Krista is the co-owner of Redbox Studio - a Penang business specialising in premium website design and marketing solutions - which she manages with her husband, Nic Sim.
They are the authors of “Web Wisdom: The Definitive Guide To Getting Customers With Your Website Even If They’re 10,000km Away”.
Since 1998, Redbox Studio has been helping entrepreneurs attract prospects and grow their businesses successfully with their websites.
Besides creating websites with marketing strategy, Redbox Studio also offers consultation and workshops so that entrepreneurs can learn how to market confidently in the online world.
I’ve been tinkering with this idea for a while now. I wanted to vlog more as it is a definitely something that is easy to do. I’m not really the in-front-of-camera sort but I do find that it’s easier for me to talk (actually faster too) than to write. I do love writing and nothing beats the written word. Even if I do vlog, I’ll be sure to embed the vlog into this blog.
The reason I ask is that of late, I have been hosting and interviewing clients and friends on my FB Live sessions and I find it less taxing although I have had to do quite a bit of prep work before the interview – marketing the FB Live (it helps if the guests are marketing-savvy but most guests aren’t) and doing a lot of the post-FB Live work after (such as downloading the video, editing off the intro parts and uploading to Youtube as well as doing all the needed backend SEO video work).
Then I embed the video into our blog. It does take time but I have come to a lovely little routine that I can manage quite well on my own. And after that, keep telling people to pop by and watch my FB Live on our blog. I mean, my business blog. Not this one.
(And then I hear things like – “We have 3 people on the back-end helping us with our FB Live” and I am just short of rolling my eyes. OK, maybe I have been doing this for a long time and I am an independent sort. Vimi said I was talented; I prefer to think I have skills and what I don’t know, I will find out and learn.)
Just to share with you, I was exceptionally proud of myself as I learnt how to edit my own podcast episode in Garageband. I never knew I could do it but after watching so many Youtube videos, testing and trying out so many things, I think I have figured it out.
The other thing is that since I write so much for our clients, it’s a lot harder for me to fire up the blog when the muse strikes. OK, so maybe I am a little lazy now but I want your opinion – would it matter if I spoke rather than wrote? What are your thoughts about this?
How have you grown since this covid-19 quarantine or lockdown? I saw so many friends sharing their cooking and finished dishes; some went full force into baking while others discovered newer recipes.
Initially, I was all gung-ho but then I realized that I’d rather spend my time elsewhere! I think I worked more during the lockdown and I have never been more productive business-wise!
So here’s a secret: I prefer working, strategising, thinking of what delicious projects I want to create rather than working up a sweat in the kitchen. It is also not a very good ROI for me as there’s only me and Nic. There’s so much of cake and muffins I can eat in a day. Hence, I’d rather support some local business and buy cakes from them!
I also conquered some of my fears – I went on FB Live so many times (the last I counted, I was on 9 FB Live sessions, 1 webinar of my own and 3 closed-door Zoom meetings where I had to present, host or moderate).
I never thought I’d be saying that I actually enjoyed doing the FB Live sessions. I enjoyed talking to my guests – many of whom are clients and friends. (And the results have been incredible for some of them – Dr Somas immediately got swamped with appointments. But this was my intention anyway – to help our clients get some spotlight during this quiet time.)
When I first conceived of the idea, I pitched Vimi and immediately she said yes. We both can talk for hours so it was no surprise that our first FB Live garnered a bit of attention and eyeballs.
If you want to watch all the FB Live sessions, head on over to our Youtube channel. I’ve posted all the videos in Youtube as FB has this annoying way of burying all the good stuff under the more recent posts.
The lockdown enabled me to work on what truly mattered – my own projects. Over the years, I’ve struggled with this prioritisation. I had so many interesting projects on the side. But we also had to manage website projects for clients.
So this time, I put myself first. I started working on my own podcast while I was working on contacting people for FB Live. I tend to work on parallel mode now which means 2 projects can be running side-by-side especially if they share similar characteristics.
The podcast and FB Live share many similarities in terms of processes – contacting people, talking to them (prepping them before the recording or the Live session) and ensuring I have the questions ready days before. There’s this peculiarity among all my interviewees (even the seasoned ones) that they want to know what questions are coming at them even though they know how to answer them spontaneously!
I discovered this parallel method by accident. But it works for me as I get double the amount of work done, and double the results (or maybe even more). This is similar to batch processing which I also use when I schedule interviews to record. I aim for 2 interviewees in a day if I am doing interviewees that day (for my podcast). This gets me in the mindset of interviews and keeps the momentum going.
I discovered this method during my language learning with Duolingo. I’ve been a fan of using Duolingo to help me learn small chunks of language daily. I find that switching my brain to something non-business helps me relax and learning a foreign language is even more relaxing.
I was using the app to learn Spanish (have been doing so for more than 2 years now) until I realise I could add another language while I’m inside the app. I decided to add Mandarin. I speak it but I want to recognise the characters. Definitely my Mandarin is much better than my Spanish but I spend at least 10-15 minutes nightly learning both languages. There’s something about switching from “Yo no tengo vestidos verdes” to “Wo he lao shi zuo tian qu ta lan qiu” that makes my brain more alert. The patterns are different and that’s what invigorates mine.
One day I thought if I could learn 2 languages at the same time without missing a beat, what about doing 2 similar projects? Of course in business, we often handle multiple web design projects at a time but that’s something familiar that I’ve been doing for a long time (16 years to be exact).
As a result, I looked at my FB Live and podcast as learning projects. I am learning as I go. I am not completely familiar with each one but as Marie Forleo says, everything is figureoutable.
One of my proudest moments was editing my own podcast and through that process, I now know how to use Garageband! I literally recorded, produced and combined everything in Garageband so I was pretty pleased with myself. One achievement unlocked.
My podcast is in the process of being created as I am going to record all 13 episodes before launching it. This was the project that I presented in Hawaii last year during the Changing Faces programme. (I have recorded the episode where I explain the genesis of this podcast and what it means to me and why so you just have to wait and listen to it.)
A year ago in Hawaii when I was presenting this project to my peers and to Liz of the East-West Center, I had no freaking idea how I was going to make it happen. I knew how to communicate but that was about all I know. I had no idea what it took to make it happen technically. I had no idea what kinds of equipment/software I needed to do all this. I had planned to buy a mic but then COVID happened and I just made do with my earbuds and the mic that came with it. Just shows that it was never about the equipment. It was about me and my readiness to jump into it.
The figuring things out, the initial frustration, the technical setup – learning all these in the past 3 months is far more enriching than baking a cake. I still enjoy cooking and all but I believe my skills are far more useful in other matters – interviewing, researching, learning and pushing myself so far out that I’m hanging by the skin of my nails.
If you’ve never felt nervous doing something, it means what you’re doing is already bordering routine. It signals that you’re ready for something new, unexplored and nerve-wracking. What is that nerve-wracking thing to you? Go and make that happen. And when you made that happen, come back here and leave me a comment! Or email me.
