Shen-Tel Lee has a long list of accomplishments but her proudest by far are her two boys, Benjamin and Kingston. After enduring a gruelling three-year struggle to conceive, Shen-Tel turned to IVF with successful results, but the process wasn’t without its challenges. Failed transfers, bleeding through pregnancy and bed rest were all part of the journey which impassioned the inspiring entrepreneur to be open and honest when discussing the trials and tribulations of IVF and conception....
“I am so thankful for the doctors and nurses who made my dream of becoming a mother come true. Modern science is bloody amazing. I now speak openly about infertility. I still think there is a huge stigma about it in our society today and that people are not informed enough about how common it is. I sometimes think we as women have got it all wrong. That we are told our careers are everything and that we can have children later in life. This isn’t the case for everyone and I feel like we should encourage women to have kids younger and to know more about what our fertility is from a younger age.”
We recently caught up with the Sydney-born, Malaysia-based mum to discuss everything from how her businesses Sereni & Shentel and Bowerhaus came to life, to overcoming postpartum depression and how her two beverages of choice, wine and coffee, are the secret to surviving sleep deprivation and two young boys tearing the house down.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Ambitious, strong minded, protective.
What has motherhood taught you so far?
It has taught me to appreciate my own mother and father so much more. I never truly appreciated all the sacrifices and struggles that they had to make for me until I had my first child. I remember crying to both of them within an hour of becoming a mother and telling them how sorry I was for being such an ungrateful kid and being totally amazed that they were able to raise us with no family help. Flash backs of me being mad at my parents for not coming to an athletics carnival and resenting that my mother never volunteered to work in the school tuck shop all made me want to go back to my younger self and say shut up! Jokes aside motherhood has made me a stronger person and has changed the way I see the world.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have children sooner.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?
I think being a working mum has its challenges. It is a constant yo-yo of emotions for me personally. When the boys were much younger, I found leaving them to go to work so hard that I ended up bringing them together with the nanny to my office. Being my own boss it was possible and my husband was fully supportive of it. I had a room for them to be in so when I had time between meetings I could pop in to do a feed and some reading with them. Looking back, I am glad I did it. People thought I was crazy, but I always wanted to be as close as possible to them. Now that the kids are older and are in preschool going to work is so much easier than the earlier days.
Can you tell us about your experience with postpartum depression?
Postpartum depression came to me when I had my first son Benjamin. I knew something was up when I looked at him and just cried. He would have been about two weeks old and I went from being so happy and joyous to being so sad and fearful. I couldn’t stop crying. At the time, I felt like my mind was a dark storm and that I would never see the sun. I told my husband that I was never going back to work and that I was going to stay in bed forever. He just laughed at me which triggered me to cry even more. I shut everyone around me out including my husband and my family. I called my best friend and cried to her on the phone and she told me in an instant that I had postpartum depression and to go to the doctor immediately. I am so glad and grateful for that phone call because the next day I did see a doctor and was medicated immediately. Within a week, the fog was lifted and I stopped crying and found a clear head once again. I also ate better. My mum read that eating salmon can help with postpartum depression so for about a month I had salmon daily.
Can you tell us about your experience with IVF?
It took me three years to realise that I had a fertility problem. I got married at 26 and tried for two years to conceive naturally before we contemplated seeing a doctor. It was the third year that I went to see a doctor and only on the fourth that I went through with IVF. I found out that I suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome, which makes it near impossible for me to conceive naturally. If I had known that information when I was 26, I would have started IVF much earlier. The IVF process for me was fine, the emotional part of it was a lot harder than the physical side. There was a lot of waiting and I had to learn to be so patient. Both my boys were conceived through IVF. My first child was conceived on the first go. I hit the jackpot and it was a rather smooth conception.
