Striking a gender balance in terms of business participation and innovation is a key advancement and development of a nation’s business fabric. Malaysia’s stellar growth performance is matched by narrowing gender gap and increased participation of women in the labour force. Women entrepreneurs are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
BizHive Weekly takes a closer look at some of Sarawak’s women entrepreneurs, who have made a significant mark in the development of the local economy.
Women at the forefront
Unlocking women’s potential in smart economics
Striking a gender balance in terms of business participation and innovation is a key to the advancement and development of a nation’s business fabric. Women entrepreneurship in particular, has attracted a lot of definitions.
For the first time in 13 years, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) study of 59 economies showed that women were creating businesses at a greater rate than men in three economies and in four others, the rates were nearly equal.
Studies have also shown that successful women entrepreneurs start their businesses as a second or third profession. Therefore, entering the business world later on in life, between 40 and 60 years old.
“As women are now overtaking their male peers when it comes to education, having higher education degrees is one of the significant characterictics that many successful female entrepreneurs have in common,” the report stated.
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012 further concluded that the promotion of gender equality was the right thing to do because it contributed to higher productivity and income growth as well as enhance the quality of decision making.
In both cases, women entrepreneurs were transforming families and society, while making contributions to business development.
“Even though the formation of women business network is steadily rising globally, there are still a number of challenges and obstacles that female entrepreneurs face – which is the traditionally gender-roles society have on women,” Sarawak Chamber of Bumiputera Entrepreneurs (DUBS Dewanita) chairperson Juita Drap told BizHive Weekly in a phone interview.
“Although it is difficult to surpass these conventional views, most still agree that gender barriers can be overcome by demostrating one’s abilities. Individual competence, mutual trust, products’ trust and service quality can all contribute to the credibility of a businesswomen,” she pointed out.
Much research has been done showing that women were the most vulnerable but also the biggest strength leading to economic progress.
“The key players at the moment are women, who may hold the most potential for jump-starting global growth,” she added.
In the case of Malaysia, the World Bank report also pointed out the narrowing (and even reversal) of gender gaols in terms of education enrollment and literacy.
The study further highlighted the increase in women’s labour force participation, leading to increase in real earnings, all of which have created new economic opportunities.
“Not only are there more women contributing to the economy in terms of the labour force, but there are also more women in management positions in the public sector, including the nation’s key institutions such as the Central Bank and the Securities Commission,” Juita pointed out.
“This landscape thus is set to change in the future, one indication is the rising women students in most universities in Malaysia,” she said.
Moving forward, the Malaysian government has set out an ambitious target to increase women’s labour force participation to 55 per cent in 2015, within the broader framework of labour market reforms.
In addition, women’s paticipation in labour was also recognised as part of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) Roadmap, which warranted a minimum target of 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions in the corporate sector by 2016.
A conservative estimate that included all countries as potential benchmarks found that Malaysia would be expecting to have an additional 500,000 women in the labour force, which would bring the participation rate of women close to that of Chile and slightly lower than that of Indonesia.
Currently, women accounted for half of the human resources in Malaysia and in the year 2010, about nine million or 67 per cent of all women will be of working age. However, among this group, only 46 per cent will be engaged in any type of production work.
On average, Malaysian women made 92 sen for every ringgit that a man made.
According to research, the estimate of the earnings gap was as large as 11 per cent when part time workers were included, and it varied dramatically by sector – in manufacturing, it was as high as 33 per cent whereas in services it was closer to eight per cent.
In the case of Sarawak, Juita pointed out most women entrepreneurs would start small first before entering the field big time.
“We have a lot of examples of those who started small but have ended up in the international market currently.”
On top of that, she further added that Sarawak would also see more women participation in the current predominantly male sectors that included engineering, construction and tourism.
Juita, who is also the managing director of Masama Sdn Bhd, foresaw this number to grow rapidly in the next few years, in tandem with the awareness that women played a key role in all sectors of a nation’s growth.
“Women are committed as wives and mothers at home. However, this will not be a barrier if you know how to balance family and career.
