Dr. Elaine Kim: Meaning in Death, Life Seasons & Know Your Why - E174

· Women,Start-up,Founder,Singapore,Podcast Episodes English

I think this concept of seasons is something that has been very helpful in my life on a practical basis. And understanding that you have to look after yourself too and can’t be everything to everybody. But just know what your mission is. Know your why and that will help you to know your season and make sure that you give your all to your why. - Dr Elaine Kim

Elaine Kim is a medical doctor, entrepreneur and educator. With over a decade of medical practice in palliative care, caring for terminally ill patients, she now serves as a clinical consultant for the Singapore Ministry Of Health. A passionate advocate for involved parenthood alongside career success, she is the CEO of Trehaus, an integrated co-lifestyle space for families with a preschool and childcare, office space and family club.

Elaine is also the co-founder and CEO of CRIB, a social enterprise that empowers women to become successful entrepreneurs. Actively involved in philanthropy, she has led awareness-building and fund-raising initiatives for charities such as BMDP, HCA Hospice Care and Dover Park Hospice raising over $1 million for causes that support patients with cancer, the terminally ill and victims of trafficking. She also launched CRIB's philanthropic arm CRIB Gives Back, which helps raise funds for charities, supports social enterprises and engages the philanthropic community, including through its "Holiday for Hope" programme which supports local communities in need in Cambodia and Nepal.

Elaine was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (WEF YGL). She is also a member of the International Women's Forum (IWF) , a member of the Milken Young Leaders Circle, and is actively involved in the Young President's Organisation (YPO).

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Elaine, excited to have you on the show.

Dr Elaine Kim: (00:32)
Hello, it’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: (00:35)
I’m really excited to share your story because I first met you at Clubhouse and thought you were fun, warm, and real. You also have an interesting journey from being a doctor to being a founder and operator and it’s interesting to share your story with the other folks.

Dr Elaine Kim: (00:54)
Aw, you’re too kind. The respect is mutual. Looking forward to share what little I can and being helpful to anybody who might be hearing this podcast.

Jeremy Au: (01:04)
So, Elaine, who are you?

Dr Elaine Kim: (01:05)
Who am I? I wear a whole bunch of hats. Professionally, I’m a doctor in Palliative care. That has always been my interest and been doing it over a decade, looking over terminally ill patients. I guess the other big thing that I’m working on is I’m also an entrepreneur and investor working on Trehaus which was created to solve a lot of the problems that working parents face. So, we have a co-working space with childcare where parents can work just a few steps away while being cared for by wonderful caregivers. They don’t have to choose between career and family anymore. I’m also passionate about education, in particular early education. So, I started a preschool and childcare called Trehaus School which takes in kids from 6 months to 18 years and develop them into being changemakers of the future. That’s my work side of things. As a female entrepreneur, I also run a non-profit social enterprise called Crip which focuses on empowering women to achieve their business dreams through networking, mentorship, etc. We also run a platform called Pitch Perfect Plus which matches amazing female founders with a curated set of investors. We also have a charity arm that supports women and children in need. I’m also a mom of three. I’ve got three little boys – 10, 8, and 4. Motherhood is a huge part of my life and has shaped all the other stuff that I’m doing.

Jeremy Au: (04:30)
Thank you, Elaine. Let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you decide to be a doctor?

Dr Elaine Kim: (04:46)
The funny thing is, before I was going to university, I was trying to decide between being a doctor. I come from a family of doctors, so it was always somewhat ingrained in me that that could be one path. But I was actually also really passionate about entrepreneurship and business. And I started my first business when I was in junior college, actually, when I was 17 years old. With another of my dear friends, who also is a huge entrepreneur right now. I always had all these business ideas and things that I wanted to do in entrepreneurship and a deep passion for it. So I was trying to decide between going to Med school or Business School because I was also brought up with a really deep sense of wanting to give back to people and as a doctor it’s like a very clear way that you can do that as well. In either situation, the intent would have been to be able to give back to society in one way or another, to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives and make an impact, whether it’s through business or Med school. In the end, chose Med school because I figured you can actually go to Med school first and become a doctor and then do business later, but it’s a lot harder to actually start in business and then try and become a doctor later. So it was like a practical decision to just go to Med school first. And I’m glad that I did it. Very glad that I’ve been able to still pursue my business dreams in the end and also still able to give back to society and in my own way through, especially in my work in palliative care, which I find deeply meaningful and impactful. And yeah, I’m glad to have been able to have that opportunity to do that.

