In light of the whirlwind that has been 2020, many local brands have felt the repercussions of the current climate keenly. But one of the best things that have happened this year, is that we’ve seen local brands come together through partnerships, collaborations, and a genuine drive to help each other survive and thrive.
One of the remarkable local brands that we at Amazin’ Graze have had the opportunity to work with is The Batik Boutique! We got to talk to Amy Blair, who started this social enterprise in 2010.
AG: It's been 10 years since you first started this venture, and 6 since you started the community sewing centre for your women, how do you feel watching this social enterprise expand?
Amy Blair: I feel so proud of Batik Boutique and the people behind Batik Boutique and the progress we've made as a brand. When I first started out in Batik Boutique, we were just a few women and friends without any knowledge of batik, or sewing for that matter. And we've grown an enterprise that's received awards, manufactured for brands globally, started our own retail outlet, and help inspire people to appreciate Malaysian batik all over the world. And that makes me super proud.
I had no idea, when I first started this, this was the reach and the capacity we could get to. I constantly feel like we've just gotten started, but it's been really exciting to see us continue to expand.
AG: How many women currently work to make the gorgeous batik designs that we love?
Amy Blair: Currently, Batik Boutique partners with over 100 artisans throughout Malaysia. We work with family-run batik artist businesses all across the country, from the East Coast to Kuala Lumpur. We're partnering with around 6 family-run businesses, each of which employs about 8-10 artists, so we end up partnering with nearly 50 artists around Malaysia. We also run our own sewing centre which we use for profits and our business to support (that centre is outside one of the PPR flats) and we employ 10 women there full time.Additionally, we partner with screenprinters, tailors, and seamstresses all over KL.
If you put all of that together, we're working with about 100 artisans across the country at any given time. We also have two retail outlets, we teach batik workshops, and we have our office staff too.
AG: What are some key things you've learnt from your experience with Batik Boutique?
Amy Blair: I think that one of the main lessons that I've learnt from running Batik Boutique is that nothing worthwhile and nothing that's disruptive to solve societal problems is going to come easily. There's a quote from Nelson Mandela that I always use – I have a sign of it hanging in my office – and it says "It always seems impossible until it's done." For me, that's a really important thing that I keep in mind.
In our early days, we had an order for 100 pieces of a product that, at the time, seemed really impossible and massive to me. But today, we're able to do orders for tens of thousands of pieces for production and so 100 pieces isn't really a challenge for us anymore. All along the way, I kept reminding myself that it's only impossible until it's done, and then it's not impossible. But the challenges get bigger as you scale and as you progress, while you're facing societal issues like poverty, women's empowerment, and things like that.
But none of it is impossible. That's probably the biggest lesson I've learnt.
I also love the Malaysian phrase "Sikit, sikit, jadi bukit." In fact we sell DIY batik painting kits in our store and online, and we purposely made one that has this saying on it. It means a little bit everyday, over a long time, is what eventually builds to a mountain.
As I'm growing an enterprise, I keep that phrase in my head a lot, because most days it's just one choice, one small decision after another that leads you forward. It's not like tomorrow, all your dreams are going to come true, that's not how life works, it's really about every day and the small choices that you make for progress. I really like that phrase and think about it a lot when it comes to our business.
AG: What advice would you give a budding social entrepreneur?
Amy Blair: If I could give advice to a budding entrepreneur, I think I would tell them – don't be afraid of hard work and keep going. I've learnt that I have serious grit, that I didn't even know was there until I needed it. And I think that you have have to remember that, as a social entrepreneur, you're trying to solve a problem in society. For us, it was poverty and trying to preserve the cultural heritage of Malaysia. Trying to preserve batik, innovate it, and make it relevant again. The reason these issues are not simple is because it didn't start overnight, so the solution also won't happen overnight.
So I think you have to keep remembering your "WHY" – why are you doing what you do. The "HOW" can change a lot and there will be times you'll be forced to pivot. 2020 has taught us all that. So be flexible with your "HOW" and also be flexible with your "WHEN" – when you're going to accomplish that goal. Just focus on the "WHY", why you're doing something and keep that at the forefront of your activities and your choices (from how you spend your money to who you hire).
AG: If you could go back a decade, would you do anything differently?
Amy Blair: I think I'm really proud of the way we started it, Batik Boutique started out a friendship between me and Kak Ana, just figuring out ways for her to be sustainable as a mother and to provide for her kids. So I really love this part of it and I love that I had to learn everything from the ground up, cause I think it's made me a better leader and a better boss, and makes our company more authentic.
But if I do something differently, it would be to get more people involved in our earlier days. To have more collaborations and more brainstorming and more partners, because entrepreneurship can be a lonely and difficult road. At times, I wished that I'd had a bigger team or other founders – a core team in the early days who were working towards the same goal.
AG: Lastly, what's been your favourite thing about starting Batik Boutique?
Amy Blair: My absolute favourite thing about Batik Boutique, is that it's been such a beautiful story about how people from all walks of life can help each other and bring about positive change in the world. For instance, a customer who has buying power or a corporate who has a budget they want to spend and merge that with an art form and cultural heritage of Malaysia, and do it in such a way that impacts someone's life and bring them livelihood and sustainability. It's this beautiful full circle, holistic way to do business and to do life. And because I get to help create that and merge all of these different worlds together – that maybe on a normal day would never have been connected – I think that's what so beautiful about it. We're a movement of people who want to see change and want to appreciate what is "artisan" and want to shine a light on Malaysia for the world. It's been my biggest reward to run this company, help it grow, and see people change their lives by the choices that they make.
If you'd like to contribute to making a difference while staying stylishly safe, check out the rest of our website to see how you can purchase a limited edition Batik Boutique reversible face mask or get one for free!
And as always, tag us in your amazin' pictures on Instagram for a chance to be featured!