“Sarawak needs more of these women to be involved as they play an important role in the economy going forward. A woman does not need to be afraid of being a woman in a man’s world, let your ability speak for itself and do not worry about it,” she concluded.
As the nation moves towards vision 2020, it must be acknowledged that progress means curbing gender bias and being moere receptive to the capabilities of women.
BizHive Weekly takes a closer look at women entrepreneurs in Sarawak and their journeys in the business arena.
Double girl power, up the stairs of stylish success
Sereni & Shentel is one of the companies owned by a pair of inspiring women entrepreneurs which the BizHive Weekly got in touch with.
In the case of Sereni Linggi and Shen-Tel Lee, what started out as a part-time passion for making headbands, propelled to unparalleled proportions as the unassuming hobby became a fashion trend and their names; prominent household names known to most urban dwellers, local and international.
“We definitely didn’t think about starting a business in the first place,” both Sereni and Shen-Tel said.
With a passion for fashion, Sereni and Shen-Tel added, “We both share our love for hand-made crafts and we decided one weekend to make some head-bands for a Lady Gaga concert that we were going to attend in Singapore, in August 2009.
“The reaction that we received from the concert crowd was overwhelming.
We were bombarded by photographers and taken aback by all the Singaporeans asking us where we got our headbands from.”
Sereni said, brimming with pride on the topic of their business startup, “Sereni even made it into the newspapers the next day for the headbands that we made.
It wasn’t until we had the opportunity to create hair accessories for a Tatler Magazine shoot in the Philippines when we really started to get serious.
“Sereni got to meet with hair guru Kim Robinson, at the shoot and after his praise for the range; we decided that we would start a small online store to showcase our designs.”
The fun-loving duo further told BizHive Weekly via email, “We are both constantly and unwittingly thinking of new designs all the time.
Some get created and some just get laughed at and are forgotten.”
They revealed a secret to the popularisation of quirky designs, “Our best designs come after a massive design fail.”
They added, “Our formula is simple, be seen or go home! That’s what we have applied to every design that we have produced and that is the secret to our brand’s success.”
Since starting their brand name ‘Sereni & Shentel’ in 2009, Sereni and Shen-Tel have incorporated a holding company called The Playground Borneo to house the brand.
“We have certainly moved on from our days of sewing headbands for fun to wear to a Lady Gaga concert, to a full-fledged business housing over 20 employees in various departments to cater to our customers and stockists all over the world,” they stated in an autobiography ‘look- book’, ‘Sereni & Shentel Made in Borneo 2013’.
They further unveiled in their ‘look book’, their big break came when a breakfast television show host called for an interview about their fashionably bizarre headbands.
“Going live nationwide launched our careers as accidental headband designers.
We could no longer cope with the demand by making every piece ourselves.
“So, off we went and formed a legitimate business, hired staff and the rest is history,” they said.
When asked on what were their biggest achievements thus far, both Sereni and Shentel promptly gave a list of glamorous highlights of their business which included having been picked by Miss Malaysia Universe for the second year running to create and produce the national gifts to all Miss Universe contestants as well as to create their charity piece auction.
They outlined, their biggest and proudest achievement was finally getting their headbands featured on two US hit television series, Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives.
“It was beyond exciting having our creations shown on televisions all across the world, on the television show that brought back the popularity of the humble headband!” An excerpt from the ‘look book’ stated it was indeed an epic moment for any up-and-coming fashion designer.
“The fact that we came from the little city of Kuching, tucked away in the jungles of Borneo, made it all the more insane.”
By way of a quick background summary, Sereni Linggi was born and raised in Kuching but went to a boarding school and university in UK.
Nevertheless, she decided to come back to Malaysia to start her career.
Australian born Shen-Tel, whose mother was originally from Kuching, travelled often between Australia and Kuching to visit her family and her then, husband- to-be Bobby Ting.
After getting married, Shen-Tel, made her big move to Kuching and started the Sereni & Shentel brand.
Sereni and Shen-Tel’s brand is the first headband brand to have a custom application online where customers can design their own headband on their website.
“We also have 36 stockists in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, and the number is steadily increasing.