Jeremy: (06:28)
I love that. Can’t decide which to do, just do both, but sequence them in the right order. Why and how did you decide to go into Palliative care?

Dr Elaine Kim: (07:00)
Sure. The field is actually still very new, palliative care. I always knew even when I was in school that I had a huge heart for the elderly and I wanted to do something in that space, helping the elderly in particular. And so when I was in housemanship, I had a mentor who I looked up to immensely, he was a geriatrician and my intent was to maybe do Geriatrics, which is looking after the elderly but this mentor, he looked at me and he said I think that you might be suited to look at palliative care and there’s this role. Why don’t you think about joining that? And I was like, what is palliative care? I didn’t think that I actually wanted to do it because when I found out what it is, is all the patients are dying. I didn’t really know, but then I started out at HC Hospice care, which is a home care provider where they actually go to the homes of people who are terminally ill to provide care for them. And I started there and I just have been in the palliative care space ever since because I’ve got to be honest. When I first started out at palliative care, it was hard to see the patients die and so that first bump was hard. And then after that you start developing relationships also with the patients and then it gets even harder because you develop relationships with the patients and then they pass away. I’ve actually come to understand that so many of my patients, they’re really quite ready to go. They’ve lived full lives and my role is really not about adding days to life is about adding life to days. There’s so much meaning in being able to add this richness to the last days of their lives, not just the clinical medical part, but the psychosocial aspects of helping them to be comfortable for sure. But at the same time helping them fulfill last wishes, helping with reconciliation, helping them to do the things that they want to be doing and making the most of their last days and helping them prepare their legacy for their loved ones as well. And so it’s deeply rewarding when you have that perspective and realize that you can add so much to them as they’re in their last days of their lives. It’s actually deeply rewarding and also being able to relieve pain and suffering in the lives of these people and support not just the patient themselves, but also supporting the next of kin, families or relatives and it’s so meaningful. Palliative care is very meaningful. And I did mention earlier that a very big part of why I wanted to do it is to just, in one way or another, create a difference, a positive difference in the lives of others. And I really do believe that you are able to do it as a palliative care doctor and I’ve been in that field ever since, and it’s just been amazing to also see how this field has really grown since I first started out there. It’s really developed and people recognized nowadays that there were just a handful of doctors in palliative care when I started. I think our government is doing a great job here in Singapore as well of recognizing that it is something that we need to develop and make sure that every person has an ability to access good palliative care and pass away at their preferred place of death. So I think it’s really good to be able to see how this whole area has developed and impact more lives in the last days as such.

Jeremy Au: (10:30)
That was very powerful…but you mention people that you have built a relationship with dying on you. How do you cope being surrounded by so much death?

Dr Elaine Kim: (10:57)
And assuming this is palliative care, they’re aware that they’re passing. We were really making the most of the end of days. I actually have to say that it really helps me personally in terms of my perspective, in terms of understanding because I’m spending my days with people who have three months or less of life. Sometimes, it’s just two weeks left of life or something like that. It really crystallizes what’s important and helps you to have the right perspective, helps me to have the right perspective of what honestly matters. Nobody will say I wish I had more time working. They will always say I wish I had more time with my family. I wish I had more time with my grandchildren. It’s the loved ones that you want to be with and the relationships that really matter at the end of the day. I think it helps me to have a real perspective on what priorities we should be having in our lives. And I think that shaped a lot of what I’m doing ‘cause a lot of people will be telling me. You’re on one hand working with people who are very old and then on the other hand, working with their young children. In my work in Trehaus I think it actually ties in together because I’m working with people who are dying. I recognize that there's so much I can do with making sure that the young have an opportunity to live lives, and families have the opportunity to live lives prioritizing things that really matter at the end of their life. So yeah, it’s a different perspective that I think helps me not sweat the small stuff.

