Married, Independent

One from India, the other from Pakistan, both are in the business of healthy living. While one is a math maven promoting wholesome organic food, the other has the nous to heal the mind.

4/13/2018 9:59:23 PM
written By : By Abhijit Nag and Nivruti Prasad Print

Singapore is good for business – and not just for the suits. There are entrepreneur moms at large – married, independent – balancing work and family with quiet aplomb. Women like Bhavani Kambekar from India and Saima Salman from Pakistan. Bhavani is a math maven who discovered the joys of baking and got into the organic food business after wowing her fellow Sai Baba devotees with her culinary skills. Saima, a clinical psychologist who studied and trained in America. Cool and poised in a traditional sari, effusive and self-assured in jacket and trousers, they were a study in contrasts when they met India Se Magazine, but they have things in common, too. Both are in the business of healthy living and making their mark in their chosen fields in Singapore. While Bhavani offers healthy food, Saima is there to counsel and ensure mental health.

A shrink, not a shrinking violet, this clinical psychologist doesn’t pepper her conversations with Freud and Jung or look like a psycho-babbling soulful nerdie out of a Woody Allen movie. Brimming with energy, she talks positive like the motivational speaker she also happens to be. This is a lady who wears many hats. A youthful 45-year-old mother of two children – 11 and 14 years old, studying at United World College -- she is also a certified Mental Health Youth First Aider (Georgetown University), a Certified Yogi for Teens (Integral Yoga, NYC) and works as an Emotional Empowerment Trainer with the award-winning social enterprise Bettr Barista, which helps local underprivileged/marginalised single mothers and youth at risk. Passionate about women’s issues, she runs awareness camps and gives talks to women as well as teens. And, yes, she is also a certified Pilates and Zumba instructor. 

But, first and foremost, she was trained by the eminent psychologist Dr Albert Ellis at the prestigious Albert Ellis Institute in New York state where was a Clinical Fellow in the early 2000s. She has also done extensive training with Dr Aaron Beck and Dr Judith Beck at their Cognitive Therapy Institute in Philadelphia. But her leanings clearly show. She is the director of Rational Living Inc Pte Ltd, a Singapore company providing psychological services to individuals and organisations, a company whose name recalls the rational emotive behaviour therapy developed by Dr Ellis himself. Indeed, one of the things Saima recalls with greatest satisfaction is that she wrote a research paper that made Dr Ellis change his mind about Islam. That was how she won a fellowship at the Albert Ellis Institute. 

Not that this power dresser conforms to any stereotype. She was raised as a “fireball” by her father, who was the head honcho of the railways in Pakistan, who inspired her to succeed, she says, by urging her to “Go, fail!” In Singapore for more than a decade now, she counts the great and the good among her clients – NRIs, locals and Westerners – while volunteering also to help others.

If Saima is a free spirit, Bhavani is a reminder of that Bo Diddley song: You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover. Soft-spoken, looking and staying in the background like a retiring, traditional Hindu married woman, she is like the still waters that run deep. A math maven who is into baking – how often do you hear of one? That’s Bhavani, inscrutable in her own way, and happily so. Baking brought her bliss, she says, and also business. Sai Organics Pte Ltd, the company she set up, is the fruit of the satisfaction she gave to her fellow Sai devotees in Singapore, who relished her eggless cakes so much so she got into the organic food business. The cakes were baked with organic stuff.

Bhavani, 37, came to Singapore in 2006 when she got married. Her husband has been here since 2003. Although they are Marathis, they have spent a lot of time in Madras and Bangalore and have two sons, aged five and seven. She can count on his support, she says – and so we saw at the photo shoot, where he even helped arrange her saree and suggest poses. Bhavani, who graduated with honours in mathematics and has a Master’s in computer applications, has taught and worked at other jobs before going into business. Sai Organics was registered last year. She imports organic products including rice, cereals, pulses, flour, oils, millets, dry fruit, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook food from India. A relative, a retailer with several shops in Bangalore, helped her get in touch with the suppliers. Living in Clementi, she has a warehouse in Woodlands to stock the products and delivers them to her customers. She has a website (www.saiorganics.sg) and also gets business through word-of-mouth.

