From The Straits Times    |

Fashion with a cause

Gema Santander, owner of resort wear label Baliza.

“In 2012, I was managing the website of a support group in Singapore that was associated a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Jaipur, India. I found out that this NGO, i-India, had a vocational centre called Ladli that produced organic, herbal-dyed cotton products. These products were the work of male and female artisans; I was inspired by the artisans’ dedication towards providing for their families, as well as their talent and motivation.

At the time, there was a shortage of ethical resort wear in Singapore, so I decided to create kaftans using the beautiful cotton produced by the artisans at Ladli. Currently, we support over 400 artisans – of which 300 are women – and their families in Jaipur. We provide these artisans with work and a fair salary (three times more than the legal Indian salary for artisans), not to mention, social benefits like medical insurance, free education for their children, emotional support and financial education.

I faced many challenges when I started this business, but, in time, and with others’ help, I managed to overcome them. For one, there was the issue of quality control. Making products suitable for our tropical climate wasn’t easy since our artisans were working out of a vocational centre and not a factory. Another challenge was competition from the big brands; as a small company with a limited budget for marketing, we’ve had to work harder to make our products known. Baliza’s ambassador, local celebrity Michelle Chia has been wonderful with publicising the brand.

Baliza grew pretty quickly. We went from selling a small number of basic beach covers at friends’ house gatherings, to selling a bigger variety at fairs. By 2014, demand for our products was so great that we started selling online and in stores. Since then, sales have grown 250 per cent and we have a wider range of products, including home wares and accessories. Our products are now available at Club Med resorts in the Maldives and China, and we’re working on producing bespoke designs for hotel chains and other lifestyle brands.

When I look at what I’ve managed to accomplish, I’m amazed. I went from merely wanting to help our artisans, to creating something useful, meaningful and ethical. My advice to women who want to start something but don’t know how: Go slow, and do your research so that you’re aware of the risks, challenges and limitations. Surround yourself with people who believe in what you do. But above all, embrace the learning process and don’t be afraid to make changes and mistakes along the way.”



Workspace for all

Ginny Eckblad, co-founder of GorillaSpace, an online platform that locates workspace for business owners

“The idea for GorillaSpace started quite organically. My co-founder and I had already been building the tools from our over-20 years in the property and technology industries. We were driving up to Malaysia and were stuck in traffic when my co-founder started talking about the tech tools he was building for his client. I turned around and said, ‘Why don’t we make these tools available for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) too? SMEs could use the help!’ It was truly an A-ha moment. We spent the rest of the drive talking about how we’d make the idea work.

GorillaSpace is an online platform that helps businesses find workspace at every stage of their business growth. We help solopreneurs, small businesses, as well as SMEs of 100 employees. We’re the only platform in the world that covers all types of workspace: co-working, serviced offices, surplus space and long-term office space. Users can experience the spaces online through high-resolution videos, dynamic 360-degree panoramas and still photos. 

Currently, we’re in beta with a few clients on a key feature that will be released at the end of April: Using tech and machine learning, we’ll be able to match Space Owners with businesses directly and quickly. 

As startup entrepreneurs, we dealt with many challenges, one of which was hiring key employees. In the early days, it was hard convincing people who earned good money to leave their well-paying jobs to come and work with us. But I really wanted to start the business, so I quit my corporate job, sold my apartment and got into it.

GorillaSpace is available in Singapore and we have plans for regional expansion. We have over 600 unique listings on our platform, and that number is growing. Landlords and space owners are marketing their available offices with us. Businesses have successfully booked for workspace and meeting rooms online.

I’m happy that I took the plunge and started the business. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, acquired new skills, and met some wonderful people along the way. More importantly, it feels good knowing that we’re helping businesses make good decisions for their workspace. Ultimately, we want to fulfil our dream of using all that we know to help SMEs around the world find workspace quickly and efficiently.

It’s important to get good feedback before executing a business idea. I suggest sharing your idea with people first. Don’t worry if your idea sounds ‘stupid’ or is not well thought-through. There’s nothing to worry or feel ashamed about because it’s through ‘selling’ and talking about your idea that you realise what works and doesn’t work, what you should improve, and so on. And I’d say that getting user feedback is the first step in product development.”    


A head for business

Lynn Yap, founder and director of hair care product company Clynn By Nature.

Suffering from hair loss and frizzy hair, I looked everywhere for hair care products that were safe, effective and affordable, but had no luck. Soon, I found out that I wasn’t the only one who needed products that addressed these hair issues – my friends, relatives and even a professional hairstylist told me that they had trouble finding such products. A chemist by training, I decided to create my own scalp and hair care products. I launched the range, Clynn by Nature, in 2016.

Clynn By Nature is now sold mainly to pharmacies in hospitals and polyclinics. It’s also available online and in a few hair salons. The products are made from safe, sustainable and natural, active ingredients, and are designed for use in our hot, humid climate.

To be honest, even when the idea to start a hair care range came to me, I had no idea what to do first. I did a lot of research online about how to start a business, and that helped a lot. Once I cleared that hurdle, I had to get the products right, so I tested them in my friend’s hair salon for six months before putting them out on the market.

It’s only been a couple of years but business is growing, albeit slowly. And despite the obstacles I faced, the journey has been worthwhile. I not only started a business; the products I created also solved my hair problems. In time, I hope to make my hair care range available everywhere.

To all of you contemplating starting your own business: Do it, and don’t let anything stop you. Yes, there’ll be hurdles along the way, but if you have a great idea, you shouldn’t let a fear of these hurdles hold you back. I was absolutely clueless when I first started, and look at what I have now.”