I’m writing this on Day 28 of the Movement Restricted Order (MCO). It’s been 28 days since I stepped out of the apartment. I have not gone anywhere. I’ve been at home. And my hair has been growing longer and it irritates me as I like to keep my hair about two inches below my ears. I can’t wait for a trip to the hair salon.
When I was in Saigon, I was already telling myself that I should self-impose the 2-week isolation. I even messaged some clients to ask them if they were sure they wanted to meet face-to-face. One client told me, “No worries. We will have our thermal detectors and protection in place.”
I never managed to even step into her factory.
Because I got back on 15 March and then our Malaysian MCO started on 18 March. So the whole country was self-isolating anyway.
But I found the first phase of MCO rather refreshing in that it was a pause button. I could finally sit down to really look at the projects on my list. And by that I mean my own projects such as my podcast, my videos (which I had sent off to my video editing guy and never quite harangued him for them), my other books that I plan to write and my online courses.
Of course, I still had a website to deliver. Working on clients’ websites can be a lot easier than my own projects. Not that I’m a perfectionist. It’s just that I have a whole lot going on besides my own projects and clients’ websites.
There were WomenBizSENSE meetings to sit in and provide input – and this year we had grand plans. We wanted to organise our women entrepreneurship expo in September and had even had our first committee meeting. We had lined up monthly events and potential speakers.
And just like that, the coronavirus pandemic put all the plans asunder.
We cancelled the entrepreneurship expo and postponed the monthly events.
But that’s only one part. There was IABC, another organisation that I was part of. We had planned for a mix-and-mingle for business communicators at Olive Tree Hotel (I even got the hotel to sponsor the venue) and that fell apart too. Hmm.
Lots of events have been cancelled. And this is where suddenly digital becomes the most exciting platform ever.
For years, I’ve been telling friends – get online. Get yourself a website. Start marketing online because that’s where it is all going to be.
And what did friends do? Sit and twiddle their thumbs. They couldn’t be bothered as they were so focused on their daily meetings, sales appointments etc.
Now I should probably have the last laugh if I were that mean. I’m not but I can’t help but feel vindicated and a lot smug. Now they’re helpless and hapless especially those who thought going online was a lovely but not-so-important option.
A friend sighed and said that she didn’t have much confidence with the online world as she had only amassed three miserly sales since she started her website a year ago. How do you tell people that their website sucks? Of course it could only garner three sales. It was built by a millennial who used Shopify but didn’t know how to create credibility in a website.
Nic and I did an experiment once. We took an unknown tea seller from oblivion to RM4,000 per day in ecommerce sales. When we first started to build the ecommerce website for the tea seller, his brother smirked and said that we wouldn’t succeed. What did we know about tea? And Chinese tea at that.
I don’t have to know about tea or shoes or bags or tyres. But I certainly know marketing. I know how to build credibility and marketing into websites. That’s what Nic and I know a lot about.
I know how to craft compelling, descriptive and authentic website content. I know how the buyer thinks, what he wants to see and know before he puts the product into the cart for checkout. I know what inspires trust and how to build that into a website to sell your most niche products, tea included.
And this friend of mine explained that she only got three sales because she “didn’t know how to drive traffic to her website”.
I almost rolled my eyes.
That’s why I don’t like Internet/digital marketers who keep spouting rubbish like the need to drive traffic to a website. All the traffic in the world will do you no good if your website cannot convert.
But of course the digital marketers won’t say that. They’re in the business of selling their campaigns and traffic.
That’s why I am actually happy in a way about the MCO. People are pushed to use technology now, like it or not. They can’t say they don’t need it; their sales are dropping like flies.
I’ve also used this MCO to push myself to do the things I normally wouldn’t. Like doing FB Live sessions (and I’m doing one this Thursday).
I’ve done FB Live in the past when we used to run our Marketing Mojo events at China House Cafe. That was fun and for all of 3 to 5 minutes.
Now I decided to raise my game by committing to doing this more consistently. Of course there’s so many people doing FB Live every day. Some people do it on LinkedIn too.
I’m doing it because I bring my own unique perspective and personality to the whole FB Live thingy. I want my FB Live to be fun, informal, less pretentious, less about telling you what to do and more about sharing and commiserating and crowd-sourcing answers. I don’t want to pretend to know what’s going to happen after this pandemic is over. I don’t care about predicting the future. I’m only interested in my present.
I heard Dan Sullivan of Inside Strategic Coach say (and his podcast is one of the best if you’re looking for a podcast to listen to) say in one episode: In these strange times, you can’t plan for more than 24 hours.
Yet the uncertainty of everything in the future also means we have the full pleasure of living one hundred per cent right here, today.
That’s where I got my gumption to embark on FB Live but to speed up all the things I’ve planned but put on the back burner in the past.
I once saw this on a t-shirt and it said: I am smart. I am blessed. I can do anything.
And I take it seriously so there’s nothing I cannot learn right? Including how to do a proper live streaming to FB Live using a software called Streamyard.
I told a friend of this software and suggested she use it for the next round she intends to do her FB Live and she asked me, “Who’s your tech support? Can I ask my tech guy to call him and find out more?”
“Babe, I’m my own tech support. If you haven’t realised it yet, the world is a-changing. Who needs tech support when I can easily find how-to vids on Youtube to learn all I need to learn?” (Speaking of which, check out this list of resources I collected.)
So you see, the new world isn’t about the old ways of doing things. It’s about taking charge of your life, seeing the world like you’ve never seen it before, taking action on what you seriously want to do. If jobs are no longer guaranteed, we’re all our own ninjas. We’re all in this mess together but to get out of it alive, the old ways of thinking have to go. (And instead of having physical meetings, we’re having Zoom meetings and actually having fun!)
In the corporate world, people banter about agility, resilience and more as well as disruption. Today, all these are no longer pure concepts. All of us have to embrace being agile and resilient (and in the words of Nassim Taleb, to be anti-fragile) and to find ourselves amidst the disruption of our work life and business life.
I love the peace and quiet that MCO gives me. I don’t have anywhere to go, no meetings to attend, no events to be at. I love it that MCO gives me more time to return to my old loves – cooking, pottering in the garden, crochet and yoga.
I love it that MCO gives me that big old push to do the very things I’m self-conscious about such as FB Live. I am thrilled that I have this extra time to ruminate and yes, even come back to blogging, a love that never dimmed.
I am also excited that we may finally have serious rethink how we’ve done business for the past 21 years. I am ready for a different phase of business; I know what I’m good at and I want to use my strengths to reach even more people through podcasting and FB and live-streaming. These days, I am my own media company. And that sums up the gratitude I feel for the Internet and technology.
I also want to teach more through online or virtual classes and courses. I’m not too shabby a teacher truth be told. And funnily, things have come full circle – I am a teacher’s daughter who refused to be a teacher and now I am going to teach.
Oh and happy birthday to Nic who turns 48 today. I’m always telling him he is so lucky to have me haha! During this MCO, I’m cooking a whole lot more and feeding him Cantonese dishes that I can recall my mum or grandma cooking. Each day, we ponder about what we’re having for lunch and he goes off to tar-pau the lunch we decided upon. I will cook dinner since I do have a well-stocked fridge. But sometimes I miss that freedom of going out to eat a bowl of Hokkien mee.