She wants to promote healthy living. And that, she says, means promoting organic food, but it has to be affordable, too, she adds. She sells at lower prices by cutting out the middlemen and sourcing directly from the suppliers, she says. Healthy living, sustainable farming, that is her mantra. “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly,” she said, quoting Buddha, adding we have to eat healthy to stay healthy and make the right choices. Om, er amen, to that.

Here are excerpts from our interview with Bhavani Kambekar:

India Se: Tell us about yourself -- your childhood and education.

Bhavani Kambekar: My father’s job took us to Madras, where I spent most of my childhood. Our family comes from humble beginnings and lot of emphasis was laid on family values. I was fortunate to study in the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, graduating with honours in mathematics. This was a turning point in my life as I realised that serving people with an open heart gives us immense joy and fulfilment. I share a very special bond with my mother. It was only when I was staying in the Sri Sathya Sai hostel that I began to appreciate her self-sacrifice.

India Se: When and how did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Bhavani Kambekar: It started with my penchant for baking. I started baking for my elder son and began enjoying it. I started to get many orders from my friends. While experimenting with different ingredients, I began using organic food products for my baking and the taste and quality of the cake was amazing. That made me try organic products for day-to-day cooking as well. Organic food is good for health but price can be a barrier.  At the right price, organic food sales will take off. 

India Se: What prompted you to set up Sai Organics? 

Bhavani Kambekar: Sai Organics was started with a passion to make “positive living through healthy and conscious eating choices” a reality. If we can make organic food affordable, there will be a big market. 

India Se: The organic food business is a relatively small, yet competitive market with several international names also in it. So how do you stay ahead?

Bhavani Kambekar: At Sai Organics, we have strategic tie-ups with suppliers from India and import all our products directly without any middlemen, thereby ensuring high quality at competitive prices. By having an online presence, we are giving our customers the choice to shop for healthy products from the comfort of their homes, and thereby passing the savings back to them. 

India Se:  Tell us a little about your customers. 

Bhavani Kambekar: Our business largely caters to Indian families as they cook a lot and use a variety of spices, cereals, pulses and other foodstuffs. At the same time, we also cater to the non-Indian community and have many such customers. 

India Se: Singapore is known to have very stringent food safety laws. Does it affect your business?

Bhavani Kambekar: Singapore has stringent food safety laws to ensure that the food products are safe. This has helped our business immensely, as it proves that our products have the necessary approvals to be imported to Singapore. 

India Se: What are your future plans? 

Bhavani Kambekar: As Buddha once said , “To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” Our immediate plan is to ensure that everyone is aware of Sai Organics and start making the right choices when it comes to food. 

India Se: Tell us about your family.

Bhavani Kambekar: My husband is a great source of inspiration for me. I am able to draw on his sales and marketing experience. We have been married for 11 years and have two wonderful boys, aged eight years and five years respectively. 

India Se: What are your other interests and hobbies? How do you spend your free time?

Bhavani Kambekar: I love to bake. I specialise in eggless cakes. I spend my free time with family and also bake with my kids. I wish to travel the world at some point in time as travelling and meeting people opens up a whole new perspective of life.

Here are excerpts from our interview with Saima Salman: 

India Se: Tell us about yourself - your childhood and education.

Saima Salman: I grew up in Pakistan , in Karachi and Lahore. I was blessed to be born in an extremely progressive and educated family. My father, Iqbal Samad Khan, was the CEO of Pakistan Railways and my mom, Saira, was a teacher. She was extremely educated, a Master’s in organic chemistry and English literature, and that became my inspiration to educate myself so I could, at least, match up. My parents raised me like a fireball – anything but the conventional Pakistani girl. I used to ride motorbikes back in the ‘80s and was encouraged to stand up, speak up not only for myself but everyone around me. 

India Se: How long have you been practising in Singapore. 

Saima Salman: I was trained by the god of psychology, Dr Albert Ellis. My story started as a 16-year-old kid in Pakistan, a very disturbed kid, I picked up a book called Guide to Rational Living, which has sold a million copies all over the world. I read this book at least 10 times.

India Se: At 16?

