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Co-founder of entertainment group A Phat Cat Collective on being inspired by her entrepreneur mum

Only 30, but Francesca Aurora Way has already co-created two booming nightlife venues – concept bars Nineteen80 and Pinball Wizard – with a third on the way.

Francesca Aurora Way didn’t expect to fall in love with the F&B and entertainment industry. Fresh out of university, she took up a fun marketing job at a rooftop club and restaurant, in the industry that she has persisted and flourished in, even till today. Two years after she became Head of Marketing at Ce La Vi at age 25, the entrepreneur moved on from her previous role and co-founded A Phat Cat Collective with her business partners. They have two nightlife venues and a third coming up – and initially had plans to venture overseas this year, until the Covid-19 outbreak struck.

She had big shoes to fill – one of her biggest inspirations and role models, her mother Gerardine Pinto, opened a successful French creperie with zero professional F&B experience. Creperie Ar-men opened along Duxton Road, earning praise from the local French community and the media. Though the restaurant has since closed, it was Way’s first peek into the industry – and where she earned a great deal of respect for her mother, who managed to run a successful restaurant while finding time to spend time with her family.

The Peak spoke to Way to get some insight into managing her business during the Covid-19 crisis, how the entrepreneur’s leadership style is influenced by her mother and what we can look forward to from A Phat Cat Collective once this is all over.

(Related: The most unique ice creams in Singapore)

Francesca Aurora Way Interview 2

Can you tell me about yourself growing up?

I was a pretty independent, ambitious and active kid that wanted to do all sorts of things. In school, I was in drama and ballet, taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop and coded my own personal website, and cooked for my friends. My mother opened a restaurant when I was in secondary school. It’s a French creperie called Creperie Ar-men at Duxton Road, and I began to help out over there when I could. I was initially a daddy’s girl, but grew closer to my mother during my years working with her.

She was always the strict one growing up, but at the restaurant, I got to see her in a different light – as a boss, leader and friend. Although she worked every day, she still found time for ‘Mum’ duties – be it ballet recitals, bringing us out for tea, or writing notes to teachers when I tried to skip school camps (sorry teachers!). As I spent more time at the restaurant, I harboured thoughts of doing something within the F&B space, like open an ice cream parlour. The day she closed her restaurant in 2007 was one of the most devastating days of my life, and I vowed to reopen her restaurant again someday.

Did your mother influence the way you run things at A Phat Cat Collective?

My mum was one of my biggest role models and she was the first person who made me believe I could be an entrepreneur. Seeing how she went from a homemaker to a restaurant owner with no culinary background showed me I can do whatever I want to if I put my mind to it.  She actually went to Brittany to learn how to perfect her crepes, before opening the restaurant while she was pregnant during the SARS period – and it was already a high-risk pregnancy due to her chronic heart condition. Within three days of giving birth, she was already back at the restaurant.

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She taught me that I don’t need to play it safe – as long as you have the right attitude, you can develop the aptitude and achieve what you put your mind to. Her courage is probably one of the reasons I’m not afraid to dream big. I’m that person that gets paralysed making decisions like choosing what ice cream flavour to have, yet it came naturally to me to take bold leaps in career and business. Experiencing her work ethic work enabled me to become Head of Marketing at a multi-national F&B company at the age of 25, the youngest management at the time. By 27 years old I started my own company with my partners, and now at 30 years old, we have two nightlife venues and a third one coming up. It’s probably because of my mum that I never worried about social conventions and whether I was too young, nor did I feel like being female was a disadvantage in the workplace.

How is your leadership style helping you and A Phat Collective to cope with the coronavirus outbreak?

These are unprecedented and uncertain times. I’ve seen so much flexibility, responsiveness and creativity from my team. I think my style is to encourage a sense of ownership and imagination, and guiding them to channel that into the final product. It’s heartening to see my team step up with ideas during this time.

I don’t think of myself as motherly, but I definitely care a lot and feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility for my team. When I was a kid, my mum always put me in charge of taking care of my younger sister – if anything happened to her, it was my fault! Responsibility was instilled in me from a young age, and that being a leader and entrepreneur also means that you have to make choices for the good of the team, even some that perhaps they may not ever be aware of. You must remember that teams are made up of breadwinners supporting their families, so it’s important to have that perspective.

How is A Phat Cat Collective helping its workers or the industry at large?

The Covid-19 crisis has impacted our businesses hard as we have had to cease operations completely. However, we still take care of our team. We try to ensure that their livelihoods remain intact and assist some of our partner restaurants in the F&B industry by channelling our resources and creativity to help transition their businesses. For NINETEEN80 and Pinball Wizard, we’re giving our resident DJs a platform for their music with a month of livestreams via Twitch, with a nostalgic NINETEEN80 Stay Home Boogie on Fridays and Superduperfly Hip Hop jams on Pinball Wizard. It also helps keep our community close, uplift audiences missing a night out, and provides a channel for our work family and friends to tune in and dance together.

We also launched a temporary online store for those who wish to show support for our team. NINETEEN80 has gift vouchers available for purchase, which can be used when we reopen after the Circuit Breaker. This goes a long way to help our business.

What are some takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis that you’ll use to change your business going forward?

During this time, the adage, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” resonates strongly. There has been a lot of uncertainly and changing regulations in this climate. We’ve had to make tough decisions and have difficult conversations in these unsettling circumstances to protect our team members and the business, and the best thing we can do is accept things we can’t change, evolve quickly to adapt where we can make a difference, and put our time into productive avenues.

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What are you most looking forward to once the coronavirus crisis is all over?

Catching up with my friends at the newly expanded NINETEEN80, which we had to close right after our first weekend post-renovation, and opening our upcoming Steampunk-themed electronic music club, Rails!

When you’re retiring at the end of your career, what do you want to be known for?

I would like to one day be known for contributing and helping to impact the nightlife and F&B scene for the better by taking it to another level. I hope that our concepts, our work, words, music and friendship has helped a person in their life or given someone lasting memories. Knowing that we’ve added something special to someone’s life makes everything worthwhile.