And I just watched Sam Hui hold his livestreaming concert two days ago on Youtube. We live in such interesting times.
I have nothing to complain honestly as I have all that I want and we’ve always lived within our means. I can’t thank Robert Kiyosaki enough the book he wrote; the book I read when I was fresh out of university but then again, I’ve never been a fan of material goods. I like them but I get bored with them easily. I prefer experiences and travel over the latest branded bag or jeans.
And you? What do you miss most? Or grateful for? Or what have you realised after 28 days of being at home?
An acquaintance asked me to answer a few questions regarding my role in WomenBizSENSE. Since I took the time to do so, I might as well put it here too. I believe in repurposing or reusing content, particularly for different platforms.
What is your position in the organisation?
I co-founded WomenBizSENSE in 2006 with a friend, Josephine. I was the chairperson from 2012 to 2016 after we were officially registered as an NGO with Registrar of Societies. After that, I stepped down and I am now in the Committee as an advisor, as is Josephine.
How would you describe your role as a leader in the organisation?
I would say that it changes with time. When I was the chairperson from 2012 to 2016, I was actively engaging with the members and together with my committee, we would plan events that helped our members in their businesses such as give them more publicity, limelight or just ensure that each member knew each other and they did business with each other. It meant a lot of internal networking and ensuring members are happy.
Now that I am no longer the chairperson, I am freed up to do more external networking either with outside organisations (business and NGOs) and create more connections that the committee can follow up with. In a way, Josephine and I have become “ambassadors” for WomenBizSENSE.
What motivates you to be in the non-profit sector/ non-governmental organisation?
I didn’t initially start out wanting to be in the NGO arena. WomenBizSENSE started because Josephine and I couldn’t find an organisation that truly met our needs as women in business. We felt that there’s much to be done for women in small businesses. We started without any funding; we literally self-funded the NGO until we started collecting membership fees. However, I am happy to say that over the years, we have grown organically through word-of-mouth and have great visibility in Penang.
Can you describe the organisation’s objectives?
WomenBizSENSE is a registered women entrepreneur organization based in Penang, Malaysia. We’re a non-profit organization, run by a team of committed volunteers who comprise women in businesses and we help women entrepreneurs get access to the right resources they need to grow and scale their businesses.
We provide access through entrepreneurship visits and exchanges, expertise sharing, seminars, business opportunity sharing and charity fundraising. Our events are based on our 5 key pillars: Support, Education, Network, Social Responsibility and Entrepreneurship.
And why do you think these areas are equally important for women empowerment?
Women in business need support, education and the power of a network. They also need to realise that business is also a tool for good hence we have a social responsibility as one part of who we are in WomenBizSENSE. We organise social responsibility activities because we know doing good for others is innate in all human beings particularly women.
Women who run businesses will be financially independent and financial independence is always important for women. When a woman is able to provide for herself and her family through her own resources and business, she is more confident and more empowered. She makes decisions every day as a woman in business. She meets people and gets to use her abilities to help her grow her business.
How does your organisation contribute to the economic sector?
We grow the economy when our members’ businesses grow and prosper. We have strict rules – we will only accept women as members if their businesses are registered with SSM which means their business is legitimate and pays taxes like any good, responsible business. I have seen also how women as employers are inclined to hire other women as employees. So it is a virtuous circle when a woman is a boss!
I have observed that a number of women in their 40s, after having quit their corporate roles, start their own businesses. I’m always excited for them as starting a business no matter how small is one way of being an active economic generator provided they start with the right business foundation. Too many women start out without any support, network or knowledge and this leads to a lot of hardship and struggling which makes them give up too soon!
How does your organisation fit within the Malaysian context generally and Penang specifically?
WomenBizSENSE certainly fits well in the Malaysian context as more and more women are looking to start or run their own businesses. However, they may not have the right support system or resources in terms of network or information and this is where our NGO is perfectly made to fill the gap.
What are the challenges do you have personally (as an individual) and leader in your organisation?
As with every NGO, all our Committee members are volunteers. I am a volunteer. We volunteer time and energy to organise events (we have monthly events and major events like our anniversary dinner, charity event etc) but not all members are always appreciative of the work and effort and do not always participate or turn up.
I have had the unpleasant task of being on the disciplinary board many years ago to listen to the complaints of members against one specific member for her lack of integrity. As a team, we have had to make the difficult decision to terminate her membership as she was causing a lot of problems for a few members.
I have also had a tough time getting women to step up and lead as chairpersons. It’s not an easy role as the chairperson of WomenBizSENSE gets many invitations to speak by other organisations. She must be seen as an entrepreneur role model with good values and principles.
Being a woman, do you find any leverage or baggage?
It’s interesting to be a woman in business today. People are generally excited about women entrepreneurs and it can be leverage especially when our NGO is quite well known. I need to be an example to the women I mentor and to uphold the highest integrity in all that we do (especially because Josephine wrote a children’s book teaching integrity!).
Does Malaysia provide a supportive environment for entrepreneurs generally and women specifically to achieve their full potential?
Malaysia has many programmes for entrepreneurs but not all programmes are useful for us or tailored to what we want. That is why in WomenBizSENSE we took it one step further and created our own business mentoring programme to help our members as well as other women (who may not be our members).
Our signature programme opens once a year and runs for 5 months with pre-qualified mentees having structured training sessions and group mentoring. It is extremely affordable as we don’t intend to make money from this programme; it is simply our way of addressing a gap in the entrepreneurship market after observing our members’ problems and challenges in their businesses.
Update: They’ve extended the deadline to 19 March.
Remember I wrote and spoke about the life-changing programme I underwent in Hawaii last July? Well, I just got an email from the East-West Center that they’re now accepting applications from women entrepreneurs and social innovators from all over Asia.
Watch the video below which the center did about our cohort last year.
The deadline is 12 March 2020 so hurry and send in your application if you’re keen to get a place for this programme. And of course, if you don’t qualify, please share this with the women who could benefit from this programme. Let’s pass the opportunities forward.
The 2020 Changing Faces Women’s Leadership Seminar focuses on the important role that innovation and entrepreneurship play in contributing to economic growth, job creation, and strengthening communities.
During this 13-day professional training, dialogue, and travel program, participants engage in a series of workshops focused on leadership and entrepreneurship that are facilitated by a noted women’s leadership trainer and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Participants also expand their knowledge of entrepreneurship, economic growth, leadership, and community building through carefully selected field visits and meetings with experts, practitioners, business owners, and policymakers in Hawaii.
Participants are individually matched with local women leaders in a Host Mentor Program and, in return, Changing Faces participants act as mentors for a select group of high school students in a Next Generation Service Project.
The Changing Faces Seminar also provides training and consultative sessions to help participants develop and actualize a concrete Action Plan for the betterment of their business or their community.
Finally Changing Faces women serve as panelists, moderators and attendees at the publicly ticketed #galswithLEI, a purposeful, collaborative, and dynamic forum.
Who Can Apply:
The Changing Faces Seminar targets female business owners and social entrepreneurs who have demonstrated leadership and ability to affect change and influence others in their communities.
