Christina Dean

Changing Consumer Mindsets and Persistence | Christina Dean, Redress

Through this episode of Entrepreneurs For Good, I speak with Christina Dean about the problem of waste in the fashion and textile industry, and the work she is doing at Redress to bring awareness and solutions to the forefront.


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About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series

Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.

It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.


About Christina Dean

Christina is the heart and soul of Redress. Since she started Redress in 2007 as Founder and spokesperson, and has steered the organisation’s powerful course towards a more sustainable future with less waste in the fashion industry.

Voted one of the UK Vogue’s Top 30 Inspirational Women, Christina delivers the Redress message to the world through talks, seminars, thought-leadership pieces and documentaries.

The indefatigable ex-dentist and journalist consistently drives the organisation towards inspiring positive environmental change in the world’s second most polluting industry. To Christina, Redress is not just the future of fashion but the future way of living.

Follow Christina and Redress:
Website: https://www.redress.com.hk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006862236443
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-christina-dean-7694a652/
Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/getredressed/
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/RedressAsia
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Redress_Asia


About Rich

Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.

Follow Rich
Website: http://www.richbrubaker.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rich.brubaker
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richbrubaker
Snapchat: http://snapchat.com/add/richbrubaker
Instagram: https://instagram.com/richbrubaker
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/richbrubaker

Contact Rich
social@richbrubaker.com


Full Interview Transcript

I'm Christina, and I'm the founder of Redress. We are an NGO reducing pollution and waste in the fashion industry. Probably my ultimate mission is just to inspire people to kind of get active with being a part of a solution.

REDRESS

The original problem we were trying to address is the rampant pollution coming from the fashion textile industry and we're still trying to do that. But ultimately after 9-10 years of experience in this sector what we're really trying to do is question human's relationship with consumption and trying to awaken people's minds to better ways of consuming and using and disposing.

EVERYTHING IS A MESS

Well, honestly, the industry is facing way too many problems for me to be able to isolate it. Firstly, taking a whole look at the entire fashion and textile industry, it's the second biggest global polluter and so if you want to look at pollution, you're going to have to address water, chemicals, carbon, green house gases, the whole spectrum of pollution and its all coming out of the fashion and textile industry. Of course, if you wanted to isolate the absolute worst of the worst, I think you could possibly isolate water.

The textile industry causes about 20% of all industrial and water pollution and in China, the textile industry is probably the second biggest water polluter in China. You've got to think, ya know, see China has got a huge industry across multiple sectors. So, even if you look at China the amount of, if you look at China...if you look at the pollution coming from the textile industry in China, the textile industry is actually causing twice the amount of pollution for water than the coal industry. And China's coal industry is actually supplying around 50% of the world's coal. So, I mean that's, that's just looking at textile, sorry, that's just looking at water as being one major problem with the textile industry.

When you start looking at the... I mean cuz there's also chemicals. You know, you need 8,000 chemicals to turn the raw material into a fabric. Eight thousand different chemicals. One pair of jeans requires three kilos of chemicals. And when you just multiply that by the amount of clothes that are being produced out there, it's truly horrific.

CHANGING CONSUMER HABITS

Well, I think if consumers keep going with buying, buying and dumping, dumping, then we're not going to address the problems of the fashion industry. Which will mean, that the fashion industry will continue to speed up, it will produce more and more clothes and it will create a lot of pollution and waste long the supply chain. And we will be continually facing a huge amount of wastage going into the landfill. So what is that going to do? It's going to continue to damage the environment, polluting the planet and killing people.

WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?

I think, from talking to a lot of people in the industry, is that the biggest threat...if you could look the industry is facing almost every single challenge that you could possibly think of. But if you really wanted to nail it down to something, what the industry really needs is a reliable, sustainable, renewable, cheap source of new fibers. Because you know cotton is a mind filed of problems and recycle polyester is wonderful.

