Upskilling: An entrepreneur’s silver lining in the pandemic

Ruq has taken on many hats in the past 40 years of her career. She was at one point, an engineer, a conference organiser, a techno entrepreneur. Now as a home cooking entrepreneur, she’s facing her latest challenge yet - COVID-19. Get a glimpse of how she found the strength to ride out the pandemic.

Our Stories
Wong Wing Lum

Ruqxana Vasanwala and I were seated across one another at her part-workstation part-home situated along Fidelio Street at Simei as she took us a trip down memory lane.

The attempt to recount the peaks and troughs of her life leading up to this moment was almost cathartic. After all, she has already taken on such a diverse portfolio of roles and industries over the course of her career.

At 60 years old, it seems like her journey has only just begun.

Ruq’s gung-ho attitude towards life’s trials and tribulations is a testament to her resilience when push comes to shove. Parts of Ruq’s larger-than-life personality translate into elements that make up the physical space surrounding us.

Sitting in front of her house lies a rustic Volkswagen Beetle, which Ruq has on multiple occasions, switched off its engine and playfully slid downslope before parking nicely outside the home.

A quiet serenity wraps the exterior of her home. Her front porch - generously decorated with oriental pieces, handcrafted wood furniture, and climbing vines - was reminiscent of Balinese villas facing rice terraces that were carved into the hills.

Her seven cats, all quirkily named after kitchen spices, sprawled across all corners of her home at the most unusual of sleeping spots.

Cat of Cookery Magic
Exhibit One: Cat on stove

And finally, the place where all the magic happens: her outdoor kitchen. A gentle juxtaposition exists between modern and tradition. Amidst the trendy bar stools and gasoline stoves surrounding her island countertop, you can find traditional kitchen relics passed down from one generation to another. Just occasionally, the batu giling (grindstone) laying at the corner might just momentarily outshine its charismatic owner.    

No stranger to life’s turbulences

There’s a quiet conviction about Ruq, founder of Cookery Magic, a home cooking business established in 2001. While COVID-19 may have been unlike anything she has experienced before, Ruq was never the type to opt for the safer route.

Ruq graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic. True to her nature as a born rebel, she took up engineering at that time because she “wanted to make a statement” in a male-dominated industry.

She spent the first four years of her career as an engineer. Though intrinsically, she never truly aligned with the field.

“I did it because I had to do it, I didn’t have the guts to get out of it.”

When she was retrenched after her last engineering company closed down, she found a silver lining to muster the courage to try for a career switch.

Ruq went on to join the conference management industry as an organiser, and soon after that stint, she also started and ran her own IT startup for a few years.

Reflecting on her techno entrepreneur journey, she recalled challenging moments that pushed her to the edge. Until business gained momentum, Ruq and her co-founders had to go without salary for eight months.

“People invited me for birthdays, I would say no, I’m busy because I couldn’t afford birthday presents,” she said.

“Yes, of course it was scary, but you just try and make the best of what you can.”

The Origins of Cookery Magic

Cliche as it sounds when we marvel at how unexpected life turns out to be, it’s exactly what led to the inception of Cookery Magic.

The inspiration behind starting her longest-lasting, passion-sustained career was a serendipitous moment in the home kitchen of a Japanese woman in Tokyo.

Even decades later, Ruq still sang praises of that profound encounter. The experience of immersing herself in someone’s home in a foreign country spurred her to start something similar of her own.

Ruq’s first class was more of “an informal get-together”, where she was approached by her friends to hold a Thai green curry cooking class. Word spread and soon after, she started to receive emails from people that she did not know.

“It wasn’t planned for, I didn’t have a name for the class,” she said.

The very same narrative of how Cookery Magic also kept business thriving for the next two decades to come. Her business enjoyed a quiet yet consistent success riding on the power of referrals, which had led to both local and foreign press coverage.

Classes are always hands-on and close to nature | Credit: Cookery Magic

“People just started coming - I did not advertise, I had no marketing, no budget, nothing. I just went with the flow,” Ruq added.

Ruq has received a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor as one of the best-rated workshops and classes in Singapore. She was also listed on Lonely Planet, notable travel guide publisher.

The most memorable of it all? Being made Singapore Tourism’s Board Passion Ambassador in 2018. Among many perks that came along with it, Ruq found most fulfilment from being able to represent Singapore abroad.

Upskilling becoming a necessity

Like many entrepreneurs, Ruq’s business was badly hit by COVID-19. The pandemic has not only disrupted her business but also robbed Ruq of a sense of rhythm and normalcy.

