As Founder CEO and Executive Chairman of MindChamps PreSchool Limited, David Chiem’s approach has always been focused on ‘staying ahead of the curve’.
He has taken the organization from point zero in 2008 to the number one position in market share in the highly competitive Singapore premium preschool space. MindChamps PreSchool Limited was successfully listed on the mainboard of the Singapore Exchange in 2017, which has led to the creation of a globally recognised preschool brand. Today, MindChamps PreSchool has over 80 centres globally.
David sits on the boards of MindChamps PreSchool Limited and its non-listed subsidiaries and the MindChamps Holdings Pte. Limited group of companies, and is the Chairman of Actors Centre Australia, one of the top acting schools in Australia, with Hugh Jackman as its patron.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for accepting my interview invitation! I’d love to know how you ended up becoming an entrepreneur? Tell me your story.
David Chiem: I don’t think I set out originally to become ‘an entrepreneur’, but I guess it was inevitable that I would become one. What is an entrepreneur, after all? It’s a term that has been loosely-used – even a buzzword. An entrepreneur is more than someone who simply ‘runs’ a business. It is a person who sees an opportunity to make a change to the status quo. It may be to build a totally new business or to disrupt the way a particular business has been run previously – or it may be to change the way we, as a society, do something. For me, it was to fill in the gaps and change the way education has been seen for hundreds of years.
Since I was young, coming to Australia as a refugee at the age of nine, I have always been keen to observe the gaps – the missing elements; the things that could be done better – and to ask the question, ‘Why?’ Why is it done that way? Why do people do what they do? When we were kids, we assumed that the government would solve all the problems – fill in the gaps, but when we grow up, we realise that governments can’t solve all the problems. But rather than blaming the government, I realised that while government systems try their best, systems are made out of people and people have pride, greed, jealousy and a tendency to stay within the comfort-zone. That’s why some gaps never get filled. Being an entrepreneur, for me, came from a desire to fill in those gaps – particularly, the gaps I saw, globally, in education.
I remember when we first arrived in Australia, my father said to us that for every one of us who made it, someone had died, and we owed it to them to make a difference. He also said, “Mum and Dad love you so much and can work hard and give you many things, but those things can be taken away from you.” He clicked his fingers, “Just like that. The only thing we can give you that no one can take away is your education.”
Tell our readers what your company does differently than your peers and why that difference is so important to your audience?
David Chiem: Although we are interested in education at all levels and ages, we realised early that the most important years – the years that lay the foundations for all future development – are the early years, from birth to six years old.
It’s an unfortunate fact that almost anyone can set up a preschool and though there are some basic rules we all have to adhere to, the range of quality between different preschools is astronomical.
We knew that if we were going to make a difference in the preschool education space, we would need to know more – to understand what the global experts understood about early years education and development. This is why what we do is different. It is based on the latest research and understandings not just from the domain of Education, but from the domains of Psychology and Neuroscience and – as education is all about engagement – the domain of Theatre, too. From our more than two decades of research and our collaboration with global giants in these 4 Domains, we have created our 3 Minds education model for nurturing the Learning Mind, the Creative Mind and (underpinning them both) what we call the Champion Mind. That’s why we penned the book The 3 Mind Revolution in 2007.
The New York Times and Washington Post #1 best-selling author Dr Joseph Michelli describes the MindChamps 3-Mind model of education as ‘a new global movement in education.’
In his 2019 book, The MindChamps Way – How to Turn an Idea into a Global Movement, he wrote: “While the companies featured in my prior books [Starbucks, Mercedes-Benz, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company] demonstrate impressive brand power, none of them has been in a position to fundamentally shape society on par with MindChamps.”
Running a business, your’s or on behalf of someone requires great leadership skills. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced as you took on a leader’s role and what did you learn?
David Chiem: Any entrepreneur knows that there will always be challenges, but in the end, how we deal with external crises (financial crises, pandemics etc.) depends greatly on our SELF.