I mean we've got a whole spectrum of materials and fibers that you're feeding into the textile industry and the search is on for the miracle fiber that you can feed this monster with less of an impact and that is what fashion brands need. Because they know that most textile garment fashion businesses know that they can't source the way that they did before because there's competition for food, for land to grow food, versus fibers. You've' got under priced resources like water. You've got consumer awareness that has spiked in recent years an you've got a chancing consumer sentiment. So basically sourcing has to change.

REDUCING WASTE. IT'S OBVIOUS

The reason we focus on waste reduction is because it's so obviously an environmental benefit to reduce waste and its also an economic benefit for anyone wanting to improve their bottom line, reduce waste. I mean, come on it's obvious. So that's why we want to reduce waste because we think that we can demonstrate, impact that way. If you want to reduce waste and you want to go talk to a brand and you want to a supplier, the doors open. Because everyone loves reducing waste. So that's why do that. Why we are not trying to find the miracle new fiber, because honestly the solution will probably for that will come from technology and we are not, ya know, I can barely operate Facebook. So you know we are not going to be going down that route.

BUSINESS MODEL

We are an educational organization essentially a social enterprise driven by education. So, in order to do that, we have to make money. The ways we make money are, entrepreneurial at the very spirit, but completely varied according to where we're digging for cash. If we're looking in the supply chain, or if we're looking for cash from consumers and funding. So we don't have any one funding model that actually serves us because we're not actually serving a product or making a product. Instead we're basically incredibly creative about getting money out of people, companies and organizations and governments.

So another model that we're working on and it's a business model, although I'd like to be richer on it. The model is we take clothes from people who use them..the business model is that we get clothes donated to us and then we sell them. It's pretty easy, but we could collect say in a year, year on year is different, lets just say 20 tons in a year, 15-20 tons in a year, But we can probably only sell about 3% of that through our popup shops. so it's a goo funding mechanism. It doesn't really kind of touch the sides of the budget, but it does help a little bit. and Of course, it's not, when you run a social business or a social enterprise, it isn't about the money. Yes, you've got to grow, you've got to make money, but you also have to change people so you can't always value things by the dollar.

CONVERTING CONSUMERS IS DIFFICULT

It's not easy to convert a fashion consumer. It's really difficult because if you look at organic food, it's obvious right? People are selfish. They want the best for themselves, so if you eat organic, you're going to be healthier, hopefully.

But people, to be really a conscious fashion consumer, you have to be very altruistic and you have to be able to think beyond your wardrobe and your daily life. You need to be be able to think of the cotton farms, of the garment workers, of the people living their polluted rivers.

To do that, it requires an emotional kick up the you know what. And you can't do that in one second it takes a lot to really inform someone like that. Inform someone to be able to change, and you have to..the problem with fashion as well as that its so deeply emotive. You know, what we wear is so important and so to ask peole to really make big changes over the outer appearance of their clothing, is actually to ask quite a lot.

The way to convert people is to make them understand that 1, the fashion industry is so polluting. It's not just causing problems with the environment, dirty, dirty rivers, it is literally killing people. That's number 1 and of course, this huge amount of social issues that comes with our clothes.

If you can lodge those two things into people's minds and certainly nail it home by saying every time you buys something, you're actually part of that. Because you're buying that. You're paying for all that suffering and if that's what you want to do...well, no one actually wants to do that. That's the good thing and I do think that most people are great and they truly don't want to be a part of that. They just don't understand that its' that bad.

So the way to change them is that you've got to make them realize that they're part of that. It's changing people and we changed so many people because people who come to our pop-up shops are on the hunt for a deal. They are not kind of green, they don't have a halo shining as they walk through the door. They're looking for clothes. They want nice clothes. They become very inspired that you can actually get great second hand clothes. So we do convert people while they're in our stores.

CARROTS AND STICKS

Now I think, its a carrot and a stick. I think you have to paint the harsh reality of the truth. That is, you know, the stick. The carrot comes in the form of saying, what fundamentally is fashion? It is the most beautiful, creative, expression of who you are as a human spirit. If we can capture that positive, that positive thread of fashion and make it ethical, make it value the planet, then you can actually love dressing in a more sustainable, ethical way. In fact, when you become more in tune with the fashion industry and you dress more ethically, what you...I've discovered that you actually start to enjoy style so much more because it has meaning.

