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[VIDEO] Traditional Art, Modern Mindset: Interview with Amy Blair, Founder of Batik Boutique

20 Jan 2021
  • Social entrepreneurship to empower society
  • Navigating business challenges in the new normal

Deep in the heart of East Coast Malaysia, the traditional textile art of batik is a legacy that has been passed down for generations, most notably in states like Terengganu and Kelantan. Amy Blair, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Batik Boutique, is now helping to bring the beloved Malaysian craft to the global stage.

What began as a charity effort for women living in subsidised housing flats has since evolved into a thriving social enterprise that empowers talented artisans from all across Malaysia. According to the native Texan entrepreneur, the idea for her brand started in 2009 when Amy first moved to Kuala Lumpur with her husband and toddler.

She later met and befriended Ana, a single mother of two teenagers, who at the time was looking for more income to support her family. Amy asked Ana to teach her Bahasa Malaysia, and their friendship soon blossomed alongside Amy’s language skills. Despite their cultural differences, Amy gained a profound understanding of their shared struggles as mothers who would do anything for their kids.

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Amy’s friendship with Ana led her to discover a gap in the local artisan market. She saw first-hand the needs of highly skilled but poor women from marginalised communities, and their deep desire to make a positive change for their families. Armed with insights from her experience in the tourism industry, Amy decided to take matters into her own hands and committed herself to helping Ana and her family.

Ana was able to sew, so together they bought some batik fabric that Ana transformed into unique crafts like aprons and coasters for Amy to gift to family and friends for Christmas during her trip back to Texas. The gifts were met with an overwhelmingly positive response, and with word spreading quickly, soon came more demand.

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Nonetheless, Amy realised the only way to make a real impact for women like Ana was to build a sustainable business model beyond charitable efforts alone. She understood that most tourists would not mind spending extra money when they travel — and so merged this behavioural insight with the mission to disrupt the cycle of poverty among women artisans in Malaysia.

On-ground research and experience found two critical needs in particular: training for sewing skill sets and an opportunity to earn fair wages. That was how Batik Boutique was born, a fair trade social enterprise focused on providing skills training and economic opportunity for local artisans by promoting their products in the global marketplace.

Having started Batik Boutique as a charity in 2010, Amy officially registered the brand as an enterprise in 2013. It has since grown by leaps and bounds, from seamstresses working inside their own flats to a community sewing centre, office space and two retail boutiques. More than 150 artisans — all setting their own wage and hours — have worked with Batik Boutique to gain a fair income and marketable skills.

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“We started our journey as a business and since then we have grown in leaps and bounds…We have hit a lot of milestones; I am really proud that we are working to grow Malaysian Batik all around the world and we are striving to become the premier batik brand globally.”

Amy is also a firm believer in the power of collaboration, advocating for both large and small businesses to come together to help support and develop underserved local communities. In this spirit, Batik Boutique has collaborated with corporate partners like Starbucks, Grab and Subway, and recently even designed products for notable brands like Kotex, Amazin’ Graze and Kimberly-Clark.

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For all its efforts to lessen community hardships, Batik Boutique was not spared the unanticipated effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Movement Control Order (MCO) was first implemented, Amy was forced to re-evaluate her future plans to ensure the survival of the business, and more importantly, the livelihoods of the artisans.

Batik Boutique pivoted through this challenge by obtaining special permission to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to front liners, and produce customisable face masks for corporate and retail clients. In the spirit of giving back to our local heroes, the team managed to produce over 15,000 pieces of PPE gears and focused on online sales to sell over 1,000 face masks to clients all over the world.

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Beyond reassessing their business strategy, there were other pressing hurdles to be ironed out for long-term survival. Like most retail businesses, securing financing in the current economic climate did not prove to be an easy feat. To maintain a steady cash flow, Amy turned to Funding Societies, South East Asia’s largest peer-to-peer (P2P) financing platform specialising in SME financing crowdfunded by individual and institutional investors.

Funding Societies approached Batik Boutique with a belief in the quality of the brand’s products as well as the financial sustainability of its business model. The platform has effectively secured two rounds of financing that were needed for Batik Boutique, enabling it with the cash flow not merely to survive, but to also meet growing demand and manufacture products at a much larger scale.

“Funding Societies played a very instrumental role in our growth and survival throughout 2020. They believed in our quality, product and numbers and were willing to support us in a time when most people were not offering financing to retail or travel businesses.”

Amy believes SME financing will be essential to grow and thrive in the new normal, as businesses reach a point where profit margins will no longer be enough to sustain business as usual. The matter is made worse for social entrepreneurs, as they might be forced to constantly worry about cash flows while simultaneously attending to real societal issues that impact the most vulnerable groups in society.

Social enterprises will not be able to solve problems for the communities they work with without having the cash for it. Instead of just trying to keep afloat, Amy recommends that all businesses out there consider looking into alternative sources of SME financing, and they can start by getting themselves assessed by Funding Societies.

“I am deeply grateful for the role that Funding Societies has played in helping Batik Boutique continue to grow despite the ongoing pandemic, and even more so for their faith and belief system that even as a social enterprise, we can do real business and do good at the same time.”

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“The government, via Malaysia Co-Investment Fund (MyCIF) and Funding Societies Malaysia, allocated RM10 million to fund P2P campaigns and reduce cost of financing for social enterprises which have been successfully accredited by the Ministry of Entrepreneurship Development under their Social Enterprise Accreditation (SE.A) programme. To be eligible and recognised as a Social Enterprise, you would need to fulfil at least one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Amy is looking ahead to the upcoming year to upscale the company and grow Batik Boutique to become the premier batik brand in Malaysia and globally. The social enterprise will be looking to expand its retail and warehouse space, as well as work with new digital marketing partners to enhance its online platform. Amy believes that as the business grows, so will the impact on its beneficiaries.

For more exciting insights through the lens of Amy Blair, check out our video interview below:

Are you a social enterprise looking for alternative financing options? We have some good news for you! Yellow Pages Malaysia is partnering with Funding Societies to help you amplify your business with exciting offers on financing solutions! To find out more about this collaboration, visit the website here.