Jeremy Au: (12:35)
Interesting. When you are surrounded by death like that, do you ever think about your own death?

Dr Elaine Kim: (12:50)
Yes, I do, inordinately. I don’t fear it. I think I also have a Christian faith. To me, death is not something to be feared because of my beliefs as a Christian. Like, maybe there’s something better at the end of it. So they don’t look on it with fear so much, but more like, how do I make sure that the life that I live now is as impactful and meaningful as I can make it. But I do think about like what do I want to do if I was really ill, where would I want to spend it? What is the disease that I would least like to die from. I have thought about these things and it’s natural because it’s not that morbid in my perspective because I look at it on a very like matter of fact, without any fear and I think that’s the important part and to be thinking about it, to have that view of how precious our lives are and how fleeting our time on Earth is and how can we really live it with the most purpose and impact and make it meaningful. So I do think about it, but it’s not a bad thing necessarily.

Jeremy Au: (13:54)
I wouldn’t call it morbid since you deal with it day to day and it’s your job. What do you think of people caught up in the rat race, building things that may not be meaningful to you now and do they have that as regrets in their last days?

Dr Elaine Kim: (14:48)
As I mentioned a little bit earlier, it’s not really surprising, but you realize that what people regret at the end of the day is not having the relationships. I mean, people want to leave a legacy. I think that’s absolutely true. But when push comes to shove, it’s actually the relationships that are most treasured. And relationships that have broken or relationships that weren’t built. These are the things that people do regret at the end of the day. Not having treasure, that moment with the little ones. And that’s, I think what people think about in the end, I mean, legacy also tends to be about leaving a message for your next generation, if they have children, I suppose there are ways to leave a legacy by the impact that live on in other people as well as things that you’ve built. But I haven’t necessarily heard people say, ah, I wish I built some big business or something. Honestly, never heard anyone say that before or become really famous. Yeah, I’ve not heard it. In my experience, anecdotally, anyway.

Jeremy Au: (15:56)
What happens when you hang out with ambitious people? What do you make of them?

Dr Elaine Kim: (16:11)
I don’t think it’s at odds. I mean, I’m trying to build a billion dollar company myself right now. So I don’t think it’s at odds. It’s also what kind of motivates you? I’m not building this billion dollar company right now to be a billionaire. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m building this because I see the legacy that it’s gonna leave with Trehaus. I am really working incredibly hard to build a huge company that’s going to be able to impact as many people as possible, whether it’s children who are gonna go through our schools, families that are able to have that time with their children and that work life balance as they work and they don’t have to choose between their careers and their families by working and having their kids close to them. Also, we’re building educational technology platforms which allow us to be able to spread our content and our curriculum to schools around the world, especially schools where there aren’t good curriculums. There isn’t any good curriculum for a lot of rural schools and we want to be able to equip the teachers in the schools and that will impact inordinate amounts of children as well and decrease the inequality gap that we see sometimes. And these are my intention to make that positive impact on as many people as possible to be able to extend the difference that I’m going to be able to make in the lives of individuals. And I see that it’s making a difference in these lives and extending it and seeing the impact in as many lives as I can. That’s what drives me, so I don’t think it’s at odds. Being ambitious is not at all at odds with having an understanding of what matters in life. It’s just knowing why you’re doing it and kind of making sure that you are living your lives with that purpose in mind and not just blindly chasing something without truly understanding what you’re trying to do or what you’re trying to achieve or what is going to ultimately give you that sense of “I’ve lived my life well”, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s very in line actually.

Jeremy Au: (18:28)
I love that – ambition is okay as long as you are self-aware enough about why you are being ambitious. But time is a finite resource. How would you think about the tradeoffs between managing time being ambitious and still wanting to spend time with family and all these things?