I would love to say that our message resonates with Millennials, because you know that is such a powerful group, but I actually think we are talking much more to the more sort of older group of 25-45ish more woman than men. We talking a lot, I think to people who are searching for something else in their life.

CHANGE THROUGH COLLABORATION

At the end of the day, we're just 10 people. We ya know, we have a huge mission. We are 10 people and we are up against one of the biggest industries in the world, which actually look at the fashion and textile industry, it's the second biggest economic trade. So, are we going to be able to dent that industry if we work alone? Of course not. You have to work with industry to change industry.

So one example of one brand that we have been helping is Shanghai Tang, obviously China's leading luxury brand. We partnered with them for a couple of years on one of our projects, which is the sustainable fashion design competition. Basically competition, we find a winner, the winner goes work with Shanghai Tang, designs a collection and the collection is made using up cycled fabric waste. It's all of the fabric inventory and excess that is lying around from previous collections from Shanghai Tang's business and with our designers who we've trained, we've targeted, we've found them, they create a collection for global retail. Now, why that is great? On the one hand, you're educating emerging designers, you're transforming the ethos amongst emerging designers, but then we flip over and we effect the business. So we are looking at transforming supply chains of some big fashion brands in order to put upcycle products into their store. Ultimately because we want consumers to buy more sustainable options.

Shanghai Tang's reason for getting involved with us is because I think number one, they are a very responsible company who actually like doing good through their business. But much more than that they see the opportunity of working with our designers, who are ya know, Central Saint Martins standard. Incredible designers as reinvigorating the brand with a much edgier collection, actually that's just in-store and also integrating sustainability into their collections. So a refresh invigoration is probably one of the unexpected benefits that we also give to these brands.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Timing's everything. Timing in connections is actually very important you know. We've, had a very big partnership with a Esprit that went on for four years, big global rollouts of very mass mainstream fashion collections. People chop and chains.

These big fashion companies...their CEO's change everyday it feels like. And you can't actually make a long...it took about 20 mins over lunch. Well I went out, see he's a chairman, not executive direction, chairman now. I went out with the chairman Rafa ___, he is a friend of a friend. Sat down for lunch and said do you want to partner with us on a sustainable fashion design competition. And he said yes before I really finished the sentence. And that's because you know what I find and I you know, we speak a lot of fashion brands is that I don't think fashion brands are like, you know the evil people in the world. It takes us all. It's about catching them at the right time, getting in there with the right people, and selling them the right message.

WORKING WITH INDUSTRY

The benefits for us or working with...so for example, Shanghai Tang is immense because through them, we're able to message that China's taking sustainability more importantly and that upcycling is a business solution and that is important.

Through working with a company like Esprit for a number of years, we're actually able to say look, Esprit, one of the biggest players out there in the more mainstream industry is looking at waste reduction in their supply chain. And that actually pushes a lot of the agenda across the industry and of course, reaching consumers as well.

EVOLVE, GO TO THE GAP

I actually think, I know this might sound really unstrategic, but the end game keeps moving. Ya know, we need to be going and doing the hardest work possible so there's no end to this. The fashion industry is always going to be disgusting. It is. I mean, you know who are we kidding. It's always going to be a massive, massive problems, and yes, we can try and do our best to make just some if it better, but I'll go to my grave and it will still be really bad.

So, the end game is to evolve with the deeds of the industry and that has already changed in the last ten years. Like ten years ago we started collecting clothes and selling clothes, trying to inspire people that second hand clothes are okay. Now everyone is doing. The market is crowded with entrepreneurs, startups, for profits. Everyone is collecting clothes. You barely luck to leave this office with your shoes on. Everyone wants your old clothes and everyone is flogging clothes. So there's not a gap in the market for us anymore, but that's fine we are still doing it. But we need to move to where it's harder.

