When Yap Mun Ching joined AirAsia Group as a route planner in 2004, she was often mistaken as a secretary or tea lady. Most of her e-mails were addressed to Mr Yap instead of Miss Yap.
“Back then, I was a young woman working in a male-dominated industry. At meetings with external parties, people only spoke to my male colleagues. They were often surprised when senior colleagues sought my opinions during discussions,” Yap, 40, recalls.
There were other instances when Yap’s requests were deliberately ignored. It took awhile before people realised she had the authority to make decisions, which included charting AirAsia’s expansion through planning new routes and destinations.
Fortunately, she was working with bosses who supported and stood by her decisions.
“The superiors’ support is the key factor in empowering women in workplaces that are trying to break established gender patterns. Over time, with my performance track record, gender became a non-issue in my workplace dealings.”
Yap is living proof that women are capable of breaking into male-dominated industries.
The secret is to stay assertive, committed and positive, she says. “There is nothing that can replace hard work and diligence. One has to be prepared to speak up and have good reasons behind each decision. Many women would rather lie low. If you don’t stand up for your views, you will not be heard and taken seriously,” adds the Kuala Lumpur-born Yap.
Today, the petite lady stands tall as AirAsia Foundation’s executive director. The foundation – the philanthropic arm of AirAsia Group – helps underprivileged Asian entrepreneurs raise their profiles, rebrand products and reach new markets.
AirAsia Foundation’s core work centres on supporting social entrepreneurs. They also help to build new and existing businesses within communities.
The project is Yap’s brainchild. Prior to joining AirAsia Group, she was a reporter with a KL-based online news portal. During her two-and-a-half-year stint in journalism, she explored issues concerning migrant workers, gender equality and human trafficking.
“As a reporter, I listened to stories from refugees, migrant workers and asylum seekers. I learnt about their emotional, economic and mental struggles, and hardships. Their stories touched my heart and I often wondered about ways to improve their livelihood.”
Even after she left journalism to join AirAsia, those poignant stories remained close to her heart.
Yap’s desire to help the underprivileged grew stronger when work took her to Banda Aceh in Sumatra, which was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami.
“It was two years after the tsunami and people affected by the disaster still needed assistance.
“It struck me then that the airlines could leverage on its links to the tourism economy and build better job opportunities for the community,” said Yap, who holds a degree in Economics and a Masters in International Relations.
Since its inception in 2012, the AirAsia Foundation has funded 14 social enterprises.
Their three local projects – the animal conservation programme APE Malaysia HOSES for Wildlife in Petaling Jaya, micro-hydro turbine scheme Tonibung Renewable Energy Fund in Borneo and a bicycle repair/training centre called The Basikal Know-One Teach One in Kuala Lumpur.
The foundation has also extended its support to business ventures in Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia.
The foundation gives out grants ranging from RM111,000 to RM222,000 to small enterprises, as well as mentorship support.
Yap and a team of trustees vet and handpick recipients based on four aspects – social goal, sustainability, how innovative the project is and its beneficiaries.
Yap beams when she speaks about award grantee, Rags2Riches Artisan Across Asia, in The Philippines. It caters to women artisans living in Payatas, Manila, one of The Philippines’ largest urban poor communities. Run by Rags2Riches Inc, the business model provides artisans with access to the market and training.
“The funding gives underprivileged artisans a chance to undergo training in haberdashery, business management, nutrition and health. They also have the opportunity to demonstrate their weaving skills at fairs. It has empowered these women and improved their future.”
Yap said grants provided to social enterprises run by women can lead to the creation of more jobs for women.
“Rags2Riches in the Philippines works mainly with women artisans. The organisation helps women from poor families earn a minimum wage and trains them not only in job skills but also in life skills. Women artisans participate in integrated training, which includes programmes on nutrition, healthcare and financial management.”
Since 2013, exclusively designed Rags2Riches bags have been sold onboard AirAsia flights. The airline proudly sells products created by other award grantees such as Yogjakarta’s Selaka Kotagede Silversmiths’ fine silverware and Chiangmai’s Muser hilltribe farmers’ coffee. Next month, travellers can purchase these products at the foundation’s pop-up store at KLIA2 in Sepang.
Besides assisting social enterprises, the foundation has a sub-section called Humanitarian, which lends a helping hand in times of disaster. Projects include humanitarian flights to various places including Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, East Coast states during the 2014 monsoon floods and to Manila and Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
In every grant programme, grantees are also encouraged to be mindful of gender perspective and include women engagement in their activities.
“An example is our project with silversmiths in Yogyakarta. The programme began with a workshop with only male participants. But we worked with the local grantee to plan for workshops that include women’s participation.
The foundation has made a positive social impact, enabling poor communities to earn a decent living. But more importantly, it enables women to stand out and be proud in their respective professions.
For more details, go to www.airasiafoundation.com