Class Note: Spelling Student Success
It was 6:30 p.m., and Dora Ho-Ellis was still in her office. “Normally, I’m not that hardworking,” she quips. But when the phone rang with a pivotal opportunity for the entrepreneurship education program she spearheaded at Singapore Polytechnic, she was grateful she was there to answer.
A rep from the Changi Airport Group was on the other line, offering Ho-Ellis’s program a retail space in the mall at the world’s No. 1 airport—a partnership she could not let pass by. “My team and I had worked extremely hard to position the Singapore Polytechnic as the leading polytechnic in entrepreneurship education,” says Ho-Ellis. “We were quite successful in cementing our position.”
Thanks to Ho-Ellis’s late evening and hours upon hours of work since, hers is the only polytechnic to offer a “living lab” entrepreneurship project, involving students at every level of operations. The fashion apparel and accessories shop—SPELL, for Singapore Polytechnic Entrepreneurship Living Laboratory—and the in-house brand, Verve Avenue, were conceived and named by the students. These students research trends in colors and patterns and head overseas to Thailand, China, and South Korea to source products; they design products, manage inventory, market merchandise, use social media, and build customer relationships.
“The students feel empowered by the confidence we have in them,” Ho-Ellis says.
A career in education is not exactly what Ho-Ellis envisioned when she left Singapore for BYU as a young adult, following the dream she’d had to study there since she was baptized into the LDS Church at age sixteen. “I’ve always been interested in and pretty good at numbers,” she says, making the choice to study finance an easy one. She always intended to return home, and in the early 1980s, Singapore was establishing itself as a financial center in the region—a place that would welcome and reward her BS in finance, which she completed in 1981.
Citibank offered her an entry-level position, but at the same time she was placed through Price Waterhouse with Swiss multinational Ciba-Geigy, now known as Novartis, and decided to take that opportunity. In 1989 she became director of training for Asia at consulting firm Alexander Proudfoot, a position that sent her throughout the continent to Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Then she met an American expat and fellow Marriott School alum named Jim Ellis. “We met in church,” Ho-Ellis laughs. “Church can be a big, big marriage bureau.” The two married and wanted to start a family, but with Ho-Ellis’s job regularly taking her out of the country, she decided to veer into an unfamiliar path: education. With Jim’s encouragement—“For some crazy reason he always thought that I was a very good teacher. I knew nothing about teaching!” she says—she got a job teaching business at Singapore Polytechnic and later completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Sheffield.
“When I first started, I struggled a little bit to find my bearings because I was more used to adult education in my training job,” Ho-Ellis says. “Coaching a nineteen-year-old is very different than coaching senior management. Through my work I’ve learned to be more patient.”
Ho-Ellis’s two children are the joy of her life: her daughter, Marie, is majoring in communications at BYU–Idaho after finishing her mission to Temple Square, and her son, Nick, is serving in Singapore’s national service as a navy combat diver. The Ho-Ellis home is almost as multilingual as Singapore itself—the family speaks English and Cantonese at home, with a bit of Mandarin and Bahasa mixed in.
After twenty years at the polytechnic, Ho-Ellis sees herself more as a coach than a teacher as she oversees student-driven projects like SPELL. “The most rewarding part is the change that I see in students,” Ho-Ellis says. “They learn how to learn; they recognize that learning is an ongoing process. I’m very grateful that in some small way I’m able to instill that in the students.”