Category: Entrepreneurship

Sasibai Kimis

For whatever reason should she ever have the need for it, Sasibai Kimis’ resume would read like a dream.

With a background in finance from a private Ivy League university – Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania – and a masters’ degree from Cambridge University, Sasibai had spent two years with a non-governmental organisation helping the poor in Ghana.

Back home, Sasibai had a short stint working with the sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional, before she had an eye-opening moment that sent her on a journey to find more meaning in life.

“One day while I was driving home after work, I found that I was exhausted and falling asleep on the wheel. That shook me up and made me think about what I was doing with my life,” recalls Sasibai.

“If I had died that night, I wanted to know that I’ve led a life I choose to believe in, and that I would be leaving behind something good for the world.”

The quite literal wakeup call prompted her to travel to Hawaii, where she learned natural farming and then to Cambodia to teach English and help with building schools for the community.

It was on her travels that she met with a lot of people who were struggling with the handcrafted products that they were making and barely making a profit. Thinking she could help them, Sasibai took it upon herself to buy a number of their products and help them sell it at a higher price back home.

“That’s how Earth Heir first started. It was actually very much like a hobby in the beginning,” says Sasibai.

“I didn’t intend to start a business until I met an impact investor who said that if I really wanted to help these communities, I had to make it a business.”

Taking the leap to register Earth Heir as a company in 2013, Sasibai spent the next three years forming the foundation by travelling to meet artisans in the region, designing the products, making them and ensuring their quality.

After almost giving up from being a one-woman show and running out of her personal savings, 2015 was a good year for Earth Heir. The business won the prestigious British Council Social Enterprise Award and the Eisenhower Fellowship for Sasibai. This renewed encouragement from her peers pushed her to continue with the good work and shifted her gaze homeward to help Malaysian artisans.

“Initially I thought Malaysia had no artisans left or there were at least very few, but during my travels within the country, I found there were many left undiscovered and they needed help,” says Sasibai.

For now, Earth Heir strives to continually champion ‘Made in Malaysia’ artisanal products, but with that comes the responsibility of trying to change the perception of consumers.

“If we saw a ‘Made in Malaysia’ label, I wouldn’t necessarily be convinced that it was good quality, but we wouldn’t say the same if it was ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in Japan’,” says Sasibai who is proud to showcase the beautifully woven bags and jewellery crafted by local artisans available at her store.

“Malaysians have to change and we have to realise that we can have good products too. We have to educate ourselves to support our local artisans and heritage.”

I didn’t intend to start a business until I met an impact investor who said that if I really wanted to help these communities, I had to make it a business.

Sasibai Kimis

As Earth Heir continues with the importance of preserving our local crafts and artisans, another achievement they can be proud of is their Fair Trade certification received last year, after two years of being meticulously audited. This helps, says Sasibai, to show that they are truly sincere with their objectives and legitimately supporting the artisans.

“Being one of the only Fair Trade companies still active in Malaysia, it was a huge achievement for us,” says Sasibai.

“The whole idea of Earth Heir is that everyone on this planet is an heir of this Earth. So we have a responsibility to make sure that we are using the resources that involve humans, animals, and the Earth that is not damaging to anyone.”

Claire Sancelot

As children, how often had we been lovingly persuaded or failing that, scolded to finish the food on our plates instead of letting it go to waste? While only a few of us still nostalgically albeit guiltily carry that lesson to adulthood, for Claire Sancelot it is a mantra by which she lives her entire life as the founder and CEO of The Hive Bulk Foods, Malaysia’s largest zero-waste chain of stores.

But what exactly does zero waste mean? Growing your own edible produce, wearing the same clothes, and living life like a peace-loving hippie will obviously in some part help Mother Earth, but to really make a difference in the zero-waste sense, what one needs to do is to make sure nothing we use will eventually end up in a landfill.

“Since 2010, I’ve been very passionate about zero waste. I’m not going to claim that I eat very clean, that would be a lie, but I do eat normal non-processed food that is package free,” says Claire.

Before setting up The Hive Bulk Foods in Malaysia, Claire had worked in marketing and advertising for more than 10 years in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. On the side, she diligently ran a blog documenting her zero-waste journey for the purpose of sharing her growing knowledge and to reach more people who were interested to be part of the movement.

It was in 2015 when Claire met her husband – who is a local from Bangsar – and found herself setting up base in Malaysia. She immediately saw the potential in the country to start something more tangible on an entrepreneurial scale. The difficulty Claire faced in securing a job despite her professional background only encouraged her more that it was the right decision to be her own boss.