With Kingston, it was a lot harder. We had one failed transfer and we had to start all over again with a fresh egg collection. As I was now older my eggs were not as good as the first time round. We started with 11 eggs but by the time we went for the transfer only one was strong enough. I remember praying so hard and hoping with all my might that the embryo would take and survive. The day my husband and I went for the blood test to see if the result was positive, we were so nervous. We sat by the phone the whole day. When we got the news that the result was positive we cried for days. IVF is a strange journey that involves so many people. I am so grateful for my family and close friends who helped us keep it together during those days. Today we are blessed with two boys and my IVF journey is complete. I am so thankful for the doctors and nurses who made my dream of becoming a mother come true.
You bled throughout your pregnancy and almost lost the baby twice, first at 12 weeks and then at 34, when the placenta tail was dislodged, cutting off the baby’s food supply. What do you remember about this time?
All pregnancy books tell you that if you see blood you must go to the hospital. They tell you don’t panic, which is the first thing you do. When you go to the hospital and tell the nurses them you are bleeding and conceived through IVF they act panicked, which scares you even more. My first pregnancy had a lot of moments of fear. I think we got through it because we were so naive. I had to put my trust in my doctor so when he told me I wasn’t allowed to walk and that I had to lie flat in bed, I did it. Both my husband and my family gave me the strength to get through the really hard times. I remember thinking just give me a kick from time to time so I know everything is okay. I also remember talking a lot to him and telling him that he had to pull through because we all wanted him so much. Towards the end of my pregnancy came the biggest bleed that put me and my family into complete shock. For some unknown reason, the placenta tail dislodged and put the baby in danger. I ended up having a C-section soon after and miraculously a healthy and fully screaming Benjamin was born.
Do you think bed rest works?
100%. As a highly active person, it was so hard to lie flat, but it was the start of learning to sacrifice for the people you love. A mother’s love can make you do things you never thought you could. Having a great TV series also helps!
How have you handled any sleep deprivation/getting up in the night?
I have two beverages that help me. Wine to go to sleep and coffee to wake me up. I never really drank until I had my second child. Two boys tearing your house down needs to be complemented with wine to keep one sane. My parents and friends think it’s hilarious that I am now a huge fan.
What’s your approach to health and wellbeing?
I try to eat well because we eat as a family. My father is a cardiologist, so I was raised in a family that ate very healthily and I am trying my hardest to pass this onto my boys. On the flip side, if I was left to my own devices and my boys were not watching, I would be found at McDonalds ordering a happy meal and I would take my time picking which toy I wanted. I love fried food and I think it all boils down to the fact that we never ate it when I was growing up. I guess the saying is right, you always want what you can’t have. If you look at my Instagram you would think my life revolves around copious amounts of laksa and noodles. Living in Asia, it is hard to not enjoy the local flavors.
As for exercise, I am not a fan of it to be honest. I try my best to go to yoga at least once a week, but I am happiest chasing my boys while they are on their bikes. It’s not really exercise, because I usually have a cup of coffee with full cream milk in my hand but it’s better than nothing. #badslashgoodmum
Can you talk us through your career path? How did you come to launch Sereni & Shentel and Bowerhaus?
I graduated with a bachelor of Design in Visual Communications with high-class honors from UTS and was head hunted for a job interview after graduation at a very well known design firm. I was torn to shreds in that interview and I walked out knowing that I was going to be my own boss and that I wasn’t going to ever subject myself to that process ever again. I started freelancing as a graphic designer fresh out of university with my university mentor David Mackay. It was him who really taught me everything I know about branding and corporate identity. Through him, I gained the knowledge to work my way up from basic design work for mum and pop shops to working for clients like Miranda Kerr and Jessica Hart. I spent six years specialising in cosmetic packaging in Sydney and had three staff working full time for me under company name The Playground Sydney. In 2008, I married my high school sweet heart and moved to Kuching in East Malaysia. It was a complete culture shock at the start but after a year of married life, I got bored of working alone in my solo office.
