Interview with Jeri Chua, Founder of Red Dot Running Company
By Eric Senseman
In our second feature, we spoke with long run enthusiast and Red Dot Running Company founder, Jeri Chua. From an interest in triathlon to a love for the extra long run, Jeri found a trail running community globally that she wanted to bring back to Singapore. Read our conversation with Jeri to learn about her, Red Dot Running Company, and how to nurture a like-minded community in your own backyard.
Eric: I was just reading about you, and I understand that you first started in triathlon. I read that you were the first Singaporean to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona.
Jeri: Yeah, iRunFar did a profile on me a few years back–you might have read that. So, that Ironman was in 1998, a very long time ago [laughs]. Entries to Ironman - Kona used to be by lottery. If you were from a random, small country, you could pay $100 to be put in the lottery. There were a few Singaporeans who had done it that way before me, but no one had actually qualified with timing. I decided that I wanted to qualify properly, so I did. There have been a few others who have followed, which is great.
Eric: Had you completed a full Ironman before?
Jeri: I did my first Ironman that same year and qualified there. That was Ironman - New Zealand. I won my age group–that was my first Ironman and my first marathon [laughs]. It was awesome and crazy at the same time. There was hail–and coming from Singapore, you don’t swim in open water and you don’t use a wetsuit. It was great fun and a great learning experience.
Eric: When did you start with triathlon?
Jeri: I started in 1994. Have you heard of Tiger Balm? There was a massage team, and they recruited some of us–I was in school–to perform massages at triathlons. I think it was 1993, and I was like, Wow, what’s this? I want to do it! I signed up for the next triathlon I saw–it was a long distance one I think. So it was just that. I really did it from scratch. I borrowed a friend's bike [laughs]. One of my friends mentioned Ironman and I said, What’s that? The rest is history, really.
Eric: When did you find the sport of trail running?
Jeri: I moved to the UK in 1998. I spent 12 years there. I stopped doing triathlons after a few years because it was too cold and wet. I took up kitesurfing for a bit [laughs]. I then joined a running club and they introduced me to trails and ultras. At the time I just had no idea what it was–it was hard, running off road, but I loved it. In 2009, I did my first ultra in the UK. I learned a lot, it was a very steep learning curve. Then I moved back to Singapore and did a lot more ultras after that.
Eric: How did it compare, the running, when you moved back to Singapore?
Jeri:[laughs] Very, very differently! In Singapore, there are no hills. Our highest elevation is 162 meters above sea level. We’re missing a zero. You can see ultrarunners doing laps up and down and up and down on the weekends. Everyone knows it.
Eric:After leaving a running group and community in the UK and going back to Singapore–did that experience with the running community make you want to start something similar in Singapore with Red Dot Running Company?
Jeri: Red Dot Running Company, as of now, is about five years old. Before that–from 2010 to 2016–I raced a lot. I traveled a lot. I lived in Hong Kong for a few years. I realized that I like the long distance stuff. When I was in Hong Kong I got good at doing hills–climbing and descending. I traveled a lot for work. We didn’t have any races, hardly, in Singapore, but I didn’t run much in Singapore until I came back in early 2016.
The way Red Dot Running Company started is that I couldn’t find gear that I needed. There’s stuff that was impossible to find. So, that’s how it started–I decided that I was going to try to offer gear to ultrarunners and trail runners. But the main reason, to be honest, is that I remembered how the community used to be with triathlon when I first started. The trail and ultra community is all around the world. Everyone is happy to stop and help and chat and share knowledge and grow the sport. That’s what I wanted to create in Singapore. It was based on going to places like Healdsburg Running Company and San Francisco Running Company. I spent a lot of time in the US and explored different running companies to see what the vibe was. I tried to recreate that in Singapore.
Eric: You provided the gear, and the community sort of blossomed around that?
Jeri: It was funny because when I first started it was just online. But people were wanting to try on the gear. They wanted to come to my house and try stuff out, the packs and everything. I started in March, then I found a shop space in November the same year. Once we had the store, we started movie nights and talks. We’ve had quite a few runners–anybody who has been nearby, we try to fly them into Singapore. The whole idea is creating a community and creating opportunities for interactions within the community.