One example of that is for, for example, we provide teaching materials to universities. Because universities around the world really realize that they really need to teach their design students sustainability, but most Unies are way too busy to even think about it. So we've created a teaching module so all they have to do is download it and teach it and I like to say any monkey could do it because...there's your pack, read it out, teach the students.

Now, why did we do that? Because we are addressing a gap in the market. The gap is there's a huge need to educate young designers. The universities don't quite know how to do it. We're there in the middle and that is what a successful social business does. It goes to where there is a gap. There is no point hanging around the gap if it's filled up.

CELEBRATING SUCCESS

It's very difficult and actually quite sole destroying if you're a social business or enterprise because you can have a success every day, but the challenge is still so big. So I'm very proud of a lot of our successes, and even yesterday I felt really happy about a couple of things. Which is quite rare. Because really, if you're pretty driven with your cause, the cause remains this monkey on your back and this monster. And so, yeah small successes along the way, but the challenges are still so big. There's no point in patting yourself the back that much really.

MOVING BEYOND THE FOUNDER

CD: Sustain...no our current challenges are actually strategic, man power, internal systems, efficiency, management and funding. Always fudging, funding is always there that's taken for granted.

RRB: So how do you overcome these challenges? Is it you against the world? Do you have a board that helps you?

CD: Yeah.

RRB: Or do you talk to other entrepreneurs? Like, is it wine?

CD: No, I think...so having...I started it almost 10 years ago and I've been winging it for all of this time, but now as we're growing into a big organization, we can't just winging it. And so about a couple of well, a year ago issues we set up a new board and we've got a much tighter team structure with a new executive director who is reporting to the board. So what we are trying to do is move beyond a founder into a proper set up of a business with an active board, which we do. We have that now.

The problem of course, with anything is that things take time. You can't just set up a board and expect it all to work the next day. You can't just employ an ED, an executive director, and expect that to just happen over night. And so we are in a deep transition stage of moving beyond the sort of passionate founder to a sort of top management board structure. It's not that difficult, it just takes time. You've got to keep working at it. You can't ever really expect it to just happen. It constantly needs attention.

Well, a few years ago, must have been six years ago I went to INSEAD in Singapore and I learned so many things. But the one thing I learned was that the founder can ultimately kill the growth of an NGO and that really stuck with me as my abiding lesson from that entire INSEAD course. It was on social entrepreneurship. So I'm very conscious of being a founder and enabling the team to take it on. Personally, I can't separate my life from Redress because I love it. But I think, I think I can that, I can walk away because I'm not really walking away, I'm just walking away to other opportunities.

IT NOT EASY, BUT IT'S WORTH DOING

CD: Yes, definitely..

RRB: What happened?

CD: Well, you know what, sometimes you can be working on a project slogging your guts out and it's so demanding plus I've got, ya know, three young children. So I work really, really hard and yeah...It's just soul destroying sometimes.

RRB: Why do you beat yourself up?

CD: I think you, I mean it's easy to beat yourself up because when you've been doing it for so long, it's your second nature. You're not going to give up. Anyway it depends on your character. I'm not someone who gives up anyway. Yes, it's not fun. Anyone who says its fun is definitely lying. It's true. It's hard work. Yeah.

PERSISTENCE AND UTTER DETERMINATION

I think another thing I've learned is just how long everything takes. Back in the early days, I was talking from a shaker when I was setting this organization up. You've got to take a 10 year view on it. I thought that's ridiculous. I'll be done with this with in a couple of years and 10 years on I've barely scratched the surface. I think a lot of people who are staring up don't realize A, that they're going to work themselves so hard for so long before you even see impact and even when you start to see impact, you haven't really scratched the surface. So, persistence and utter sheer determination. Otherwise, I don't think there is any point in starting.


For more interviews from the "Entrepreneurs for Good" series, check out the playlist here.

Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.


Sherry Poon

Sustainable Fashion and Taking the First Entrepreneurial Steps | Sherry Poon, WoBaby Basics

In this episode of Entrepreneur For Good, I speak with Sherry Poon, founder and CEO of wobabybasics, about the motivation she had for starting her first social enterprise, and the lessons she has learned along the way.

