This month’s ‘That Mama’ is artist and mama of two Mishell Leong!
If you check out the colourful, vivacious children’s artwork at Milc by Mishell, you’d never guess the woman behind it came from a long career in accounting and finance. Mishell Leong’s art career began as a hobby, due to a combination of layoffs and pregnancy, but has blossomed since she first painted her son’s nursery in 2012. Now a mama of two (son Marc is 4, and daughter Emily is 2), Mishell runs a thriving personalised art business (along with a beautiful Instagram account that’s perfect if your day could use a little brightening!). Read on for her tips on navigating unexpected career bumps, her tips on how to effectively work from home (with two young kids!), and some ace date night recommendations.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia until I was 18 when I went to University of Warwick in the UK to pursue my degree in MORSE (Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics). I then trained and qualified as a Chartered Accountant (ICAEW) with KPMG in London before asking to be seconded to Zurich, Switzerland – mainly because I got a little bored of living in London after four years.
What started out as a two-year secondment turned into five years, during which I met my husband, Pascal. In 2009, after 10 years of being in the financial sector, I decided to quit my job to pursue my dream of running a restaurant in Zurich. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Pascal lost his job soon after – so we decided to move the wedding sooner and went on a six-month honeymoon around Asia afterwards.
I got a job offer to join E&Y to do advisory work in Singapore just before we left on our travels – and that was how we ended up in Singapore in 2010.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
When I lost my job, I was two months pregnant – ultimately I decided to just wait until our (first) baby came. About six months after Marc, I accepted a job offer to go back to Credit Suisse. However, the worklife stress got to me and my health really suffered so I quit after five intense months.
This was when I decided to seriously pursue my Art career, which also gave me the opportunity to work from home and have more control over my own time.
With Emily (our second baby), I gave myself four months’ “maternity break” to fully enjoy my post-baby months before picking up the business and my art where I left off.
How did you come to launch your art business?
In 2012, my team and I were made redundant — literally overnight. We had 15 minutes to gather our belongings from our desk (accompanied by security) and we were marched out the door. I was two months pregnant with our first baby at that time. I just assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem finding a new job, given I was a UK Chartered Accountant with a solid background and CV. I was never more wrong. After numerous rounds of interviews that always sailed smoothly until the part where we discussed start dates, and I double checked if the Headhunter has informed the hiring manager about my ‘situation’ – followed by an awkward silence and “oh, err, oh, we will need to get back to you” response, I decided to give up job hunting until the baby arrived.
Best decision ever.
So I started looking into a business opportunity on setting up a coffee venture in Singapore with a friend. Around the same time, I kept waking up with a lasting dream and the same image in my head – always the same image of red poppies, against the fiery sunset sky.
When I told my best friend about the dream and wondered what it meant, she encouraged to me paint it out. The last time I picked up a paintbrush was in high school, i.e. close to twenty years ago! My mum secretly sent me to a couple art classes when I was about 13 but dad found out and put a stop to it. So I have never considered myself as artistic, let alone being able to paint!
Thinking, I have nothing but time of my side, why not have a go at painting since I’ve always enjoyed art at school! I still remember the moment when I stepped into Arteastiq in Orchard (Mandarin Gallery) and asking them point blank – how does one paint with Acrylic? I had totally no idea… but I remember I got into it quite quickly. My favourite part of painting when I was younger was always blending colours — and I really enjoyed doing this with my new painting. By the end of three months, I completed my three-painting series of Poppies.
At that same time, we were struggling to find any suitable decor for our newborn baby’s nursery. Everything was either really commercialised and mass produced or blue, grey and yellow (for boys / unisex). We wanted something colourful and happy for baby’s room. So I decided to create the decor and paintings myself.
I bought myself my first easel and some paints, and created my first children’s painting – “Choo Choo” – and shared my progress on Facebook. Friends from all over the world absolutely loved it and encouraged me to continue. So I did. I continued to create a series of paintings of cute little animals (“Alphabet Animals”) to spell our baby’s name. Friends started asking if they could order them.
The accountant and finance person in me quickly realised that painting these orders would not be scaleable and I needed to come up with something more scaleable that still has that human, personalised touch. I also wanted to keep my little business as capital efficient as possible with minimum cash investment upfront. That was how ‘Milc by Mishell’ was born: personalised, happy, colourful prints!