A large proportion of Cookery Magic’s clientele were tourists. As a Singapore Passion Ambassador, Ruq’s business saw a boom in South Korean visitors after an appearance in a popular Korean variety television show in late 2019.

But this was short-lived. Everything changed when the pandemic hit global and local shores in early 2020. The closure of our national borders, coupled with the local circuit breaker, translated into an almost plateau for her business for months on end.

“It was really scary, I didn’t know if it was going to last three months, six months, nine months. You have no money coming in, only have money going out. So what do you do?”

With no potential end in sight, Ruq was caught at a crossroad.

The first option was to close the shutters, move back with her mother and get another job. The second option was to hold on and tough out the challenging season.

“This is a 20-year-old business, it’s so sad to just let it go. So I decided no, let’s just hang on and let me see what I can do,” she said.

Prior to COVID-19, word of mouth kept Cookery Magic’s business growing at a comfortable pace.

“I know everybody out there was doing SEO (search engine optimisation) and all that. But to me, because I have people coming in, there was no need for me. Only during COVID when everything suddenly stopped, you realise ‘uh oh’, maybe I should do something.”

During the downtime, Ruq enrolled in free short courses in digital marketing to improve her own capabilities. That was when she stumbled upon the Digital Marketing Bootcamp with a Certificate in Applied Management under SGUnited Skills (SGUS) Programme with Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

From teaching in the kitchen to learning in the classroom

The last time Ruq stepped foot in a classroom was in 1981. Going back to school after 40 years, Ruq had her share of reservations.

“I was a little bit worried, will the programme be boring? But boy, I was wrong from day one. It was fun, I enjoyed coming, I looked forward to the day.”

Ruq gravitated to SGUS Ngee Ann’s Digital Marketing Bootcamp because of its extensive curriculum with a focus on industry application. The course covered digital marketing competencies that she wanted to implement and “push Cookery Magic up the search engine” to improve her business outcomes.

“I was surprised I wasn’t bored because I found every class, every topic interesting,” she added.

The course curriculum resonated with her interests, which included technical skills training in photography, video editing, SEO, content management and creative design software among others. Ruq also picked up fundamentals in website design, which helped her to better manage her own website hosted on WordPress.

“I loved Adobe Illustrator, it was such a high doing that. What I’ve learnt, I applied it on my own when I do Instagram posts or things on my own website, so that was really fun,” she said.

All in-class assignments are project-based, encouraging students to materialise classroom teachings and apply practical skillsets. At the same time, they can start to build a portfolio with relevant works that showcase their competencies.

Hatch Demo Day SGUS
Ruk in action during the Digital Marketing Bootcamp's Demo Day

“It’s not like we sit there for a test, you actually have to do projects. At the end, you have a capstone to apply everything you’ve learnt,”

The SGUnited Skills programme with Ngee Ann Polytechnic Digital Marketing Bootcamp is bundled together with a Certificate in Applied Management. Even though the motivation behind why Ruq joined the programme was to pick up digital marketing capabilities, the applied management course caught her by surprise.

“Design thinking is fantastic. It helps you think about your problem, how to solve it, and to look at it in a nice, systematic way.”

An empathetic classroom

There were oftentimes challenges moments when it came to grasping certain concepts and tools. Ruq found great solace in having the liberty to stay candid while navigating her 6-month journey of growth in the Digital Marketing Bootcamp

“Because I’m an older student right, I can’t remember everything. But the trainers were very patient and nice. When I ask the same question 10 times, they would still answer 10 times,” she said.

“Hatch was fantastic because they will be there for you. If you wanted advice, they will be there. If you don’t know something they will be there. They were like our advisers, our tutors on site.”

Being amongst a diverse collective of teachers and students who were open to share their stories and experiences enriched her learning.

Graduating class of 2021!

Individuals coming from all walks and phases of life brought together refreshing perspectives from different lenses. This fostered an environment where she not only learned from the teachers, but also from fellow classmates.

She graduated from the program not only with new knowledge on how to optimise her business in the digital realm, but with a group of friends that continued to challenge her to become better.

“Some would advice, ‘why didn’t you do this?’ or ‘why didn’t you do that?’. We kind of encouraged each other, so that was good.”

The next chapter

When the COVID-19 restrictions were eased, life slowly resumed back in the Cookery Magic kitchen.

Though it’s not quite the same as before.

Ruq may still be finding her footing amidst the upheaval cause by the pandemic, there is a renewed sense of optimism in being equipped with the skillsets to chart Cookery Magic’s journey from here on.

“I want to be able to tell the story after COVID is all over; that I did not give up and I beat COVID. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I want to be that.”

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