This mama talks about new beginnings in 2020.
This year began with a high for Conny Wong. Her handmade baby shoe brand, Pepper & Mint, found itself in the spotlight at the Academy Awards ceremony in February, being included in the Oscar nominees’ goodie bags. Less than a month later, as the crippling effects of COVID-19 spread around the world, her business and production line started to get affected. For Conny, all her work has been a labour of love and she decided to try something new. Enter Mini Love Tales – board books and toys for babies and toddlers. This isn’t the first time that Conny has switched gears and tried something new. After graduating in Film & Television and Marketing, she worked in the banking and mobility industries, before starting her own business. We find out what’s next for this enterprising young mama.
Where did you grow up and when did you move to Hong Kong?
I am Chinese-Indonesian but my family moved to Australia, where I grew up and lived most of my life. After completing my education at the university level and working for a couple of years, I decided to ultimately leave my job and go on an adventure by myself. I lived in Beijing for a year, and subsequently made the move to Hong Kong. While I now live in Hong Kong with my husband and kids, our extended families reside in Jakarta and Sydney. We are fortunate to have many different locations to come “home” to. I hope to instil in my children the importance and value of being multicultural and have them be proud of who they are and where they come from.
How, when and why did you start Pepper & Mint?
When I first considered opening a business, I was nervous but it was something that I’m passionate about. The idea for Pepper & Mint came in 2018 when I received a beautiful pair of handmade soft sole shoes for my son. I loved them and thought it would be amazing to pass on the joy of receiving such a sentimental, handmade gift to others. My sister, who lives in Indonesia, helped me with the initial set up as it was difficult to navigate alone while I was based overseas. I now work with local Indonesians who have become my manufacturing partners and support the vision and mission that I have for my business.
How were you able to build such a successful brand in so short a time?
It means a lot that our brand is thought of as “successful” because I feel as though we are still so new to the industry and have a lot to learn! For myself, it is so important to have a unique background story to tell relating to the brand and the products. I am thankful that my own kids wore Pepper & Mint when they were young, and that we have loyal customers who help market our brand through word of mouth.
How is your social responsibility woven into your business?
Social responsibility is the heart of my small business. We employ upskilled mothers and fathers in Indonesia, promoting both creativity, and providing an income stream for them. When you buy handmade goods, you have the satisfaction that your purchase directly impacts the livelihood of these wonderful artisans and their families.
We also donate part of our proceeds to Volunteer for the Visayans which is an organisation close to my heart. In 2015, I took a sabbatical from work to travel and volunteer. I went to Tacloban, in the Philippines, which was a city that was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda, to help out in an orphanage. This experience has left a lasting impact on me which is why I still keep in touch with the organisation and contribute through my business in a small way to their mission of improving the lives of the children of Tacloban.
How and when did international recognition come? As a finalist at the Hong Kong Smart Design Award, being featured in Vogue or, of course, the huge Oscar honour?
It has been a whirlwind couple of years, and I am so humbled by the enthusiasm that I received both locally and internationally! British Vogue contacted me a few months after starting an Instagram account. They found our products unique and wanted to highlight them.
Being a finalist at The Hong Kong Smarts Design Award in 2018 was another recognition for our new collection that we launched on Kickstarter which was a combination of hand-drawn watercolour designs with handcrafted shoes.
It was a privilege to have been able to participate in the energy surrounding the Oscars this year, particularly given the emphasis on social responsibility in which Pepper & Mint very much identify with. There was an opportunity to showcase small brands whose focus are handmade products at the pre-Oscars event, and our shoes were displayed along with other wonderful artisan-made brands. Pepper & Mint items are produced in small batches with love, intention, and care, and more modern consumers are embracing this type of unique and personal products which is such an incredible thing!
Despite the high start to the year, 2020 has been tough for a lot of small businesses. How has it forced you to pivot?
Production and distribution of Pepper & Mint have slowed down because of the pandemic. But I love the saying “Every dark cloud has a silver lining” and I feel it’s really true! Like many others, COVID-19 has caused a new level of stress and anxiety but has also given me a unique reflection to look back on. New and past issues were amplified by the isolation and fear created by the pandemic and working on this book is part of my healing process. My new venture is named Mini Love Tales and we aim to create a collection of beautiful, loving picture books for babies and toddlers. The debut book – I Love You, Little Dumpling – is a love poem that I wrote for my own children when they were babies, and it pays a homage to our Asian roots and one of our favourite foods to eat as a family. This book means a lot to me as it holds a special place in my heart and is a part of our regular bedtime routine.
My family is the catalyst for my new passion project. I want to set an example for my children that they can do anything with the support of the family behind them. Though I have run an e-commerce business, learning about publishing is an entirely different ball game. While writing is extremely daunting, the fact that I have been able to show the world something so personal has been such a humbling experience. It’s given me the courage not to let the fear of failure, judgement or ridicule get me down. Though COVID-19 has brought doubt and uncertainty, the silver lining has been the ability to overcome the challenges I have faced. It has been a wild ride so far, but I am so excited to continue the work I have ahead.
What are the future plans for Mini Love Tales?