Testing the waters with her Facebook page, Zero Waste Kuala Lumpur, she noticed its growth with like-minded people who were on a quest to also share their zero-waste efforts and tips.

When I wanted to start this zero-waste store in Malaysia, it was the first time that I’ve heard so many ‘nos’ in my life, but now look at The Hive Bulk Foods thriving with the times

Claire Sancelot

“Just like how every entrepreneur starts out, I saw a gap in the market and decided to start the first zero-waste store in Malaysia,” says Claire who opened the first The Hive Bulk Foods in Bangsar. “We started small and when I say we, I mean just me, myself, and I. For two years, we didn’t really have many customers, but through word of mouth and social media, we got there.”

The main ethos of her business is to source and provide ethically produced foods, tools and products, but most importantly, Claire continuously educates people on how to be less wasteful through her composting programmes, workshops and talks. This, says Claire, has not only brought her personal satisfaction towards creating a cleaner and greener Earth, but also recognition when she least expected it.

“Barely a year after I opened my first store, the United Nations gave me a prize for my contributions towards sustainability and promoting zero waste in Malaysia,” says Claire, who has since given a TEDx talk in 2018 as well as on other various avenues as a familiar zero-waste spokesperson.

A firm believer that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity today, Claire wants to continue to promote sustainable living and hopes to see the country she calls home embrace it sooner rather than later.

“It is our responsibility as humans to lower our carbon emission through our daily waste. We all know that in Malaysia, we don’t recycle properly, and we only have a few who are doing a great job with aluminium and paper, but plastics are barely recycled. We need to do more,” says Claire.

Running any business is extremely hard work, but running one that is quite niche and new to the nation must be exceedingly so. Luckily for Claire, she managed to overcome the first five years where many businesses fold, and she adds that she is thankful that her gender and race did not hinder her in any way.

“I am a massive feminist, so luckily I’ve never been discriminated against my gender. Even as the only foreign person for miles around visiting rural factories, I was never treated any differently,” says Claire.

Like every other business out there, the pandemic forced change on The Hive Bulk Foods. Where there were six stores, now there are only three left: in Bangsar, Taman Tun Dr Ismail and in The Intermark. However, business has massively expanded online via their website and e-commerce platforms, and it is even serving customers in the US through Amazon and eBay. For 2021, The Hive Bulk Foods is setting its sights on serving the European market.

“When I wanted to start this zero-waste store in Malaysia, it was the first time that I’ve heard so many ‘nos’ in my life, but now look at The Hive Bulk Foods thriving with the times,” says Claire.

“I guess I’m the type of person who the more you say ‘no’ to, the more I will want to do it and prove you wrong.”   

Najmia Zulkarnain & Atiyya Zulkarnain

If you have ever walked past Unplug in Bangsar Village, chances are that your curiosity would have drawn you in to browse some of the unconventional products and brands on display. Sisters Najmia Zulkarnain and Atiyya Zulkarnain run the conveniently located eco-concept shop that carries products from selected eco-conscious brands both locally and from around the world.

While Unplug is a fairly young venture launched in 2019, the sisters have had experience working with sustainability since 2015 as the founders of Real.m, short for Real Material, an ethical lifestyle brand dedicated to fabrics made from all-natural fibres.

“It was when we started Real.m, we realised that there wasn’t a space in the Malaysian market to sell our items under the sustainability banner,” says Najmia, the elder sister and interior design graduate who looks after all aspects of creativity in the business, including providing support to the brands under their umbrella.

“We had a hard time finding a viable commercial space to promote our values, so that really pushed us to start Unplug ourselves in order to promote sustainability.”

Starting off by housing just 11 brands, the collective now boasts more than 50 brands and is steadily growing. “While it is a fair mix of local and international brands, we are now supporting more local brands especially with the pandemic. We’re all about the #KitaJagaKita campaign,” says Atiyya, who looks after Unplug’s branding and communications, having gained invaluable experience working with agencies in the past.

A true haven for sustainability shoppers, Unplug carries a wide inventory of products like natural soaps, essential oils, skincare products, and even upcycled clothing, footwear and bags, amongst other things.

It was when we started Real.m, we realised that there wasn’t a space in the Malaysian market to sell our items under the sustainability banner.

