From The Straits Times    |

In the buzzy South Bridge Road enclave, between Club Street and Duxton Road, lies The Great Room’s sixth and newest outpost. Unlike its decidedly modern CBD and Orchard Road locations, this co-working space is housed within the 113-year-old Eu Yan Sang building, and exudes a nostalgic charm.  

It’s been a busy year for The Great Room co-founder and CEO Jaelle Ang. Apart from opening its sixth co-working space in Singapore, the company also launched its second outpost in Bangkok at Park Silom, and is preparing for its first space in Sydney, set to open in 2024. 

Not too bad for a business that started in 2016, with five people huddled around Jaelle’s dining table. The Her World Tribe member had just returned to Singapore from Thailand after working with developer Country Group Development. There, she had played an instrumental role in gentrifying the Chao Phraya River, today the site of luxury hotels such as Capella and Four Seasons. 

Back in Singapore with no concrete plan, she found herself in a rabbit hole  – or EDD (esoteric deep dive) as her friends lovingly call it when she becomes single-minded about a problem and finding ways to solve it.

At that point, her EDD was centred around the workplace: “While we all spend so much time at work, most workplaces are uninspiring and sterile. I envisioned the creation of a shared workspace for the ambitious grown- up who wants it all: high-performing workspace, inspiring design, and a like-minded community to belong to.” 

She found her answer in hospitality: How could hospitality and design solve the problems plaguing the office space? Together with her husband Yian Huang, sister-in-law Su Anne Mi, former Butter Factory co-founder Celeste Chong, and Yvan Maillard, employee number one and centre manager of their first outlet at George Street, they would work all morning around the dining table, clear the table for lunch when her kids came home from school, then start working again.

Six months later, The Great Room was born.   

From the onset, it set itself apart with its focus on design: This was a space that didn’t feel like a conventional office. It was beautiful, sexy even, with a focus on great hospitality. 

Like any good hotel, you don’t see the worker bees behind the scenes. Similarly, for The Great Room, the hardware is complemented by a focus on connectivity, cybersecurity and subtle nuances that make an office function seamlessly. 

The Great Room was one-of-its-kind when it started back in 2016, but today, there’s no shortage of competitors. Still, Jaelle is not worried. “We serve in a more grown-up rather than start-up segment. It’s the fastest growing segment in APAC, and we’re very focused on that. But [MNCs and enterprises] are the hardest to serve. This segment has the highest margin, but also more demanding customers. It’s a natural barrier to entry. 

“Our customers want to have it all – good location, great design, high performance office environment, and like-minded people to hang out with.”

Borrowing lessons from hospitality also made Jaelle approach leasing from a different lens: Instead of simply renting out a space with a limited time frame, she would negotiate like a hotelier, and only sign long-term contracts with partners, not landlords. This means that her rent is pegged to revenue. “They tend to see us delivering value to the area rather than just rent. So they see us as a partner,” she explains. 

For Jaelle, these decisions were in-built from the start of the brand to ensure sustainability and longevity. Unlike tech companies that have been built for impact and reach, pursuing growth instead of profit, The Great Room bucked that trend and remained steadfast in its belief that it has to make money. It turned a profit within a year of operation, and today boasts more than 3,000 members. 

Jaelle borrows this philosophy from former Goldman Sachs senior partner Gus Levy, who came up with the term “long-term greedy”. 

“I am not all saintly and altruistic; I am long-term greedy. I am thinking of my longer horizons as a woman, as a mother, as a force, and as a guardian of a business. 

“From the onset, [my co-founders and I] were working with our money, and when it’s your money versus large institutional money, you put in good foundational habits. It’s old school, but we were very focused on profitability compared to a lot of other self-proclaimed tech companies who feel like they just want market share – it doesn’t matter if they’re bleeding. 

“Labelling and calling it out as ‘long-term greedy’ helps me and my investors, because I am not saying I won’t get you your money; I am not saying that I’m sacrificing my profits for my war. I’m saying we’re going to win long and win big.” 

She likens her strategy to stringing pearls: “We’re still going one location at a time. It’s slow, but eventually, you get to that beautiful string of pearls.” 

