An Advocate For Women

Harpreet Bedi, CEO of luxury boutique hotel group, Garcha Group, knows full well the challenges faced by today’s modern woman. Five years ago, she had to take over the running of the company she and her husband, Satinder Garcha founded– all while juggling family and children.

Plain-speaking, warm, and effervescent, CEO of luxury boutique hotel group, Garcha Group, Harpreet Bedi is, at the heart of it all, a relentless advocate for women. Not one to mince words, she speaks frankly about how she surrounds herself with strong women, and she does not shy away from admitting it. In fact, when we first interview her, she has no hesitation to say that she is “big on women’s rights.”

“I am very big on women’s rights, women’s choices and women’s independence. I feel that women deserve respect always, but have not always received it, in some parts of the world more than others,” she says, and there is a genuine sincerity behind her words.

It’s no wonder she feels strongly about women’s rights, as back in 2012, she founded Bioethics Legal Research in Singapore (Belris), a non-governmental, independent, non-profit group dedicated to promoting research and collaborative dialogue in the area of ethics and reproductive treatments and technologies in Singapore.

Belris was also an advocate of women’s rights, to fund legitimate research and educate women on ethics and reproductive treatments and technologies. “We did a lot of advocacy work, bringing to Parliament issues of women’s reproductive rights, but it was shut in 2016. It’s a pity, for it truly was what I thought I would always do, because I really feel so strongly about women’s issues,” she says.

Belris was founded after Harpreet completed her Masters in Medical Law in the University of Glasgow — a befitting choice as she is a lawyer by education, having worked a decade in corporate America before starting a few entrepreneurial endeavours, such as a luxury boutique store, and then, eventually, Belris.

“It came about as part of a philosophical, and very personal, reason. I had experience with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and infertility, and I wanted there to be more openness about women’s reproductive rights issues,” she explains.

“I do not want to be seen as critical of Singapore; I am a Singaporean myself and am very fond of my country, but some of the existing policies are still quite detrimental to a woman’s choice of what to do with her lack of reproductive ability,” she says.

It is illegal for a woman to freeze her eggs for future use, unless necessitated for medical reasons. IVF treatment for women aged 45 or older is also not allowed in Singapore, where the fertility rate fell last year to 1.14, the lowest figure recorded in the country’s history.

However, Belris came to a halt when she had to take over the running of Garcha Group.

“My work in reproductive rights is a big part of [my advocacy], but now that I can’t [actively] do that, I figured, well, let me do what I can to help women learn to be financially savvy and independent. I want all the women who work for me to be empowered. So I constantly push them to reach their potential and push them to know more about finances and pay parity.

“What I’ve decided to do, since I’m re-hiring heavily now, is to open more opportunities to women. I will hire men, but I have noticed as a female CEO that it takes a man who perhaps has been raised by very strong women to work under a woman,” she says. “Second, I believe strongly that women are by nature more collaborative. And hotels are basically an extension of a home, and so why would women not be the best people to run businesses in hospitality? I’m just going all out and I’m very open about it. And I hire many women, and we’re doing a good job.”

This does not mean she does not (until today) face challenges and greater expectations than before, as a woman.

“However, expectations are only those that one puts upon oneself. I feel I am capable of managing businesses along with having a family with four children (and four dogs). I chose to move to Singapore because I needed a support system to enable me to do all this. If I didn’t have the luxury of having teams of capable women (and men) around me, I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I do,” she says.

“I’ll have to give credit where credit is due: My house is managed by a team of capable women; my hotels are headed by a slew of very strong and capable women (and few good men); I have a supportive husband who is my confidant, friend and sounding-board; and I am blessed that my children are all very independent and self-motivated. If I didn’t have all these people helping me, I wouldn’t have the balance I have,” she adds.

It also helps that she keeps in mind the best advice she’d ever received: to stop apologising for being who you are.

“It comes from Anouska Hempel (who designed one of my hotels — Duxton Reserve, Autograph Collection — and one of my restaurants — Yellow Pot). Unbeknownst to her, she taught me to stop apologising unnecessarily — to be who you are; to not be apologetic for one’s personality. This is why for my hotels I do the screening interviews and choose only candidates who either show their personality or just need a little help to do so. For example, for something as simple as uniforms, the ladies chose a uniform which has a commonality but with an allowance for differences based on individual preferences and body shape. This allows them to feel confident when they engage with guests and allows them to express their individuality.”