Often regarded as the one who revived the interest in cupcakes in Singapore, Vanessa’s prowess in both baking and business is evident with three outlets and a huge following to show for it. Recently, she has teamed up with fellow trailblazers, IGC, to set up her latest branch, Café by Plain Vanilla, within IGC’s first stand-alone store in ION Orchard. Nevertheless, just a quick browse through the Plain Vanilla website or a visit to one of the stores will alert one to the fact that this establishment is more than a mere profit-making endeavour—it simply emanates purpose and heart. She shares more about her life, her drive to ‘get it right’, and what this unpredictable journey has taught her.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not baking?

I think it would be spending time with my family. To be honest, the past four years have been devoted to the business, so there isn’t much time for the pursuit of other things. I do like watching tennis because of the technique and the spirit of the sport. It is really interesting to see the amount of control a player can exert over his or her performance as opposed to other sports where external factors can have a bigger influence on the outcome of the match. With tennis, at a professional level, everyone’s personal fitness is almost on par, so the player has to really have a certain amount of tenacity, and a lot of it is really a personal battle, mind over matter. And, I love tie-breaks that go on forever because that’s a true show of skill and what it takes to be an athlete. Apart from that, I also like running but there doesn’t seem to be much time for that now.

Congratulations on having your first child; we know that one of the factors leading to your career switch was the anticipation of starting a family. However, we also know that despite being self-employed, you are constantly on the ground, working alongside your staff. How are you coping?

Having a child really forced a paradigm shift in the rhythm in which I work; for example, learning to be equally effective with less hours and recognising the value of a team.

From being a one-man show to having a team; learning how to manage that team; then, using that team to the best result of the company has been a real learning curve for me, especially since I can be quite a control freak about certain things.

The timing the pregnancy made a lot of sense for me too because it came to a point where I was working for three years non-stop and was starting to question the sustainability of running at that pace in the long-term.

In terms of the growth that has been going on this year, including Café by Plain Vanilla and launching the new savoury menu, none of that would have happened if I hadn’t been pushed by the circumstances to put together a team. Although I had a really great team of part-timers whom I was dependent on, it was important for me to put together a full-time team PV with people who will be rooted and grow with the company. How I juggle it? I think it continues to be an evolving lesson and journey for me; it is never a static thing, it’s always dynamic because my son’s needs change constantly, the needs of the business evolve, and what I want for my life and what’s possible at that stage are changing as well.

Would you mind sharing how your life and working experiences prior to that of Plain Vanilla have contributed to your progress as a business?

Well, I tried to quit my job but my boss was like, “No, you’re not sick of law, you are just tired.” So, I took a nine-month sabbatical from law. After starting the business and catching the Christmas and sales period, I gave myself three more months to see if things would work out; if not, I would go back to law.

During those six months, what drove me was simply working as hard as I could to see how far I could take this, so that I didn’t have to crawl back to my boss to ask for my job back. See, the option was always there but I didn’t want failure to be the reason I went back to law, I wanted it to be on my own terms. However, what law gave me was the tenacity and the belief in my own ability to really just work. Despite how intellectually demanding law was for a junior lawyer like me, what was most difficult would be the hours. For instance, during my worst months, I had spent five days back to back in the office without going home. So, if anything, you walk away from that knowing and believing that you have the ability to rough it out and work those kind of hours; you will think to yourself, “If I could do this before, I can do it again; it’s just a matter of how long”.

We find your vision and value system, as reflected in your business, very heartening – they must require a lot of conviction. We would like to know what keeps you inspired.

I think it’s just a real desire to be honest in everything we do as a company and to truly add value to the customer. I say that with the understanding that sometimes, in the F&B industry, there are certain practices that are driven by business needs and bottomline factors that I don’t necessarily agree with. So, part of it is a desire to challenge the industry norm and to see if we can do it better; whatever I tell the customer, I would like to genuinely be doing. It’s a challenge because the larger the company grows, the more you see why certain companies do things in a certain way. At that stage, you need ask yourself, “Where do we draw the line? What’s the balance that we are comfortable with?”

As for the vision, I think even in the next five to ten years, I still believe very strongly in and very much want to materialise the kind of presence I want Plain Vanilla to have in people’s lives and homes. Also, it’s about wanting to get it right at every stage and level, not selling out, and being happy with it. It’s like being an artist working on a painting: you work and then you constantly step back to see if you are happy with it.