Overcoming gender perceptions  

In 2022, The Great Room made news when it was acquired by US-based co-working space Industrious. This investment gives The Great Room members access to Industrious’ 150+ spaces across the US and Europe, and also access to resources that elevate The Great Room experience. 

Jaelle remains the CEO of The Great Room, and now reports to Industrious’ CEO and co-founder Jamie Hodari. “For an entrepreneur, it’s a milestone. It means that something you’ve built is validated and has great value,” she says of the acquisition. “I’m basically transitioning from being an entrepreneur founder to a professional.”

Has life changed since the acquisition? “I do a retrospective audit called the Typical Tuesday Test, which basically is: How has your life changed on a typical Tuesday? My days are longer, because I also keep US hours. But there is definitely less stress and mental burden on one person, as I have become part of something larger.”

Like any entrepreneur, her journey has not been without its hurdles, especially given her gender. While globally, less than 3 per cent of funding goes to female-led companies, Singapore fares better, with 54 per cent of women receiving funding. But that doesn’t mean that Jaelle hasn’t faced discrimination as a female leader.

In a rare moment of vulnerability, she shares an incident when she was courting a local MNC for funding: “We had been talking to a large institution for a while. We’d gone through due diligence, and everything had checked out. After the fourth or fifth meeting, when things were progressing, I was leaving the meeting and stepping into the lift. The head honcho stopped and asked me, ‘If we fund you, what about your kids?’ It caught me completely by surprise.” 

The mother-of-four adds: “I realised that it had been at the back of his mind. He didn’t say it in front of his entourage. It was only when it was me and him. It was the moment when he was deciding whether to fund or not; it was not a rational decision, because everything checked out. It was emotional.” 

She didn’t get the funding, but was happy with her answer. “I said, ‘I started this company when I had twins. Tomorrow, I’ll continue as I always do’.” 

Such situations might have rattled her in the beginning, but Jaelle is more confident as she has built a proven track record. “[This confidence] comes with large institutions choosing us, and working with us.” 

Finding her voice 

It was, perhaps, not easy for the self-proclaimed introvert, who still gets nervous when she has to speak to a large audience. 

“People don’t see it now, but I am naturally shy, and a little awkward and introverted,” she shares. “I am not the outspoken, obvious leader type.” 

The friendly and chatty CEO reveals that she’s comfortable in smaller settings. I remember the first time we met: It was at an informal women’s round-table, and while she was not the loudest nor the most outspoken female founder at the table, she commanded a silent authority. The table would fall quiet when she spoke up, obviously keen to hear her nuggets of wisdom. 

It wasn’t always this way. “When I started in 2016 and was raising funds, I actually did my first public speaking only then, because a mentor gave me the opportunity to do so in front of high-net-worth individuals at DBS who were interested in real estate. My mentor said, ‘If you’re not going to speak in front of them, when someone gives you an opportunity and you say no, how are you going to lead? How are you going to raise funds, build a company, recruit people, and sell?’” 

She said yes to everything that came her way, small and big gigs just for practice. “I would say yes, and panic for days before the actual event.”

After years of being in the hot seat, she’s now more interested in being a moderator. “I love speaking to people because I am naturally curious,” she says.  

A life-long learner 

This curiosity has also held her in good stead as The Great Room expands regionally. With current locations in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and an upcoming one Sydney, she enjoys the exercise of exploring new cultures and adapting The Great Room’s ethos accordingly. “It’s humbling, because you learn how people use the space, how they interact, how they gather. There’s humility in learning,” she says. 

It’s this deep desire to constantly keep learning that has helped Jaelle remain nimble and quick-witted. She still regularly embarks on her “EDDs”, going into detail about subjects as diverse as design (she studied architecture), wellness and psychology. Right now, her passion lies in discovering “the pragmatic applications of AI”. 

In fact, when asked how she would spend an extra hour in the day, she responds without skipping a beat: “Embarking on an EDD.” 

And that’s perhaps what makes Jaelle such a diverse and delightful conversationalist. Introverted nature notwithstanding.

PHOTOGRAPHY Clement Goh, assisted by Veronica Tay
HAIR & MAKEUP Eunice Wong & Sha Shamsi
LOCATION The Great Room South Bridge