Sherry combines her experiences as an architect, environmentalist and parent to re-create children’s basic apparel with sustainable materials, simple, nostalgic styling, and modern practicality. Inspired by observations of children in action, during play, and everyday activities, wobabybasics offers uncluttered design, quality and functionality that appeals to both active children and their parents.


Her story is one of originality, catalyst, and action.


About The Entrepreneurs For Good Series

Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome. It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organziations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.


About Sherry

Sherry combines her experiences as an architect, environmentalist and parent to re-create children’s basic apparel with sustainable materials, simple, nostalgic styling, and modern practicality. Inspired by observations of children in action, during play, and everyday activities, wobabybasics offers uncluttered design, quality and functionality that appeals to both active children and their parents.

Follow Sherry and Wobabybasics
Website: http://www.wobabybasics.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sherry.poon
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wobabybasics/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wobabybasics


About Rich

Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.

Follow Rich
Website: http://www.richbrubaker.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rich.brubaker
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richbrubaker
Snapchat: http://snapchat.com/add/richbrubaker
Instagram: https://instagram.com/richbrubaker
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/richbrubaker

Contact Rich
social@richbrubaker.com


Full Interview Transcript

Sherry: My name is Sherry Poon, and I’m from Canada, I’ve been in Shanghai for 15 years. My background was actually in architecture, so I came to Shanghai as an architect, and then when we started having children, I started designing baby clothes for wobabybasics, my own brand of organic children’s clothes.

And now I also, I am the founder and one of the organizers of Eco Design Fair, which is a community event for anything that’s sustainable, tied to… so Eco Design Fair is a sustainable event to try and promote sustainable lifestyle and innovation.

It Starts with Family

Sherry: Family. For me, it really was the children. I had one child, and I was pregnant with a second one, and architecture and design is very time-intensive. I was still working part-time when I was pregnant, and that was eight hours a day. And I thought, “This is crazy.” Because my own desire was to be able to spend time with my kids and to be able to see them grow up, and – that early days is so important to make them into better people, and to create the little people that they are. So I wanted to be part of that.

But at the same time, my personality is that I do need something to do. I need a goal. I need to work. And so entrepreneurship – or starting a business – was the best way.

Getting Started

Sherry: No, it could have been anything. As a designer, obviously I wanted to design something, to create something – but it could have been cups, it could have been pencils, anything at that point. But exactly at that time, I was also designing clothes for my firstborn – just little creations that were in my mind, sketching it out and having a tailor make it up for me.

And then we went home to Canada, and there were at least four or five people who asked, “Where did you get that little coat? It’s an amazing little coat. Where can I buy that?” And that was sort of the spark of, “Okay, maybe clothing could be a good direction for me.” And at the same time, also I was looking for organics for my children, and so creating something that was sustainable clothing for children was something that I could explore.

The Little Details

Sherry: Well for me, the big thing was that it had to be organic. And organic, because it’s the safest material for your baby. We looked at a whole bunch of different materials – my daughter had a bit of eczema, a bit of sensitivities in terms of skin sensitivities, but also anything that sort of touched her was very “present” in her mind. We would arrange socks for like five minutes before it was perfect, just because of the seam. So for me, to create something that she could wear that I would feel safe having her wear was very important.

So we looked at a whole bunch of different materials – including bamboo, soya, whatnot – all the different types of eco-materials, but came back to organic cotton because it is one of the oldest, one of the safest clothing, one of the safest textiles there is – for children or for anybody. So that was very important for me, was to make sure that it was safe.

The other big thing was also – as a parent – was to make sure that the clothing were easy for parents and for children. I saw my husband struggle with clothes, I had struggles with clothing – when my daughter was older, she would wear clothing backwards, and you know, you don’t have the heart to say, “Oh, take it off again and try it again.” So we created clothing that was functional, stylish, but also super easy to use – and just by little details that would make a huge difference.