As the Dalai Lama said: “When you think that everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realise that everything springs from yourself, you will learn both joy and peace.”
As it turns out, many of the learnings that helped me in the journey, I actually learned before I became an entrepreneur, during my years in the world of theatre and film.
On my first day at Theatre School, I looked proudly around the auditorium, not knowing exactly what to expect. There were only 29 other students and we’d made it through the rigorous auditions for Theatre Nepean in Sydney,
When the Head of the School entered, he began by saying, “If any of you are here to be a movie-star, there’s the door. You can leave right now.”
We all laughed, but the laughter died away very quickly, when we realised that he wasn’t joking.
He said: “For three years, the students at the Conservatorium will learn to play music by the masters of composition, but we all know that the most brilliantly-written piece of music – and even the most exquisite of instruments – mean nothing until someone brings their soul to it. As actors, you don’t have an instrument. You ARE the instrument.”
Some lessons we learn in life may only become crystal clear later on. Even though he’d been talking about acting, that lesson was integral for my growth as an entrepreneur. Leadership is a process of Becoming – of learning to master and control ‘the instrument’ – Self.
Success is not an accident. What are some routines and habits you learned to master that contributed to your current success?
David Chiem: Success is definitely not an accident. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, for an entrepreneur, it’s about mastery of Self. In my upcoming new book, Trinity Leadership, I reflect on the 3 key areas of Self, Thinking and Strategy. But it starts with Self. We are creatures of emotion, and emotion is a critical part of our make-up, but if we are to master emotion and use it to help us achieve our goals, we need to recognise it and learn how to lead it. Otherwise, it will lead us.
Carl Jung once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
I’ve always believed that ‘Emotion ‘un-led’ is the No 1 enemy of Wisdom’ and there are routines and habits that help me control emotion.
One is a technique I learned from a Tai Chi master who had been working with the actors at the Sydney Theatre Company when I was there.
He had a master’s energy, and every morning, he would come in, look at us for a long moment, then say, “And… And… Relax shoulder…”
The Art of Tai Chi understands the direct relationship between the physical, the mental and the spiritual, and what was wonderful was that every time we did it, we released the tension we were carrying. Each time, I could feel the energy of the entire room shift. This, for me, has been one of the most powerful habits. At moments when emotion is escalating, I say to myself, ‘And… And… Relax shoulder.’ In terms of the neuroscience, it helps disperse the build-up of cortisol and replaces it with serotonin which brings the frontal cortex into play and enables us to think more clearly.
Can you share with us defining moments in your journey, please give us details and stories to illustrate?
David Chiem: I’ve already mentioned the influence of my father’s advice when we arrived in Australia. That was certainly a defining moment in my journey. Another came when I was 14. We heard on the radio that they were casting for a starring role in a mainstream drama series. My sister said, as a joke, “Starring role… Why not you?”
That night, when I went to bed, I thought, ‘Yeah, why not me?” It’s a question that could have gone either way, so it was a defining question. I could have come up with a hundred strong reasons why not. That I had no experience; that no one in my family had ever been involved in anything like that – that it wasn’t in the Chiem family genes – however, I asked why NOT? Even if it seems impossible, if it’s never been done. By asking the question that way, I went on to become the first Asian to star in a mainstream drama in Australia.
It’s a lesson that has served me well over my years as an entrepreneur.
What are the five things you wish someone had told you before you became an entrepreneur?
David Chiem: No one is immune from making mistakes. In his research into Champion Mindset, our Chair of Research, Professor Allan Snyder, demonstrates that one of the 3 key elements that makes a champion is overcoming adversity.
