The Silent Remedy: Q&A with Anthea Indira Ong, Founder and Chief Revolutionary of Hush Teabar

Anthea Ong will be on the panel at our upcoming LadyBoss event happening 13th July. Get your tickets here! Please note that LadyBoss events are prone to SELLING OUT! Register early to avoid disappointment.

Hush is a movement of love and empathy, of breaking down walls with silence and reflection/introspection. Because in silence, we remember who we are, and who we are to each other. Not talking allows us to connect at a deeper and more authentic level as human beings, not us and them.

Anthea Ong’s  mantra is ‘Why start a business when you can start a movement, or two?”  She started Singapore’s first travelling silent teabar, Hush  to bring the disparate worlds of hearing and the deaf together.

Read to learn more about Anthea and her movement!

 Q: Tell us about Hush Teabar. How long you’ve been doing it?

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A: Hush is Singapore’s first roving Silent TeaBar and started as social experiment in October 2014. We are a social movement to bring the Deaf and hearing together to encourage experiential inclusion, with a cup of tea. Hush aims to disrupt and bring about change to 2 social issues:

#1 To challenge the notion of the daily rush through this silent revolution towards a resilient and inclusive society. Hush is journey of quiet reflection to connect with ourselves, others and the community – facilitated by our deaf partners, we call them TeaRistas.

#2 To challenge the notion of ‘disAbility’ by inviting all to rethink the ability of the deaf through a reflective experience of inner awareness where no spoken words are needed. We swop the worlds around to encourage the hearing to step into the shoes of the Deaf. In silence, where is their disability? Who is the disabled one?

Our primary sustainability model is Hush@Workplace – organisations such as DBS, Google, Medtronic, NUH, Dow Chemical, MOT, Puig, MOE, many schools etc. have brought Hush to the workplace as a unique and integrated responsibility model of employee wellness and community empowerment.

Hush@Community, in partnership with NVPC, is our public engagement effort to bring everyday heroes (cleaners, migrant workers, social workers, differently-abled persons etc) and business leaders together to share space in silence and solidarity, guided by the Deaf. We are very encouraged by the rave reviews and compelling stories from over 1,800 persons and almost 50organisations Hushed to-date. Over 38 deaf persons have been trained to be TeaRistas and we brought 5 of them on payroll last year (2016) when we turned Hush into an impact business (once I was comfortable with the financial sustainability of the movement).

Q: Tell us more about your background and how it led you to Hush Teabar?

 A: I was most recently Managing Director of a UK-listed company after a 8-year stint as entrepreneur/inventor of an education technology business. Prior to that, I held business leadership positions in companies such as Pearson, New York Institute of Finance, Terrapinn and United Overseas Bank (yes I started my career as a banker!). Please see http://www.linkedin.com/in/antheaong and www.antheaong.com for more background info.

A few things came together for me when the idea of Hush hit. I had always found refuge in silence as a little girl when I was called names (like retarded) who had an eye defect so I know what’s like to be labelled ‘different’. I therefore have a deep empathy to those who are on the margins of mainstream. Then I was literally saved by silence when I was drowning in all that despair and broken-heartedness from the colossal collapse of my life 11 years ago. It was in silence that I shut out all the white noise of expectations, of what should be and was able to start – bit by bit – to listen to my heart instead of my head. I discovered what truly matters to me, why things were happening to me the way they were etc.

Silence is still transforming me today. I believe that silence can bring different groups of people together because we connect at a different level when we don’t hide behind words. I was very determined to bring silence into the corporate system in a way that’s not seen as hocus-pocus but one that is steep in direct experience that could integrate self-awareness with empathy for the people who can teach us silence. I wanted to bring the worlds of hearing and deaf together as a social experiment so Hush TeaBar was born as Singapore first roving silent tear in Oct 2014.

Q: What were the challenges you faced starting Hush Teabar and how did you overcome them?

A: The biggest challenge in the social enterprise sector is also the biggest opportunity – which is that the sector here is still largely writing its own script as a relatively new way of looking at bridging non-profits and the commercial sector, yet singularly focused on addressing social issues. It’s a new frontier which means financiers and regulators, and the likes, are still figuring out how to support the sector but it means there’s so much room and possibilities for what’s ahead. This can be exciting or unnerving because we don’t have benchmarks and established norms to guide us.