We’ve just finished our ambassador onboarding sessions and talking to all of them–we have ambassadors across something like fifteen sports. We have rock climbers, trail runners, mountain bikers–so many different sports and it’s so great when they talk to each other. Say you’re talking to someone who does Spartan racing, and you think, hey, that sounds interesting, I might try that. If you’re a recreational athlete, you might think, hey, I want to try something different to change things up–especially in Singapore because we don’t have a massive amount of variety here. The whole point really of Red Dot Running is to create a local community that spans across all the outdoor activities. It creates enthusiasm and allows people to share knowledge.
Eric: And with the gear you provide, it’s a niche market, in some ways, and you’re particular about what you sell.
Jeri: Our brands are all very niche brands, like rabbit. I know the founders personally or I know the people in charge personally. I know what their passions are and I take it very seriously that I’m taking their babies and trying to incubate the same thing in Singapore and share that passion with everyone else. The brands we have are usually not sold elsewhere in Singapore. But we have a destination store–runners and endurance athletes come to us for advice, and my staff is very knowledgeable. This is the kind of vibe we have, we want people to come to us for advice and even if we don’t have what they need, we want to help them find it. The community and camaraderie in trail and ultra running is just so tight, and we’re trying to grow that here.
Eric:rabbit is a female-founded company and so is Red Dot Running Company. How important do you think it is to have female representation in sport?
Jeri: Women are very discerning and from a business point of view, with apparel for example, they look at style, color, fit–it’s a valuable view. The way Jill and Monica (rabbit co-founders) have gone about it, they’ve made it such a covetable brand because they’re so particular about the cuts, the fabrics they use, the way the brand is portrayed. And they’ve been able to translate that from the women’s line to the men’s line as well. Jill and Monica are a real inspiration, to be honest. I love what they’ve done. I really want to be mindful of how much passion there is there, and the same with the other brands we take on, so that their trust isn’t misplaced in us as a reseller.
Eric: A lot of speciality run stores are male owned. Did you find it important, as a female, to start a store?
Jeri: I’m not really concerned if a certain industry is male-dominated or not. I see equality because that’s what we create. If you see a division, then there’s more likely going to be one because there are prejudices and preconceived notions. Occasionally, I go to talk to a supplier or new brand, and I have my marketing guy with me, and they are talking to him because they think he is the owner of the business [laughs]. You know, that’s minor. I think a lot of it also is that–you know, the sports industry as a whole is male dominated–the general idea for women’s stuff is to pink it and shrink it. Packs, clothing, nutrition–but we’re not small men. Having more women-led businesses has provided the industry and the community with better products, stuff that really works for us–we’re built differently.
Eric: You’ve built a business, a community, and a diverse group of outdoors people are involved. Where does it go from here?
Jeri: We still have a lot of work to do in terms of the community. We started in trail and ultra running but I’d really like to see more road runners and cyclists working with us to understand what Red Dot Running Company is about. Nutrition, apparel, shoes–everyone does a lot of cross-training in Singapore, one sport is just too boring [laughs]. We’ve seen a massive boom in recent years with people getting outdoors. There’s a lot of people who have started exercising but they don’t know what they’re doing. That’s where education comes in.
I also have an events company. We have a donut run–it’s hard to have a beer mile as a sanctioned event [laughs]. But it’s creating things that are different and bring in the entry level athletes from the community, where they think, Yeah, I can do that!We want to do group runs, fun stuff, backyard ultras.
The goal for Red Dot Running Company in the coming years is to make it the destination for anyone who is an outdoor enthusiast, so they can find what they need in terms of community, education, and experience. We can help with products, of course, but as restrictions open we intend to have more community events, so that we can get the community talking, growing in that way. Once we build the foundation for that–the business is almost secondary. I really want it to be a place where people know they can come because we’re passionate about what we do. We won’t just say, Buy this because it’s on sale. It’s going to be, This is what will work for you. We want to be the destination in southeast Asia.
Eric: Thanks for the chat, Jeri, and best of luck going forward.