Najmia Zulkarnain and Atiyya Zulkarnain

“The values of our shop are around sustainability, so as a conscious-select shop, we have eight metrics we stand for. That way, we can ensure that every item on our shelves directly contributes back to the people and the planet,” says Najmia.

To be part of Unplug, a brand has to fulfil at least two out of eight metrics; using environmental-friendly materials, biodegradable packaging, involves zero-waste innovation, sustainable procurement and processes, making a social impact, supporting fair trade and local products, and preserving traditional skills.

Sustainably isn’t the only business concept for the sisters, as women in leadership roles, they also find it crucial to always have each other’s back and support other women-owned trades as they pave the way for more comparable businesses to bloom. 

“I think in this time and age it is normal to see more women-led businesses. It’s a strong community to be around and we often get together to exchange our knowledge and challenges,” says Atiyya as Najmia adds: “It’s just a natural intention in everything we do, not just in business. It is how you live at home and how you treat others mentality. We have to be purposeful and intentional in everything we do.”

Sarah Lian

Sarah Lian Prestige Malaysia

If there’s one great thing to be said about recent times is that many have awakened to recognise how mental health and self-love is just as essential as eating well and exercising. Thankfully in Malaysia, the public is finally opening up on programmes focusing on their personal wellbeing, and some recognition for this should be attributed to model, actress and host, Sarah Lian, the founder of Supparetreat, a women-only wellness retreat that has been thriving over the years. 

The Taiping-born, Vancouver-raised Malaysian shares that the idea behind Supparetreat stemmed from a successful workshop she first held with the women of her Suppagood Talent and PR agencies. 

“It was an eye-opener. With the great feedback from my team, we just wanted to take more women on a journey of self-discovery,” says Sarah. 

She then hosted a second by-invitation-only retreat with women from various industries, and it was this gathering that finally affirmed her vision that Supparetreat could grow into something colossal towards empowering the women community in Malaysia. 

Our focus is empowering the individual woman first. We are building a community to help women succeed in life, but it always starts with yourself. Once you are able to fill that cup, only then you can be important to others.

Sarah Lian

Then in 2018, Supparetreat officially held its first three-day open-to-the-public retreat at the Tanjong Jara Resort as a safe space for women to find inspiration, motivation and especially empowerment. 

Hosted by local coaches Hannah Lo, Racheal Kwacz and Sarah herself, the programme encompassed a multitude of self-empowering themes via its workshops, talks, coaching, sharing circles and more. 

“Indeed it was a very fulfilling experience. With Supparetreat we have specific pillars that we focus on,” shares Sarah. “There is Inner Empowerment, which focuses on areas like breath work and journaling; Life Design, which touches on the aspects of our mindset, goals, financial planning; and our last pillar is Intimacy and Relationships, which explores the subject of our ego, marriage, motherhood and other aspects along those lines.” 

Gaining momentum through word of mouth from participants, soon even more women wanted in, so more events were planned and it was time to expand its reach abroad. 

Supparetreat’s first overseas retreat, Ignite, was held in Canggu, Bali last year, right before the pandemic hit. Then it was time to rethink the concept for it to be virtually accessible, at least for the time being. 

“What was great about having the Supparetreat workshops online is that we managed to get so many different types of women who have been looking at what we’re doing and had always wanted to join. But because they live in places like Australia and Singapore, now they finally get a chance to be a part of this community,” says Sarah. “It’s so beautiful to watch it grow and watch them discover themselves”. 

From one to 75 online programmes later, Sarah realised that they have fruitfully tapped into a market that was underserved. So as an area of focus this year, Sarah wants to bring back Supparetreat’s well-received eight-week Remember Her programme, but catered for the virtual space spanning three to four weeks. 

“We had 12 women who signed up last year, and the coaches and participants thought it was amazing. So we’d love to do it again this year and make it more interactive and beautiful via Zoom,” says Sarah. 

That’s not all, once the lockdown eases up, Supparetreat is also looking at hosting retreats in hotels that are more inclusive to both men and women. “It will be a way more fluid programme where participants can bring their children, husbands or their group of girlfriends,” says Sarah. 

With mindfulness and self-love finally getting the attention it deserves, Sarah is fairly positive that the world is on a wave of awakening. “It can be difficult being a woman sometimes, but things are headed forward,” she says. 

“As long as we are in the position to learn, I have an optimistic view on how we’re looking at things. It’s so great to be a woman right now.” 

