The rat race in Singapore often looks like this: Get a degree from a respectable university, land a decent job, excel at it and chase for promotions to earn a big paycheck.
That was the path that Cordillia Tan, 27, was on. After graduating from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Linguistics, and completing the NUS Overseas Colleges entrepreneurship programme, she quickly found success in the blockchain and Venture Capital industry.
Despite making headways in her budding career, she felt uninspired with what she was doing. It led her to quitting, as she wanted to pursue something else entirely – to work in her dad’s car tyre business. It was a move that would see her not draw a salary for two years in a role that required to work long hours and, by her own admission, do everything necessary for the company to function.
“My niche was to grow startups,” shares Cordillia. “So I thought, ‘why don’t I go back to the family business and see what I can apply and challenge myself, to grow my father’s business?’”
It’s true that, for many, the option to switch their path mid-career might not even be present. For Cordillia, she may have been lucky enough that her father owns a business.
But by no means she has it easy.
When she made the decision to work with her father full-time in 2021 – a choice that was made after consulting family members – it wasn’t as though business was booming.
Amid the COVID-19 restrictions, there were days with no business at all. At times, Cordillia had to “beg” suppliers to give her a grace period for payments or do it in instalments.
“At that point, it was so bad that my business runway, which is how long your company has to survive with cash in the bank, was one day. If I didn’t have any business that day, my cheques would bounce the next day,” recalls Cordillia.
“That was not fun. It was very stressful and tiring… I was crying myself to sleep every day. I felt so useless because I was trying all sorts of things but none of (them) worked. The customers were just not coming, the money wasn’t there.”
Around the same time, in an attempt to let her business reach more eyeballs, Cordillia decided to start a TikTok account for Pitstop Tyres. While it was a daunting experience for someone who is “not a Gen Z”, her efforts eventually paid off.
Over time, business started to pick up. This was clear when she realised she was able to pay the company’s bills on time.
Frequent users of TikTok, especially those who spend considerable time trawling through their For You Page on the social platform, may find Cordillia or the shop name Pitstop Tyres familiar.
Videos of Cordillia working on cars have video views into the tens of thousands, and the account boasts over 7,000 followers. But that clientele, Cordillia reminds, was painstakingly built through her efforts.
These days, Pitstop Tyres has a frequent stream of customers. From the videos posted on Pitstop Tyres’ TikTok account, clients regularly bring their Mercedes, BMWs and even Teslas to Cordillia’s workshop.
In her job running Pitstop Tyres, a one-stop shop for car tyres, rims and maintenance services, Cordillia has had to face unfair comments. One of which is a sentiment that the job is only for those who have a low level of education.
“I’ve gotten a lot of people who look down on myself and the mechanics. I’ve had people tell me I’m stupid in my face,” she shares. Yet, that is furthest from the truth.
When she made the decision to work full-time at Pitstop Tyres, Cordillia’s knowledge of car engineering was almost zilch. There wasn’t a specific accreditation needed to run a car workshop, but Cordillia felt uncomfortable with that lack of understanding.
“I thought to myself: ‘I definitely need to know what’s going on’. When my mechanic works on certain things, I need to know what parts they are changing, why they are changing it, in order to explain to the customers better,” Cordillia shares.
“I was like, I definitely need to go back to school and learn something properly.”
She then used her SkillsFuture credit in its entirety to take up part-time short courses in Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP). Over a two-year period, she achieved certifications in Automotive Electronics & Sensor Technology, Automotive Engine Technology, and Automotive Hybrid Technology. She also has a National EV (electric vehicle) Specialist Safety Certificate, jointly awarded by the Land Transport Authority and NP. The courses also allowed her to understand cars better.
“I felt I couldn’t do that to myself (not understanding about her work). I needed to know what’s going on in order to expand the business and to know what services would make sense – whether we should be doing more tyre work, or doing more car workshop services – and for me to know the levels of difficulties,” Cordillia explains.
However, she was quick to point out that she’s not someone who can do it all. She even admits, humbly, that she still lags behind in terms of skills, when compared to the mechanics under her. This reinforces her claim that working as a mechanic requires knowledge and technical expertise.
As her expertise lies in the work behind the scenes that will keep the shop afloat, she prefers to leave most of the work to the mechanics at the shop. Although, she will get her hands dirty – literally – and chip in when necessary.
That was well demonstrated in the four hours Youthopia spent with her on a Saturday morning. Despite her slender frame, she is still able to move tyres and work on cars. On occasions working on her own proves to be quite the challenge – like carrying the bigger tyres or lifting certain tools – she will then ask for help.
Seeing a female working in a mechanic shop is a rare sight in Singapore. Her gender brings a set of challenges, but not in ways one would expect. She’s learnt to deal with the ‘towkays’ – hokkien for business owners – in the B2B side of things.
With her customers, she’s built a rapport with them so that they know she possesses the requisite knowledge to work on the cars. On the off chance that she meets with a difficult customer, she has the confidence in dealing with them.
Interestingly, she only faces sexism when she deals with business owners from foreign countries.
“Some countries tend to be more biased towards men. They will be like, let me talk to your boss. But I’m the boss,” Cordillia says. “They don’t really want to negotiate with me, and it’s quite obvious that they only want to speak to a man.”
Would she recommend anyone to follow in her footsteps then? Her answer is one that would surprise many.
“Most of the advice out there is always if you can run a business, then do it by all means and take a leap of faith. But now having been battered by everything through these two years, I’d say take that advice with a pinch of salt,” she shares.
“It’s not to say that I’m discouraging people from rushing into entrepreneurship. But there needs to be some level of preparation. Especially if you have a family to provide for, and bills to pay.”
However, Cordillia believes that once the necessary considerations have been made and the decision to pursue a business is certain, the next step would be to challenge stereotypes.
“There’s nothing that you cannot do. It’s just what your mind thinks you cannot do. So it is just about breaking your own stereotypes, not so much about what other people (think).”