I met Sereni Linggi at a dinner and over an intense week of friendship that can only be described as fast and furious, we ended up spending weekends doing something we mutually loved, crafting. Somehow we ended up making headbands and loved wearing our designs to parties and events. People honestly thought we were the town loonies but we got a huge laugh out of doing them and we thought we were fabulous. We both ended up at a Lady GaGa concert in Singapore and thought why not make some huge bows and blinged up T-shirts. We assumed that everyone would be decked out but when we arrived it was more like a tax accountant convention. We stuck out badly and people kept coming up to us asking where we got our headbands from. We thought they were taking the mickey out of us, but the response was huge. We returned back to Kuching more determined than ever to give making the headbands ago. Being based in Kuching had to be the most geographically challenging place to start a business, but since we both had our day jobs we figured we would make a few headbands and sell them online. We set up a Facebook page and forced everyone we knew to like it. Somehow our page ended up catching the eye of an editor and we were approached to feature our first design followed up by a two page interview. We got such a kick out of flying to Kuala Lumpur to do the feature because nobody cared about what we did before, but now that we made some headbands we were deemed interesting. Our brand started as a hobby with just Sereni and I and today we have a team of 20 making and selling our products all around the world. If you had told me when I graduated that I was going to be a headband designer, I would have never believed it. I still pinch myself that we managed to build a colorful business from just ribbons and rhinestones. We have worked with so many incredible brands including Lancôme, Rimowa, Kate Spade, L’Oréal Professionnel, Samsung and H&M to name a few.
Affordable Pearls is the key focus of my second business Bowerhaus which was conceived very quickly after Sereni & Shentel was created. I co-founded it with my sister Elizabeth Lee who also just happens to be a graphic designer. We worked together on many projects for other clients and felt it was time to focus on creating our dream brand. We only had the confidence after I started S&S because we got to see first-hand how fun it was not having to wait for a client’s decision. If we wanted to do something, we were able to do. With that in mind, we were able to create fast. It is something that I think has been the key to Bowerhaus today. We also learnt from the many mistakes that were made in S&S, something that I am truly thankful for because without them the brand wouldn’t be where it is today. Our brand started very small with just 50 pieces that were all hand made by my sister. We launched in time for Christmas and at the launch, a buyer from Peters of Kensington came as a guest. After a quick meeting, she bought the entire collection in quantities that for a first collection was a dream come true. Once we were stocked in the pink building our business just grew. Today we have over 150 stockists and two retail stores in Kuala Lumpur with a third on its way.
What’s your advice for women wanting to launch their own business – what does it take to make it?
I think you should only launch something that you are truly passionate about and that you can sail through with your eyes closed confidently. I say that because it’s your gut that will have to lead you though so many dark days and if you don’t have it for that particular business you will fail or go insane. To make it, I think you have to have the fire within you to never give up and to be ready give anything a go, even if that means you may fail.
What’s your approach to social media?
I love it. I majored in photography so even before social media, I was always taking photos and printing them in dark rooms. I love how visual our world is now because of social media. My personal tone is just like a made pin board with no direction. I don’t follow any rules. I just post crap I love at a time when I can post it.
Who are your role models? Who do you admire?
I admire all single mothers.
What does the year ahead hold for you?
A flagship store for both Sereni & Shentel and Bowerhaus in Kuching as well as my involvement in a CSR initiative with the company ELICA doing low cost container housing called KitKotak for needy families in East Malaysia.
What are some vivid memories of your childhood?
I grew up in Sydney in a very creative family that encouraged the arts and music. Family gatherings always had musical instruments and a family member making a quilt or knitting in a corner. My parents were always interested in trying to help us find what we loved, and always told us that we could be anything we wanted to be, so long as we were the best at it. They instilled a strong work ethic in us and made us both have jobs from a young age. The thing I remember the most as a child was the huge amounts of travel we did. Both my parents love to explore and it is something we still do as a family today.
Tell us about your own mother – how has she influenced your life?
