'It always seems impossible until it is done...’
THIS is a quote that Amy Blair, the chief executive officer and founder of The Batik Boutique, holds dear. It’s a reminder that anything is possible with a little effort and the right opportunities.
“If someone were to have told me a few years ago that I’d be running an award-winning social enterprise to empower women from low-income communities in Malaysia, I wouldn’t have believed it,” begins Blair, as we settle into our seats at a cafe located just next to her retail store. “But look at how far we’ve come after five years of putting our hearts into what we believe in?”
The Batik Boutique is a burgeoning social enterprise that has seen the opening of its first physical store at Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur in December last year; the graduation of yet another team of dedicated seamstresses in January this year; and numerous unexpected collaborations with many top businesses in the country as well as in America.
Excitedly, Blair enthuses: “We’ve also grown in numbers!” Currently, The Batik Boutique works with a whopping 150 artisans in and around KL, including batik printers in Terengganu and Kelantan, as well as several non-profit organisations in the country that also operate sewing centres for low-income communities.
And that, says Blair, is a significant increase from the 30 artisans they were working with when they first started the enterprise back in 2013.
AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT
“I never thought of starting such a social enterprise or doing anything entrepreneurial to begin with when I came to Malaysia,” confides the communications graduate. She adds: “All I wanted to do was to help my friend, Kak Ana, a single mum with two teenage children.” A local, Kak Ana was employed to teach Blair Bahasa Malaysia when the accidental entrepreneur, her husband and son moved from Penang to KL in 2010.
As the two women began to forge a deeper friendship over cups of tea at home, it dawned on Blair that she needed to do something to help her friend’s plight. Recalls Blair: “I’m a strong believer in doing the best with what you have and Kak Ana happened to have a sewing machine at home. So I bought a couple of batik materials for her and with them she produced some beautiful products. When I brought her handiwork back to America and showed them to my family and friends, they were impressed. They even offered to pay for the products and I ended up channelling it to her (Kak Ana).”
Once she started doing that, Blair says she discovered that there were actually many women out there who needed help. And they too could sew. So she started an online store to market and sell the products produced by these women. And before she knew it, Blair was running a steady production and sale from her spacious living room.
Chuckling, she adds: “I used to joke with Kak Ana that if she had an oven instead of a sewing machine, our enterprise could’ve been a bakery and not a fashion and accessories label!”
The Batik Boutique has come a long way from the days when it first started of with a simple home production crew. Now, there’s even a dedicated sewing centre in Kota Damansara, Selangor that houses a couple of industrial sewing machines that can be used for free.
It was opened using profits that Blair made from the sales of their products together with help from a few partners. The location was chosen near a PPR housing (Program Perumahan Rakyat — a low-income housing solution) area to make it more convenient for the women who work for her to get there.
“It started as an experiment to see how they would react if certain hurdles were eliminated from their lives,” she reveals, continuing: “Like, what if I made their workplace easily accessible and provided an option to childcare.
On top of that, I also offered free training to those who weren’t so well-versed with sewing but was willing to learn. I wanted to see if they would take up the opportunity, or whether it would all just be in vain.”
And take up the opportunity they did. The women, says Blair, were more than willing to work hard and commit to earning that valuable extra income when these hurdles were eliminated from their lives. “Their lives today are different because of it,” says Blair contentedly.
Currently, The Batik Boutique not only produces products for numerous large businesses seeking quality and truly Malaysian corporate gifts and souvenirs, they’re also in collaborations to manufacture for a US fashion label. In addition, they’re on their way to becoming local batik ambassadors for a Malaysian tourist and travel website. “We conduct batik-making classes in our studios upstairs and we’re more than happy to continue being a voice for such a beautiful Malaysian heritage,” says Blair.
A MALAYSIAN DREAM
Hailing from Texas, America, Amy and her husband, Ryan Blair were enticed to move to this country by a friend who offered the former a two-year contract at a tour agency in Penang. “We were newlyweds then and what’s not to like about living on an island in a tropical country?” she jests. So in 2007, the couple packed their bags and began their long flight east, without the slightest inkling that they would end up calling Malaysia home. It has been 11 years now.
The mother of three slowly learnt about batik and its heritage through her work in the tourism industry. Shares Blair: “My previous job took me to many countries around the Asean region. I always noticed how these countries had amazing souvenirs for tourists like myself. But in Malaysia, however, it was kind of predictable and in the end, I came to the point where I didn’t know what to get for my friends anymore.”
As an outsider looking in, she realised that there was a gap in the market that she could tap into. However, she hadn’t envisioned that it would grow to become what it is today — a social enterprise that has benefitted many women from marginalised communities, especially single mothers.
“When I first met these women, most of them couldn’t even predict what they would face the next day. But just last year, more than 70 per cent of the women we worked with had opened a savings account. And that’s something,” says Blair, eyes shining with pride.
Adding, the attractive American continues: “Just the fact that their mindset has shifted and they can think about saving and thinking long-term, that’s an achievement. It’s a massive sign of empowerment. So, when I see that they’re strong and independent and their children are ok, I feel a sense of satisfaction and happiness that’s indescribable.”
All Blair ever wanted was to create an opportunity for these women to be independent so that they could grow. However, she knew that being charitable wouldn’t cut it and it wouldn’t last in the long run. As the Chinese saying goes, “Give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a poor man to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him a lifetime.”
Recalls Blair: “It was actually my husband who pointed it out to me one night — that I couldn’t continue what I was doing and in the way that I was doing it, no matter how noble my intentions were. Because not only was it eating into my time, it was also eating into our family’s finances.”
And so Blair made the decision to register The Batik Boutique as a Sendirian Berhad (a private limited company).
For two years thereafter, she grew the social enterprise organically with whatever resources she had. It was only in 2015 that Blair finally took on an investor to help propel the enterprise further and not long after, she won a grant from MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre).
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
There are currently eight full-time seamstresses working with the production crew but Blair is hoping to grow that number to about 15 by the end of this year. “I basically employ and maintain these artisans in conjunction with business growth. I want to ensure that I can sustainably employ them and cater to their family’s needs as best as I can,” she shares.
Through the many years of living in this country, Blair confides that she has finally discovered more about herself and what she really cares about — essentially women empowerment. “Equality in gender, equality in race. We humans need to know our own values and understand that they are God-given. I don’t think that this is an issue pervading this country alone. It’s essentially a global issue,” opines Blair.
That said, she believes that this issue can be overcome if everybody were to contribute and help, even if it’s just a little. “Sikit-sikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit (a little at a time and it’ll go a long way) right?” she points out with a smile.
Before long, the time arrives for me to bid my farewell to this kind-hearted entrepreneur. Her eyes dancing with mirth, Blair says: “Big picture, I want to be the Jim Thompson of Malaysia, minus the dying in the wilderness and people never being able to find me, of course!”
As we both chuckle at her words, she adds in conclusion: “Actually, what I want most of all is for the brand to be the name that people think of when you talk about Malaysia. I want us to be such a large force of good; one that doesn’t only value the work of artisans but also maintains the heritage of batik-making.”