Raja Jesrina Arshad

PurelyB is on a mission to transform lives. When the company was first established in 2015, the objective was to do this by providing health education with a focus on Asian traditions in wellness. In doing so, it would also promote the idea of sustainable healthy living for urbanites who weren’t familiar with these methods. 

Now the mission to transform lives has expanded to create opportunities for marginalised communities through the creation of jobs while still preserving local herbs and wellness. 

“We’ve expanded our social impact initiatives to help communities, especially single mothers who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet,” says Raja Jesrina Arshad, CEO and co-founder of PurelyB, which is a social enterprise registered with the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC). 

“We have expanded our social impact initiatives beyond just working with marginalised farmers in the harvesting of our herbs,” the CEO writes in her 2021 updates to investors. “But now to also train and employ marginalised communities to be able to sell our products and spread good health in an affordable and sustainable way.” 

The company’s social mission is aligned to five UN Sustainable Development Goals – no poverty, good health and well-being, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and responsible consumption and production. 

The idea to expand the company’s social mission to empower the lives of women began more than two years ago. Through conversations with PurelyB’s herbalist Hameedah Hamid who comes from Narathiwat, Thailand, the idea of doing something to help the community from her village was formed. The villagers were impoverished and received little help from the Thai government. When visiting the area, Jesrina discovered that the only source of water was from a well that had been built through funds sent by Hameedah, earned through her work as a massage therapist and mid-wife. 

“It was a real eye-opener,” recalls Jesrina, of her visit. “I could see that a lot of women were affected and a lot of them were single women. I wanted to help and I could see that we could help by doing this together.” 

That resulted in the creation of the product Pegaga by PurelyB, which was made using the herbs that were cultivated by the villagers from Narathiwat. 

“We started with a small plot of land and then trained them to grow these herbs,” she says. “For Kak Ida (Hameedah) it wasn’t just about making money but about helping people and we believed that we should have that same purpose.” 

That’s when the inclusion of women as part of the company’s social mission began. When the product was launched, Jesrina described the herbs as being, “part of women’s traditions for many generations.” Thus, the best way to produce these herbs was by “working directly with the women that know them best and have relied on them for many years.” 

The mission has, however, since evolved. There were limits, she says, as to how much they could help women purely through farming. 

“We are a small business,” she explains. “We are limited in terms of capacity and in terms of how many women we can employ, how much farmland we can have and how much production we can do.” 

That prompted the team to start thinking about how else they could help women, particularly those who have been affected adversely by the pandemic. 

“If they are single mothers, how are they earning to put food on the table?” she thought. It was also at that point that they started receiving requests by women who were keen to sell their product. 

“Some of them had not even tried our product but they believed in it because of Pegaga and the herbs in it. We saw this as an opportunity to help more women.” 

Hence, in 2020, the decision was made to take things further with the development of the PurelyB Empowerment Agent Programme. While contemplating the use of agents, the question of whether they would be able to sell the products in this digital age also arose. 

“Some of them had old-school skills in terms of selling but we felt that we could train them in digital marketing,” she explains. “So later on if they want to create their own product, they can use these skills to do that. We can empower and upskill them so that they are not just limited to selling PurelyB products. For us, it became about making a difference and not just about selling our products.” 

They then reached out to organisations like Ibupreneur and The Family Wellness Club, to connect with single mothers and marginalised women who were keen to boost their income through participating in this empowerment initiative. Interestingly, the workshop conducted with The Family Wellness Club in Ipoh, also attracted a couple of retirees as well who were also interested in learning how they could boost their income. That meant they were also able to engage with the elderly too. 

The initiative has had its challenges, Jesrina admits, particularly since the country went into lockdown soon after the workshop that was held a year ago. The ensuing restrictions have prevented similar face to face workshops from being conducted. Nonetheless, a digital session was held with members of Ibupreneur recently. 

“I loved seeing the response,” she says. “There were so many great questions that ranged from the product to health.” 

It is still “early stages” for the empowerment programme but Jesrina is content that there is an initiative in place that can help women learn new skills. 

“I hope it can translate to them being able to use these skills for more than just selling PurelyB products,” she states. “But for now, it helps to have our products because a lot of women can’t afford the raw materials to make their own products.” 

Through the workshops, Jesrina has had the opportunity to meet many women and have conversations that have solidified the social mission. 

“There are so many stories of women who have lost their jobs and are selling kuih and biscuits to make a living. But it is hard and they make less than a certain amount each month,” she says. “Just hearing these stories, I feel that I want to help. I am not sure how much of a difference it would make but I hope that it is a channel to earn income. I am here to provide training, support and guidance.” 

