As a kid, she dreamed of being a psychologist but a friendly chat with her neighbourhood doctor when she was 14 changed all that.
Now there’s no turning back for Michelle Tham. A professional speech therapist by training, the 33-year-old is the brains behind one of the leading private speech therapy centres for children with special needs. She is also one of the finalists (Business category) of the Yahoo! Singapore 9 campaign.
Her centre, Leapfrogs, which is located at Hooper Road, focuses on speech therapy, special education and occupational therapy for children. Set up in 2002 under its previous name, The Children’s Speech Therapist, it was renamed to Leapfrogs in 2005. Her company’s annual revenue has just exceeded a million a year.
Together with her 10-member staff, Tham says she help stimulate the children’s physical and mental development through games and a lot of social interaction, which is important for speech therapy.
“Parents come in (Leapfrogs) worrying about their children who can’t talk or integrate into society so easily so as a therapy centre we help stimulate brain development,” said Tham, who is single.
“It has to be very precise so we must know what kind of games work for them. Just rolling a ball or stacking blocks can go a long way in helping with brain stimulation.”
Interaction and games aside, Leapfrogs also does significant research on how the brain develops and grows, which is vital in order to keep improving how her therapists teach.
Therapy at the centre costs S$360 and above per month for each child, depending on his or her age. Between 120 to 200 children enrol each year for classes.
Apart from running a successful business, Tham said she derives the greatest satisfaction when the children under her care leave the centre, having made significant improvements. The oldest child at Leapfrogs is 16 and has been a student at the centre for ten years, since Tham started out her business.
On the 16-year-old, Tham proudly tells Yahoo! Singapore that “He is great and works well with adults! He’s even going for an industrial attachment now, where he will be integrated into a really meaningful job that could be at Giant supermarket or Starbucks. You will be seeing more of these kids there.”
SPEECH THERAPY AS A CAREER
The petite and attractive young lady stumbled into speech therapy as a career by accident.
“Everyone’s a psychologist, do something different. Be a speech therapist,” was what her local doctor advised her, half in jest, when she was 14.
She took heed of his advice. “I decided why not, he said it pays well! It’s half true, at least.”
After graduating with a bachelor in speech language pathology with first class honours from the University of Queensland, Tham joined KK Hospital when she was 22. She left after six months because being confined to a 9-to-5 job was restrictive.
Wanting to do more for her patients, she was held back from experimenting with new methods and found it hard to break out of the usual routines.
Starting Leapfrogs was a refreshing change and being her own boss, there was more flexibility to take in more students and patients.
But the early days were tough and she struggled to operate her business as a one-man show for five years before she said she got “a little nervous”.
“With so much flexibility and freedom to work by myself, I did not know if I was doing the right thing especially without peer monitoring,” she said.
Her first hire was her mum, May Chan, 62, who ended up co-founding Leapfrogs in2005 when Tham decided to expand and change the name of her company. It became a bigger and more comprehensive set-up then.
Tham says juggling work and free time is not an issue because the centre runs on a four-and-a-half day work week, which gives her enough time for family and friends. She also went on to add, “Because my mum works with me, it’s easy, and I make it a commitment to spend time together as a family.”
Through the years, Tham slowly built up her company to include a receptionist, 9 professional speech therapists and even a cleaner-cum-cook.
Now 10 years after Leapfrogs started, Tham has a team of 10 working with her.
Looking after her staff’s welfare underpins how she operates her centre and her staff have only praise for their young boss.
Cleaner and cook, Jennifer Chee (aka Auntie Jennifer), 63, said, “Michelle is such an understanding boss and she cares a lot for us, she even makes us have meals together. There was once, I sat at the back of the room during lunch and Michelle walked up to me and told me I couldn’t sit at the back but to join everyone else for lunch. It was very touching.”
A. Shanthi, 43, a special education therapist at Leapfrogs, echoed Chee’s sentiments.
“It is so difficult to find a boss like her who cares so much about her staff. Michelle is also very forward-looking and always puts her plans to action,” she said.
“She nurtures her employees and has us set goals and makes sure we reach them. We get to grow together, impart skills to each other and learn at the same time.”
Shanthi added, “She keeps all of us together like a family which makes us love coming to work. We have fantastic staff welfare – we get holidays – for Teacher’s Day, birthday celebrations; we’ve even had trips to Jakarta and US. It’s not just that, she even plans activities for our trips!”
Of her focus on her staff welfare, Tham said she was inspired by a visit to the Google headquarters in Palo Alto, California during one of her summer holidays. There, she saw how having full-time chefs cook meals for employees could improve staff morale and help bond the team.
“My company is about my people and I love them to bits,” said Tham, who doesn’t stinge when it comes to looking after her staff.
Next up for Tham is expanding her business into Jakarta where she sees a gap in the market for her company’s unique and specialized services.
Her centre is currently being built and will be ready to start operations in 2013.
With a second branch under her belt, the inspiring speech therapist is grateful for the opportunities she’s been provided with and advises budding entrepreneurs, “Be clear about what you intend to do, be prepared to be frightened and different and be prepared to face yourself.”
ON BEING A YAHOO! SINGAPORE 9 FINALIST
When she first heard the news she was nominated for the Yahoo! Singapore 9 campaign, Tham admitted she thought she didn’t stand a chance because of the quality of the other nominees.
“When I saw the updated list two days before the judges’ decisions, I realised that the competition was so stiff. Then again, it’s better to be in a good competition where the candidates give you a run for it than to be in one without a challenge.”
She added, “There were so many other nominees I was excited to root for and it’s a real privilege to be selected.”
Now that she has been named a finalist, Tham said she is “humbled” by making the final 9.
“Being different and being brave has paid off. It also helps that my mum and staff are so supportive of me,” said Tham.
Her staff at Leapfrogs were also visibly excited for her.
Shanthi said, “I hope she wins and I am so proud of her, words cannot describe. We should be popping champagne bottles to celebrate!”
Chee is also just as proud.
“Michelle is one of the most hardworking women I’ve met and she’s capable. Her ability to handle everything from managing staff welfare to guiding the children at such a young age is amazing.”
VOTE FOR MICHELLE THAM IN THE BUSINESS CATEGORY here.
Michelle Tham: Speech therapist with a visionBy Gail Chai | Singapore 9 – Fri, Jul 27, 2012
As part of this year's National Day celebrations, we are honouring 9 outstanding Singaporeans under the age of 35 who've made their mark in the area of Business, Social Enterrprise or Entertainment. Role models and visionaries, they are the future leaders of Singapore.
See the best photos from our wrap-up party as we announce the winners in each category.
See the slideshow