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As for Hush, the trajectory thus far has been way beyond my expectations – we didn’t set out to be an impact business, my intention was to be a movement because my mantra has been ‘why start a business when you can start a movement, or two?’. I guess we lucked out in that the trends of mindfulness and reflection coupled with the increasing emphasis on community inclusion made us just where we need to be, at the right place and the right time. The usual challenges of creating anything new – business or movement – are not worth mentioning here as challenges because if I still see them as challenges after so many years of starting up new offices/new brands and my own businesses/movements, then I have not learned and grown. One of the most interesting learnings in Hush is working with our Deaf friends – understanding that like the hearing, they have their own sets of aspirations and afflictions.

Q: In terms of sales & marketing, how do you reach your customers, and what works? 

A: Word of mouth and media mentions have been the most powerful channels for us. We are still such a small team and we don’t do hard sell. Besides what we offer is not a product but experience so these 2 channels and lots of powerful pictures and videos help us attract more to come forward. Of course, I’m also blessed that at this stage of my life, my contemporaries are mostly in senior and influential positions within different organisations so that personal relationship capital helps tremendously. I am very grateful for that. Hush is really the result of the love of so many.

Nothing works better than making a Husher remember how he/she felt – not what we did for them. That change is visceral and emotive and he/she becomes a Hush champion for his/her community.

Q: Where do you see the future of Hush Teabar?  Any plans in the near future? 

 A: Beyond Singapore – we wish to see Hush in every metropolitan city where the need to Hush and take a pause/reflect for the inhabitants is a critical need, not a nice to have. And in that, we can also empower the Deaf community in each city to lead and deliver  Hush.

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We are now bringing this movement to the youth sector after piloting/refining with 3 groups: youth-at-risk leaders from CampVision and 2 separate sessions with NTU and NUS students. With the kind support of NYC’s National Youth Fund, we will be launching #YoungXHush at the upcoming SHINE Festival, in conjunction with the Youth Month in July. We will train youth volunteers as #YoungXHush champions who will, together with our deaf facilitators, reach out and initiate #YoungXHush circles with their peers to learn signing (empathy/expression) and stress-reduction techniques through reflection and sharing (resilience/gratitude). Yes, it’s a quiet revolution and we shall be daring the young to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, starting with signing and silence. They can sign their emotions even if they can’t/don’t know how to talk about them.We also empower the Deaf through this programme.

This is a very personal cause for me as I have young and very dear ones in my family who are battling mental conditions of anxiety and depressive disorder. We also have 2 hearing team members in Hush, Ning (Hush COO) and Xun An (Engagement Lead, #YoungXHush) who have powerful stories to share re: their personal journey with mental health challenges. 25 year-old Xun An, in particular, is a passionate youth mental wellness advocate who has not allowed the medical diagnosis of major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder since he was 10 years old to hold him back from pursuing his dreams and making a difference, yet the daily challenges are still there.

I am keen for #YoungXHush to open up new possibilities for our young ones to navigate successfully through this volatile and complex world that is upon them.

We have also soft-launched Hush in A Box where we bring everything that is loved about Hush… in a box! We are a movement so if we simply rely on Hush@Workplace and #Young&Hush, we won’t get to everyone! So Hush in A Box really brings the Hush Experience to the comfort of your house so that you can listen to the quiet of your heart, over and over again, in the comfort of your home -or anywhere, anytime. Everything about Hush in a Box is co-designed and packed by our Deaf team – so buying Hush in A Box continues to empower our Deaf friends.

Q: As entrepreneur, what is your motivation?   

A: When an internal switch goes off in that Hush participant, and he/she finds a new way to look at his/her world or when they allow that moment of tenderness to be with themselves in that silence. One recent Husher shared how she has been struggling with massive challenges in her life where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and everything that could go right has also gone wrong. She is in such a bad place that she even sleeps with music blaring. Through the experience, she not only picked a card (part of the Experience) written by a previous Husher that said ‘There’s a rainbow after every storm’ but she was able to listen to herself for the first time in a long time in that silence. At the end of the experience, she was sharing how she found hope in Hush. And her whole disposition changed when she left. It is such a privilege to be able to provide and hold the space for someone to reflect and reframe and in that process, to find their way out from where they thought they were trapped. We have SO MANY of such compelling experiences and reflections from Hushers! This gives me the greatest satisfaction, and makes me deeply grateful. There have been many such stories – including a well-known personality who teared during the silent TeaRitual because he hasn’t found time to grieve for the passing of his beloved mother just 2 months before.

What motivates me is that as we continue to give opportunities and empower our deaf friends to be more involved in the running of Hush, including corporate functions, that one day they will take over Hush to run as their own.

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