Fast forward to today, and she is still a proud representative of Singapore – albeit in a completely different field. She is now the founder of Silicon Valley-based optic lens start-up DynaOptics, which has achieved global recognition for their superior wide-angled camera lens technology. The start-up has offices in both the US and Singapore, and has also successfully raised funds for OOWA, their line of mobile photography lenses, on popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.
Lihan (far right) at the 1993 edition of the SEA Games hosted in Singapore
Lihan, who set up DynaOptics in 2012, said that starting the company was a decision that was “unusual, and maybe a little crazy”. Manufacturing hardware came with many challenges, and even more so considering that the team was producing free-form lenses, an item which was the first-of-its-kind. “On hindsight, the past few years of establishing the company and our product offerings may have been the most difficult, but they were also the most fulfilling time of my life,” she said, reflecting on the lessons learnt and perspectives gained in the past few years.
“Even if I could go back in time, I don’t think I’d have chosen anything differently.”
Singaporean values and perspectives
Though Lihan had the opportunity to live in many different cities prior to starting DynaOptics, it was her growing up years in Singapore that instilled the strongest values in her, and where her strongest memories lie. She recounted how her school years at both Raffles Girls’ School and Hwa Chong Junior College helped instil values such as determination and hard work, which have become a part of who she is as a start-up founder today.
Lihan (left) pictured with a schoolmate at Raffles Girls School
“There’s just something about being Singaporean, and being Asian in general,” she mused. “We have the grit to just keep our heads down and move forward with our goals. I brought this attitude with me overseas, and it has anchored me in a way that is different from other people.”
Growing up in a small market like Singapore also provided Lihan with unique perspectives, and ones she deemed useful for an international start-up like DynaOptics. “In a small nation like Singapore, where we try to punch above our weight wherever we go, we have learnt to dream big, yet stay humble and be aware of our limitations.” This conscious awareness of her limitations helped guide her decisions, which led to gradually nurturing DynaOptics into the successful start-up it is today.
The Singaporean Network
Another aspect of home Lihan appreciates is our enduring ‘kampung spirit’, and how coming from a small nation leads to all of us being inter-connected, in one way or another. “This Singaporean network is really powerful, and it definitely helps that you’re almost always just two to three connections away from another person,” Lihan said.
“An example was when we were speaking to the best [photographers] in Singapore to prepare for the launch of OOWA, one of whom was internationally-renowned architecture and landscape photographer Darren Soh. Not long into our conversation, we came to realise that his wife was actually my schoolmate from secondary school – so gaining credibility after that was just so much simpler!” she added.
Lihan (right) with Darren Soh, renowned Singaporean architecture and landscape photographer at the DynaOptics office in Singapore
This close-knitted community provides many opportunities, and Lihan is also grateful for how quickly Singaporeans band together to support each other. “People are willing to go out of their way to support you, and vice versa. It’s something which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. We don’t even have this same sort of connection in the United States. It’s just… different lah.”
“When we launched OOWA back home in Singapore, for example, we had the opportunity to host Associated Press (AP) photojournalist Wong Maye-E in our office,” she recalled. “Where else in the world could we actually have a renowned photographer come all the way down to our office for small talk?”
An eventual return
Though Lihan plans to continue riding on DynaOptics and OOWA’s rising visibility in both Singapore and the US to establish greater credibility in other countries, her thoughts do occasionally turn to home and what she misses about it.
“One thing is the ease at which I can connect with my old friends,” she said. “Making new friends in other countries is just not the same kind of experience when you don’t have similar shared backgrounds.”
“The connectivity that Singapore is able to afford makes it easy for your kids, your health, your family, and everything you need,” she added. “This allows us to appreciate that life is an incredible privilege – that the objectives in life are to find and surround yourself with these things that make you happy, and not just about material accumulation.”
Lihan backpacking on a trip to Yosemite National Park, California in 2000 during her junior year at Stanford University
Regardless of her plans in the future, her Singaporean identity is something Lihan is proud of and will be one she wears proudly, especially in a globally-diverse region such as the Silicon Valley. “Our nation’s history can easily be summed up as a miracle economic story – and I am proud to be able to claim that as part of my heritage.”
“I’ve met many people around the world in my journeys thus far, and among them, I can easily say that Singaporeans are some of the most special people I know,” she said.
“I am proud to call myself a Singaporean too.”