We have grown from just the two of us to a great team of over 20 individuals in Kuching and Kuala Lumpur that are divided into different departments – media, public relations, information technology, production, administration and finance,” they explained.
However, the stairs to success was not unhindered by obstacles for both Sereni and Shen-Tel.
They told the BizHive Weekly, “Time management is a major challenge as both of us still have our full time jobs.
“Sereni is a mall manager and business development manager for a property development company.
Shen-Tel is a graphic designer who specialises in cosmetics packaging and also runs a jewellery business.”
Other challenges they face include logistics by which the materials used for their headbands were imported from all over the world.
Sereni and Shen-Tel further noted there was also the issue of copycat brands imitating their designs that they have worked hard on.
The duo, nonetheless, gave a heads-up towards potential women entrepreneurs, “We think women are natural multi- taskers.
As a modern woman, it is important to be financially independent.
“Women should change their mindset into thinking that gender is an issue.
If you really want to be successful and achieve financial independence, you will find a way to organise your life for it and find resources to support it.”
They further added, hard work and dedication were the keys to success.
With the rapidly growing usage of the internet as well as online social networks, they recommended women to take advantage of any networking opportunities and financial assistance available.
Sereni and Shen-Tel, who have taken their brand name to an international level from Kuching, said, “Whoever it was who said that big things do not happen in small towns is obviously wrong! Our brand is living proof that you don’t have to move to a big city to realise your dreams.”
They concluded by advising local would-be women entrepreneurs, “Find your niche, stand out from the crowd, and live and breathe your business 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Above all, be passionate about what you do and it will show.”
Taking the path less travelled
Another inspiring woman entrepreneur that BizHive Weekly spoke to was Cassandra Havelock, an entrepreneur involved in the livestock business industry.
Venturing into an industry where few women dare to set foot in, Cassandra the principal director of dairy goat breeding farm, Nature’s Farm Company (Nature’s Farm), is a force to set reckoned with.
The outspoken, yet sweet and spirited lady is more than meets the eye, equipped with her kaleidoscopic journey to success which is driven by her determined zeal and innovative ideas.
As a woman in a male-oriented industry, Cassandra disclosed to BizHive Weekly in an exclusive interview, her journey came riddled with obstacles.
“At first my family members were very sceptical.
Why go into a field where they all said was very difficult because it’s not easy to rear goats? Furthermore, I had no experience in it and as a woman, there were no other ladies, no other person to look up to, and no one to look for advice,” she said.
Unperturbed by that fact, she added, “However, I’m a person who loves a challenge.
The more challenging it is, the more other people say that it cannot be done, that’s all the more reason I want to do it!” Cassandra further revealed that rearing goats had initially been a hobby to her.
She started out with only four local meat goats.
However, after a while, being a person who is squeamish towards animal slaughter, she decided to sell of all the local meat goats and imported dairy goats from Australia.
From there, Cassandra, along with her uncle, Frederick Lee, learned to rear and multiply their Australian dairy goats at their farm, and eventually built a company together to utilise and distribute products made from goats’ milk.
“Before this, no one took me seriously.
Until our Australian goats came in, then we started doing Australian goats’ milk soaps.
After that, we went into the cheese and candy production businesss.
It’s only then, people started to take us more seriously,” Cassandra highlighted.
Cassandra explained, “We started with the goats’ milk soap because our goats were producing too much milk.
We had so much milk; we did not know what to do with the surplus milk.
“We went back to Australia, to learn how to make soaps, which we learned from an Italian lady who is a third generation soap maker of a soap making company that’s still very famous in Italy.”
Cassandra then went on to ex-plain that when they came back to Sarawak, they had to make use of the natural resources available locally such as coconut oil, palm oil and other resources.
They eventually came up with ways to value-add to their soaps with other natural resources such as sago and rice.
“One day, Sarawak Biodiversity Centre came in and asked us to formulate different rice and sago soaps for them.
After that, the agriculture centre challenged us with the Dabai of local olive to see what we can come up with.
“For me, because I love challenges, I couldn’t say no to it.
After a while, we came up with the Dabai soaps and it now it is a hit!” Cassandra said, recalling the event that launched Nature’s Farm’s business into success.
