WONG XIAO CHENG, 26, Founder Partner & COO of earth heir
Dress and t-shirt, H&M; belt, Uniqlo; earrings, bracelets and shoes, Xiao Cheng’s own.
As the founder partner and COO of Earth Heir, Xiao Cheng’s passion for storytelling prevailed to be a part of a lifestyle brand that sells quality handbags, jewellery and gifts made by local artisans and refugees. Each piece is thoughtfully designed and most importantly, tells the beautiful heritage stories of the maker. Since she started the brand, Xiao Cheng has never felt more Malaysian—with a strong love for the rich culture we have here in the country.
Can you give us a little insight to your creative process?
I believe in Human-Centered Design, creating things and improving them based on the needs of the end user. However, the product design process in Earth Heir is not as straightforward as designing and then mass-making them. Every piece tells a story of the makers, and different raw materials make production processes different, which is a huge factor of whether or not a product is viable to make. Since many of our products use natural fibers such as mengkuang and rattan, the processing method, durability, strength, colour and storage care are different and we need such knowledge before we design a product.
We normally start our design process from a need of our customer, and match it with what our artisans are skilled to make. We then create few designs and prototypes for each product, test them, check on quality, get feedback from users, and then we improve the design until we get a product our customers, and we ourselves, love to use.
Who or what do you consider to be your “lucky charm” in life?
I don’t have a “lucky charm” in life, but there are many people whom I have crossed paths with and played an important role in my life at that moment. Therefore, friendships and keeping good relationships with people is what I believe brings me “blessings” in my life.
I am very curious about people’s stories, I like meeting new people and listening to their stories—their beliefs, their culture, their thoughts, the people around them and the things they do shape who they are. Growing up I was only exposed to the Chinese community in Bahau, and then Seremban. Although I have the head knowledge that we are a multiracial country, it was when I travelled within the country and abroad in my university years for studies and for internships that I was exposed first hand to the rich culture we have here and I fell in love with it. Now, working with artisans give me plenty opportunities to connect with the people across Malaysia.
— Xiao Cheng on what she’s most curious about in life.
Tell us about the most significant turning point of your career?
I grew up seeing how my parents struggled to put food on the table for us. At 5 years old, I told myself I needed education and knowledge to not let my parents suffer. I studied hard and eventually was granted scholarships to pursue a degree in a private university. However, I was taught a lot about maximising shareholders’ profit in business school and I thought it did not make complete sense for me.
That year, I stumbled upon the social business model and immediately I knew I wanted to build business with impact. I want to help families who went through what we went through (or worse than us) to be treated with respect and earn fair wages. So, I was always at the lookout for opportunities to equip myself with relevant skills since my university days. Eventually, when I felt the timing was right, I took the leap of faith and embarked on this Earth Heir journey.
What has been the most rewarding thing throughout the process of starting up your own brand?
I did not join Earth Heir to say, “Hey, I own my own brand!”—I do not need to own any business or brand, that is not what I am in this for. What I enjoy the most is the process of building it, knowing what are the needs of the customers, finding gaps in the market and fill it and most importantly, making new friends with our fellow Malaysians across the country.
I love sharing with people the stories of the makers of these beautiful products, and I really feel that I have become more Malaysian since I started this journey. What gives me joy is also to know that our customers treasure what they get from us, and the artisans feel proud that now their masterpieces are appreciated by people around the world.
In your opinion, what is one of the biggest challenges facing our society, particularly in this New Malaysia? And how can we press for progress?
In my opinion, I think our mindset of “grass is always greener on the other side” has to change. Malaysians are talented and we are capable of building businesses, making organisations of different industries competitive and world-class. We need to recognise and I believe some of us already do, that we ARE making history. I am glad to hear from friends abroad saying that they are considering returning to Malaysia, work here, contribute to the economy, run business, create jobs and build global trust for our country again.
As a generation, we need to be united, and work hard in our own industries to rebuild our country. Everyone one plays a role.
Can you tell us any habits you have that set up success every day?
Three things I do every morning before I go to work: Breakfast, quiet time and make my bed. These three things make me ready physically, spiritually & emotionally, and mentally.
What role do you think you/your business play in pushing the envelope?
I think we are breaking the stigma (at least in Malaysia) that to do good you need to sound pitiful. We shouldn’t. The truth is, the artisans, the differently-abled, the marginalised, even the refugees, they don’t want our pity. What they need is a job, is to be treated fairly, with respect, be recognised for their work. If anyone wants to be part of improving their lives, buy a Nelly Bag from us, or a pair of Dainty Earrings, wear them proudly and our artisans will be happier than if you were to donate money to them. After all, why should something handmade in Malaysia be less premium than something handmade in Italy?