Innovative entrepreneurs, business managers, government and industry policymakers, and civil society leaders with at least seven years of work experience and who play a leadership role in their community are eligible to apply.
Innovators may generally be defined as those who have created an original idea or product or are recognized for their ability to improve upon an original idea or system. Eligible countries include the United States and Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nauru, Nepal, New Zealand, Niue, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Vietnam. Women from Hawaii are particularly encouraged to apply!
Applicants must have the ability to communicate in English in a professional setting. Preference is given to candidates with limited opportunities for international exchange and professional development as well as those who offer to cost-share programmatic costs. A phone interview may be conducted with finalists.
Funding: The 2020 Changing Faces Seminar is funded by the East-West Center, the Fish Family Foundation, and others. EWC plus individual scholarships will fund six to eight women from the United States and the Asia Pacific region.
A full scholarship for the 2020 Changing Faces Seminar is valued at USD$2,885/per participant. Changing Faces Women are all individually responsible for their roundtrip airfare to and from Honolulu, visa-related expenses, health insurance, and baggage fees.
Given the limited number of scholarships available, EWC strongly encourages additional cost-sharing of the programmatic costs.
Decided to write this piece for posterity. You know how stories that get told and retold become unrecognizable a few years down the road?
I never want that to happen.
I want to write this story down so that you know the real story. Not some story that someone else tells and cannibalizes it until it’s a poor shadow of itself. I have seen this happen with a local church set up as some people take credit as no one knows the real story. And the person behind the real story is too humble to correct the incorrect story! (But not me. This is why everyone needs their own blog/website. You own a piece of online real estate that’s your best media and your own media. You get to tell your story. And it lives on the Internet forever if you don’t delete it.)
Until today, I still get calls from regular aunties and uncles (who got our numbers from the Guang Ming and Sin Chew newspaper write-ups) about donating books to our TSN BAC. You will see a video I created about BAC when you click this link – Taman Sri Nibong Book Adoption Centre.
Even as recently as last Saturday, a Madam Ho called and excitedly asked in Mandarin if I was with that centre that took in books. I, in my most articulate Mandarin (ahem), told her about our BAC and what we did with books that were donated.
She said, “Oh good. You all are not going to take my books and turn them into scrap paper right? I have very good books but I am moving so I have to donate them.”
See? That was my (and Nic’s) sentiments some 3 years ago when we went to the Tzu Chi Recycling Centre in our taman. The taman is Taman Sri Nibong, Penang.
We had brought our plastics and paper to recycle and we saw a volunteer tearing up books!
To bookworms, it’s a horror movie on its own.
Nic even asked the volunteer if we could buy some of the books. The volunteer said no outright. He said that all publicly donated recyclables had to be recycled. (I know, it’s a facepalm moment.)
Yes, they tore up books that people sent to the centre because they said it was the policy that all contributed recyclables were to be recycled. We even asked if we could buy these books but they said, no, it is a policy that they had to recycle the books, no matter how good they were.
In our minds, we were thinking, what a stupid policy! Either the person we spoke to wasn’t a real Tzu Chi member or if he were, he was not exercising his wisdom.
How could anyone in their right mind tear up books that other people could read? Whatever happened to reuse, reduce and recycle (paying particular attention to ‘reuse’ or repurpose)? And by the way, they were always talking about 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!
For the longest time, whenever Nic and I went to the recycling centre to drop off our recyclables we didn’t hang around much. I couldn’t bear the thought of good books being torn up and sold as scrap paper for a mere 30 sen per kilogramme!
We were upset with such a dumb policy and so for months after that, we just went to the centre just to sort out our own recyclables and didn’t really look in the direction of the paper scrapping section.
About a year later, we met with another Tzu Chi member whom we had spoken regularly to. He was a fatherly sort of man in his 60s by the name of Brother Goh. He was the second in command at the centre. One time when we were chatting with him, he led us to an area that was filled with boxes of books and asked us if we would like to do something with the books. Brother Goh had saved these books from being turned into mere scrap paper.
That was in March 2016.
Nic and I thought about this for a while and later decided to help do something about the mini-mountain of books. First, they had to be sorted. We started spending our weekends bent over hordes of books, separating them into English and Chinese books. Then we began to rope in EY who brought his daughters to help us sort books. It was messy, dusty work and we were often bitten by mosquitoes that lurked in the centre (it was previously an old food court that MBPP didn’t know what to do about so Tzu Chi leased it from MBPP to run the recycling centre).
We were given a small cubicle to arrange the books we’d sorted. Was it a library? Was it a free book section? How were we going to catalogue the books? What kinds of books were we going to accept or feature?
In the end, we decided that it was to be a book adoption centre. It was NOT a library given that we had no manpower to take care of the library nor did we have a catalogue system (and who was ever going to take charge of cataloguing the books?). It was not a free-for-all section as we wanted to give back to Tzu Chi.
A book adoption was the best system that we could think of. Yes, Nic and I thought about this and named it such and made it into a triple win system for the book contributor, the book lover and Tzu Chi.
It’s a triple win because 1) you get a place to donate your beloved books, 2) the public that loves books get to have a chance to adopt books and donate towards Tzu Chi Penang plus 3) Tzu Chi gets the money they need for funding their dialysis centres.
The public loved the idea and that’s how we started to get so much publicity from reporters who happily came to interview us. We had NTV7, 8TV, Sin Chew and Guang Ming feature our BAC. The idea was novel and the fact that we were giving books a second chance and giving new homes to old books struck a chord with book lovers everywhere. (See Nic’s interview on TV when you click this link.)
We also started with a core group – Nic, me, EY and later, Alan and Eddie joined us. As our books started to pile up, we quickly ran out of space and we had to move from one cubicle to two cubicles and now, BAC takes up a quarter of the recycling centre’s space. That’s how many books we have in our BAC now.
When we had an official opening for our BAC, we pulled in a crowd and even NTV7 and 8TV reported about the uniqueness of our centre. We even managed to get our ADUN, Dato’ Saifuddin Nasution, to come for a visit.
Along the way, BAC started to grow as more people loved the idea and wanted to help out. We accept everyone willingly because there’s a lot to do in BAC. The physical centre needs managing too – from someone to water the plants and shrubs, sweeping the floor, dusting the books, sorting books, etc. Even the Tzu Chi recycling centre in Taman Lumba Kuda now keeps books for us so we get books from all sources.
Between me and EY, we started a Facebook Group called TSN Book Adoption Centre that is growing in numbers week by week. At this point in time, we have about 2,796 members from all over Malaysia. The volunteers who work with us also post up photos of newly contributed books in the Facebook Group so that online members or followers can ‘adopt’ the books. So it’s not just a physical walk-in centre, we’ve spread ourselves online too. And our books are in high demand because unlike a bookstore, we don’t know what kinds of books come in until they come in and are sorted! (Think of a treasure trove of books.)
So it’s like a fun adventure for all members online to stay glued to our FB Group, awaiting our VODs (volunteers-on-duty) to post up exciting new finds each weekend. They get to reserve the books for a flat fee and the books will be posted to them once they agree to contribute the amount directly into the Tzu Chi bank account.