My mother is everything I aspire to be. She is one of those women who is able to run a business, put dinner on the table and have a spotless house all without a hair out of place. My mother has the ability to just get things done so efficiently and with ease, a skill I am so jealous of and am yet to master. I grew up watching my mum work and never once heard or saw her complain about it. I think it was seeing her work with so much passion that has influenced me to do the same. She is also hugely active in the community and works with an incredibly huge amount of charities both in Australia and abroad. She has always been the first to put her hand up and give all that she can to anyone who needs help. Recently she was awarded the title of Dame by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem something I am so proud of. The greatest gift she gave me was that she instilled in me a confidence that I can do anything and it is something I hope to instil in my boys.
What’s your approach to fashion? What kind of clothes do you love to wear?
I think fashion should be fun and that you shouldn’t take it too seriously. 99% of the time I am in a dress and it’s usually high-waisted with a bit of a gather. After two children, I have accepted that my stomach will never (and I mean never) be flat again. I dress to feel confident and comfortable. I also love a good ballerina flat because being able to chase after my two boys is now my priority, not to look taller and leaner.
What’s your approach to interiors – how would you describe your home?
Tacky eclectic with a hint of grown up sophistication would be my style. I love colour and I love vintage kitch, all things my husband hates. My husband is a developer and has a very modern eye to his approach to interiors. He loves sleek surfaces and clean lines, all things that terrify me. Our apartment is the outcome of two completely different styles. I like to say that there is a lot of visual noise. I know it’s not for everyone, but is so me. The kids love it as well, so sadly Bob is outnumbered.
Did your career change after you became a mother?
Nothing has changed for me since I became a mum work wise. I did change as a boss. I have become so much more compassionate and understanding, especially when a staff member’s child is sick and to staff who were pregnant or wanting to go on maternity leave. I think my whole mind shifted and I am glad it did because I feel our team became stronger after I became a mum. I definitely became more determined and had an even stronger work ethic, because I look to all my staff as my family now. I took six weeks maternity leave with my first child and four weeks off for my second but still keep working about an hour a day. Being the boss you never get an off day. Bills need to get paid and decisions still need to get done.
How do you juggle your children with work?
I have two nannies who are worth their weights in gold. They are the reason that I am able to work and get enough sleep to get up and do it all over again. It is a huge luxury to have and I know I am very lucky to have their support. I have a pretty simple rule and it is when I am with the boys, they quietly disappear. I try my very best to be the most hands on with them when I am not working. I spend the mornings with them before school and pick them up at in the afternoon and stay with them until bed time. Work resumes once they are put to bed always with a glass of wine and Scandal playing in the background.
What makes you laugh?
My in-laws when they tell me off, for telling my boys off.
Describe your inbox…
Over 21,000 unopened emails across five email boxes. It makes people faint. I don’t have a problem with it. If it is an emergency, pick up the phone and call me. That being said, I reply to work related things almost instantly. I am constantly on some kind of device and now that WhatsApp is available on desktop, it has changed my life.
How do you handle things such as tantrums?
With my first child, each tantrum made me realize that nothing at work could ever compare to the stress levels a screaming child can give you over Peppa Pig not loading fast enough on YouTube. With my second child, I literally laugh when he has a tantrum and walk away. The best way to deal with a tantrum is to not deal with it. Don’t negotiate. Give it a few minutes, when they realize no one is watching and no one cares they miraculously calm down and forget why they are having a tantrum.
What’s your approach to raising boys?
I like to keep them as active as possible. They ride their scooters and bikes every day and I find they are just better little humans when they go outside and play. I am really big on manners. I am constantly in their ear about saying please and thank you and am the first to reprimand them when they don’t. I also am a firm believer in reading to my boys. It is something we do daily and something the boys look forward to.
What’s life in Malaysia like – what kind of things do you do together as a family?
It is tropical hot hot hot here. We never experience the cold, which makes getting dressed in the morning really easy. Kuching life is the total opposite of city life. Things are very laid back here, things run at a much slower pace and the vibe is very relaxed. It is the ideal stomping ground for raising a family. As a family, we love to eat breakfast at a local kopitam followed by a visit to our local bookstore. If the boys are good, we will pack up their bikes and take them to the local bike park followed by ice cream at their favorite place called Sunny Hill.