Karen Soo: Dared to Dream and Built a Successful Event Management Company from Scratch

At the age of 30, Karen Soo took a decision that changed the trajectory of her career. She embarked on an entrepreneurial journey and built a company with her brother, Richard Soo, from scratch. Now, as the founder of MEP Meeting & Exhibition Planners (or MEP) in Malaysia and Singapore, she is an inspiration and role model for many young women. Karen has shown them through her leadership and preservation that entrepreneurial success is achievable for those who dare to dream.

From Hotel Industry to Becoming a Business Owner 

The inspiration to establish MEP, now recognized for transcending both geographical and industry boundaries, stemmed from Karen’s years in the hotel industry during the 1980s and 1990s. “That era of dynamic sales growth instilled in me a driving spirit and a conviction in the realm of possibilities,” she says.

In 1982, she began her career as a sales coordinator in the hotel industry. Over the next 15 years, she worked in various positions. When she decided to quit the hotel industry and take a plunge into entrepreneurship, she was working with several international hotel chains. As MICE Director of Sales for Off-Line Sales Office – she was responsible for the corporate and incentive market in Malaysia, and eventually, her portfolio expanded to include the U.S. and European markets.

Karen thrived and found great success in the hotel industry. But, one day, she asked herself a couple of “honest” questions: Would I be a successful sales person if I worked at any of the luxury flagship chains of hotels? Will my corporate clients still open their doors for me? She says, “The honest answer was ‘NO’!” This realization led her to explore the path of entrepreneurship.

At the age of 30, Karen decided that it was time to reflect and visualize the next 10 years of her professional life. She realized her commitment to the hospitality industry and her passion and dedication to her career. This made her think that she had nothing to lose if she were to venture out on her own at that age. “I had no fear with just RM400.00 in my pocket,” she says. She and her brother, Richard, teamed up to start MEP. Raised by a single mother, both learned the value of mutual reliance, which became the cornerstone of their joint venture.

In those days, venture capitalists were not there to provide funding to startup ventures. She also did not receive a loan from anyone at home. Despite the struggle to get funds for her business, Karen and her brother founded MEP Malaysia on March 27, 1994; followed it up by incorporating MEP Singapore in 2005. She was the first hotelier to venture into event management – something no one had ever heard of doing 30 years ago. “My approach was to handle the events and promotions so our clients could focus on their day-to-day jobs,” Karen says.

During her hotel days, Karen’s vision was to establish her name Karen Soo as a brand. “I had recognized the value of a leading brand name and its promise to customers,” she says. So, I wanted to create ‘Karen Soo’ – my own brand.”

As a hotelier, Karen’s epiphany was also clear. “I will choose to sell the properties I believe in, and I am the one to decide how I want to create the customer experience for my clients,” she says. “Coupling this vision and my goal-driven nature, I had incorporated MEP Malaysia & Singapore.”

The First Client

The initial days after starting the company were tough. As MEP was a startup, Karen lacked a portfolio to show to the clients. So, for her and the team, it became a challenge to make the clients trust them.

When Karen was starting, she used to “faithfully” place a half-page ad about MEP’s services every Thursday in the management pullout in the News Straits Times. The ad was targeting corporate clients. Karen still vividly remembers a call from Hewlett-Packard Malaysia. After the talk they had over the phone, she “boldly” went to its office to give a presentation. At the time, she was 6 months pregnant with her son, Andrew Ng. HP gave them their first breakthrough and even today, it is their client.

“The MEP journey had its ups and downs, but we have always learned to adapt to the changes and grow with the market,” Karen says. “My customers are now my friends, and they believe us when we share our views. They trust us and believe in what we represent and the services we provide.”

Kindness and Integrity

Karen is not only humble but also kind. She believes that “kindness is paramount in leadership,” forming the essence that allows her to connect and empathize with others. In addition to that, it also creates the foundation of the company’s culture and external relationships, according to her.

She also emphasizes the importance of integrity in running MEP. She says, it is crucial for ensuring that they stay true to their word, maintain transparency about their capabilities, and have unwavering commitments. “Lastly, the ability to consistently deliver exceptional value is what sets us apart in this competitive landscape,” Karen says.

MEP’s Growth, Milestones, and Succession Plan

As a marketing and events services agency, MEP strives to make every event memorable. The company may have had a humble beginning, but it has now expanded its footprint globally. It now manages corporate and luxury events across the world.

“MEP began modestly, organizing small corporate gatherings and celebrations,” Karen points out. “As we built our reputation, clients began entrusting us with larger, more prominent events that expanded our operational horizons.” This growth allowed Karen and her team to cultivate a vast repository of ideas and experiences, which they have applied across various industries. “Now, we’re a global entity with a formidable network of partners, and we proudly serve a diverse clientele throughout the Asia Pacific region,” Karen says.

Over the past decade, it has successfully worked with numerous multinational corporate clients in key vertical industries ranging from FINTECH, Oil & Gas, Technology, Aviation, FMCG and leading luxury brands and  last but not least achieving her dream account for UNICEF and United Nation

MEP celebrates its 30th anniversary in March. In the three decades since its establishment, it has garnered several achievements. One of them is the WWF First Asian Panda Ball held in Singapore in 2008. Karen says the event had the attendance of royalties from Europe. “According to WWF, we won the pitch because of our honesty in challenging their brief during the review,” she adds.

