Seeing women hard at work in offices is not an unusual sight to behold in Malaysia. There’s also nothing new in watching them take over crucial campaigns and projects. But the glass remains half empty when it comes to having female leaders at top decision-making positions in the corporate sector. In fact, only 15.2 percent of director positions in the highly-ranked companies listed in Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange are occupied by females in 2016.
Our country may still have a long way to having more than 27 percent of women sitting pretty on top of the leadership ladder. But strong, independent women like Miss World Malaysia 2012 Lee Yvonne, who fiercely crosses over the competitive industries of retail and IT, make equal representation of women in top management a promising one.
Not known to many, the former beauty queen and emcee had a long experience in running businesses — from managing a team of sales agents promoting premium eyelash serums, to selling fashionable clothes on a blog before online shopping even became a thing. So, it came as no surprise when homegrown start-up Zarrel enlisted her marketing and PR expertise, immediately appointing her as a managing partner of the first Internet closet in Malaysia.
Despite her busy schedule, the former Amazing Race Asia Season 5 participant sat down with us to talk about the challenging and rewarding aspects of her new venture into the e-commerce business, and how she is contributing to strengthen consumers’ confidence in online shopping.
Yes, I think I got my knack for entrepreneurship from my dad. He owns a workshop for lorry repairs. Growing up, I eventually got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I know nothing about lorries, nor did I dream of opening up my own workshop, but seeing my dad managing his own business gave me the itch to someday have one myself. When I was nine, I remember buying these unique pencils and reselling them to raise funds for a carnival in my school. In college, I created a blog where I resold clothes. I bought them in bulk at wholesale prices to make extra money.
I had around RM4,000 capital and I used it to turn our house into a [fashion clothing] warehouse. I was managing the whole thing myself, and didn’t hire professional help to build my own website. From buying stocks to ironing and taking photos, I did everything on my own – even sending out the parcels. I did it at a time when online shopping wasn’t big yet, and consumers were very skeptical about the idea.
It was enough to support myself. I used to send around 30 parcels per day. I didn’t have a physical store to expand the brand but I participated in shopping bazaars every now and then. The business lasted for around three years. And then I won Miss World Malaysia. That changed everything for me. I got more emceeing offers since, and it was becoming impossible to do the business all by myself while taking more hosting jobs. Maybe, had I not won the pageant, I would have continued with that business. It was my lifeblood.
Yes, I love fashion. When [Zarrel co-founder] Ong Sue Jinn approached me to be an influencer for Zarrel, I immediately saw the potential in its business model. I decided to join as its Managing Partner two months prior to its launch after I found out they were still looking for someone to do marketing. It was a perfect match. Being in the entertainment industry and a public figure, I can average on my contacts and media presence to build our marketing.
I enjoy shopping online, but I always get disappointed with the stuff that I receive. It’s either too big, too small, or the colour doesn’t turn out the same in person. When you shop online, you pay even before you receive the clothes. With Zarrel, you’ll get to experience the clothes before you make a purchase. It combines the best of actual and online shopping. It’s like shopping in a mall because you get to try and feel the material, but it’s as convenient as online shopping because you’re able to select it on a website and have from nine to 27 [clothing] items delivered to your doorstep for a monthly fee of RM168. The best part is we cover the shipping and delivery fees, including laundry services.
I’ve learned that start-ups are hard. One needs to put in a lot of patience, dedication, and commitment into the business. If you don’t believe in it, others won’t. A couple of months back, we got invited to be one of the start-ups to participate in a competition in Singapore. It was great to see how business pitches are made, and was a good experience for us.
I am a perfectionist. I want everything done right. I used to be stubborn before, because I just couldn’t trust anyone to do tasks for me. But now, I’ve realised it’s important to trust in other people’s capabilities and to delegate roles. I’m lucky to be in this business with people who really know what they’re doing.
My title as Miss World Malaysia 2012 and joining The Amazing Race Asia opened up countless doors of opportunities for me. I’ve established a strong network of people who can help us grow the business. This makes meeting potential investors and partners easier. I have a friend expressing confidence with the brand after finding out that I was one of the figures behind Zarrel. I guess I bring some credibility to the table.
During the Amazing Race Asia, [my team partner and I] were looked down upon because we were both beauty queens who looked so fragile and dolled up. It’s a nice feeling to have proved [those critics] wrong.
I want Zarrel to be regarded in the same vein as the the Zaloras, the Asos, the Fashion Valets, and the Mr. Porters of the world. And I want to be recognised for my business acumen and my strengths. The titles that I won may have opened doors for me, but I want people to know that it takes a lot of hard work and entrepreneurial ingenuity to get to the top, and stay at the top.
(Images by Fadza Ishak)