Su-Quinn Teh

It doesn’t come across as surprising when Su-Quinn Teh described Blair Waldorf, the Queen B of the hit series GossipGirl as one of her early fashion influences. But don’t misunderstand, Su-Quinn bears no similarities to the scheming Waldorf but rather connects with the latter’s sense of style which was often reminiscent of a Hollywood celebrity from the golden age of cinema. 

Even as a child, Su-Quinn was often dressed in frocks — a term that is lost in today’s world — paired with Ferragamo headbands. Today, her classic style remains as she points to Jasmine the New York socialite played by Cate Blanchett in the film Blue Jasmine as her fashion inspiration. 

“Quaint and romantic,” she says, when asked about her fashion choices. “I am typically described as being classic and well-coordinated.” 

At times, perhaps, a little “stuck” in her comfort zone as she remains consistent in her choice of outfits. But that’s perfectly fine, as Su-Quinn is certainly not one to follow trends. To her, fashion is a “creative expression of personality an emotion.” It is this individualistic aspect that led to her being spotted by photographers when she was just 16, resulting in some modelling work. She also appeared in the work of Australian director Bernie Zelvis.

“One should never try to dress up as someone else because you lose your sense of originality in the process,” she says. “I think it is very interesting how clothes were created for functional reasons but are now a form of expression.”

Now, she adds, clothes have meaning. What’s important, she says, is to be confident and comfortable in your clothes. 

The constant evolution of the fashion world also demonstrates our ability to change, to improve and push ourselves further over time. That is the beauty of life.

Su-Quinn Teh

It is a point of view that is perhaps a little unusual for a graduate in accounting and finance. Su-Quinn does admit she took a somewhat traditional path academically. Upon graduating, Su-Quinn worked as a stylist and buyer for David Jones, something that was more aligned with her interests. Later she ventured into interior design and floral arrangements, to further develop her creative spirit. 

Her interest in interiors began early when she used to wanter into the decor section of Laura Ashley, then located in Suria KLCC. While living in Melbourne, Su-Quinn recalls spending hours along Church Street in South Yarra, going through interior stores like Koko Lane, French & English, Maison Living & Provincial, while she redecorated her family’s homes. 

She had been tasked with refurbishing a couple of family properties with her mum which cemented her interest in interiors. 

“My mum and I decorated a few homes together which eventually flourished into a hobby and now a part-time job,” she explains. 

Later, her husband, Lip Jin Teh, encouraged her to pursue her passion in floristry by enrolling in floral arrangement courses at Jane Parker in London. Soon after, Su-Quinn joined forces with a friend and started the florist Ever Bloom. Now, the mother of twin boys, she does floral arrangements and interiors on a project basis. 

For Su-Quinn, it isn’t as simple as a rose smelling as sweet by any other name. Instead, she describes each flower as having their own distinct personality. 

“Each flower is very special on its own,” she says. “The way it moves or the number of petals it has. No floral arrangement can be 100 percent the same and there can be many sides to an arrangement. I love how there is always something to stimulate my mind.”

Each florist, she says, has their distinct identity which results in a specific way in the flowers being designed. 

“It can be more green and garden like, more romantic, more flamboyant or modern or just a clean, classic look filled with leaves. It is a pretty straightforward journey from there. Once you have identified this, as long as there is a right balance of colours, textures and sizes, the arrangement will definitely work.”

“People don’t realise how tedious and time consuming it is to make floral arrangement,” she adds. “For instance, how the length of each stalk and direction it points to can transform the entire look of the arrangement.”

There is also a specific thought process where interior projects are concerned. It usually starts with a theme, from there the rest will unravel. 

“Once there is a sense of direction I can visualise the entire length of the space,” she explains, “where to put the main furniture, the type of wallpaper for the feature wall and whether I would go with chandelier, lamps or wall lights.”

However, as a young mother, Su-Quinn is more focused on spending time with her boys, Chad and Casper Teh. This also means she spends quite a bit of time in her favourite room, the nursery, formerly her husband’s wine cellar, which she transformed after discovering she was expecting. 

“I spend a lot of time in there when I was heavily pregnant and now reading stories to my kids and playing with them,” adding, “each day has become more meaningful with a sense of purpose. My sons are the last people I see before I head out and the first people I look for when I get home.”