Once the donation is given, EY and Eddie start the book packing process. Some book adopters are so consistent with their book adoptions that special shelves are allocated with their names. The reserved books will be packed, weighed and hauled off to Pos Malaysia by our strong man Eddie. When Eddie is unwell, we have a backlog of books to be packed! However, EY and Eddie are such a good team that most “orders” are sent out within a week or two. I call them our e-commerce team as what they do is essentially e-commerce.
EY basically is the COO of BAC. He arranges the weekly time-table for our volunteers, ensuring they turn up on time for duty. Duty means being there to oversee the centre and ensuring the public who come toddling into the centre know the rules of adoption.
We have had greedy and stingy people who sneak lots of good books out of BAC without giving a single cent. Once, I had to confront a woman in her 60s for taking out more than 20 books (“for her grandchildren” or so she says) and when I asked her pointedly and irately to donate, she said she had no money. There truly is no remedy for greed.
We have also had one so-called TCM practitioner who used to cart away lots of good Chinese books on medicine. EY later discovered that this same man was then selling these books on Facebook!
Because of these shenanigans, we have implemented a 15-book per individual policy.
But this blog post isn’t about the crazy shit that people do. It’s about something that I want to raise – about people in religious organisations. It’s the people that make things work and it’s also the people who make things worse!
We have always been transparent with the donations that we get from walk-in adopters, online adopters and adopters from our Occupy Beach Street as well as the children in schools when some of our team go to schools with books for the school outreach programme. To date, we have raised RM100,000 from BAC for Tzu Chi Penang. It is no small figure and no small feat. Imagine all these books being scrapped by Tzu Chi and sent to paper recyclers!
It was a perfect arrangement. When we started, Nic and I were not Tzu Chi members. We still aren’t. Organized religious bodies are not our kind of thing.
BAC started off as a rogue project, a pirate project if you like. We didn’t start with many rules. The only rules were – save books, give readers a chance to adopt and read books at a lower cost and prevent books from being scrapped and give the donated money back to Tzu Chi (since our source of books was from the recycling centre).
BAC is also successful because we started with few rules and we had the right factors in our favour (we live in an urban area, we had people who were middle-class and literate, we had volunteers who were folks who worked in the nearby multinational corporations, we had space to do this and a neverending source of books).
BAC is also what it is today because people believed in our mission of saving books and giving them new life and new owners. BAC is also an innovation that couldn’t have happened within Tzu Chi Penang itself because they themselves had too many rules. When you have too many restrictions, you cannot think out of the box. It’s the sad truth but this is what innovation is about – being roguish and a little bit pirate and everything ninja.
Nic and I came to the project without any rules in mind except one mission – to save books.
When I look back at the past 3 years and how we have become such a hit with readers across Malaysia, the money we have raised, the books we found new and good homes for, the team that came together for a mission, I am deeply thankful. (We had the chance to tell our BAC founding story to a group of Catholic students last year when we were invited as guest speakers at their church camp and we have also sent books to the orang asli in Negeri Sembilan who wanted to start a village library for their children. We have had volunteers who found more meaning in life by helping out at our BAC on weekends especially the young and single who want to do some community work.)
And yet, this is where Part 2 of our story comes into play.
I am writing Part 2 of this story because I want people to know the truth about people, power and control.
For the longest time, as a rogue project, BAC was called TSN BAC where TSN stands for Taman Sri Nibong – the place we are in. When we concocted the name, Nic and I believed that as a rogue project, it is good to distance ourselves from Tzu Chi because what we were doing didn’t fit into their rules.
Originally they said that they HAD to scrap and tear all books that the public brought to the recycling centre.
We figured that this was a stupid idea and policy. Where’s the wisdom in doing so?
As a rogue project, we could be a separate entity to do what they couldn’t do or be seen doing. Most of our volunteers weren’t even Tzu Chi members; many were friends of mine who had seen and heard about the project and wanted to be part of it. They really didn’t care much for Tzu Chi, truth be told.
Things started to get disturbing when some of the volunteers went to schools for the school outreach programme. They were asked to wear the Tzu Chi vests over their BAC shirts. Apparently, if we were out to collect donations, it is best to go out under the Tzu Chi brand. A few of our volunteers were really upset as they were not Tzu Chi members!
Once BAC started to grow in popularity and became more well known than the recycling centre, one person inside Tzu Chi decided he was going to set the rules. He said that now BAC was under Tzu Chi. He claimed this project (which was created and started by Nic and I) to be theirs. That wasn’t the part that riled us. The part that pissed me off completely was that we couldn’t reprint or redesign new BAC t-shirts for the volunteers!
I understand how little Napoleans work. Before the project was successful, he didn’t care if BAC lived or died. Now that the revenue from BAC was far more than the recycling centre, people started to take notice. This particular person decided to claim it all for himself and park BAC under Tzu Chi. I really don’t care much but what they forget is that if it was still a rogue project, they had lots of leeways. If it really parked under Tzu Chi, they have some major problems they cannot explain or solve.
Why couldn’t they leave BAC as a rogue project and happily pocket the monthly RM5K to RM7K that we were bringing in to them? By the way, our BAC is the one and only book adoption centre in all of Malaysia and the only one in Tzu Chi so much so that other Tzu Chi chapters such as the one from Melaka came to study our model. Unfortunately, they haven’t replicated BAC yet. It looks simple but it takes the right thinking to get it started.
Because we are the one and only BAC in Malaysia and perhaps even globally, I can see why this person wants to claim this rogue project as his own – conveniently forgetting to inform the people in Tzu Chi Taiwan that two non-Tzu Chi people thought of this brilliant idea.
Now here’s the dumbest part.
One day, someone from Tzu Chi Taiwan came to visit BAC. He spotted a book with a so-called unsavoury cover. He started questioning the people in charge why such a book is allowed in BAC. We accept all books of all genres even holy books like the Quran and the Bible. These books are donated by the general public. We believe that you should be given a democratic choice in deciding what you want to read or adopt. This is not the Tzu Chi bookshop. At one point, we had lots of Japanese manga and again, this disturbed the higher-ups as manga contains graphics that offended their puritanical sensitivities. If they had let BAC stay a rogue entity, they could have easily wash their hands off such issues.
But money, fame and power are so addictive and enticing.
I’ve stayed away from the BAC now for these reasons because it is so disappointing to know that the very folks who talk about “gan en” (gratitude) or helping others are just another bunch of hypocrites. Nic and I are slowly removing ourselves and distancing ourselves from BAC now as the internal leadership is nothing but a farce.
I am thankful for my own space in this blog that I can write about this openly. I want others to know this story and see for themselves how people who are selfish will always be selfish no matter which organisation they are in, religious or otherwise.
Nic and I have created and started many initiatives in business and for our community and this is but one of them. We have some interesting plans for 2020 with regards to our original mission of saving books. Stay tuned.