Challenges

Sherry: Well, not having a fashion background. I think I started from square-one, which is, I think, a very good thing, because a lot of designers start with patterns, something that’s already been set, already been used in mass-production. But as somebody not coming from that background, I started from zero, which is great because having an architecture background, I think in 3D. Children are in 3D, so I thought clothing must be in 3D as well.

And so there’s little details, like we have little patch under the arms where it serves quite a few purposes. One that I noticed was you often pick up children under the armpits, and that’s exactly where all the seams are coming together, which cannot be very comfortable for the little baby. So we did away with that and put a little patch underneath, which allowed for more comfort, more movement because it becomes more 3D, but it also – that little patch was able to – you can sort of insert it anywhere in the pattern cutting and be able to save fabric waste as well. That’s one of the details.

Getting Help

Sherry: Well, the first thing I did was look for mentors – people that were in the business – and just ask them questions. This is even before having any conceptual ideas what I was going to do, just looking for ways – looking for experience, basically, from people who have done it before.

So I found somebody who was very much into organic textiles. He used to work for an organic clothing company – actually, an organic baby clothing company – and now, he was at that time at an agent for organic textiles in Shanghai. So he gave me a lot of background, and a lot of help in terms of where to look for suppliers – because that’s often the biggest problem in production, is finding the actual suppliers, or good suppliers.

And then I also hired a fashion designer, for obvious reasons, just to help me go through the process. As an architect, I already knew a lot of the design aspects of it – you know, like colors, and how to draw a sketch, whatnot. But she taught me more of protection – so she taught me how to make patterns. I made my own patterns, which are very similar to architectural patterns.

But she also taught me materials, field materials, different types, what do you use, how do you spec it – and more of how to get it from your sketches to actually produced in a factory, which is very different process than it is from [architecture].

It Took a Year

Sherry: Well, it took a full year from the idea of “Okay, let’s get this started. I know that it’s going to be organic baby clothing, and I want to try this out as a small brand in Shanghai.” So there was a lot of testing. Often with a lot of my friends, they have a lot samples, early, early samples – obviously I tested them on my own children as well. Tried to get a lot of feedback in terms of, for the branding, for the clothing itself, from anybody that I knew. Yeah, I really just grabbed anyone. So thanks for all of those people who supported me in the early days, because I probably was very annoying.

That time where it was just, you know, everything was home office, having two people to sell those clothing. Because we were new, we weren’t taking pre-orders, so everything was coming in hoping that it would sell. Yeah. I mean, it’s not a huge investment, but the time investment to try to market this – beyond just the clothing, there was also the branding, and we had the website up, just the whole production, the going-through with the fashion designer, the patterns.

So there were – it was more of an investment than just the 3,000 for the production. It was definitely adding up. And when you’re just starting, you don’t see any returns coming in yet, obviously you get a bit skeptical.


For anyone starting a business from scratch, you often have these days where you’re like, “What am I doing? Am I going the right direction? Is this going to work? Is it not?”


There’s a lot of things, a lot of concerns, and it was the same for me. I mean, there were a lot of questions, and at the same time I was still working part-time as an architect, and I didn’t want to take that risk to let go of my job just for this idea that I had, in case it did not work out.

So there were a lot of worries, and I think just before production started, I remember asking my husband, “Do I do it? Do I not? This is a huge risk. I’m putting in an order. This is it.” And he was the one who was like, “No, just go for it. So we lose a bit of money if it doesn’t work. Just do it. Otherwise you’ll never know later on if that’s what you want to do. Just do it now and get it out of your system. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, then fabulous, keep going.”

Go for a Swim!

Sherry: I went swimming. I took a swim. For me, that’s like meditation, so if ever I had a problem or was feeling down, I’d just go for a swim, and by the time I finished, the problem would be worked out, or at least I would feel more relaxed and be able to just go for it again.

I think all entrepreneurs need that. They need a downtime, some time where they are just not thinking about their business, or are able to just let go – and often you have a clear mind, and you can go back to your task at hand easier and getting the job done faster.