Saima Salman: At 16. And I made up my mind that I was going to get myself cured over the next two years. I had a lot of phobias, I had PTSD, I had OCPD - Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which is perfectionism, everything had to be perfect in my life. By the time I turned 18, I had cured everything, on my own. So I made up my mind -- I wanted to be the best clinician trained by the person who had written this book, Dr Ellis himself. I was trained at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York state. It has a very prestigious programme, a post-doctoral fellowship, which is offered to one or two people every two years. Dr Ellis was very old – already in his seventies – when I wrote a letter to him, and he told me to meet and talk to him. I didn’t have a PhD then, but I had written a paper on Islam and cognitive behaviour therapy. I sent him a copy, and he said, “Saima, you’ve changed my mind about Islam.’’ He wanted to have it published. 

India Se: What was the thrust of your paper?

Saima Salman: The premise of my paper was that whatever CBT tells you, Islam had told you 1400 years ago. I drew parallels with the Quranic verses. Dr Ellis was not a believer. He was an atheist. He told me, “I used to believe all Muslims were crazy but you changed my mind (laughs).” So that’s how I got in! I was one of the two people selected for the programme in 2000. I was lucky to get married and move to New York City with my husband at that point. He truly encouraged and guided me throughout my journey during the fellowship. None of this would have been possible without his support! 

India Se: When did you come to Singapore and how did you decide to set up your private practice in Singapore?

Saima Salman: We came to Singapore for a short period back in 2005 but we loved it so much that we ended up staying here.  I wasn’t planning on starting my private practice because my kids were still very small. But in 2007, I received a call from my dear friend and supervisor from New York City, Janet Wolfe, who referred a client to me. Then I got another – my first Singaporean Chinese client, Pamela Chang, who stumbled upon my awfully basic website. She later became the founder of the award-winning social enterprise Bettr Barista and has been sending me people over for the last 10 years. Till date, all my clients have come from word of mouth because I never believed in marketing my work or myself. 

India Se: What do you see in Singapore?

Saima Salman: In Singapore, I see a lot of mental health issues stemming from unnecessary pressure to perform or to be ‘perfect’. There is just too much stress and not much self-compassion or acceptance. Counsellors in the local schools do more harm than good. Psychologists and counsellors are not even regulated here. I treated a 15-year old Chinese kid from a top school here who was like “Saima, I’m scared to talk to the counsellor because she puts me through shame.” This kid was suffering from such severe OCD and depression she was actually bed-ridden in a hospital and wearing diapers because she was scared to move go to the toilet.

India Se: Who are your main clients and what are the most common mental problems they face?

Saima Salman: My clientele are mostly Indian and then local Chinese and then western expats. 

I also see lots of teenagers from these fancy schools dealing with the pressure to be someone. The pressure that nobody understands them, of not fitting in. Of not fitting in as a brown kid in a white school. The Indian and Pakistani kids still feel like second-class citizens in some of these schools. In our socio-economic status as expats, I see a lot of kids from these schools crumbling under the pressure of getting into Ivy Leagues.  

I also see many old Indian parents and teenagers who suffer from depression. The old people because they have been uprooted and relocated here by their children who feel guilty. We can’t relocate ourselves, so we bring them here. I would never uproot my parents and bring them to a lonely life. One of the biggest predictors of life is the social connection. Not exercise, not your diet or smoking, etc. It’s how many times you connect with others.

I have many middle-aged Indian women in their 40s and 50s. Many of them are very bright, beautiful, intelligent women. Not seen an average woman yet. And they come feeling hollow, empty, useless because they have been victims of emotional abuse in the relationship, or from their kids or their surroundings. Being financially dependent also puts these women in a very compromising position. So, my biggest concern for any woman in the early and mid-thirties is you still have a chance, don’t get to that level. Go get out. You don’t need to have a rocking career, just have a career. 

Emotional abuse is very tricky, as simple as “tumhe kya patha?” (a derisive “what do you know? Don’t interrupt. This is not your conversation”). It is more hurtful than physical abuse because it has a deep-seated effect on women and chips away at them. By the time they come in they don’t know who they are. 

It’s very prevalent in South Asian communities and I’m not saying the men are to be blamed, but we raise our boys poorly. I have two boys and I think I am responsible for how they treat women when they grow up. I will take the failure personally if they treat someone poorly. 

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