Stephanie Chai is busy.
From the time I spotted herat KLIA as we were to board our flight for our shoot in Bangkok, she was killing time on various devices from laptop to mobile, managing and dealing with whatever it was that was on her plate as CEO of The Luxe Nomad.
This isn’t a woman who dawdles. So when I say Stephanie leaves nothing to chance, apparently she had planned her life and career trajectory since she was 14.
As we settle in the Library at The Siam in Bangkok she muses, “I always had a life plan because I’m a bit odd. From when I was 14… I thought I’d try to do modelling and TV if they would have me in my younger days because you have to be young to do it. And then I originally thought by the age of 25, I would start my own business but then, that didn’t happen until maybe around 27.”
Even if she was two years off target when she started her own business, there is no doubt that she is committed. Part humble sweetheart, part driven CEO and part sex symbol, she is what we like to term as The Triple Threat. She’s got brains, beauty and if she were a road sign, it would read, “Warning: Dangerous Curves Ahead.”
It brings to mind Melanie Griffith’s statement from the film Working Girl, “I got a head for business and a body for sin.” Although sinful she is not, she is – in contrast to her Venus-like curves – decidedly wholesome. Someone you would describe as a ‘good girl’ and all the qualities that go with that from mature, to sensible and level-headed.
Although I have to say there is an insouciance about her, in the mischievous wink and her smile. Stephanie Chai first burst onto the scene as a model and then presenter.
Models and presenters are a bit like athletes – youth is a premium as she says and there is only a short lifespan before someone younger comes along and beguiles the public.
In Southeast Asia, there simply isn’t enough money in the industry for presenters to carve out a sense of financial security or opportunities such as Oprah Winfrey or Ryan Seacrest might get, simply because ofthe market size. Some forge ahead with their career, trying to manage the ebb and flow of public interest, some just seem to fade away and others end up marrying well.
Stephanie Chai is one of the few exceptions who decided toleave the industry when she was at the top, that she was going to get serious and just do something else with her life.
In this case, she decided to become an entrepreneur in the parallel reality of the digital universe.
Stephanie’s first entrepreneurial endeavour was a wedding planning company. The project, whilst garnering some modest interest, wasn’t enough to keep her going. In the end, a friend showed her an online luxury travel company, and that’s where she fell in love with the idea and The Luxe Nomad was born.
Now in the challenge-ridden world of the startup, funding or lack thereof, is the first roadblock which tests the mettle of even the most driven of entrepreneurs. But for the woman who has been planning since she was 14, it was something she was ready to meet head-on.
As she says, “The reason why I also did modelling and TV commercials, was to build up that nest egg. So by the time I started my own business, I was OK.” Nest egg firmly in place, she then went about looking for an investor.
I asked her if her public profile as a model and celebrity was a help or a hindrance.
She says, “I would say naturally it should hinder you, right? Because on paper you’re a model slash TV presenter. I did have a very dusty, old finance degree, which was never utilised from university, but you know what, people invest in you based on when they meet you and how you articulate yourself. When I hire people, I can meet people who went to great universities but after a few minutes of speaking to them, you can tell whether someone’s smart or not. I’m not saying I’m so smart but I knew what I was talking about.”
I zero in on her statement that “naturally it should hinder”and ask her to qualify, to which she responded with, “It should hinder you as we have all these stereotypes coming from the TV or modelling. People joked that they invested in me because of the way I looked. But ultimately that’s not going to be enough, it’s going to be about your personality and the business idea that you have.”
At this point Stephanie managed to lull me into such a state of comfort as an interviewer, that I brazenly decided to ask her, “And did the fact that you know, you’re a woman, you’re very curvy (and it’s all real by the way)… it can give someone this image which – they don’t usually associate intelligence with boobs?”
Not missing a beat, she says with a laugh, “No, I don’t think you can say that, they’re not all like A cups in business. No, but when I go for business meetings, I wouldn’t be wearing this outfit (a very fetching romper that showcases her long pins perfectly), I’d be dressed in more conservative wear and I don’t put on a lot of makeup.”
It’s an interesting thought process she has, to be taken seriously in business, the looks need to be dialled back and modesty is key. She seems to be conscious of the fact that perhaps looking too good may not be good for business.
I have to postulate the idea that her choice on being more conservative seems to contrast with certain female CEOs who wear their Louboutin shoes, designer bags and Roland Mouret dresses as armour in the corporate world. It’s a bit like Superman dressing down as Clark Kent just to blend in, lest those superpowers radiate too much interest than necessary.
As CEO, she is also conscious of not attracting unwanted attention, the kind that has exploded into the #MeToo movement.
“I never meet anyone for drinks or dinner, that’s why when we had this whole “#MeToo” thing come out, I understand it’s great that this has happened and I think there are women out there who are under a lot of pressure but you have to be a little bit realistic about things, you know and you have to be careful. I mean I would never go into someone’s hotel room for a drink and things like that. As a woman you have to overthink sometimes just so the other person doesn’t misinterpret anything.”
On her role as CEO, she also demonstrates a great ability for introspection when I asked her what she was like as “The Boss”, managing as she does right now a team of 41 people.
“I think I’m very reflective and definitely I can be tough with great expectations but I think maybe how you are as a leader is also a result of how you were raised by your parents and my parents were very tough on me. So, I give compliments but not every day like ‘hey, great job’ because it is your job.”
“I’ve apologised to the team before if I made a mistake…I hope I instil those values in them where it doesn’t matter what stage you are, we’re all pretty equal. Everyone can give an idea and we’re quite direct but there’s no politics in the company. I mean it’s harder to control as the company gets bigger but I really like to have that close-knit family feeling and if I ever hear any “da da da” (rumblings of unhappiness), I try to nip it in the bud.”
The Luxe Nomad is not, it seems, the end-all of her being. When asked if this is her retirement plan, she is quick to state that this is where she will be for the next 3-5 years.
Next stop, she sees herself in public service serving the environment. “I would like to work with governments on solutions to change things. I think there’s only so much public awareness in campaigning you can do when you really have to change things from the legal standpoint. When it becomes the law, then there’s a material change.”
Whilst she is happy to talk about CEO Stephanie, there is a reticence in speaking about the woman behind the public image. Still in her mid-30s, there is a side of her that does want marriage, and all that comes with it, and I wonder if perhaps her drive and ambition might be intimidating to the average man. To which she concedes but quickly qualifies, “Yeah, but then at the same time I think that if you run your own business, you have greater expectations of the person you’re seeing and you kind of need someone who wouldn’t get scared off anyways.”
However, Stephanie The Woman says of her still-single status, “The right guy arrives at the right time I suppose. Smart, funny, charming, driven, kind, loyal, boyishly handsome and a bit of a dreamer. British accent a plus,” is how she describes Mr Right.
Like her own career, and in true Chai style, she has given this much thought. Stephanie Chai is not a person who waits for things to happen.
She plans and she makes it happen.
She doesn’t come across as a dreamer, rather someone who is a planner, a realist mixed with some intuitive pragmatism. She is preternaturally self-assured, but armed with an EQ that makes her more accessible.
She says that when she was young, her parents would askwhy not an A plus when she got an A. Which seems to be the pattern for people from whom much is expected, much will they do. And that is the case with Stephanie.