This month’s “That Mama” is a little bit different, as she actually lives in Hong Kong (although she was born in Singapore!). Emma Sherrard Matthew is the CEO of Asia Pacific at the Quintessentially Group, a collection of 23 luxury companies ranging from concierge services to real estate, educational consulting and events. In her time overseeing Asia Pacific, her office has grown from 4 people to 84, and Quintessentially has expanded from a base of operations in the UK to 62 offices around the world. She is truly a mama on the move, a total #girlboss, and an all-around impressive woman. So when we found out she’d be in Singapore and that we’d have the chance to sit down and find out what makes her tick, we jumped at the opportunity. Read on for her real talk advice on balancing home and work life, keeping a marriage strong, and insider tips on Asia’s best family travel spots. Oh, and ridiculously adorable photos of her chasing 2-year-old daugther Willa across Hong Kong!
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I was actually born in Singapore (to British parents), and grew up in Hong Kong and Malaysia until I was nine. Whenever I enter Singapore the immigration agents always do a double-take looking at my passport when it says I was born here! I went back to the UK for school and university, and ended up working in events, like helping to launch the Tate Modern and even working with the royal family.
In 2001 I came back to Asia and started working at the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. I hadn’t been in Hong Kong since I was about 7, and until I came back I don’t think I’d realised the influence this region had had on me. Four years later I was asked to head up Quintessentially’s Asian operations, and we’ve since grown from a team of four people in the region to 84!
I’m married to an Australian, and have a 2-year-old daughter named Willa, with a baby boy due in October!
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I began working for Quintessentially in 2005, and it’s very much about offering the best of what life has to offer. I look at the world and say, “Hello playground!”. That said, 10 years ago our members were looking for bars and restaurants, now they’re looking for things like organic baby food, breast pumps, family travel…in many ways it’s mirrored my own trajectory.
I lead my life pushing boundaries, I always have, and motherhood hasn’t changed that. I try to set a work-life balance, but the work of Quintessentially is 7 days a week (though of course that might include traveling to the world’s finest hotels or eating in the best restaurants, so not always exactly a slog!). I realised as a pregnant businesswoman that I still had a functioning brain (much to some people’s shock!), and that I could just crack on with my work, because there were always things to be done and results to be delivered.
After the birth of my daughter I took four months’ maternity leave, and found I was online every day! Whether answering emails, or online shopping, I needed that stimulation and to keep busy.
From a mothering point of view, I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not. For instance, no one ever taught me how to play with my daughter; I went to a playdate with her yesterday and it was INTENSE! I was saying, “Get me back to the office!” However, I’m very lucky that I’m able to bring Willa with me on many work trips, while she’s still young and not yet in school.
It’s taken me two years to get to the point of balancing home and work life, knowing my limitations. I know that I love to work, that I need that in my life.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
My motto has honestly been, “Have baby: will travel”. I actually went to Burning Man 9 weeks after giving birth (Willa stayed behind in San Francisco with her grandmother). Don’t worry, I was just high on life!
I also ran the London Marathon 10 months after giving birth. Not only did I want something to burn off the baby weight, but I honestly needed to do something really extreme that pushed me. I love adventure and extreme sports [Emma has also summited Kilmanjaro, trekked the treacherous Kokoda Track and run the Great Wall Marathon in China], and this got me back into that.
How do you maintain an identity separate from your child?
Work is obviously a big part of my life and I know that I need it in my life to function happily. People often ask me if I get mother’s guilt, and I’d honestly say I haven’t got time for it! You either have to acknowledge that it can be in your life, or it can’t. When I’m at work, I’m focussed on work. When I’m with my daughter, I try to really be with her. The Blackberry and mobile are away, and we just have fun. But it’s a balance; for instance when I bring her on a business trip like this, I can be there at the end of the day to give her a bath and read her a story, but then I’ll go out for dinner with the adults once she’s asleep.
I also try to be disciplined about creating quality one-on-one time with my husband. Without his support, I cannot function.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Time management is one of my biggest strengths, and I’m very much a planner. I’ll look at the next three months, one year, five years and create plans for all of them. For instance because I was born abroad, for my daughter to have full British citizenship she needed to be born in the UK. I scheduled the date and time for her c-section months in advance, much to my doctor’s amusement, and have done the same for my son!
Of course I learned early on that I can’t do it all, and am so lucky to have the support of two helpers who look after my daughter and our household. We are so lucky to live in this part of the world where working mums can hire helpers, and it’s so amazing to be able to spend quality time with my daughter, whether it’s taking her to swimming lessons or to get a babycino, because I’ve outsourced the menial day-to-day household chores. Time is truly a luxury, a lesson I’ve learned well at Quintessentially.
I always feel saner after….
I’ve allowed some key time for myself. Going to the gym or taking an early morning swim, getting a massage, getting my nails done…
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
We’ve loved staying in private villas in Sri Lanka, or skiing and staying in private villas in Niseko, Japan. At Quintessentially we recently worked with a “glamping” luxury resort in Bali called Sandat; it’s next on my list because the luxury tents look incredible! At the end of the day, with my 2-year-old, I just want to have a safe pool!
Do you have any tips for maintaining a strong marriage?
My husband and I met in Hong Kong and got married in 2008, and we both work long hours and travel a lot for work. A few years ago we had a real eye opener when we each landed in Shanghai – separately – within a few minutes of each other, and had no idea that the other was there! Since then I’ve learned the importance of syncing up our diaries.
I make it a point to schedule time with my husband, because if my marriage is strong, everything else falls into place. Honestly I don’t have an anniversary, I have an AGM with my husband!
We also try to travel together when we can; both Steve and my daughter are along on this trip to Singapore, and traveling the world together as a family has been a wonderful experience.
What are some of your favourite places to stay and eat in Singapore?
Traveling with my brood, I really like staying in serviced apartments. Right now we’re staying at Robertson Quay, we’ve also stayed near Orchard Road, and this weekend will move over to Sentosa.
When it comes to food, my favourite Asian dish is actually Nasi Goreng, although in Singapore you can’t go wrong with Chili Crab. I love Red House but hear that they’re closing. I recently ate dinner at Osteria Art and loved both the food and the ambience.
This amazing teahouse (tea bone zen mind) is just the sort of secret spot Quintessentially seeks out. With this gorgeous, tranquil setting you would never know you were in the middle of the city, and the food is to die for!
What advice do you have for working mamas in Singapore?
As mentioned above, make sure to allow time for yourself. Outsource where you can (I think I’m in the perfect industry for that!), and hire well (whether at work or at home) because it will give you peace of mind.
And again, just let go of the mother’s guilt! There’s so much other crap that you have to deal with in life, I’ve just learned to let go of that which doesn’t help me.
Finally, it really helps to speak to other mothers, because you’ll realise you’re not alone.
Working mums are incredible multi-taskers, and employers should never underestimate what a woman can take on. Bring on the world!
Thanks so much Emma! Be sure to visit Quintessentially’s website for more about their amazing lifestyle and concierge services in Asia Pacific, and around the world. And thanks to Jenna Louise Potter of Lucky Fish Photography for providing the amazing snaps from Hong Kong!
Photos courtesy of Emma Sherrard Matthew.