Water Industry CEO First Woman to be Named Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year

Olivia Lum, Group CEO and president of Hyflux Limited, was last week named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2011. Ms Lum was picked from among 49 finalists, each of whom had already been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in their home country. Not only did this year see a record number of women finalists - six in total - but the first female winner in the history of the world's most prestigious business award for entrepreneurs.

Ms Lum founded Hyflux in 1989 with 20,000 Singapore dollars (nearly £10,000), which she raised from selling her house and car, and initially rode around on a motorcycle selling water filters and treatment chemicals. Today, Hyflux has become one of the world's leading desalination suppliers. It is publicly traded with revenues of US$450m, employing more than 2,300 people in operations and projects in Southeast Asia, China, India, the Middle East and North Africa. Customers include Siemens and Hewlett Packard.

"As the first female World Entrepreneur Of The Year, Olivia is a wonderful role model for entrepreneurs and for women across Asia and the world. This can only accelerate the growing global trend of more and more women building great businesses,"

said Maria Pinelli, Ernst & Young's Global Vice Chair for Strategic Growth Markets.

Under Lum’s leadership, Hyflux is strategically positioned for the uptrend in the water industry and to capture growth opportunities in key markets. Its spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship drives its technological advancements in membranes, commercialization of applications, project management, operations and maintenance.

The company also shows a strong social conscience, having sponsored and spearheaded many corporate citizen projects focusing on the environment, education, entrepreneurship and community relations. In 2010, Hyflux contributed to fund-raising events for wildlife conservation, eldercare, rehabilitation and skills development. The company also supplied its portable track membrane water filters to aid humanitarian efforts for disaster relief in Qinghai and Haiti.

Ms Lum’s start in life was a humble one.  Adopted at birth, she was one of five orphans brought up in an illegally constructed shack in her native Malaysia with no running water or electricity. Her entrepreneurial career began when she started trading fruit to fund her education.

On collecting her award, she said her triumph showed “there are no difficulties you can’t overcome when you have faced the challenges of hunger and poverty”.

At 16, she moved to Singapore to study chemistry and eventually secured a position at GlaxoSmithKline, where she spotted an opportunity to clean water that had been polluted by industrial processes.

“I decided the world was going to run out of clean water,” she said. “No one wanted to start a water business then but I only had one passion. I thought, naively, that I wanted to save the world.”

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