Dr Elaine Kim: (19:16)
I definitely agree that time is a very precious commodity. It’s something that we’re blessed with and we should make the most of it. And I often get asked about how you balance my work as a doctor, balance my work as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship, by the way, is something that takes all your energy. It really does that. I think it’s very hard to be an entrepreneur without really knowing your purpose in being driven with the mission because there’s really never enough time at all when you’re building something and you’re building a business and you’re trying to be the best entrepreneur that you can be. You got to know what your priority is and why you’re doing it. The why is just so incredibly important. But yeah, juggling that and then of course being the best parent that every parent just wants to be. The very best parent that you want to be. And I am the same. I want to be 100% the best parent that I can be for my boys and how do I balance that? Sometimes I struggle to answer them. I did mention that I do have a faith as well. That kind of guides this to some degree because yeah, you know, I feel called on sometimes. I do believe in what we call a calling and I do believe that when you have a calling, you can be equipped with what you need to fulfill their calling, but not everybody shares this same faith that I do. But I mean, I have to be honest and say that is one aspect that does shape a lot of why I take on so many different things with the confidence that I can do it all well, there is a deeper level of faith that is involved in that, but on a practical basis, I do believe in this concept of seasons. I think that sometimes we try to be everything all at once, but actually what has really helped me is to recognize that there are different seasons in our lives where we can be everything but maybe just not all at the same time. So I had a season for example, I really focused on my work as a doctor. And really developing my skills as a doctor in palliative care. There was this season then that I decided that I wanted to focus on being the best mom I could be. Not that I’m not a good mom now. I still think he’s still priority to me, but at that time it’s like a season where I take a step back and I was a full time stay at home Mom for a short season. I wanted to get back into work and then a season where I was really building Crip, which is my nonprofit social enterprise for female entrepreneurs. And then there’s a season now which I think is a season when building this business Trehaus. It’s just about having a mindset where at this particular season, something is a priority. With some other things may need to take a back seat. For example, Treehouse now is a priority. Crib still runs and everything, but I’m less involved and I built a team to run it without necessarily having to put all my mind space there. Being a mom, you definitely do. But again, it’s a season where I feel like my kids are old enough. Now and they’re in primary school for my older two boys and there is time that has been freed up in that sense where I’m still very much in their lives. But again, it’s a season where I don’t have to be with them 24/7 like I was when they were younger. With my youngest son, he’s four, and that season ties in very nicely with my Trehaus season because in a sense, Trehaus exists because of the problems I saw as a parent and I wanted to be able to be in a place where I could solve all that. So with my youngest one, he actually goes to Trehaus school while I’m working at Trehaus. So I actually see him every day. I get to have that proximity with him while I’m building the business. And also building a business that will give him the best education. So that ties in beautifully as well with this new season of building Trehaus and leaving that legacy and through education and making sure that he really benefits from like he’s growing and thriving in it. To me, that is such an affirmation that we’re kind of using this season to build something that’s very important and it’s going to make a huge difference for generations to come. Yeah. So I think this concept of seasons is something that has been very helpful in my life on a practical basis. And understanding that you have to look after yourself too and can’t be everything to everybody. But just know what your mission is. Know your why and that will help you to know your season and make sure that you give your all to your why.

Jeremy Au: (23:54)
How do people discover their why?

Dr Elaine Kim: (24:06)
I don’t even feel like I had to consciously think about it. My why was always pretty clear, even when I was young. So I feel like I may not be the best person to answer somebody who doesn’t know their why. It’s been kind of ingrained or like, had a very strong sense of my why from a very young age, which was to impact as many people as possible and create a positive difference in the lives of others. So everything that I do is just I wouldn’t know how to get people to think about it. Actually ‘cause it just comes clearly and shaped me and just being so core to everything I do for such a long time. I haven’t even thought about why. I know my why. I know that’s not very helpful.

Jeremy Au: (24:52)
Yeah, it is what it is. The best way to know is to know it already.

Dr Elaine Kim: (25:11)
I’m sure you as a parent too. I wonder if parenthood has also shaped your concept of your why. I don’t know whether it has a bit of an influence on that too.

