Daughter, Sister, Mother, Boss: A Look At Inspirational Women in Business in Hong Kong
International Women’s Day, is designed to recognise the Suffragettes who worked so hard to gain women the vote. It is also a chance to celebrate the many successes of women throughout the world, in all of the roles they play.
Here we chat with a group of female business owners who strive to encourage knowledge, well-being and a sense of community through their respective endeavours. We find out how their businesses came to be, and what drives them to succeed in the fast-paced environment that is Hong Kong.
Alice Zhang, Founder and Creative Director of Mischmasch and Stew
When talking to Alice Zhang, you soon realize that you are with a woman who has a real passion for art. She is easily able to speak in depth about the reasons behind the changes we have seen in art movements over the years, and why the art collectors of today want what they want. “The people who are buying these days want art that shows their personality. Works that are fun and quirky; edited versions of themselves,” she says.
Focusing on largely graphic and illustrative works; both of her companies offer online platforms for people to purchase contemporary art from around the world. With a real interest in technology and social media, Zhang hand picks the works that will look best on screen. Mischmasch dedicates itself to bringing original artworks in to the arena, while Stew offers a limited range of prints, at more affordable prices. Targeting a new generation of art enthusiasts, Zhang hopes to make contemporary art more accessible to the masses.
Raised in New Zealand, she first pursued her studies there in Graphic Design before moving to the Rhode Island School of Design. Upon completion, she worked as a designer in both New York and London before she settled in Hong Kong and launched Mischmasch in 2008. “Hong Kong is a great place for me to be in business. Young people are curious here and it’s a multi-cultural city,” she says.
Having a successful businesswoman for a mother has no doubt influenced Zhang’s drive in the business world. “She’s a contemporary woman and she has an M.B.A. from the U.S., so she’s always giving me advice,” she says. At just 28, she hopes to see continued expansion in both companies this year, particularly in building relationships with new local collectors.
Cara Grogan and Melanie White, Co-founders of the Genie Concept
The Genie Concept was born out of a, “Passion for well-being and health,” says co-founder Cara Grogan. She launched the business with her friend Melanie White, almost two years ago, aiming to bring an easy-to-understand detox juicing programme to Hong Kong. They offer a variety of juice-based cleanses, with an interesting selection of flavour combinations, all delivered to your door! Since inception, they have seen their company go from strength to strength, with the Genie Concept becoming an innovator on the HK detox and good-health scene.
Cara and Melanie first met just out of high school back on the Gold Coast of Australia where they were both living. Although Cara was the first to move to Hong Kong in 2005, Melanie wasn’t far behind, settling here seven years ago. They attribute their close friendship as a big part of their success. “It doesn’t feel like you’re working, also we know each other so well, we agree on most things,” says Melanie. In the business they utilize the fact that they both have different strengths with Melanie dealing with the business and marketing side and Cara focusing on the design/creative areas.
Nowadays, the ladies have been able to take a step back from Genie-life. But, it wasn’t always like that. For the first year or so they did a large percentage of the ground work, actually doing the juicing and bottling themselves. They have managed to develop and grow their company to the point where they now have around a dozen staff working with them in various capacities, and are looking to expand this year. Cara’s mum even came over and worked on the shop-floor for a time, “It was so inspiring to see the hard work she put in every day. I think it motivated us even more!” she says.
To heighten their knowledge in nutrition and well-being, they both completed Diploma’s in Integrative Nutrition through IIN, New York in January. This saw them expand their knowledge of the well-being industry, and heightened their belief in a holistic approach to everyday living.
Christine Choi, Founder and Director of Elephant Community Press
Photo Credit: Long Guan Photography
After completing her English and Communications Degree through the University of Pennsylvania, Christine Choi worked in P.R. in New York. “When I realized that my favourite part of my job was the pro bono work, I decided that I should go back to school!” she said. From there she went to on to gain a Masters in Family and Community Education, before relocating to join her now husband, in Hong Kong.