We decided that BAC now is no longer the original pure BAC that we envisioned. It’s a tragic truth but with all endings, new beginnings arise. There’s always opportunity and this may be a blessing in disguise for me, Nic and some of the pioneer team members.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth that Tzu Chi Penang doesn’t want to hear – Nic and I started BAC because we didn’t like seeing how the Tzu Chi volunteers at the recycling centre were tearing up books! They were just very good rule followers, never once questioning the archaic and ridiculous practices (this is exactly why innovation is about being rebellious – you can’t work in the system that locks you down and shuts you up).
In the future, they would erase the founding story too precisely because they can’t tell the founding story as by telling the founding story, they would be branding them as rigid, unwise and inflexible. You see, that’s the problem with claiming something that’s not your own.
Anyway, I’m optimistic about our next phase with our BAC – no one can stop a good idea from spreading and in 2020, we will share with you what’s brewing. And if you are interested to be on our pirate ship, contact me. We won’t make you walk the gangplank but we are surely geared up for a damn good adventure!
Recently I discovered something that truly was life-changing. Now I don’t often say this. I’m not the type given to hyperbole and such. I rarely use the word “awesome” as I think it’s blatantly overused and sounds inauthentic.
I discovered something that made me look forward to my periods each month!
Actually I didn’t discover it.
I was given the product.
Remember my Hawaii trip? Well, on that trip, I met Olie Body who is like a total Energizer bunny (you can watch her TEDx Wellington talk too). She was in our Changing Faces programme and the first time I saw her, she was hunched over her laptop in the lobby of the dorm that we were staying in.
Later we became good friends to the extent that I was holding her wet bikini bottom while standing on the streets of Waikiki! (Side story that’s hilarious and shows how spontaneous this gal is! – Olie had stripped down to her bikini and ran into the Waikiki sea with Tina, another friend that Friday night after we had danced at this American club. When she got out of the sea, she was dripping wet but she removed her bikini bottom as she was wearing undies under it. As I was going back to the dorm first I said, “Let me take your bikini bottom back with me” because she and Tina were going back into the club for another bout of dancing.)
Well, I was having my period almost at the tail-end of the 2-week Hawaiian programme. My period wasn’t due for another two weeks but then again, staying in close proximity with 15 other women probably regulated our menstrual cycles that mine came a little early.
Luckily I had some sanitary pads with me but I knew I would soon run out. I went around asking my fellow Asia-Pacific friends for extra sanitary pads until Jaruza said, “Why don’t you ask Olie for the menstrual cup?”
I was like, nope. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it.
During our programme, I had heard Olie talk about the menstrual cup. After all, she ran a business – a social enterprise – that straddled the environment and women’s health by offering menstrual cups as an eco-friendly option to sanitary pads.
I was intrigued by her love of this silicone cup. Shihoko, another fellow participant, also gushed about how she had been using one for the last 10 years and it was liberating. (Yes, the cup can last a decade.)
On the final day of our programme, I braved myself and asked Olie if I could buy one. Olie didn’t even want to hear of it; instead she gave me one as a parting gift!
When I came back, I couldn’t wait for my next period. I knew I couldn’t waste the gift. The first time I tried it, I felt uncomfortable. I could feel the stem of the cup poking out. Insertion wasn’t too difficult despite my initial fear that the cup looked too huge to go into me. After 2 days of using it and anxious about the discomfort, I went back to my pads.
During my next cycle, I tried it again. This time, I had more confidence as I had spoken to Joanne, a friend who unashamedly that she is now a big convert of the cup. She was so excited that she even bought them for her sisters, egging them to try. I reassured her that I would try the cup again.
It actually became easier once I got over my hang-ups about the menstrual cup. So now I go around advocating the use of the cup as it has brought me a new level of freedom that I didn’t know I had missed all this while. Pretty big claim huh.
The second time – it really became easier. I couldn’t believe that my other women friends were absolutely nailing it while I was like still unsure. So I watched a few videos and landed on a particular Youtube video where this woman was sharing her own agonizing moments and finally how she managed to insert the menstrual cup.
She gave a huge tip which was my biggest a-ha moment – use your Kegel muscles to draw the cup into you! Now why didn’t I think of that!
The type of fold mattered too. I used her punch-down fold and tried the “sucking it in” with the Kegel muscles technique and it worked! The cup literally disappeared up my vagina. I couldn’t feel it nor see its stem. And it didn’t feel uncomfortable either.
It felt like…nothing.
That was my defining moment. I was like, “Woah, where have you been all my life?”
Using the cup, I can roll and toss on the bed at night and not a drop leaked. The cup forms such a tight vacuum inside that I have to “release” the air in the cup first before I slowly pull it out. (And if you don’t, you feel like you’re tugging at your insides!) At times I even forget I am having my period!
I’m now like one of those mad cat ladies – I gush about the menstrual cup to any woman I know.
Yes, yes, the initial fear is paralyzing and you think the cup is too huge to be inside you. Or you think it’s disgusting to put your fingers inside yourself or be turned off by the blood that’s collected in the cup. Or the amount of blood. Or what if the damn cup gets lost and you can’t even feel the stem?
The cup won’t get lost as there’s only one passage in you. It may ride higher but it certainly won’t be lost like a tampon losing its string. Unlike a tampon, the cup collects blood and doesn’t dry you up inside.
I can now walk past the sanitary pad aisle in Jusco smugly. I never ever have to buy pads again and never feel guilty about all those pads piling up in the landfill. I can travel without worrying that I didn’t bring enough pads. I can have my period without feeling like the whole world knows about it.
And I can wear the clothes and pants I want without having this fear that I might just stain them! (Once I got my period while in the middle of a meeting with some very important people and I couldn’t even concentrate on the meeting as I felt wetness seeping through my skirt!)
And yes, I nailed it in my third cycle after Hawaii and I am now a super proud user of the WA Collective menstrual cup. Olie’s product truly changed my life and now I actually look forward to having my periods. Crazy huh?
I’ll be talking about my experience in Honolulu, Hawaii this 30 August 2019 during the WomenBizSENSE monthly meeting from 2pm to 5pm. It’s for women only though as it IS our women entrepreneur association meeting.
I could’ve done this talk on my own but I wanted to bring the benefits and exclusivity to the association that I co-founded. It will be free for WomenBizSENSE members but RM30 per person for everyone else.
I had the idea to conduct a sharing session even when I was in Hawaii as friends started asking me about the programme (after they saw my photos and updates on Facebook). I’m the sort of person who likes to maximize my time and I knew a one-on-one sharing was out of the question. I know, I could be having lunches and teas till 2025 if I did this on a personal basis.
I even told Liz (the Changing Faces programme coordinator) that I would be doing this. And as my StrengthsFinder analysis revealed, I’m the kind of person who would walk her talk just because she can and wants to!
After I did this analysis, I am now a lot more comfortable being who I am. I am just living up to what my strengths are! In the past I’ve done DISC profiling, LEONARD profiling, etc. but this particular analysis of who I am and what I am made of makes me appreciate the person that I am. Now I know why I’m me.
I decided that I would like to share my experience but more than that, to encourage more women to apply for the Changing Faces programme when it reopens in 2020. I learnt so much and had such a life-changing experience that I want other Malaysian women to have the same experience too.