Work-Life Balance

Sherry: It’s tough, finding that balance for any mother who is a working mother is tough. And it’s going to be that eternal question that I don’t know if anybody can ever answer. In the early days, of course I could have put a lot more time into it. It became more of a part-time job because my other part-time job was taking care of the kids, and obviously that was my priority.

So there were often were a lot of late nights trying to get things done. The business was intended to be very local, to be selling to China. I think we came in a bit too early, because there was not that market originally in China yet. We were selling a lot to foreigners in the early days, but obviously that is not Shanghai. We needed to reach out to more of the locals, which that market was not there.

So after a few years of trying to do markets, small-time markets, and still balance between life and work, I decided to actually do more of a – upscale it, take it to trade shows, and sell it outside of China. At that time, I was not working anymore at an architecture firm, so this was like “the business”. So it became bread-and-butter.

It was more than just a hobby, so it was a conscious decision for my family, “Okay, let’s give it a try, to make it – take it one step up.” And that meant also that I was not able to spend as much time with the kids. But the ayi would have to take over a lot of the work, and it was just one of those decisions that we had to make.

Going back a few years afterwards – now I’ve switched back. We’ve done the trade shows, we’ve done the markets, we’ve seen the business grow over the past eight years. I’m a different type of entrepreneur now – I know where my priorities are. I’m not as self-conscious or feel guilty to let go of the company a little bit more, for my priorities.

I’ve seen where the business has been able to go to, and I’m very satisfied with it, and so with our third child, I was able to go, “Okay, let’s just not grow the company. Let’s actually let it go a little bit, let the sales go a little bit, and lower it down. Try to maintain – I mean, still maintain the quality of the clothing, and the designs, and the branding as we’ve always had, but lower production so that I can be able to actually spend more time with the kids again." And that was, again, another conscious decision of my own.

Making Hard Decisions

Sherry: Yes, definitely – I mean, when we downsized, we had to let go of some staff, we had to move offices. There were a lot of decisions that we had to make for the business, but – and also, you know, I had to take a lower salary obviously, with not a lot more sales – everything, all expenses had to be very, very tight. And that was something I was willing to do just so I could have more quality time at home. This is an ongoing discussion between Rick and myself. Yeah, I’ll let you know in about half a year!

Yeah, no it’s something that – I mean, as an entrepreneur, I think it’s great to have that availability to be flexible with time, but also with the business direction, that you can slow down, you can speed it up, and at this moment, we are just trying to maintain the branding of wobabybasics and the quality of it. And I think for at least the next couple years, it will maintain at that small scale – and then if we need to, it will still be there ready to ramp up again.

What Makes China Hard?

Sherry: I think it’s because there’s no one way to do things. You can’t just go to a bureau and go, “Okay, I want to go from here – A to B. Get me there.” What’s the process? There is never – nobody will give you the same answer. There’s not – any one entrepreneur has had the same direction, or experience with the same direction, so you can never get from A to B the same way. You always have to find your own way. It’ll be like A-B-C-D, and then eventually you’ll get to that spot.

And it’s always a learning process, it’s always that discovery, I think, that is very tough. In Canada, you just go to the Small Business Bureau and go, “Okay, this is what I want to do. Help me out.” And it’ll give you all the steps, and you’ll follow those steps, and you’ll get there. You just can’t do that here. Every single person has to discover their own way to get to where they want to go to. And that’s really tough.

And obviously, language is another one – language and culture, not being from here. Having to depend on your staff to try to understand what you want to do and how to get there is also a big challenge. I depend a lot on Chinese staff to be able to operate in China, and that’s a lot of trust that you put into somebody.

I think there’s two ways. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of distractions when you’re trying to figure things out that could have been so much easier if you were somewhere else. And these distractions, obviously when your time limit on working hours is so limited that – yes, it would have been much easier if it was in Canada, and I would have been able to go from A to B a lot faster.

But saying that, the skills that I’ve learned as an entrepreneur here is invaluable, I think. Any entrepreneur, I think, has to be malleable – you have to be able to see what the problems are within your company and be able to fix them quickly. If you can’t do that, it’s hard for your business to thrive. And being in Shanghai, and having these daily problems that you have to fix, my skills are really good at that. Because that is something only being here can teach you so easily. I’m really thankful.