Initially, Choi worked in the NET teaching scheme, but after two years, decided that she wanted more of a challenge. “I had always been interested in reading, writing and literacy. Through my teaching experiences, I realized that the methodology that I had encountered in Grad. School could work here in Hong Kong, so in 2008 Elephant Community Press was born.”
Her company teaches creative writing to young learners, from ages 6-16. The programmes run through a variety of International schools, local schools and through their centre in Central. Offering a variety of workshops, they facilitate the planning, writing and editing of their students’ work before publishing the stories in to real books. The culmination of this process is in the book launch parties that are held twice a year, giving the children the opportunity to celebrate their roles as authors.
The books are dedicated to different charity partners such as Room to Read and Hong Kong Dog Rescue, with all the proceeds of the sales going to these causes. “I always knew that I wanted the business to give back to the community. By getting the kids involved with these different charities, we can show them that they can use their talents to help others in need,” she says.
Choi cites her sister as a huge influence in her life, “She now runs her own Law Practice back home in Vancouver, but we’ve always been close. I used to type up her notes for her when she was in College, and I was even her assistant when she sold knives door to door!’
With 4 full-time staff (all females!) and a hectic schedule, the company has grown hugely over the past 6 years. Choi hopes to continue expansion by increasing the number of partnerships with schools and heightening community engagement through studies.
Liz Murrihy, Founder of Women’s Forum
Around 18 years ago, Liz Murrihy decided that she was bored of the ex-pat wife life here in Hong Kong. “Yes, I enjoyed the tennis and the events, but I needed something more mentally stimulating,” she says. So, she organized a one-off lunch for a group of business-minded women, and they were all still there at 8 pm that evening! Although she never intended for it to become her business, it was in fact the birth of Women’s Forum.
With a background in event planning in Australia, she has seen her company grow exponentially over the years. They now have over 4000 members in Hong Kong, and have also branched out to Murrihy’s homeland. Striving to bring inspirational women together in a positive environment, Women’s Forum delivers quality events with an upbeat message. They host an annual Christmas function at The Peninsula, and other events that celebrate women, such as Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day. Proceeds from these events go to various charities, “I want the women who come to these events to know that they will have a fun and inspiring time, and that they are giving back to the community,” she says.
Liz believes that the reason she has been so successful in this field is largely due to her sincere approach to business. “I truly believe that being authentic is the essence of a successful business, and a successful life,” she says.
Having been surrounded with strong women with a lot of tenacity when she was growing up, she worked hard to inspire her daughters through her own dedication to her work. Now, as grandmother too, she fully appreciates the complex role that women play in both society and family, “We women wear many hats and we tend to organize everyone around us. I love being able to offer women the chance to relax and to encourage discussion through these events.”
Phemie Chong, Founder of Odd One Out
Phemie Chong strives to bring a little something different to Hong Kong. Born here in Hong Kong, she studied Print-Making in the U.K. before coming home two years ago. Initially working in bigger art galleries, she soon decided that she wanted to start her own space, thus Odd One Out was born. “I wanted to create a little getaway in Hong Kong, somewhere that people could feel like they had escaped the city,” she says.
At Odd One Out in the eclectic Sau Wa Fong area in Wanchai, Chong has certainly done this. She transformed the once office space her store now resides in with the help of friends and family, and now has a successful shop come gallery come café. The store sells an interesting variety of prints, ceramics and gifts and customers can also sit outside and enjoy a coffee away from the hustle and bustle of the streets. Holding regular exhibitions from both international and local artists, she hopes to foster a real community feeling through Odd One Out. “Each part of my store is equally important, the gallery and shop help to give the café more atmosphere and vice versa,” she says.
Chong thinks that Hong Kong is a good place for young, female entrepreneurs to begin their careers. “From an administrative stand point, people have been really happy to help me out. I think that if you want to start a business here then you just have to plan well and then get out and do it!”