Jeremy Au: (25:24)
That’s a fair point. I think as someone who has also worked in education technology and worked with kids before and now having my own kid, I think one interesting psychological difference, at least from my perspective, was what my friend described as contract with the future and what I mean by that is the moment you have a kid. That means you know exactly what’s going to happen in 18 years, which is that your kid is going to go to College in 21 years. Your kid is going to graduate; that time progression that steps into place the moment you have a kid. And so most predicted future, and you must count your years of the future by the age of your kid. I think this is one level. Also, the fact that their kids may also have kids of their own, and your grandkids may have kids of their own. And so this means that you actually have contract with the future of humanity. And so the stuff that you do, how you’re raising the kids today is important, but also how you think about the world and culture and society and they say the legacy because it’s really important because truth is when you don’t have kids, global warming is an issue that’s going to take place in 100 years. But the fact that we have kids means that it’s totally cataclysmic. Our grand kids will suffer that. And so our knowledge of us having future kids, you know, we want to call that means that you’re more aware about longer timescales. I think that was a nice way we were having that deep conversation.

Dr Elaine Kim: (26:51)
That’s so true and it’s a clear legacy that you can see, I suppose.

Jeremy Au: (27:00)
Elaine, I’d love to start wrapping things up here by asking if you could tell us about a time you had been BRAVE?

Dr Elaine Kim: (27:06)
I mean, you’re an entrepreneur yourself, so I actually think that entrepreneurship takes a lot of bravery. And I think building this business as an entrepreneur, female entrepreneurs, has been maybe the hardest thing that I’ve had to do. It’s even harder than three kids. I think I always say that Trehaus, which is my business, is an incredibly challenging journey. I think entrepreneurship, embarking on something where you’re building a business, you have a responsibility to have investors, for example, raised a round, you’re protecting the faith that other investors have had in you and making sure that you return them. I’m really, really happy and at the same time building something that’s really gonna scale and grow and make a big impact and there’s so many things that are involved in entrepreneurship, so many ups and downs, ups can be really, really exciting. But the lows can be also low. I started my business, Trehaus and as I mentioned, it’s got a co-working space and it’s got a preschool. We started it several years ago, but we moved to a huge location 3 ½ times the size of our previous one in October 2019, which was just four months before COVID hit our shores. And so, gosh, I mean, that was really, really challenging. We just saw all our revenues. It was just impacted by the virus. Of course we were so thankful that the business has done tremendously well since then, but it’s really tough and it takes a lot of bravery. Again, think about the days that I wonder why am I doing all this? Like I could just be a Tai Tai if I wanted to. But then at the same time ‘cause, I’m driven by my why? And I have been driven by where it can go and what I can build, how much impact I can make and the lives I am changing and building something is incredibly satisfying, takes a lot of courage, I think. And to keep going as well when things are hard. I do really believe in that. It says that what doesn’t kill you just make you stronger. And I do feel stronger. I really do. When things were hard. I do feel like I’m coming out with more wisdom, more strength, more courage. I’m still trying my best to be brave. It’s everyday being an entrepreneur, that takes an amount of bravery I think.

Jeremy Au: (29:39)
Why is entrepreneurship so hard from your perspective?

