By Poovenraj Kanagaraj
Founded in mid-2018, Yap Sue Yii’s social enterprise, Komuniti Tukang Jahit (KTJ) is a platform that builds and empowers a community of B40 women by providing upskill training and sewing job opportunities. In an interview with Business Today, the founder and chief executive officer shares the journey her enterprise went through during the outbreak, how the challenge made her team stronger and sturdier and the importance of awareness.
“I found the business opportunity to establish the enterprise when I was solving an operational issue for my first fashion startup, Royale Demure. An opportunity that enables home-based tailors to earn a sustainable income through sewing.
She then started sourcing for tailors who was able to work on smaller bulk orders for her designers on the platform. Word then got around and sooner than later, orders had started to increase but there were not enough to go around.
“When we just started out, our tailors were only given clothing designs to sew and it wasn’t considered a fast-moving sale item that would fly of the shelves,” Sue Yii tells Business Today.
Demand soon started to decrease while supplies increased. Sue Yii and her team realised something had to be done. “As it all played out so accidently, KTJ soon saw the aim and goal to continuously source and provide job opportunities to the community by the delivery of handmade gifting items such as corporate gifts, fashion items and tourist souvenirs,” she highlighted.
By designing and creating bespoke handmade corporate gifts, KTJ was able to help home-based tailors earn a more lucrative side-income while taking care for their home and children.
While the enterprise’s good work had picked up traction and saw flurry of orders coming in in the last two years, the arrival of the Coronavirus and the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO) had resulted in a disruption. Events were being cancelled, leading to a affecting the bread and butter of the business – production of corporate gifts for events, international delegates and VIPs.
“MCO was the biggest challenge, yet the biggest growth that KTJ has faced. We were forced out of our comfort zone and pushed to the edge. It’s was a do-or-die situation,” Sue Yii tells Business Today, adding on that her team had taken the risk to conduct online training sessions for their crew which proved quality control and checking for mistakes a challenging process.
“We took that approach and went ahead with digitising our process anyways. And it worked. The show had to go on,” Sue Yii says. The enterprise found various means to find supplies, fabrics and materials.
“It only made us stronger and sturdier to change,” she highlighted.
During the MCO, KTJ worked on developing products considered as ‘essentials’, one of which was their batik facemasks. Sue Yii points out that there were only a few fabric mask options in the market when the MCO had started. “We had to R&D and reverse engineer multiple versions of handsewn facemasks to make sure we had the perfect fit,” she tells Business Today.
“We are currently at our 6th version and we haven’t stopped improving. Once we have the perfect design, we will send it out to our online-training course to our KTJ home-based tailors to learn the steps and requirements,” she highlighted.
KTJ’s end-results have been receiving good feedback from their clients and also saw many customers return. “We believe in high-quality finishing while also producing products at competitive pricing,” Sue Yii shares. “But what really sets us apart is that all these sewing jobs actually puts food on the table for most of our community members,” she adds.
She points out that people are becoming more receptive to the idea of impact-investing, impact-buying, and even impact-development and hopes for more corporate clients to see the good and added-value in purchasing products with impact. In terms of supporting the awareness, Sue Yii points out that MaGIC, has been spear-heading social entrepreneurship as well as creating awareness around the ecosystem.
“We hope to continuously create job opportunities for our community of women and through this sustainable business model, as more and more people notice our work, we hope to continue this movement and expand it to other states around Malaysia,” Sue Yii tells Business Today.
However, she also points out that the situation her enterprises faces currently is very much like any other chicken and egg situation. While KTJ continues to upskill more women in the community to sew, they are also urging for more support from corporate clients and customers.
The awareness towards ‘impact-buying’, Sue Yii believes would definitely help KTJ and its tailors. “Instead of procuring products that are mass produces, corporates who are focused on SGG (Sustainable Development Goals) or interested to purchase with impact may consider our products as it directly impacts women and families,” she opines.
What more can be done to help social enterprises grow in Malaysia? According to Sue Yii, the answer to that is awareness and the receptivity in making decisions based on a higher understanding of ‘impact’. “With the knowledge that every decision can be made with the consideration of society and the environment, the outcome of change would be vivid,” she tells Business Today.
“A mother of 3, with a husband who has just lost his day-job due to the pandemic is now able to fend for her family through such trying-times. She is able to make RM200-RM300 in two weeks and is able to purchase groceries and put food on her table.”
“We are here to empower women. Women who are able to work from home while taking care of their family’s needs. Awareness on social enterprises among both the public and private sector is crucial for the longevity of the enterprise,” Sue Yii concludes.