She then noted another hall-mark in their business was when a university in Sabah, gave the company another challenge which involved the usage of seaweed.
“We came up with seaweed soaps and the university showed it to the ministries in Sabah and they were amazed,” she added, with pride.
When asked on the growth of Nature’s Farm, Cassandra explained, “At first, the government asked us to go into an industrial area, where we can get the ‘halal’ certification and mass produce our products.
“It asked us to export our soaps but we had to decline it because we could not handle the farm and animals, then drive down all the way to the industrial area to handle that too.
“So, we talked it out with ‘Borneo to the World’ and they were interested in our technology.
We sold our first two formulations to them and we don’t make those products anymore.”
Cassandra, whose first love was still on the animals at the farm, said the company was constantly looking for ways to ensure that the farm had enough capital to be viable.
“We’re always coming up with products so that we can link tham back to the farm.
We try to be self sustainable,” she said.
On her personal experience in the male-dominated field, Cassandra said it was initially difficult to get men to respect her.
In a environment that involved controlling and raising farm animals which could likely react unpredictably, unlike household pets; men tended to underestimate Cassandra’s ability in handling the animals.
Cassandra added mischievously, “I like to see the reaction of men when they see that I can do something they think I can’t.”
Men are increasingly venturing into feminine business areas such as baking, designing and other relevant areas.
She pointed out, if men could do that, women could too.
The only problem was, she said, “A lot of ladies are afraid to take a risk.”
The secret to the livestock business for women, Cassandra revealed, “You cannot be prim and proper or ladylike.
You have to come out of your comfort zone.
“The fun part of this business is doing things people tend to think that you can’t do.”
Additionally, Cassandra high-lighted Sarawak was filled with natural resources that could potentially launch someone’s business into success as she had with her own business.
She added, “Sometimes we have to be practical, we don’t have to strictly keep to what’s ‘normal’.
We have a lot of resources and potential in Sarawak.
“However, we’re all doing similar businesses as a lot of people don’t want to take risks.
It’s a pity because we have so much we could showcase to the world.”
Cassandra further noted, her climb to success did not come unaided, either.
“We feel quite blessed to have a lot of people everywhere helping and giving advice.
A lot of our friends are vetinary consultants and they’ve been helping and guiding me all these years.
“They treat me like a little sister because they say a woman will never survive alone in this industry.
So, every now and then, when I need help, they are always there to help me,” she said.
With that, Cassandra added, women should not be afraid to ask for help as it was not a sign of weakness but a way to show that they were willing to learn.
She further advised would-be women entrepreneurs, “Have a business plan and follow through the plan.
Learn to be a good problem solver.” On the other hand, amid her blooming success, she also outlined, “Sometimes we get carried away with our jobs, earning money, and being successful.
We tend to forget to give back to society.
“We always make it a point, to conduct our corporate social responsibility project every year.
The one we take most pride in is our project with Miri Red Cresent Sunflower Centre where we donated 600 pieces of soaps to them to get their soap making business started.” Cassandra said, the business was a success.
Nature’s Farm has since gone back to the centre and taught the disabled kids how to make soaps so they could then sell the soaps to raise funds.
She concluded, “To us, we have to take some and give some back, too.”
Woman on a mission
BizHive Weekly met up with Kuspa Bohari, a woman entrepreneur who has developed the passion and love of training and empowering other people, after she herself was inspired by trainers of entrepreneurship programmes which she had attended before.
Kuspa, managing director of a training development and management consultancy company Farwide Sdn Bhd (Farwide), began her tale of gradual shift into becoming an entrepreneur with her first job in a construction and property company, after graduation.
“Right after graduation, I don’t quite know where to go or what to do. After my first job, I got offered a job at a company in the telecommunications industry.
“I was there for nearly 10 years as I love that industry so much because it was interesting to watch it constantly evolve. At that time, it was difficult for me to leave.”
Before landing her job in the telecommunications industry, she told BizHive Weekly, she could not find things that really piqued her interest and motivation.
That is, until she started her family. “Once I got married, I found it very difficult to juggle work and spend quality time with my family. Fortunately for me at that time, the company I worked for offered a voluntary separation scheme (VSS).”
