Women behind Hong Kong start-ups embrace motherhood and entrepreneurship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 8:17pm

With motherhood comes a brand new life filled with joy, worries and challenges. But for some mums, the excitement doesn't end there as their children inspire and influence a second career. Ahead of Mother's Day on Sunday, we meet the women behind three Hong Kong start-ups who are embracing their roles as first-time entrepreneurs and mums.

Cheryl Wilson When she became a mother for the first time five years ago, Cheryl Wilson was overwhelmed by the beautiful gifts friends and family showered on her daughter. As grateful as she was, she felt it would be more meaningful if they could donate some or all of that money to charity to help people who were not so lucky. She had to keep reminding them to consider donating to a good cause instead. "But at that time there wasn't a really interactive charitable platform where they could make the donation that allows me to choose [the beneficiary]. There was no such concept so I decided to set up Charitable Choice," says Wilson.

The idea had been on her mind for a couple of years; but when she left her investment promotion job at InvestHK in 2010, following the birth of her second daughter, there was more time to make things happen.

The website was launched a year later. The idea is that the recipient of a card can activate a unique redemption code on the site and select from about 40 local organisations to donate to. As all are registered charities, gift purchases made via this platform are tax deductible.

The list of charities - covering 11 categories ranging from animal welfare to elderly and children's welfare, health, women and environmental issues - is reviewed annually based on nominations and popularity. Charitable Choice claims to be Hong Kong's first interactive charity gift card concept.

Between learning to run a new business and family, the challenge has always been how to find time to do it all.

"The benefit of having your own business is that it's flexible," says Wilson. "So while I'm in the office every day, if I need to do something for the children, I might be able to rush out and continue working in the evening after they are asleep to make up for that time later. That's how I juggle it."

Julie Tuan and Sandra Wong The founders of Lola's Ice Pops appreciate the greater flexibility of running their small business, which allows them to be more involved in their children's upbringing. Even so, they still have to put in a lot of late nights and weekend work. But the pair of former lawyers find this lifestyle preferable to leaving their children entirely to the care of helpers or nannies.

"You really have to devote time to teach your children," Tuan says. "You can't just send your kids to school and expect them to learn any more. The school expects parental input - projects, reading and sending them to outside tutoring. You have to be actively involved parents and teachers. And in our old job, there was no way."

Tuan and Wong continue to maintain packed schedules. But they have been enjoying every minute of it and are delighted their business has been growing steadily since its launch in 2013, three years after each had their first child. Yet it all began with a simple wish to share tasty and wholesome treats with more people.

I didn’t care what I was eating before I had children – now I’m always looking at labels
Julie Tuan, co-founder of Lola’s Ice Pops

"We started giving our kids iced fruits when they were teething. And when they got a little older we started making ice pops for them using fresh fruits because, before we came along, none of the ice cream and ice pops available in Hong Kong had fresh ingredients. None of them was free of preservatives, chemicals or artificial colouring, and we don't want to feed that to our children," says Wong.

Before long, the two friends were making their own frozen fruit pops for friend's parties or birthday bashes. When requests started coming in, setting up a little ice treat business seemed the natural next step. But neither expected the city's enthusiasm for their ice pops, which dovetailed neatly with growing interest in artisanal ice pop makers in the US and Australia.

"As soon as we started, since maybe a month in, it's been going completely out of control," Wong says.

Lola's Ice Pops have a shorter shelf life because they eschew preservatives included in the mass-produced varieties, and use seasonal fruits, which are riper and sweeter, allowing them to keep added sugar to a minimum.

Having children has certainly given them a new perspective on food. Tuan says: "I didn't care what I was eating before I had children - now I'm always looking at labels to see exactly what is in some products."

At their workshop in Ap Lei Chau, all three employees who help produce the colourful ice pops are also mothers. The owners made a special effort to help mums in need of a job and, because they understand their situation personally, have been ready to accommodate their schedules.

Pang Yuen-kwan Venturing out to create her own clothing brand was one of the best decisions she has made for career and family, Pang Yuen-kwan reckons.

After stopping work for a year to look after her young daughter, Pang returned to a full-time job to find her development in graphic design had been sharply curtailed. The irregular work hours also began to take a toll on her home life, so she quit and started the Kidshion label last May.

Because she did not have formal training, Pang completed a diploma in fashion design at Chinese University before launching her debut collection of matching parent and child outfits. These have been popular Japan and South Korea for several years, but the fad is starting to catch on in Hong Kong, too, and Pang's line got off to an encouraging start. This summer, she has created floral print dresses for mothers and daughters, along with a range of unisex denim shirts suitable for the whole family.

Pang says she and daughter Yan-tung seldom go out together in her matching outfits, but, when they do, she often gets queries about them. It's a great way to gather feedback and helps her make improvements. "I want to create trendy yet simple designs that are easy to wear," Pang says. "I use pure cotton with enhanced elasticity so my outfits are great for energetic kids and adults who have to move around a lot tending to their children."

Working for herself has allowed Pang to spend more time with Yan-tung.

Pang eventually hopes to open her own retail outlet but acknowledges it may be years before exorbitant rents correct sufficiently to allow her to achieve this goal.

For now, her clothes are sold online, through various retail partners and at weekend markets, including one at Discovery Park in Tsuen Wan this weekend.

While Pang looks forward to showing off her designs at the upcoming Hong Kong Fashion Week (and maybe securing orders from overseas), Tuan and Wong are looking forward to launching a new ice cream line in a few weeks. Named Lily & Ran after their daughters' middle names, it will feature American-style artisan ice creams made with the same philosophy.

Wilson, on the other hand, has been working with colleagues to add a new fundraising option to the Charitable Choice website, which would enable people attending a particular party or event to contribute to the cause it is supporting. They are also introducing the ability for customers to make multiple donations in one transaction.

She has learned a lot through her plunge into social enterprise, which, in turn, has changed the way she teaches her daughters.

"I've learned a lot about every aspect of the business and I guess, being in the NGO sector, I've learned a lot about Hong Kong" she says. "We visit all the charities regularly to make sure we understand what they are doing and that they are real charities.

"The advantage of me setting up Charitable Choice is that it took me to all these different parts of Hong Kong that I never knew of," she says.

"It has opened my eyes and has changed the way I speak to my daughters. I remind them how lucky they are every day and that there are children in Hong Kong that are not so fortunate. It's a really good way to educate children about the problems in Hong Kong and how they can make a difference."