When the going gets tough...


Creative gems: Cailey, 13, who has a rare genetic condition that impairs her physical growth, started making jewellery to fill her time. Now she sells her creations online. — GLENN GUAN/The Star

Entrepreneurship can be a bumpy road, but when left with hard choices, three strong-willed risk-takers set off to carve their own path, come what may.

RESILIENCE plays a big role in coping with a major public health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for those who have to juggle work and family.

Almost two years into the pandemic, we find people still coming to terms with loss of income or a change in their circumstances.

Sometimes the change is huge — from having a full-time office job with stable income to turning entrepreneur just to survive and be able to provide for the family.

StarMetro speaks to three entrepreneurs who were brave enough to take that giant leap of faith and set up their own business amid economic uncertainty, with the support of online communities.

Like mother, like daughter

When Jenny Ding, 48, quit her stressful full-time accounting job in 2002 to take care of her eldest daughter Caitlin who was born with a rare genetic condition, she did it for her family as well as her own well-being.

She then decided to unleash her skills as a baker and started making fondant decorated cakes.

Ding is a self-taught baker, learning from online tutorial videos. But she had already honed her skill while still a student.

“I’m not much of a cook but during my university days overseas, I used to make desserts, including cakes, in exchange for Malaysian food from friends,” she said.

When Caitlin was born, it was discovered that she had glycogen storage disease (GSD), a genetic condition in which the body has an enzyme problem and cannot store or break down the complex sugar glycogen properly.

Caitlin was five when she passed away in 2006, after she exerted herself during her school sports day, said Ding.

“At that time, we did not know much about her condition.

“When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter Cailey, who was born in 2008, results from the amniotic test were normal, but two days after her birth, a liver biopsy test revealed she had the same condition as Caitlin.

Ding makes fondant- covered cakes from her home in Petaling Jaya while caring for her daughter Cailey. — GLENN GUAN/The StarDing makes fondant- covered cakes from her home in Petaling Jaya while caring for her daughter Cailey. — GLENN GUAN/The Star

“My world came crashing down again. But we had learnt so much about GSD by then, and so we are now able to take better care of her.”

“I started baking in 2010 for Cailey’s second birthday. I would also bake for my church friends, which is how my networking started.

“I never thought that I would start a business baking cakes, but I had to take care of Cailey full-time as she is a high-risk child.”

Cailey is 13 years old this year, but she is petite in size, similar to a five-year-old child.

GSD is known to affect the liver, muscles and other areas of the body. As such, Cailey has to stick to an extremely strict diet — she cannot consume sugar, peanuts or any food that is cholesterol-laden.

Having always been a career-minded person, Ding took six months to decide whether to quit her job and stay home.

“Depression set in and I cried a lot while speaking to my mother, but the church also helped me tremendously by keeping me occupied.

“I could not just stay home and do nothing,” she said, adding that she now sold 15 to 25 cakes a week.

Ding said the online community platform Caring Moms helped her set up her business.

“It is a great community which helped me grow my home-based business,” she said.

Cailey has been learning skills too. She makes her own jewellery, which she sells at online bazaars.

“She comes up with her own designs but sometimes I help her with the wiring because her hands are too tiny to hold the pliers,” said Ding.

“Because of her condition, Cailey is not able to join any physical activities, even music.

“I encouraged her to enrol in various arts and DIY classes like soap-making, painting and baking.

“She found jewellery-making to be interesting and creative. So we encouraged her to explore her creativity.”

A passion for herbs and spices

Widow and single mother Asha K., 53, who came to Malaysia from India in 1988 and married a Malaysian, began making her own shampoo and beauty products based on Ayurvedic wisdom after she started experiencing hair loss.

She had learnt from her grandfather, an Ayurvedic practitioner who owned a herbal farm in India.

The mother of three has had a tumultuous life journey.

Her husband was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 and died six months later in 2014. Two years after that, her youngest son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 18 years old. He is in remission now and studying culinary arts in college.

Asha started making herbal oils for herself. One thing led to another and after much research, she started making her own shampoo and haircare products.

Two weeks before her son fell sick, one of Asha’s friends shared a post on the Caring Mom’s social media group.

Asha with her herbal oils, a business she started after experiencing hair loss. — K.K. SHAM/The StarAsha with her herbal oils, a business she started after experiencing hair loss. — K.K. SHAM/The Star

“I was only buying things from there then. Today, this community platform is supportive of my business,” said Asha, who lives in Klang.

Being a non-Malaysian single mother was tough for her.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic had forced her to be even more resourceful.

“I have had to do so many jobs, from making upholstery and sewing to giving tuition, helping a friend in the logistics business and being a stockist.

“My first post on the online platform was to promote my home-made masala tea which included spices that I blended on my own.

“I received overwhelming response, there were over 60 orders,” she recalled.

Asha said her Ayurvedic hair oil took some time to gain traction but eventually, demand picked up.

Nutty and nice

Former IT employee Bobby Gan, 40, had been in the information technology industry since 2004. In his heart, however, he nursed a passion for the food and beverage (F&B) trade.

His entrepreneurial journey started when he began helping his friend to deliver accessories to a bridal shop between 2011 and 2017.

Shortly after that, he and his business partner, Aurora Ho, started Artsy Nutty, making their own nut butters and running it as a small business.

“My passion has always been in F&B and so we started selling online through different platforms.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we joined a social media community group called The Wien (Winner’s Innovative Empowerment Network) Group. They have been very supportive,” he said.

Gan and his business partner Ho started Artsy Nutty, their own brand of nut butters. — AIDA AHMAD/The StarGan and his business partner Ho started Artsy Nutty, their own brand of nut butters. — AIDA AHMAD/The Star

Since no physical bazaars could be held when there were pandemic restrictions, Gan and Ho saw interest from online customers who bought their products.

Now, the pair also sell their products in Dwien Community Cafe in Emporis, Kota Damansara in Petaling Jaya. The cafe is part of the Wien group.

“June Hamid from Wien encouraged us to have fun selling and interacting with other sellers while supporting each other,” said Gan.

They sell 11 types of nut butter under the brand name Artsy Nutty.

Ho, who was in the accounting and finance field, said she too resigned from her job for health reasons.

“My doctor told me to slow down.

“I am still recovering, but I’m happy with our nut butter business,” she said, adding that she had learnt to pace herself while co-running the business.

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