This CEO Is Teaching Women To Fight Back
Not many CEOs have been national wrestlers and bodyguards, and fewer still carry certifications in Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and catch wrestling. Not only did Qin Yunquan achieve all of that by the time she was 23, she also became the only martial arts practitioner to receive a Young Leaders Award from Queen Elizabeth II.
When Yunquan, 29, first stepped into a self-defence class at Kapap Academy in Singapore a decade ago, she never envisioned this was a path she would be stepping on long-term. Intrigued by the practicality and the wider importance of female self-defence, she persisted through the training programme, and was not only hooked, she was also concerned to see she was the only woman who had stayed until the end.
Determined to change that, she has gone from student to instructor, and is now the executive director of the school. To date, Kapap Academy has trained over 50,000 individuals, focusing on women, schoolchildren, frequent travellers, and the elderly. About 13 percent of people who attend have been victims of attacks, the majority of which is sexual violence
Yunquan was particularly moved by the case of one young woman who was brought to Kapap Academy after undergoing more than a decade of paralysing psychological trauma: “Her life basically stood still after she was raped at the age of 12. She couldn’t leave home without getting panic attacks and struggled with suicidal episodes. We weren’t even sure if she would return for the second class.”
She did come back—and grew so confident in training that she was often the first to demonstrate new tactics in class. “She went from a reserved observer to someone who could endure the physical contact of helping her partner practise,” says Yunquan. “It was a stark change in her mentality from victim to activist.”
Fearing to fail is a script I had written for myself, and I have to be the one to rewrite it. If I see failures as valuable lessons I can draw upon to improve myself, then they simply become problems I can solve, and not reflections of my worth
— Qin Yunquan
She was not alone—most students leave considerably more confident, and some stay on to become instructors at the academy. Lessons focus on intuitive and effective responses that anyone can learn, regardless of physique. Mental preparation is central to their self-defence system, which is designed for real situations such as being cornered, pinned to the ground, or held at knifepoint. One of the first lessons Yunquan teaches is that strength and skill are useless in these conditions without quick wits and calm.
“The fight or flight instinct can be an incredible driving force,” says Yunquan. “But the one thing that a person can’t do when faced with fear is freeze." She speaks from experience. Although she was never physcially attacked, Yunquan was locked in a battle with her own fears for a good few years, having recently recovered from a bout of anorexia when she first stepped into Kapap Academy.
“It started from a lack of self-confidence that grew into an obsession. The fear of letting the numbers climb consumed me. I can’t even recall what I did or felt in those days. All I can remember are my goals to lose weight and living like a zombie.”
Joining Kapap as an instructor changed the way she saw herself and immediately improved her self-esteem. “When I had anorexia, my priorities were clearly inward-looking—it was all about my physical appearance and what I could do about myself in order to be accepted by others,” says Yunquan. “It was only after getting involved with Kapap, and helping other people stay safe, that I found meaning that was beyond myself. I became less concerned about what others thought of me and more focused more on the impact I could create through my work.”
This fear of failure would continue to be an obstacle for Yunquan, who—like so many of us—has a fear of failure, and a deep-rooted belief that not succeeding at all times will somehow make her less loveable. This was something she had to learn to embrace as she took each step forward with Kapap—as a student, trainer, and now CEO, she kept finding new challenges she had to face. First it was the disappointment of her parents, who didn’t support her move into martial arts. Then it was the countless falls and bruises she received while learning the foundational skills of various street style forms. Heavier responsibilities that came with being CEO meant there's always more to lose.
Not throwing in the towel was the only way to work through her own fears. “I carried no leadership experience, organisational skills, or grand plans. I wasn’t confident I was the one to bring Kapap to the next level at all,” says Yunquan. “But my co-founder reminded me to focus on why I was doing this. It helped to think of problems as important, not difficult.”
“This also taught me to stop taking failures personally,” she continues. “Fearing to fail is a script I had written for myself, and I have to be the one to rewrite it. If I see failures as valuable lessons I can draw upon to improve myself, then they simply become problems I can solve, and not reflections of my worth.”
Yunquan has her sights set on expanding the system across borders, especially to regions like India where assaults are high for women. Finding the right partners is her priority in this roadmap to ensure instructors are properly trained to deliver classes well.
“This academy was started in memory of someone who died from a street attack. We don’t forget that. The risks to personal safety for those who come to us are real, and their welfare is more important than quick profits or publicity. I’d rather invest the time if it means helping 10 times the number of people that I’m capable of now.”
It’s going to be a long battle, but I’m here to fight a good fight
— Qin Yunquan
An app that combines education with personal-safety features like tracking and security activation is also being developed. Once it is launched, the app will not only facilitate training for students, but also reach new users in a more accessible and social way.
We have seen a welcome change since the advent of #MeToo. But women are still far less likely to participate in self-defence classes than men, despite making up the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual violence. Yunquan knows the odds are stacked against her, but persistence has always been her greatest strength. “I want help shape a world where people can live without fear, where anyone can defend themselves against violence and danger,” she says. “It’s going to be a long battle, but I’m here to fight a good fight.”