Dr Elaine Kim: (29:44)
Why do I find it hard? I think if you really want to build something that is truly impactful, that is a great business. There’s a lot of things that have to work out. I mean, it’s not just about having the great idea. Yeah, you had to work incredibly hard to actually turn your vision into reality. You also have to inspire and encourage a team and build an incredibly good culture and a team that is willing to ride that journey with you. You have to paint that vision of what it’s going to be before it actually exists. So you have to do that as well if you’re raising outside investment, there’s that necessity to sell that vision, but also to fulfill that vision for your investors as well. And the thing is that so much of our journey as an entrepreneur is just unpredictable. A lot of factors that are out of your control. And so you need to be able to have that stability and that continued resilience to persevere when things just fall out of your control and not a positive way and to just be able to ride that through and believe that you can carry your business through all of that. So I think all of that is a huge challenge. I do have to mention also that because I do run a nonprofit for female entrepreneurs, and this is a very big reason why I started it, because as a female entrepreneur, I think we also do face quite specific challenges. There are certain biases that do exist, unfortunately, that do make it a little bit harder for women to make their business dreams come true. Expectations of women roles in culture and society that makes it hard for them to be able to plunge into entrepreneurship, which takes so much of our lives. I’ve got a VC husband who also very supportive, so I’m very fortunate in that sense, but there are also certain gender biases that a lot of people are not aware of, but they do exist. I mean, I mentioned earlier, like women get less than 3% of all VC funding and this is in spite of the fact that all the research shows that women businesses tend to be more profitable, they provide better returns and yet they get less funding. Definitely we do have to question whether we do have certain conditioning of certain biases. So just to give you an example of this, last year during Circuit Breaker, which is our lock down here in Singapore, if you remember it was a challenging time for my business and my husband, he runs a venture capital firm that’s quite global. So he was traveling a lot on pre COVID, but because of the COVID situation he was here in Singapore so he was able to be able to spend more time with our sons and I was really, really busy with my business so I could spend less time with my sons. And he said well, why don’t I take over the home based learning for now? Because you have to focus on your business and I had more time, that made absolute sense, but somehow I carried with me this mom guilt, this guilt that somehow I had it ingrained in me, that this is my job as a woman, as a mother, it is the role of the mother to do the home based learning of the kids or whatever. And I had to realize that I have been conditioned with the roles as much as I’m a big proponent of empowering women and opportunities for women, I have been conditioned, even myself with the roles that we are supposed to play in society. And I had to consciously remind myself that this makes sense, and there’s nothing to be guilty about. There’s nothing to worry about. And this is just an example of the myriad of small biases that we hold in ourselves that make it a challenge that lead to these numbers of less than 3% of VC funding to women led startups. It’s like a death by a thousand cuts like it’s a lot of cumulative issues and I can go on for a lot longer. I thought of other factors, but we do face some challenges and I started Crip so that I could help to level the playing field a little bit and encourage people encourage other women, make sure that strong networks are built and they’re not all boys clubs. Making sure that there’s good mentorship and role models so people think about the possibilities of them as women as well, and making sure that there are more people who are thinking about funding women businesses. I think a big part of it is that you also don’t see a lot of investors who are women and so we need to raise that as well and raise up more female VC’s and raise up more women investors because. They understand the businesses that women founders are going to start as well, and they also understand that it’s absolutely possible to be able to have that drive and ambition and the ability to achieve as a female entrepreneur, even if you have a family. And that's the kind of future that I’m working with and the mindset shift that I’m trying to create. Both with Crip and both with Trehaus. So yeah, it’s hard. I think it’s a hard journey, but it doesn't mean that it's not doable. And I want to tell women out there who are thinking about starting a business. You can do it, especially if you’re working parent. You can do it as a society to help create the infrastructure. I see Trehaus as one of the pieces of creating the infrastructure of this space that allows you to have that work life balance and to be able to achieve your business dreams as well or your career without having to sacrifice your role as a parent. So that’s what drives me.

Jeremy Au: (35:26)
Wow. That was a lot. Elaine, thank you so much for coming on the show. I’d love to paraphrase to three big things I learned from this conversation.
The first, of course, was thank you so much for sharing a little bit about how you became a doctor, which was that you want to be a doctor first and then be an entrepreneur leader. So smart way, I think to do both.
And I think that was interesting because we got very quickly to the second thing which was about, I think, death and life and what it means in terms of seeing meaning and being present with the last days of so many folks and seeing that nobody regretted about work. But did regret a lot about their relationships and how they spend their time. And I think there was a great discussion that we had about how that impacts how people think about life and how you think about life and what’s important, and that is not necessarily a trade off with ambition, but more of saying that let’s just be more self aware about what the ambition is about, which is really about legacy.
And lastly thank you so much for I think just sharing a lot about your why, about how you're tackling being a female entrepreneur and founder, and why you think entrepreneurship is hard but also bringing that not just from a business sphere, but also from that tradeoff dynamics where you describe as mum guilt at one level, but the part describing in terms of the structural issues that are also at play. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Elaine.

Dr Elaine Kim: (36:53)
Thank you so much, Jeremy, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.