Setbacks enable us to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves for the future. In fact, one of the key attributes we promote at MindChamps is the ability to turn setbacks into set-ups, so I don’t think there’s anything I wish I’d been told. There are a few things I was told however – or that I’ve read – that, looking back now, have truly prepared me:
1. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: “Battles are won, firstly by the side that has the greatest competitive advantage, and secondly, by the side that makes the fewest mistakes, for every battle is won before it is fought.” That wisdom has been something of a mantra for me. We make mistakes when our strategy is unclear, or badly communicated and we gain competitive advantage if our strategy is sound. If we control our emotions, understand ourselves and refine our thinking, our strategy will improve accordingly, and we will win more battles than we lose – which must be the aim of every entrepreneur.
2. My long-time friend, Scott Hicks is an Oscar-nominated director and an Emmy-Award winner. On the subject of standards, one of the key pieces of advice he gave me was simple but profound: ‘Never be afraid to expect excellence.’ Often, our fear of offending someone can lead us to accept second-best. In the MindChamps boardroom, we have a poster, which says, ‘At MindChamps, we challenge ideas, never each other.’
3. When I was moving from the world of theatre and film into the business arena, I read widely from the works of successful business leaders. From Jack Welch, I learned that you need to run your organisation like a bullet-train. You must continue to paint and upgrade the train, but the trick is – you can’t stop the train to do it.
4. On my first day at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, the head of the school congratulated us on being the few ‘chosen ones’. Then, he said, “You’re here because you have talent, but now you’re here, park your talent somewhere else. There are millions of people with talent, but those who rely on talent alone will max out. You’re here to learn the CRAFT.” It’s a powerful lesson. Just as in the Arts, there is a Craft to entrepreneurship.
5. Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This powerful lesson reminds us why there are gaps in society. To fill the gaps, as an entrepreneur, we must never judge or blame. For me it’s about seeing something others haven’t seen, but more importantly, it’s about doing good – making a difference. That’s why MindChamps was established ‘to be here for good’ – and for good.
Oftentimes we hear: “Your network is your net worth”, please share your thoughts on that adage and illustrate your experience.
David Chiem: There are two ways to build a network. The first is the ‘networker’ who, like the Facebook fanatic, surrounds him/herself with ‘friends’ and ‘likes’. Building a superficial network of associates and near-strangers can glean a few benefits, but, in the end, it is about the quality of your network – not the quantity.
Like everything else in entrepreneurship, it is ultimately about becoming. Do the hard work, become, as Gandhi advised, ‘the change you wish to see,’ and you will attract the interest and the friendship of people who genuinely share your passions and goals. That is how we built our network of internationally recognised experts in psychology, neuroscience, education, business, literature, music, film and theatre, who share their enthusiasm and expertise because they trust in us and our vision. That’s when you truly realise your ‘net worth’.
What are some professional or even personal goals you plan on tackling during the 2022 year? Share the battles you expect to face.
David Chiem: In telling the story of MindChamps and filling the gaps in education, the personal and the professional are intertwined for me. MindChamps began in 1998 where I grew up – in Sydney, Australia.
We began with a small research team, but in order to take it to the world, it was clear we had to prove it in one of the most rigorous educational environments anywhere – Singapore – which is also the gateway between the East and the West. Now that we have achieved that, we’ve brought it back home to Australia to benefit Aussie children. This is something very close to my heart because this is the country that gave me a second chance at life. Now, 2022 will see us bringing our movement to the US. There will be challenges, but we’re ready for them.
With all the social media platforms available, it’s increasingly difficult to be present everywhere. Which ones do you favor for your company and why?
David Chiem: The social media platforms have great power – for good or ill – and it’s important that whatever you do in relation to the online community, you stick closely to your goals and your values and don’t allow the medium to become the message.
With the power to influence comes the obligation not to abuse that power. Our audience is families and children, and we remain acutely aware of the responsibility that that places on us. Every platform is different and like any other aspect of business, it’s about strategy – how you maximise the strengths of each platform and overcome its weaknesses in relation to your overall goals. We use different platforms for different purposes, but always with the needs and the vulnerabilities of our often very young audience in mind.
Jerome Knyzweski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank David Chiem for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with David Chiem or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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