An American touch in East Coast batik craft helps single mothers from low-income groups make a living in the city. NEVASH NAIR has the story.
SOCIAL entrepreneurs are defined as individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are often ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for change with a viable business model.
That is how American Amy Blair, who is based in Kota Damansara, Selangor sees herself.
Driven and ambitious, Amy runs Batik Boutique, an online shop she founded in 2010 that sells batik-themed products like business card holders, passport holders, throw pillows, scarves and tote bags made by single mothers sewing from home or at the company’s sewing centre.
According to Blair, Batik Boutique came about not long after she started as a small sewing group to help single mothers from low-income groups make ends meet.
“When I first started this project, I immediately knew that handouts were not going to cut it. If I really wanted to help these women, I had to come up with something sustainable,” says Blair.
A self-proclaimed adventure-seeker, the Texas native packed her bags and moved to Kuala Lumpur eight years ago with her husband Ryan and their newborn son, Jackson.
Following their move, the family hired a local, Ana, to help Amy with her Malay, and the two women struck up a friendship. As Blair’s Malay improved, the duo started sharing stories.
“As I started talking to Kak Ana, I found out that she was a recently divorced single mum with two teenage kids, and often struggled to make ends meet. We bounced around many ideas, including selling Malaysian delicacies before arriving at batik,” recalls Blair.
“If you compare Malaysia with other countries in the region, such as Thailand and Indonesia, the souvenir products here just don’t match up to what you can get in those countries. I realised there were really creative people here but there was a disconnect between them and the tourist. It is a real shame.
“Kak Ana told me she had a sewing machine, and it was also just before we went back to US for a holiday, so the both of us went downtown and bought some batik fabric for Kak Ana to make simple things for me to bring back to the US,” explains Blair.
The trip to the US proved to be a game-changer. Blair’s family and friends were really impressed with the colours and patterns of the batik, and after hearing Kak Ana’s story, they did not hesitate to purchase them.
They also started asking for more batik products.
“I was not thinking that far. I was just trying to help a friend but when I came back and told Kak Ana, dia rasa bangga (she felt proud). Other women who lived near Kak Ana found out about what I had done, and they started asking her if they too could sew me something,” relates Blair.
“I did not set out to be an entrepreneur. I did not have a business plan. I just wanted to help a friend out but then there is a need to help all these women, mostly single mums, to make some extra cash,” she adds.
Once Blair decided to go down the social entrepreneur path, she took a trip to the East Coast to find several batik suppliers.
“I was just buying machine-produced batik. I went with my husband, my two-year-old and my baby strapped onto me, and started asking people where we could find batik. I remember standing by a paddy field and people were pointing to a kampung house when we asked them about batik,” she remembers with a chuckle.
The trip to the East Coast also helped Blair to understand the true nature of the batik business. Mostly family-owned, batik producers still lived a life of hardship despite their products being world-famous. She also learned how batik was produced.
Upon her return, Blair also visited several PPR (People’s Housing Project) to seek women who could sew, especially those from low-income groups.
“I knew I could’t help them all but I could help a few women, and that was worthwhile. We started at Christmas expat bazaars. At the time, when we first started, it was run like a charity. We had no clue about pricing and costs. Our products are now sold from RM25 up to RM300,” says Blair, who took no profit at all at first.
“My intention was just to help,” she says.
Blair’s husband got involved in the business after he noticed that she was losing money. Ryan, who has a MBA, suggested that she started operating like a proper business to make an impact.
“Right now, social entrepreneurship is trending but we’ve been doing it all along. A lot of people do not know this and they think we have always been a full-fledged company but we only hired our first office staff last October,” says Blair.
“Right now, we work with 10 different batik factories. We have a personal relationship with them, and they need to see what we are doing,” says Blair.
Currently Blair has over 25 seamstresses in her roster but not all of them are working at once.
“For these women, family comes first. There are many programmes out there to help single mothers from low-income groups but it needs to make sense to them.
“For example, we set up shop in the flats where these women live, and we have space for them to leave their kids right there in the shop,” she explains.
Despite Blair’s efforts to help these women, funding is still very much a problem as the business has not quite hit the stratosphere just yet. Being a foreigner does not help her case, and with the government still not recognising social enterprise, she does grapple with financial issues.
“We would love to grow and help more women. Right now we are registered as a sdn bhd (private limited) but 20% of our profits go back to the community that we are supporting.
“We can’t seek funds, because people think we are a profit-driven company,” she explains.
However, having already secured a deal with a leading fashion label from New York, The Batik Boutique is already going places on their own initiative.
Blair is hoping that 2015 is the year the business takes off.