Martina Bin and Mia Man, Co-directors of Eat FRESH
Martina Bin and Mia Man kind of fell in to business together. A mutual friend suggested a meeting in regards to a fledgling company that was up for sale. After a brief conversation, they decided that they wanted to give it a go, “We both got on the phone to our husbands afterwards and said ‘Yeah, we’ve just bought a business!’” says Mia. Thus, last April Eat FRESH was re-launched.
Their company offers an organic fruit and vegetable delivery service. Using ten farms, most of which are in Hong Kong, they grow a selection of seasonal produce which is then offered in either pre-selected bags or through an a la carte menu. “An organic, seasonal way of living is good for the environment and for the body,” says Mia, “Although we can’t control certain environmental factors here in Hong Kong, we can control what we are eating.” The ladies believe that this is the time for an organic way of life to flourish here, with people wanting access to the same types of produce options they are used to at home.
Drawing from their very different backgrounds, they relish the fact that they are each able to bring a different set of the skills to the company. Martina worked on her family farm in Italy, before moving to China to study the language, while Mia worked in marketing and also as a chef. Combining this knowledge has allowed the business to grow, and they hope to expand further this year by increasing the number of delivery days and products available.
As a working mother Martina says that her schedule is crazy! “I work from my place, and often I will have my son on my shoulders and my dog under my desk as I answer e-mails.” However, they both agree that they enjoy the flexibility that running a company from home allows them, admitting that business meetings will often take place on the beach!
Claire Fenner, Founder of Heels and Deals
Claire Fenner was running a successful small business in Dubai, when she realized that she was constantly connecting business people through her network of acquaintances. In the spring of 2009, during the height of the international financial crisis, she decided to hold an event to bring together women in the business community, “We expected around 30-40 people, but nearly 200 turned out!” A year later, the events were still growing in popularity.
Although a tough decision, she chose to focus her energy fully on the networking events, and Heels and Deals was created. She moved with her family to Hong Kong in 2011, with a hope to expand the business globally. Originally a non-profit organization Fenner likes to think that it is now a ‘profit with purpose’ company. “At Heels and Deals we find we are able to create a supportive and open platform where women are able to let their guard down,” she says.
For a nominal annual fee, members have access to various online resources as well as discounted rates for special events spanning topics such as digital marketing and effective leadership presence. Member-only meetings allow business owners to share problems and insights with like-minded women, who want to see each other succeed.
It is obvious that Fenner enjoys what she does, “I love being able to connect women, and to help them share ideas. We have members ranging from their mid-twenties to their mid-sixties, so the wealth of knowledge and experience available is amazing.” Attributing her desire to help others to the ministers in her family, as well as the many independent women, she believes that her company is helping to develop strong economies through female participation.
Anna Bowkis, Founder and Photographer, Anna Bowkis Photography
Photo Credit: Cristina Rossi photography
Having worked in interior design, visual merchandising and various teaching roles, Anna Bowkis decided to teach herself photography 5-6 years ago. She is now a well-known figure in the Hong Kong photography scene, and is founder and operator of Anna Bowkis Photography.
Hailing from the U.K., Anna moved to Hong Kong in November 2012 with her husband and two daughters. Not wasting any time, her business was established in June last year and continues to develop thanks to her whimsical and atmospheric style.
Her preferred subject matter is children, and she manages to draw on her experiences as both a mother and teacher when it comes to getting a great shot. “I like to let moments unfold in front of me. We go to a favourite place of theirs for the shoot so that they feel comfortable, and I can take pictures of the children playing with their siblings or parents,” she says. She works with a variety of private clients, but relishes the commercial opportunities that have become available to her here. Having shot for Velveteen, Baby Hero and Baby Gecko, she hopes to continue expanding this side of the business this year.
As a wife, a mother and an entrepreneur, she admits that the hardest thing is juggling it all. Late nights and long hours come with the territory, but she finds a way to make it work. “I want my daughters to see that women can work and be mothers. It’s not easy, but it can be done,” she says.