At the age of 12, she witnessed her father die of a heart attack in hospital.
As the eldest of four children, Ms Cecilia Mathews had to take care of her three sisters while her widowed mother worked long and odd hours as a nurse to support the family.
Ms Mathews also earned her own pocket money by working part-time at Pizza Hut, while studying at Temasek Junior College.
But not once did her situation make her feel like she "didn't have enough".
Perhaps it had to do with her upbringing - her mother would often tell Ms Mathews and her sisters to "think of those who have less, rather than compare themselves to those who have more".
Said Ms Mathews, 44: "It hasn't been easy, but I'm glad I got through the hard times. And I haven't looked back since."
The plucky woman now holds her own as assistant director of human resources (HR) at Regent Singapore hotel - a position earned through hard work and her tenacious, never-say-die attitude.
Armed with a diploma in hotel management from Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland, Ms Mathews returned to Singapore in 1991, eager to apply her new skills.
But, despite rounds of interviews with various five-star hotels, all she was offered was the role of coffee-house waitress.
She had wanted a job in management, she said. "But I also didn't want to sit at home and wait, and be unemployed. So I took the job."
And she did it with great gusto. Within half a year, she was promoted.
In 1994, she joined Four Seasons Hotel Singapore as a concierge, where she then took the opportunity to gain experience in various positions across different departments, including reception and conference services.
In 2003, she took up the position of director of catering at the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma, in the Bahamas, before moving back to Singapore to join Regent Singapore in 2004.
Ms Mathews credits her humble beginnings for her success today.
"You have to start somewhere and prove yourself," she said. "In working towards a goal, bring on your gung-ho (attitude) and complete whatever you need to do."
What motivates you at work?
Being able to provide for my family. In the beginning, it was also the thrill of fulfilling a difficult or challenging guest's request, and gaining recognition.
Now, in HR, the motivation comes from helping my colleagues hire the right person, resolve a dispute or organise a successful staff event.
Are you a risk taker or do you play it safe?
I'm definitely one who plays it safe. I prefer to know how something would work out.
What is your best attribute?
Being calm in adversity - you need to be calm when there is chaos. Being frantic or emotional will not help solve problems.
What are the qualities of a good executive?
They should not be put off by hard work or anything that's thrown at them. They should also be sincere and have a good attitude. People prefer to work with someone who is willing to learn, rather than a person who comes across as arrogant and self-righteous.
Any other advice for execs?
First, get experience. No experience is a bad experience because, no matter how bad you think it is, you would still learn precious lessons that could be more valuable than any great experience gained.