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Jennifer Cheung: The ex-banker who turned her sweet-tooth into a thriving business

From banker to baker may be the unlikeliest of career changes, but it has proved happiness can also lead to success, writes Bernice Chan

 

Jennifer Cheung always liked cooking, yet it was a career in the competitive world of banking that helped her take her passion to transform the direction of the dessert industry in Hong Kong and build a reputation as serving some of the best cupcakes in town.

After high school in the United States and studying at Harvard, Cheung returned home to Hong Kong to begin her career as a banker in equity markets. Soon she was working 100-hour weeks.

"At the time I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but it paid well and was a respectable job," she says. "I liked finance and economics, and I'm still interested in them, but I could not do the lifestyle any more. There's more to life than that."

So Cheung went to New York's Institute of Culinary Education. "I've always loved cooking - baking, making desserts - and when I was at culinary school, it felt like coming home. I thought, 'this is what I want to do'."

Afterwards she did an internship at Thomas Keller's Per Se to test herself. "I love to cook, but it's different when you're in a professional situation, standing on your feet for 12 hours and it is high pressure. It was challenging but I loved it," she says.

During this period, Cheung began to slowly formulate ideas. She was determined to work for herself and returned to Hong Kong to start her business. Sift opened in August 2006, Hong Kong's first dessert bar for the after-dinner crowd in SoHo.

Take a leap of faith to discover what you really believe in and go for it

"Looking back on six years of experience, it was so painful as starting a business is not easy. But when you're 25 years old in the F&B [food and beverage] industry with no experience, you live and learn. I feel blessed that the business has done well," she says.

Despite stumbling, her perseverance has kept her going. "The biggest challenge is managing people because I have some staff who are older than me and may not accept that. But every business relies on people. I don't churn out all the products myself. I'm learning to inspire others from different backgrounds and empower them. Different people respond differently."

Sift has also evolved, not just being known as a dessert spot but also as a place for upscale cupcakes. Cheung admits at first dismissing them as not gourmet enough, but when she saw a Los Angeles business doing well, she realised it was worth a shot.

Demand caught on and, in 2008, Sift opened its main kitchen in Horizon Plaza and the following year a shop at Dominion Centre in Wan Chai. Her biggest jump in business came when she opened in Prince's Building and now sells more than 1,000 cupcakes a day.

"I'd like to open one or two more shops in Hong Kong, like Harbour City. Hong Kong is different from other cities because people here have less time, so the location is very important," she says.

When advising other young women with entrepreneurial ambitions, Cheung says they should not be afraid to fail. "Take a leap of faith to discover what you really believe in and go for it," she says. "Starting a business is hard, but so is keeping it going."

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