Sharing and Success

Sherry: What’s different from here and maybe other places is that entrepreneurs here – isn’t not as competitive here, I think. Or… how do I word this? I think, for a lot of entrepreneurs who have succeeded, is that they’ve been very open in sharing what they want to do. If they’ve got an idea, they’ll ask whoever they want, whoever they need. “Okay, I’ve got this idea. What can I do? How do I get there?” They share their idea. They’re not really protective of it.

Whereas I think, maybe in the West, you’re always wondering, “Okay, who’s going to steal my idea? So I’m just going to keep it to myself and try to work on it.” Whereas I find successful ones here just blast it out – “Okay, what can you do? What can you help me with?” And that’s partly because Shanghai is a “We’re all in the same boat” kind of thing, where there’s only so many opportunities here.

We all try to help each other, if we can. It’s all about networking here. Who do you know? “How can that person help me?” So I often see that successful entrepreneurs here are very good at networking, and being able to share their ideas, and being able to get it out – and I think the results do come in.

Staying Inspired

Sherry: I think children – the family still keeps me going. In terms of design inspiration, it’s definitely them. I watch them every day and see how they wear their clothes, use their clothes. That’s definitely the design inspiration.

In terms of getting the business going, it would have to be the clients. I intentionally do markets within the community here – even though at some times I know I may not get that sales coming in, but I will get the feedback from the clients. And overall, it’s always good to meet the clients to just get feedback, but also just for your own sanity to hear all these great comments about your products – always gives me that energy to keep going.

Chinese vs. Foreign Clients

Sherry: I think the Chinese market and the foreign market are very different here, in terms of – we’ve even had to change branding, and what we write in Chinese and what we write in English is a little bit different. For the Chinese, obviously it’s more about health, especially for organic products. They don’t care that it’s going to help save the world, but they do care that it is better for their own children. And I think that’s a very valid concern to have – it’s just a different concern than foreigners might have.

So when they do come to see the products, or feel the products, they do want to know – first of all, where’s the cotton from? If it’s Chinese cotton, or if it’s imported cotton. And actually, ours is imported cotton. When we originally started, I actually wanted everything to be sourced, and supplied, and produced in China. At that time, it was very hard to find good quality, organic cotton in China, so it isn’t being imported. And luckily, that is something that the Chinese are looking for, so it does help the brand. So they want to know if it’s a local product as well, if it’s made in China or not. They’re very concerned about quality.

They’re very concerned about, also, if I actually have a store here somewhere. Because I think that makes it more of a valid business, instead of just a hobby, just going to markets and having a table. It’s very important for them that it’s a valid business that they can trust that company and then trust that product. I think they’ve had too many reports, too many news of products that are – food products and whatnot – that are not safe to be of concern about this.

For our local clients, they’ll ask a lot of questions, and if they’re satisfied with the questions or with the product, sometimes they’ll just buy one piece just to try it out. But I’ve often seen – after that one piece and they love it, they’ll come back and buy ten, twenty more pieces, and they become very, very loyal clients. And price is not a concern for them.

For foreigners, it’s often the other way around. They’ll love the products, they’ll understand the brand, but they’ll just be able to afford one piece or two pieces – and price is often a concern. I’m often asked, “Okay, can I get a discount?” from people that I did not think I needed to answer that question to.

Environmental Premium

Sherry: The environmental part is always a second thought. I mean, obviously for products, they’re looking at – first of all, do they like the product? Do they like the design? Then, you know, is it affordable? Then, okay, if it’s eco, then that’s either a bonus or – yeah, let me grab that, because the one beside it is about the same price but not eco.

So that kind of affects their decision – and then that’s for both foreigners and locals. The foreigners are often buying because it is a new piece. We often have a lot of more Chinese-inspired designs that they like to take back home or they like to buy as gifts. So it’s something that is memories from Shanghai.


For more interviews from the "Entrepreneurs for Good" series, check out the playlist here.

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