“To be successful anywhere, you have to adapt to wherever you go” Interview with Flora Zeta Cheong-Leen (CISCA)

2024, March 12
“To be successful anywhere, you have to adapt to wherever you go” Interview with Flora Zeta Cheong-Leen (CISCA) 12th March 2024

Today’s interview is with the inspiring, talented and fierce Flora Cheong-Leen. Hesitant to deem herself successful, she’s constantly changing, adapting and reinventing herself to keep up to date in creating new art while always focused on helping others. ”From a very small age… I was a bit spunky” Flora reveals. And that becomes clearer as the interview continues.


You’ve entered so many career paths- from ballet school, designing your own clothing line (opening 400 stores), starting CISCA, creating Tian Art Foundation. What motivates you to do all these amazing things?

Flora owes her motivation and discipline to her education at Ballet school in her formative years. “It was taught to me when I went to the Royal ballet school. It’s a school that embraces professional training. I had to do 39 different classes. 12 were normal education- from English, history to the sciences- everything a child needs and on top of that, we had 12 of different ballet classes- contemporary, Russian, American, British styles and we also learnt the history of ballet…it’s not just dance, it’s in-depth history and knowledge building”

She referred to the school’s teaching style as military. “There were loving, warm teachers but there’s still discipline, because that’s the foundation of success..it is to hold your bite” “that’s when you are humbled to nothing”. She mentions the contrast to teaching styles now, where everyone is coddled, whereas when she grew up, the teaching style was so strict, students were “humbled to nothing.” “We were told we were absolutely nothing” Flora says. She goes on to explain how the strict teaching style enforced a sense of competitiveness. “If you want to do something, you got to do it and no one is going to help you because it’s all a competition in the world”. “I’m not saying you need to be abrupt or be pushy but you have to have your philosophy, what you believe in..to come to work and be of help to anything”

Her multi-cultural childhood has been “ her asset”. Both her South American heritage, from her dad’s side, and her Chinese heritage from her mothers side as well as attending school in England, has taught her extensive knowledge about culture and life. From her south American roots, she learnt lots of latino dancing. From her mother’s Chinese heritage, she learnt tai chi. She jokes how her parents tried to calm her hyper and energetic attitude and learn Chinese calligraphy. “They told me to slow down my Tai chi and learn Chinese calligraphy…to balance me out.” “Thats how I feel I got my control and from there, I cultivated my dance style…I could be hot and excited…and serious”.

Would you say your early education has equipped you with the tools, especially as a woman, to navigate being in a leadership position?

She owes it to ballet school to teaching her how to question everything, to stand out and not simply follow what teachers, parents or employees instruct you to do but also, to remember you must rely on yourself. Flora emphasises the importance of continuously asking: ‘how can I be helpful in life?’. She explains that “everything is a competition in the world” and you have to think outside of the box, stand on your own and not rely on others to succeed.

There’s different terminology spoken to women than to men, specifically in business. How do you balance being assertive and being empathetic. Not being bossy but being the boss?

Flora explains the system in ballet doesn’t differentiate gender but instead, becomes more fluid in the world of dance, where the dancers display both feminine and masculine features to be the best at what they do. She begins a mini history lesson into the origins of ballet: “In ballet…it’s always been female being the prima-ballerina” However, Flora describes that in history, “it was actually the men who introduced court dancing…It was Louis 16th who started ballet at court in France…it’s court dancing and then it turned to ballet”. “Men and women, in old history, there were no differences, they were just one sex but then the construct of men and women came about…then the women have kids and the men go to work…it’s all constructed by history and society.” Flora highlights how conventional gender norms dissolve in the world of ballet. “In the ballet world, there are no ‘female’ or ‘male’. There are just rules that people wrote…the women work just as hard as the men…the men have to have female qualities and the women have to have male strength.”

“To be successful anywhere, you have to adapt to wherever you go. Schooling is one thing…but you have to go out.”She warns that taking on the attitude of ‘I know best’ and ‘listen to me’ won’t work at all. Flora’s mindset is to go into any business project with the assumption that she is a blank slate and is here to learn, include everybody and work as a team. “If you go to a meeting with the attitude that I know best and you guys know nothing, that won’t work” she firmly states. “You go in knowing nothing… with the mindset of how can I help?…how can we do this together?…I can’t do it without you, you can’t do it without me, lets do it together”. Flora wisely suggests that approaching a business meeting with a learning mindset fosters collaboration, inclusivity, and respect, cultivating a culture of innovative and creativity in the business sphere.

Have you encountered any misconceptions/bias about women in leadership roles and how have you proven them wrong?”

Flora mentions that during her 20s, she internalised misogynistic beliefs about what a woman’s role should be. “I felt society said you must be married…you must be successful…you must win awards…and have children…..so then, I got married and I had a kid…But I was not happy and then there were a lot of expectations to be a successful designer.”

“Then, you know what? I went back to school…I studied psychiatry..and did different courses. I started meeting different friends…and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be with them[your friends] but I just realised…they don’t talk about anything new, they like to gossip about each other…then I realised we have to talk about what is inspiring and what is creative”.