With the blessings of her family, she took a bold step and decided to avail the VSS offered by the company and started a small business from home.
“I was inspired by a few of my friends who let go of their professional jobs. Some of my friends were engineers and accountants who left their jobs,” Kuspa added, on her initial inspiration to leave her full-time job with the company.
She further said, “At the beginning, I attended courses on how to start a business from home. I attended intensive courses which were conducted by a few government agencies and I thought it was a good experience as the courses exposed me to various ways to start and maintain a business.”
Kuspa said that the courses also gave her a running start as the knowledge she gained from there, paved an easier way for her to set up her first beading and embroidery business, Borneo Decor.
“With that small business, I had time to look after my family and earn some extra income,” she said.
After some time, Kuspa decided that she wanted to do more than just embroidery and beading. Still feeling the inspiring residues of the trainers who coached her during her days before she started her first business, she decided to involve herself in training programmes.
“Before this, I did not know what I wanted. I always wanted to challenge myself. Then, I tried this and found out that this is what I want and this is what I have interest in. I discovered that I like to share, build social networks and empower other people,” Kuspa explained.
Equipped as well with an economic and business educational background, Kuspa is currently a certified associate coach, certified trainer, certified Malaysia Productivity Corporation (MPC) trainer, and has attended various other relevant courses from which she has gained valuable knowledge.
In addition, she said, “Farwide is still relatively small and I’m currently not planning to devote all my time to it as my priority is still my family.
“However, I emphasise on providing quality training to individuals. To me, the important thing is that I have time for my family as well as time for my business which is to share, learn and empower other women.”
According to Kuspa, Farwide was also involved with various programmes under the government, on the development of women in rural areas.
“I’ve been working along with Kementerian Jabatan Pembangunan Wanita, Keluarga dan Masyarakat to conduct these programmes which extend throughout north, central and south of Sarawak.
“My company, along with various other registered training companies, teach these women in the rural areas, skills that could help them develop themselves,” she said.
Additionally, she explained that through these programmes, trainers like herself groomed and taught women how to value-add, market and price their products.
Kuspa said that she enjoyed empowering other women and she felt really proud when the women she had trained sometimes came back to her and told her what they had achieved thanks to her guidance.
To her, she revealed, their achievements served as an echo to her own achievements in building and developing society, specifically women, in Sarawak.
“We have a lot of women who have a lot of potential but they do not know where and how to start. That’s why, we are working together with the government and other training companies to help women who need our assistance or advice,” Kuspa added.
When asked on advice she would like to give to other potential women entrepreneurs, she said, “Women should be willing to change and be brave. They should improve their interpersonal speaking skills, be brave at asking around because if you don’t, how will other people know that you need assistance.”
Kuspa further added that there were a lot of opportunities available for women. She said, “There are plenty of opportunities for them to meet and talk to people as well as gain knowledge when they attend training programmes such as the ones that I conduct.”
Using the humble start-up of her business as an example, she pointed out the training provided by various agencies could help women develop themselves as well as their businesses.
“You don’t have to start big. You can start with a very small capital but be confident in it. Women have a lot of potential as they are able to adapt in whatever condition they are placed in as long as they remember to stay focused, have a positive attitude and acquire various skills as well as knowledge,” she said.
In terms of financial issues during the start-up of a business, Kuspa added, “There are also a lot of agencies out there who are ready to help potential women entrepreneurs but the problem is, most women are afraid to step out of their comfort zone and seek help.
“Therefore, be brave and take that bold step.”
Kuspa revealed that she had never regretted her decision to be an entrepreneur as she enjoyed her current state in life. She said running her own business had given her the flexibility to have time to enjoy being in the company of her family while her built her own career. When asked on what could be done to further improve local women’s entrepreneurship, Kuspa said, “I hope for more guidance and information to be readily available for would-be women entrepreneurs.
“We would also like more events such as the Southeast Asia Women Entrepreneurs Conference held last year.”
Kuspa concluded with advice, “The most important thing to remember when starting a business is stay focused, have a positive attitude, be willing to work hard and gain skills as well as knowledge.”