I want to continue Mini Love Tales with more unique titles and create more merchandise under the brand with a possible collaboration with Pepper & Mint. The I Love You, Little Dumpling book comes with its own matching Baby Dumpling soft toy to snuggle with. I had this idea to have matching merchandise with the book because my kids love bringing the character to life through toys that they can play with as well as holding tight onto it while they read it and when the book is closed.
Another plan that I have is to write books that explore diversity. As my children grow up in a multicultural environment (we speak three different languages at home on a daily basis), I feel strongly that we need more diverse books especially those that represent and recognise different races, traditions, and cultures. Judging from the current selection of books, there are already major shifts within the industry, but there is still so much work to be done. Children’s books are a powerful tool that we can use to encourage and educate our children on the beauty of celebrating and uplifting each other’s differences, and I would love to be a part of that conversation.
How do you find the time to do so much?!
I do my best to prioritise the most important things in my life which are my children and my spouse. I know that I would not be in the position that I am in without their support.
How and where did you meet your husband? Does he play a role in your business?
Funnily enough, my husband is a fellow Australian but we met in Beijing out of all places! After only a few months of dating, he asked me to move to Hong Kong which was quite the surprise. I did not know anyone here, did not have a job or even a visa at that matter. Instead of being scared though, I chose to take a massive leap of faith and come with him to Hong Kong. This is one of the best decisions that I’ve made in my life and choosing the unknown has been very rewarding.
My husband is my sounding board; he is the first person I run to when I have an idea and continues to be my cheerleader. When my brain begins to run a million miles per hour and I get excited yet overwhelmed by too many ideas, my husband is my rock who keeps me grounded, focused and encourages me to execute my ideas.
How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after – you or your husband?
Being only 21 months apart, it is quite surprising that they are total opposites but in the best ways. My little boy is a sweet and sensitive soul, who can be a bit shy around people that he doesn’t know. He is very observant and constantly surprises us with the cleverest ideas that he comes up with. My little Miss Independent is hilarious, she marches to the beat of her own drums and is just learning to talk. We dressed her up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween this year because it’s so fitting for her personality! They are both uniquely and beautifully different which is what I love most.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
There are events at different points in my life that I’m proud of, but I am especially proud during moments when I become braver and step out of my comfort zone. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In fact, there have always been bumps and roadblocks along the way. What I found though, is that as I push myself to experience new things, life gives me opportunities that I would have never dreamed of. I hope my kids will learn to have the courage to open themselves up to new experiences despite the risks of failures and rejections, as they might even surprise themselves on how rewarding it can be!
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong? Do you like bringing up your kids here?
I love Hong Kong, and this has been home for the past 10 years. There are so many things that we enjoy about the city; how it’s a melting pot between the East and the West, the amazing food scene, and the fact that you get convenience like no other! I also love the different landscapes that make up Hong Kong – from a buzzing concrete jungle to lush mountains and beautiful beaches. I feel so fortunate that my children have been exposed to an array of cultures and languages. We really enjoy being a part of such a diverse community!
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
Although it may sound corny, I live for those cuddles and kisses from my little ones. Never underestimate the power of a hug from a tiny person to lift you up even on the worst of days! Much to my surprise, breastfeeding has also been such a large part of motherhood that I deeply enjoy for both of my kids. I had a really tough time in the beginning and was close to giving up, but my second child is almost two now and I am cherishing every moment of nursing her because I know it won’t last forever. Lastly, the best thing about motherhood is that I get to experience the world again through my kids’ eyes – it’s absolutely magical! You can sometimes get caught up in things that do not matter, but kids really do bring it all together and show you the importance of family and life.
What is most challenging about being a mum?
The most challenging thing to me is the common struggle of having “mum guilt”. Am I doing enough? Am I present enough? Am I raising my children to be good and kind? So often I intend to be calm but end up losing my cool with my kids, and that’s really when the guilt strikes the hardest. The beauty of these little humans is how forgiving they are, which is something I cherish. They have taught me that we should give ourselves some grace and kindness because being a mum is a difficult job!
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
I’m a musical geek so I love listening to musical theatre songs. Like most people, I also love to watch a good TV show with a hot beverage and enjoy the occasional cooking when the mood strikes.
What are your top three tips or advice for those looking at working in and setting up their business in Hong Kong?
The best advice that I have ever received is to start before you’re ready. You are your own worst critic and if you want everything to be absolutely “perfect” before you launch your idea, it may never get there. The quickest way to learn about the business and improve is through experience. So, start getting your feet wet as soon as possible and just enjoy the ride along the way.
Connect with like-minded people and build a strong support system. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely journey, and thankfully I found a group of women entrepreneurs who have become life-long friends and will always have my back. Their honesty, love, and encouragement are invaluable.
Take some time for yourself. Trying to balance motherhood with a business will be chaotic and messy, as they’re both your “babies” and round-the-clock jobs. You want to make sure that you don’t allow yourself to burn out and become overwhelmed by stress. Try to unplug for a few hours or maybe even a day or two and do things that refresh your mind. Never forget to take that time to be alone and ask for help when you need it.