Throughout the 2 weeks in Hawaii, the 16 of us had excellent lecturers such as:
Dr Susan Madsen, Professor of Organizational Leadership Orin R. Woodbury Professorship in Leadership and Ethics who taught the what, why and who of leadership particularly focusing on women, confidence and identity.
Professor John Barkai who taught us about the art of negotiation (which incidentally is one of my favourite topics). You can get more readings and materials about this topic at his link.
Judith Mills-Wong from the University of Hawaii who gave us a sped-up version of accounting fundamentals and financial modelling especially from the entrepreneur’s view (through her class I am now interested to pick up a book she recommended on finance for non-finance people).
Scott Paul, President and CEO of the Kleenco Group, Hawaii’s leading locally-owned professional facilities cleaning, janitorial, and building maintenance companies who taught us strategic planning for our businesses.
They weren’t the only ones either.
Outside of class, we had the privilege of meeting Hawaii’s entrepreneurs and social innovators. We met the good people of the island of Oahu such as YWCA president, Noriko Namiki and her team who are helping incarcerated women get back into society again through their various programmes such as Dress for Success and Launch My Business.
We also flew to the island of Maui for two days to hear from more innovators such as Pacific Biodiesel and Maui Economic Board. We also got to hear from non-profits such as IMUA Family Services (serving children with developmental issues) and for-profits like Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm (focusing on agrotourism and working with other businesses to grow the tourism sector and create products using their lavender in jams, balms, art, food and more).
Noho me ka hau’oli – “Be happy”.
These were just the tip of the iceberg of people we met.
The East-West Center that ran the Changing Faces programme also thoughtfully paired us up with our host mentors based on our action plan and interests.
I was thrilled to be paired with Dr Kathleen Kozak, a doctor who hosted her own radio show on Hawaii Public Radio. (More of that in upcoming blog posts.)
But here’s the thing: I learnt about the concept of ‘closing the loop‘.
Much as we learnt from our host mentors, we were expected to do the same for the 40 high school girls who were in the Next Generation Service Project. They came from different high schools and as part of our programme, we had to plan and conduct a session with the Hawaiian girls and provide inspiration to them in the short time we spent together. And I met two teenaged Malaysian girls – Zoe and Kassandra – who were pleased to tell me about their Milo dinosaur and roti tisu (they spend their summer break back here where their mum is from).
My two mentees, Hunter-Bailey and Mahina, were gorgeous as most Hawaiian girls go. Exotic with smooth and tanned skin. Totally island girls! They were also interested to know about Malaysia, what I did, how I ended up doing what I’m doing.
We met some of them two days later at Gals With Lei which was a conference to bring the women of our programme together with the local women and local girls for inspiration, leadership and ideas. During the conference, all of us Changing Faces participants had to be involved too. (Click this for the photos.)
I was tasked to moderate a panel of experienced women who had served on boards – I was excited but nervous too! You would be if you knew these power ladies of Hawaii – Crystal Rose of Hawaiian Airlines, Michele Saito of Alexander & Baldwin, Barbara Tanabe of Bank of Hawaii and Fiona Ey (my friend from the programme but also the chair of Apia International School from Samoa).
I had so many ideas to bring back home and so many new friends made.
But I also felt that this solo trip of mine (I did 30 hours of travel each way with long stopovers at Narita) had broken some of my own internal fears about a lot of things. I feel less self-conscious than the day I left Penang.
Ever since I announced to the world and the Changing Faces gals that I was going to create my podcast, I had more confidence and energy than before. I received a lot of encouragement from my posse in Hawaii and their notes of “yes, I want to know when the first episode is out” to “please interview East Asia women too” made me contemplate that the journey isn’t as lonely or as frightening as it sounds.
I kept saying, there’s something magical about the land that’s Hawaii (which by the way is made up of many islands). It simply rejuvenated me and gave me a chance to explore and discover who I was inside. Taking the StrengthsFinder made things clear to me; now I know how to use my strengths to further fuel my own personal growth and stop being apologetic for who I am.
The cool, quiet mornings walking to class amidst banyan trees hundreds of years old made me ruminate on the wisdom of the past and how fortunate I was to be there at that point in time. Immensely grateful. Absolutely mahalo.
“We are all meant to be here.” I had announced this simply and in a sage manner to my friend, Tina when we were in Maui. She stared at me knowingly. I mean, what stars/fate/karma had to align to bring 16 women from all over the Asia Pacific to be in Honolulu! We had to fly hundreds of hours and thousands of kilometres, fight jetlag and overcome all kinds of hurdles to get to Hawaii.
One person didn’t make it – she couldn’t get her US visa. Jaruza, my Sri Lankan friend, stood her ground after being rejected for her visa and got it at the last minute after a second try but her visa was only valid for 3 months! (This makes me feel lucky as I got my visa in less than 5 minutes at the US Embassy in KL although the online form process was terribly tedious!)
Kulia i ka nu’u –Strive to reach the highest.
We felt like a mini United Nations – we were women from Fiji, Samoa, Malaysia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Northern Mariana, America, China. Bound by entrepreneurship and wanting to effect change in our own communities, we sat through each other’s action plan presentations and cheered each other on. They inspired me and moved me to tears! Such brave and beautiful women doing fantabulous things in their society back home. So proud to call them my audacious sistas.
We again sat through the reworked versions on the final day. I saw such dramatic improvements in the way we spoke, thought and planned our action plans and knew that the Hawaii effect was working! It’s still in me, many days after I’ve come home. It’s like a spirit of the ancient landhas seeped into my bones.
If you want to know about application criteria, benefits, the hows and the whats about this transformative programme, join me this 30 August and I will tell you more.
While recovering from all that learning and magical experiences that I had in Hawaii, I wrote a piece on my other blog. (And if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, refer to this piece first.)
Look out for my sharing session coming up on the 30 August at the WomenBizSENSE monthly meeting at JORA, Vantage, Tanjung Tokong especially if you want to know how to get into the Changing Faces programme for 2020.
I wrote this article below for a friend, Ann who runs the Penan Women Project in Sarawak. I don’t write articles per se as I truly have no time but once in a while, I get into my “yes, I’ll write one for you” mode.
How I know her is one convoluted story.
Nic was her online friend when she was studying in the US back in the mid-90s. They both hit it off as they were both into art and design and yes, both were Kuchingites!
I knew Ann’s brother through his blog called Cooking Engineer which I used to read a lot as he was a funny Kuchingite who was working in the US yet hankered for Sarawak food! (Eddie even tried to grow “mani chai” in his apartment once.) It was only when Ann came home to Kuching in 2005 that we all met up for the first time in a Mardi Gras-inspired party at her house. Her brother, Eddie a.k.a Cooking Engineer flew home with lots of liquor and I think he even cooked us a jambalaya!
Anyway, Ann settled back in Sarawak after getting married and having her twins and she used her design skills for a truly good cause. I wrote this for her to be used in Happenings, a Sarawak-based magazine, but she felt that it was too much of highlight on her. I beg to differ so that’s why I’m featuring her article that I wrote right here on my blog. Note: We sponsored her a website for the good work that she is doing with the Penan women so if you want to help a real social enterprise, visit her website.