When Marc was seven months old, I had an offer to go back to the bank – which I did. Six months and two episodes of acute Sciatica and a bad slipped disc later, I decided to finally accept the signs from the universe and leave the banking world to pursue a healthier lifestyle. I received my first commission then; I didn’t even know how to charge them so I left the price open!
Around July last year, the business was really taking off and orders were coming in. I felt that I had to decide between focussing more on the business or on myself as an artist. I couldn’t decide – so I decided to get myself some formal art mentoring to push myself further as an artist; to see for myself if I had what it takes to be a “professional artist” – before making that decision.
I wanted to challenge myself because, up till then, I was still struggling to call myself an artist.
That was when my “Sensual Art Collection” was born. Every piece has a story and has a different challenge that I set myself to do because I think that is what life should be about – constant learning and progression.
Today, I finally feel that I have started to accept myself as an Artist — a self-taught artist with an accounting and finance background. And it feels liberating!
How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
I suffer quite badly from what I call “the Mummy Fog” – particularly when I am breastfeeding and I breastfed Emily until she was about 18 months. So, the first few months of getting back were tough – constantly forgetting stuff… the “Dory memory Syndrome” is real. I basically made lots of to-do lists – on my phone, on notepads, for every little thing!
How do you maintain an identity separate from your child?
It was a lot harder with the first child because I was still finding myself as a new mum. With Emily, the second one, I bounced back faster – started by finding time once a week to go to yoga in the evening, going out for coffees or lunches with friends, girls’ nights and now, I go for yoga classes and art classes regularly so I have my own time.
How has having a child changed the way you define work?
I have learned to work more flexibly and to break my “working hours” up to chunks in the day. I am generally working and most productive between 10pm – 2am, when the kids are asleep.
I have also learned to be less harsh on myself – if the kids are sick, they are sick – and the world is not going to crumble just because I can’t meet that deadline. Clients will understand, life will still go on.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
I try to “steal time” – social media posts during transit in the cab from one place to the next. Phone calls are best at those times, too – because I don’t have kids walking into my room interrupting my conversations. I also break my week down into days, e.g. Mondays and Tuesdays are generally creative time, Wednesday is networking/lunch/catch ups etc. I then further break down my day into chunks of time for computer work, painting, emails and social media.
I wish I had more time for…
I always feel saner after….
Yoga and Meditation
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I live in the East Coast, more specifically the Tanjong Katong area. I love the fact that it is so breezy and green here and I can cycle everywhere. I also love being close to the sea – although I can’t see the sea from our place, the sheer knowledge that it is just there already calms me.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
I am not so good in being outdoors with the kids – hubby tends to take on that part. They do love cycling or scooting to the East Coast Park and then heading to the playground for a climb-around followed by an ice cream treat from McDonalds.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Singapore?
The kids absolutely love going to Huber’s Butchery because of the playground and the yummy food. They enjoy the grocery shopping after the food as well – we call it the Huber’s experience.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Hmmm… we are still finding ours, haha! We do make time to see each other for lunch on Fridays apart from date nights and yoga together. We find that seeing each other during the day makes a difference because we are at least not falling asleep at the dining table!
Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Singapore?
Just do it! Do not think too much – just go out and try things out. You only live once. (But make sure you have some savings in the bank to give you some mileage and confidence in your decisions.)
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
“Do not sweat the small stuff – learn to pick your battles.”
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Be aware of the signs that your body is giving you. Do not think you are a hero(ine) and you are strong enough – because your body, too, needs rest. I had signs for the longest time but I chose to brush them aside as unimportant until it was too late – when I had unbearable Sciatica pain due to a slipped disc.
Now, I have learned to respect and cherish my body and listen to it.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Teaching my children in a loving, gentle nurturing way (because I do lose it sometimes and end up shouting at them).
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Sunday brunches at Huber’s or Common Man Roasters followed by a walk to Great World City mall to buy flowers or grocery.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
What have I forgotten to do the day before(!).
My favourite moment of the day is…
When I get my twenty minutes of utter peace and silence to just sit in my chair to reflect and be grateful.
Thanks so much to Mishell and her kids for welcoming us into their gorgeous home. And a huge thank you to Irina Nilsson Photography for the absolutely stunning snaps!