Two strangers met, became good friends and started a business together.

There’s a lot more to the story than just that, of course, but essentially, that was how two homegrown businesses – Changgih Designs and Batik Boutique – came to be.

Both companies are social enterprises that focus on empowering women. They also have comparable background stories and follow a similar business blueprint; but one is based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and another, in Kuala Lumpur.

Changgih Designs

Founded in 2015 by “mummy friends” Joanna Moss and Bethany Dawson, Changgih Designs seeks to empower women, namely mothers, through work opportunities and vocational training.

“Bethany and I met by chance and we were both new mums at the time so we shared ‘new mummy’ experiences; we quickly became good friends,” said Moss in an e-mail interview. “We wanted to start something together for our babies, but at the same time, to give back to the community too.

“So, we started a baby clothing line inspired by the beauty of Borneo and its people.”

The company began selling baby clothes in the US, and their products were a hit. This gave Moss and Dawson the confidence to add more to the collection and ultimately, expand the business.

This was when their signature product – The Changgih Infinity Scarf – was created. The collection now includes headbands and bags, as well as skirts.

Changgih works with local artisans, mostly women and mothers, to come up with the items and help out with the company.

“We want to provide other mums like ourselves with the opportunity to work while looking after their children,” said Moss.

Joanna Moss (right) and Bethany Dawson of Changgih Designs. Photo: Changgih Designs

“We started with one lady and through friends, introductions and word of mouth, other women started coming to us instead of the other way round. This type of referral pattern is of the utmost importance to us as it shows trust, and trust is the foundation of any social enterprise,” she explained.

Its “family” of artisans has grown over a short period. Moss and Dawson now have a team of 30 on their roster.

Moss added that most of the women who work with Changgih have a base interest in sewing and designing – skills are improved along the way.

“What matters more to us is that the Changgih women have an interest and we want the overall experience of being a part of the company to be fun and motivating. We also feel that having senior artisans provide vocational training to newcomers is a seamless way of learning. We found that with this tiered system, our artisans have more pride in their work,” said Moss.

social enterprises

Moss (centre, in blue scarf) and Dawson (icentre, in glasses) with some of the Changgih Designs artisans. Photo: Changgih Designs

Apart from giving work and training opportunities for women in their communities, Changgih also runs a charity programme called Give10toSabah.

Funds are collected from the sale of Changgih products, in which 10% of the profits go to Give10toSabah. The money is then disbursed to community projects and disaster relief efforts.

Among the programmes that are on the company’s list are arranging and organising skill-based vocational training, English classes and job training courses. A few months ago, the company – via its Give10toSabah programme – was able to provide basic necessities to flood victims in Kota Belud.

“At Changgih Designs we do not believe in ‘dumping’ our help. Each time we facilitate a community project we discuss with the elders in a community in order to come up with a way to help that is long term and sustainable. There is a very fine line between helping and creating a negative dependency,” shared Moss.

Batik Boutique

social enterprises

Amy Blair decided to help single mothers living in PPR flats after hearing their stories. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

Batik Boutique’s story began with a chance meeting between expatriate Amy Blair and Kak Ana (Rohana Muhammad), a single mother of two who was looking for ways to make money to support her family.

“She taught me Bahasa Malaysia, and we quickly became friends. We thought of ways for her to earn more income; she knew how to sew so we bought some batik fabric and she transformed them into gifts,” shared Blair, who is in her 30s and a mother of three children.

She then took the batik-themed gifts back with her to the US, and gave them to family and friends. Everyone loved the items, and that spurred the eventual creation of Batik Boutique in 2009.

Once the company started getting requests for more items, other women like Kak Ana started showing up, too. Soon, Batik Boutique grew into a full-fledged team of experienced artisans.

“I founded Batik Boutique with the conviction that women like Ana deserve fair and sustainable income, and the ability to provide for themselves and their families,” said Blair.

The company collaborates with batik artisans from all around Malaysia, especially those who have been making it for generations. It also has a sewing centre near a low-income housing area in KL, where women living there who wish to work can provide their sewing and crafting services.

“We provide sewing and life skills training for women from the B40 demographic group. Our seamstresses manufacture Batik Boutique’s beautiful products, which are designed by our production team,” Blair explained.

(B40 refers to the bottom 40% of households with a monthly income of RM3,900 and below.)

Batik Boutique has come a long way since its inception. The company has a full time staff of eight in its front-of-house team and collaborates with a number of partners.

Batik Boutique collaborates with numerous batik makers all over Malaysia. Photo: Batik Boutique

Products are sold in various locations nationwide, as well as online where it ships everywhere in Malaysia and to the US. In December, Batik Boutique even launched its first retail outlet in KL.

“It is incredible to see how this work impacts the women who work with us. Very quickly, their attitudes change, as the sustainable income enables them to worry less about survival on a daily basis and focus more on enjoying life with their families. One artisan, Zarina, has even published her own quilting book in Bahasa Malaysia, and she uses Batik Boutique fabrics in her tutorials,” revealed Blair.

Social entrepreneurship may not have been a popular business model when Blair first started her company, but initiatives by the Government has helped change that environment.

She cites the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) and the Ministry of Finance’s Volunteering International Professional (VIP) fellowship programme as the main drivers in this initiative.

“There is a lot of support for Malaysian companies to do good, and do business. I am encouraged by the growth of social entrepreneurship in Malaysia. With each additional enterprise, the community grows, and the ecosystem becomes stronger. I hope that Batik Boutique helps pave the way for other enterprises too,” Blair shared.