Ann Wong would have never believed it if someone told her that one day, she would be using her graphic design degree to help the Penan people of her home state, Sarawak.
Ann lived for 10 years in the US before deciding to come home to Sarawak with her cats in tow. An animal lover and one with a huge passion for everything design, Ann had settled down to married life in Miri where her husband, Winston, was stationed in the oil and gas industry. Soon, her twins came along and she fell into a natural routine of being a homemaker.
Fortuitously, she also met Shida Mojet, another woman who was also at that time living in Miri (Shida’s husband was also working in Miri). The indefatigable Shida, a Kedahan from Peninsular Malaysia, had started a community project to help the Penan women who were skilled weavers.
Shida felt a calling to help the Penan women after she had visited the many destitute, not to mention, unreachable villages in the years that she had been living in Brunei and Miri.
Eventually, Shida established the Miri Women Weaving Association (MWWA), a registered association in 2016 to help more of these nomadic and semi-nomadic Penans in Limbang and Miri divisions through a structured production and sale of the Penans’ woven baskets and bags.
Shida’s aim was simple – through the association, she wanted to assist the Penans to generate a sustainable income and help their children get an education. The Penan Women Project (PWP) is the association’s project to achieve this aim.
The first sum of money they raised through the sale of woven products totaled RM10,774 and with this first optimistic kick-off, Shida knew she had tapped into something amazing.
Wherever they went to sell their bags and baskets, hoards of excited urban women would be enchanted by the woven bags and more so when they heard the story of how the proceeds went back into a fund for buying weaving supplies for the Penan as well as helping them with food and other household needs.
Shida passed the baton to Ann as her family was relocating to The Netherlands, seeing how Ann herself was slowly but surely using her design degree to create unique designs for the Penans to weave.
The traditional designs were familiar enough to Sarawakians but Ann believed that to reach out to more people and to raise the value and perception of the bags as mere ‘market bags’, the Penan women needed to weave stylish, contemporary bags with colours and designs that appealed to the urban buyers.
At their first meeting together, Ann and Shida had an 8-hour coffee session! They were deliriously excited about helping more Penan women weavers and taking the age-old craft of weaving to the next level.
Today, the Penan Women Project has 60 weavers from Long Nen, Long Kevok and Long Latek. Its products have expanded beyond baskets and bags – they now include clutches, knick-knack holders, name card holders and more – designs dreamt up by Ann when she is not busy taking care of her school-going twins.
The designs are unique and each product is an improvement over the next as Ann works tirelessly with her weavers like Juanita (see Juanita and Nelly’s stories below) to ensure the bags and baskets are of the highest quality possible. Ann also has had to make executive decisions about where the Penan bags are to be sold in order to differentiate and position the bags strongly in the urban market.
The Penan bags and other products are made with polypropylene material in lieu of rattan and mengkuang as they are easier to obtain. The polypropylene makes the bags washable and durable, making them sturdy enough for a beach outing and still look chic at any high tea event.
Yet, what you see today are bags that have travelled a great distance. Ann drops off the polypropylene material at the remote villages where the Penan women live – the villages are an eight-hour drive from Ulu Baram. As she drops off the material, she also buys the finished products – the bags and baskets – and pays the weavers upfront before hauling the products back to her house.
One of the rooms in her Kuching house has been turned into a store room for these products before they are sent to selected partners and retailers such as Klein & Fine (Penang), Verdant Hill (KL), Wonderboom, The Pullman Hotel and Poppies (Kuching).
What is clear is that a potent combination of graphic knowledge, an ability to understand the urban customer’s ever-changing needs and the passion to ensure that the Penan legacy lives on through a sustainable product that’s much more sophisticated than the traditional weave appeals to the repeat buyers and ardent supporters of PWP.
Ann says, “It’s not easy. It took me 3 years to get the Penan women to understand what we need from them in terms of a product. We need to remind them all the time to follow the design. Each time I give them an order, I always monitor their weaving.”
Last year, Ann began to give the weavers specially made wooden boxes as she found that the bag sizes would vary from weaver to weaver. “This made our marketing efforts challenging due to the different bag sizes. So I thought, let’s give the weavers each a box that we call an insert so that they can easily measure if their woven bags were a standard size!”
Other innovative approaches over the years include providing the weavers with colour charts and samples so that they understood what PWP wanted in terms of colour schemes and patterns.
“Once the bags are woven, we check each bag for quality. While it’s easy to say they’re handcrafted we also need to ensure we meet customers’ expectations of quality when the bags are sold,” Ann says.
For Ann and PWP, the most challenging aspect is still marketing and retail. “The Penan women still need us to help them on these two fronts as they’re still learning. But I am heartened that they now can tie the labels onto the bags they’ve made and price the bags. We make the pricing transparent so that they know how much they are making per bag when we sell them at the retailers we’ve identified or at the pop-up charity sale bazaars that we take part in. It’s all part of the process for them to learn about business.”
The guiding and teaching of the 60 Penan women weavers is an ongoing task.
“If I compare the bag quality from the early years, I can see that our work back then was unrefined. This is where I am most proud of as throughout the years PWP has enabled the weavers to not only earn an income for themselves but also refine their handicraft, bringing it to a level of excellent craftsmanship and design. Today’s bags are of such a high quality and we even have each Penan woman weave a little signature detail into the product – it’s not noticeable but it’s there if you look close enough,” Ann notes thoughtfully.
With so much going for PWP and the Penan women, the next foray for PWP is venturing into e-commerce as Ann knows it is the doorway to untapped markets and customers.
Juanita is currently a leader within her own Penan women group. She is in her late 40s and is married with 5 children.
““I joined PWP in 2017 and as soon as I did, I started to see real money coming in. In the past, I wove products like baskets and sent them to Miri to be sold. Or sometimes I would take a table and sell my products but I never made much profit after deducting table rent and my transport out to the city. But with PWP, I began to see that I could help myself as well as other Penan women. With the money I made, I could go back to the kampung and buy school uniforms for my own children. As a leader of my weaving group, there are many challenges and I try my best to help them. I always remind them that we need to talk about problems openly so that we can solve them so that we can make better products for PWP. Of course, there are times when I can’t solve a problem and that’s when I need to call Ann but I can see that through PWP, our Penan women can earn money for their families.”
Nelly is a Penan weaver from Ba Purao. She is 24 years old and already has 2 children, a boy who is 6 and a girl who is 7. She dropped out of school when she was in Form 2. Nelly was a full-time housewife but now she earns a good income from weaving bags for PWP. In the past 2 years that her husband has been jobless, she has been the main breadwinner for her family. Nelly is smart and conversant in English and Bahasa Malaysia so she often helps Ann with translation when Ann speaks to the other Penan women. Nelly has also come a long way because PWP also sponsored her driving lessons, enabling Nelly to drive. This is important as Nelly needs to send the village children who are sick to the nearby clinic. “I am happy that I am able to make a living for myself without needing to depend on my husband. I also enjoy weaving and in the past, we were always in financial difficulties. Since I started making bags for PWP, I have become more financially stable. I really hope PWP continues because it helps us, Penan women, a lot.”