“I then realised I had to change”. “I used to like sour things, now I like salty things. I used to like sweets now I like very spicy things…I changed…then I suddenly realised.. ‘hey I don’t really like it’ why didn’t I tell anybody? Why did I pretend to like everything? I’m just trying to be whatever you want me to be”. Flora underscores the need to be “pluralistic, experienced and cultured” otherwise you have no idea how to handle real life situations and be able to grow from them. “Life has to be fun, otherwise it’s not worth living..you have to enjoy yourself and believe in yourself”, Flora says as she puts her hand down on the table, emphasising her point. Flora touches on an important issue of the tendency of women to conform to societal expectations rather than assert their individuality, stemming from cultural norms and systemic biases. Specifically in the business sphere, the limited representation in leadership roles may contribute to a lack of confidence or fear of being judged for asserting themselves. Flora fiercely opposes this notion of conformity as she stepped away from what others projected onto her and now lives fully for herself.

She mentions how she saw her aunties sitting at home while the “husbands are very successful.” She emphasises that didn’t want to be like her aunties. “I don’t want to be married to a rich man anymore…I used to be and it didn’t work” she tells me with direction and confidence. I tell her she is the rich man now. “I’m married to myself” she laughs. Flora rejects the misogynistic idea of a woman’s role in society is and has continuously focused on creating art and doing what makes her happy.

She goes on to mention the misogynistic comments she’d receive when she got a divorce. “If I get a divorce, ‘oh she’s a maneater..she’s going to ruin your husband..she’s going to come after your husband’. “I’ve never been married to a man who has been married before”. These are the internalised misogyny people often have to women who marries and then gets a divorce. They are seen as something is wrong with them, while the man is overlooked for his role in a divorce or a break up.

She describes the difficulties in relationships when the woman holds more of the power or success and how that can lead to issues in relationships. She describes how she met my ex boyfriend: “He was working on a show with me and then started working on a book with me and then he started working on our dance company.” “But then he started changing. He started telling me ‘ugh, you’re too bossy. You should give me more of the share..I’m the one who did this and you should give me a share’. And I go, well you didn’t go and get the money, honey. You know, I found the money and I set up everything.”

How has your image of success changed over the years?

“My image of success when I was in my 20s and 30s has completely changed. I was successful when I was in my 20s but now, in hindsight, I wasn’t successful..that was a façade of what success meant to people“,Flora says with refreshing honesty. She reveals how she won many awards and different materialistic forms of success of what the world told her was an achievement but looking back, Flora emphasises it isn’t what success is to her anymore. “It’s all something that society expects of you…I’m happy now that I am continuing to be none of that and that I am on my own path”. Flora advocates for not reliving the past because times are always changing along with the definitions of success. Flora believes that one must change with the times and not get stuck on society’s definition of success but to evolve and find things that make you happy. “Don’t focus on achieving success and don’t say you’ve got success. The definition of success is always changing.”.“We are on the cusp of a whole era changing…It was a manual life and now it is an electronic one…I cant be the judge of whether its good or bad, but you’ve gotten embrace it..whether you like it or not you have to learn”. Flora pushes for the importance of constantly being eager and ready to learn and evolve to keep up with the changing times.

She emphasises the importance of understanding the needs of the new generations. “My aim is to live like a teenager…If I don’t know what you guys want, then goodbye” she sings the last bit. “I’ll just be in the countryside with a cup of tea, just waiting to die…Life should have energy” she emphasises. “What’s the point for me to say ‘you know nothing and I know everything’ no. You know a lot of things I don’t know.”

She advocates that she does not want to be regarded as successful or the standard of what success is. “I do not want to believe that I am successful or believe that I have it and you don’t, I am still plowwing my way. I believe we have to be able to change and change and change.” “To be successful used to be repeat, repeat, repeat…no, it’s now how to reinvent yourself.” Now, she mentions how they have focused more of celebrating Asian culture at CISCA by embracing Asian themes in teaching dance, as they now offer Tai Chi classes to the students.

Flora highlights how success to her isn’t what she’d achieved or the materialistic things she’s gained along the way and instead says that, “I am only successful if I feel happy and I am without regrets, that’s my success”. “How can I say I have a lot of successes. I am just who I am. I am just still humbling learning. I failed in marriages many times because I felt I never learnt my lesson that love overcomes everything.”

“Don’t take it [life] so seriously”. Flora spoke about how, when she was 16 years old, she started finding creative ways to creating designs, which has always been a strong passion of hers. She recalls a funny story of how when she was younger, she didn’t have any extra money to buy fabric, so getting creative, she started cutting the linings of the curtains at home to create her own designs, which she then went to Carnaby street and sold them. “I went into different stores and asked if they wanted to sell my jeans.” After cutting the linings of her curtains at home, she recounts with a laugh, that her mum started noticing the shortened length of the curtains and would ask, “why is light coming through?” and “are the curtains shorter?”.

Flora’s creativity and excitement at life and creating art in the most unconventional ways has clearly been with her since she was a child.  She tells me she’s still focused on fashion, “I made this skirt” she says as she gestures to this beautiful, vintage style skirt she’s wearing. “This is the real fabric” she shows me as she flips a side of the skirt over.”It’s too strong so I put it inside-out. It’s vintage”.

“What advice would you give to younger women currently pursuing their passion?”

Flora concludes our conversation, with sharing a wise perspective on the definition of success and being responsible for yourself. “My advice is…don’t hold onto your failings or your successes because it ain’t going to last long” she chuckles “and just be happy we’re here and we get to learn”. “It’s not the money, it’s not your status, it’s not your beauty, it’s not what you achieved, it’s what you are going to achieve. Your eagerness to go and learn…You have to have your own boundaries. You have to have your own savings. You’ve got to be responsible for your own actions” she advises. “You just have to be accountable and have people respect you for your own self-pride”.

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