Starter Lab on Havelock Road! And a huge thank you to Gunilla Lindgren of Sugarlight Photography for capturing such delicious photos — especially on a dark, rainy afternoon!