A business programme for women does not provide seed money but offers invaluable one-to-one mentoring.
STARTING her own skincare business has been Aini Othman’s dream for years.
The 51-year-old mother of five had always wanted to create her own range of products made with natural ingredients. But with little experience or know-how, she thought her dreams of starting a business would be like building castles in the air. Fortunately, fate intervened.
Out of the blue, she received a call from the Foundation for Women’s Education and Vocational Training (YPVWM) inviting her to be a part of the Mentoring Women in Business Programme initiated by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
“I was sceptical. I wanted to know why I was picked, how they got my phone number, how much it would cost me ... I had a million questions,” says Aini, who resides in Shah Alam, Selangor, with four of her five children.
Because she had started a small business many years ago (which had subsequently folded) when she was living in Kedah, her name and profile were on the registry of the Kedah Malay Chamber of Commerce. After looking through her profile, YPVWM identified her as a candidate for the mentoring programme.
The Mentoring Women in Business programme was developed in 2011 by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to enhance women’s skills and knowledge in business and information and communications technology (ICT).
The programme combines mentoring with advanced wireless technology to offer cross-border support for women entrepreneurs from under-served areas in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, and help them gain a better quality of life.
In Malaysia, the programme was implemented in 2012 with an initial batch of 50 women. The implementing partner of the programme here is the YPVWM while technology partners include Maxis (who provides the women with a year of high-speed wireless data connectivity) and US-based Qualcomm (which provides the women with a 3G-enabled tablet powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor).
“This programme has been really successful because of our partnership with Maxis and Qualcomm, and of course the Cherie Blair Foundation. It has instilled confidence as well as skill and know-how in these women (who are in the pilot programme) to succeed in their business,” observes YPVWM president Mariammah Jaffar.
Though still sceptical about YPVWM’s offer, Aini agreed to attend an interview as well as a nine-day training workshop to gauge if she was qualified for the programme.
“At the interview, I asked most of the questions at first. I am a very straightforward person and had no qualms about clearing my doubts about the programme. I wanted to know what I would get out of it and whether there was a catch. In business, no one helps another out for free, after all,” she says.
As she learnt more, Aini’s fears were assuaged and she went on to complete the nine-day course.
“The training was intense. It focused mainly on improving our communication skills and English, as well as using technology for business.
“It wasn’t too hard, but we had to commit to attending all nine days of training which began every day at 9am and ended after 5pm. Some of the candidates couldn’t commit to this schedule and had to pull out. It was very useful for me as I wasn’t fluent in English and my knowledge of ICT was poor,” recalls Aini who is now able to converse fluently in English.
After the training, Aini was required to submit her profile and an outline of her business plans for the foundation to match her with a suitable mentor. She was also given a tablet which she could use to video chat with her mentor as well as to conduct her business transactions.
“My mentor, Audra Shallal, is from France. I could not understand why someone halfway around the globe would want to communicate with me and help me set up a business. But, it has been an amazing experience,” says Aini.
In their first conversation, Aini shared her dreams and her goals with Shallal, a business development consultant based in Paris. She also mentioned to her mentor about her poor English.
Shallal, in turn, laid out what she expected from Aini.
“We had weekly chats which were compulsory. During these sessions, she would give me a reading list which I had to complete as well as an assignment. The assignments covered the various steps I needed to take for me to start my business – from registering my company, copyrighting my brand, doing my market research and so on. I had to complete each assignment before the next chat. In between, if I had a problem, I’d e-mail her,” explains Aini.
It was hard work, she admits, but Aini was determined not to squander the opportunity she had been given to realise her dream. She worked hard – she sourced for qualified dermatologists and pharmacists to help her with her formulations, laboratories to produce her products and factories to package them.
She also enlisted the help of her children who assisted her with the branding and design of Neugens, her skincare line.
The programme does not include funding for start-ups. The mentors, however, guide their mentees through the processes of obtaining loans or funding for their business.
For Aini, finding an investor proved to be a challenge and she ended up using her own savings.
Says Mariammah, “Unfortunately, micro entrepreneurs often slip under the radar of corporations and banks. They get some funding from the Government, but it often isn’t enough.
“Aini, however, was determined to see her idea through and she is one of our success stories.”
Within eight months, Aini managed to launch her first product, a brightening cream. Currently, Aini has a range of six skincare products – a hydro cleansing gel, a hydro toner, a brightening emulsion, a UV protection cream and two types of face masks. She also came out with Collagen chew tablets for skin and overall health.
Although she initially marketed her products online, she has since enlisted agents and stockists to cope with a growing clientele.
“I am so happy and proud of myself. I surpassed my targets ... I came out with my first product a month ahead of schedule. Audra was also quite surprised,” says Aini proudly.
For more information about the mentorship programme, visit www.facebook.com/YPVWM.org.my.