Elaine Yan made a bold move, relocating from London to Hong Kong to grow a business focused on sustainability, The Fabrik Lab, in a city that is often criticised for its lack of creativity and support for smaller businesses.
Speaking at a panel during the 'Ladies of Media' charity luncheon Friday, with Mina Park from Sook and Anna Cennamo, founder of Extraction Project and co-founder of Food for Good, Yan said the best support to give an entrepreneur working on a sustainable offering is to understand and value the research that goes into such products.
"Having worked a lot in R&D, I find that people don't understand," she said. "They think 'Shouldn't it all come as free?', 'Why should we pay for these services?'," Yan said. For example, Yan invested time working with villagers in Guizhou to create a sustainable model of fabric production using traditional methods, in a project supported by Hong Kong's non-profit Design Trust.
Once she gets clients interested in carrying her products, the next challenge lies in marketing the sustainable concept to consumers. "A lot of times when the product goes to store there is a lot of 'translation' involved," she said. "There is so much that I want to tell the audience...hours are spent in refining the texture. This is the most difficult because as much as retailers like to buy our products, consumers need to know about it. I am still learning and want to get more advice on that."
Cennamo echoed her views, saying that it is important for consumers to know where the products came from.
For that, social media has been a great help to many smaller businesses to reach their audiences, although it can be a double-edged sword. For example, the hype around Korean fried chicken fuelled more interest in Korean food, leading to numerous requests for Park, whose Sook is a private kitchen and popup dining business, to prepare the snack. However, she said, "some people want a specific Korean experience, but that's not what I want to do and it is not reflective of the tradition I grew up with. So it is important to stay authentic, that's the way I have been."
The corporate lawyer turned chef also suffered a touch of 'imposter syndrome' when she first left her full-time job for her food business. "I struggled a lot to feel super-confident about what I am doing because I am not a trained chef," she shared. "It took me a while to own that. I was in shock the first time when people came to my event and were actually paying money for that. I was tentative when introducing myself until a friend told me, 'Just say you are a chef", said Park.
Nevertheless, she said the food community in Hong Kong is supportive, and she intended to make it a goal for her next year to reach a wider audience. "Facebook is especially useful for restaurant owners; but for us who are starting out as chefs, Instagram and Pinterest are great for sharing photos," she said.
The 80s-themed charity luncheon raised $250,000 in support of Mother's Choice, a grassroots non-profit organisation that provides care for children needing permanent homes and for single girls facing crisis pregnancies. This was the fifth time the event has taken place.