Karen is particularly proud of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goal 17 (SDG 17) with the United Nations. She highlights that after years of working with UNICEF and the WHO, launching such a large-scale project and hosting Tun M as a guest speaker was no small feat.

“If there is anything I strongly believe in, it is loyalty, integrity, delivering each job with passion, and commitment to do our best,” Karen says. “That is still our promise 30 years later.”

MEP has built a solid foundation with a succession plan in place. Karen’s son, Jonathan Ng, is set to succeed her once she steps down. Karen says that she and her two siblings Richard Soo and Yoke Leng are continuing to guide Jonathan, as they believe he will bring a new dimension to event management.

“He [Jonathan] is currently working on a podcast – ‘YumCha Sessions,’ interviewing many high-level dignitaries and personalities from all walks of life,” she says.

Embracing Digital Advancements

MEP has embraced technology as an indispensable asset. Since their early days, Karen and her team have closely worked with IT and telecommunications sectors, always staying abreast of the cutting-edge technology developments.

Karen highlights that their ongoing education in and adoption of AI and other technological advancements enhance their efficiency and effectiveness. This ensures that their team is well-equipped to leverage the latest innovations for the benefit of clients.

Pandemic the Biggest Challenge

Over the three decades, Karen has gone through many recessions and faced multiple challenges. “The recent pandemic serves as my biggest challenge as an entrepreneur,” she says. “It has taught us to always be humble.”

The lesson she learned from the challenges encountered during the pandemic is that in order to survive in such an environment, they must focus on taking care of their clients’ interests and work within their budgets. “Realistically speaking, we build our business by understanding their needs, their long-term goals, and plans,” Karen says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, she had an immediate meeting with her team. She reveals that her immediate measure was to inform everyone that they needed to be ready for the worst to happen. “A lot of the team members who stayed with us, despite the 50% salary cut, worked through the pandemic. I am blessed with the strongest support from my husband, my mum and my siblings” she adds. “Together, we managed to return to 100% within 6 months from when the doors started to open again.”

Nurturing Young Talents

Karen’s principles in life are in tandem with her business philosophies. These are Integrity, Humility, and Respect. Karen and her team respect their partners. “We advocate viewing them as an extension of MEP, having strengthened our relationships with them steadily over the course of 30 years,” she says.

At MEP, they also believe in nurturing young talents. About 30% of the MEP team has been with the company for more than 10 years now. And, over the last 30 years, she has coached many talents and some have become successful entrepreneurs, and she, in turn, has become their customer.

Karen has always believed in giving opportunities to young talents who are hungry to learn and do not have a good educational background.

Evolution of the MICE Industry

The MICE industry, according to Karen, has evolved over the years, especially in the last 3 to 4 years. It is mainly because of the hybrid events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Karen points out that AI is also impacting the industry.

The next three years are going to be challenging due to a global recession. “Many organizations’ budgets and incentive trips for high achievers are very much scaled down,” Karen says.

Compassionate and Understanding Leader

As a leader, Karen believes in sharing her experience and knowledge with others. “I believe in imparting my knowledge of the industry and my skillsets to the team,” she says. “It is with the hope that they will grow into a better version of myself when they decide to set out on their own.”

Karen’s team can always count on her compassion and understanding. She is willing to accept the occasional mistakes of her team as her own. “I learned this the hard way,” Karen says.

When she was working in the hotel industry in a junior position, a sales manager threw her under the bus after he misquoted a client. Instead of owing his mistake and dealing with the consequences, the sales manager sent Karen to deal with it. “That day, I vowed to never do this to anyone,” she recalls.

She made a promise to herself that when she would become the boss, she would never throw any member of her team under the bus. She continues to believe in being a respectful leader, treating everyone with the same genuine regard and consideration, regardless of rank, status, or position, just as she expects from them. She is not the type of leader who just focuses on the bottom line or paying salaries

“Until today, I believe my role as a leader is to give each person the opportunity to be a leader and be an entrepreneur for tomorrow,” Karen says.

Passion and Dreams to Grow More

Karen does not have any role models in the business world, but she has various inspirations in her journey as an entrepreneur – these inspirations have changed over time. She recalls that when she was 12 years old, she watched a Michelangelo’s documentary on a black and white TV box. It made her want to travel the world. She aspired to be the youngest director of sales in the hotel industry at the age of 23.

When she turned 30, Karen dreamed of starting her own business. This led to the birth of MEP. Today, at 61, she is still filled with passion and dreams to grow more, and there is a lot she wants to achieve.

Continue to Fall and Get Back Up Again

At 61, Karen possesses a wealth of experience and knowledge due to founding and running a very successful company in both Malaysia and Singapore. She is an inspiring leader – other women look up to her and call her their role model. Karen plans to continue coaching young talents and shaping their future in the events industry, if not as future entrepreneurs in their own right.

As for the future of the company, she says, “There is no crystal ball, and if anything, we should continue to learn, fall, and then get back up again!”

Advice for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs and Newcomers 

Karen tells aspiring women entrepreneurs to believe, to aspire, and to dare to dream. She encourages them to be themselves and to preserve. “And you should not fear failure,” she adds. Karen also has a piece of advice for those entering the field.

She wants newcomers to aim to exceed expectations in every endeavor and seek out projects that fuel their passion, not just their pockets. “Have the courage to chase and refine your ideas,” she tells them, “For it’s the caliber of execution that transforms a good concept into a stellar reality.”