Here’s to a mum who teaches us how to have our cake and eat it too, by balancing a healthy business and lifestyle with family.
Shirley Kwok grew up in Malaysia and moved to Hong Kong when she was quite young. Other than short stints in Singapore, Tokyo and Washington DC, her home and heart have always been in Hong Kong. She has her hands full with her flourishing cake business, The Cakery, but manages to remain a proud and dedicated mama. She shares her own unique parenting mantras that have helped her become a friend and confidante to her two young daughters.
Baking wasn’t always your choice of career. In fact, your professional qualification is in Computer Science and Japanese literature! Why did you choose that unusual combination?
I actually started off in business school first but I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to learn a skill that I would find hard to grasp on my own. My freshman year was almost at the peak of the dot-com era so I thought I had to learn more about technology which definitely came in handy for work. I am always keen on learning another language, so initially I picked French but ended up learning Japanese instead. I know it will be useful one day!
After that, you made a switch to finance. What exactly did you do and did you enjoy it?
My first job was working for an IT company as a graphic designer (my focus was 3D graphics for my CS major). I was just basically sitting there all day facing the computer. It wasn’t really my thing and I decided to move on. What I really wanted was to be able to meet and interact with people in my job (and I preferred to work for a large corporation rather than a small company). I moved to Bloomberg and worked there for 1.5 years as a warrants data analyst. Most of my clients were bankers and I thought their job seemed really inspiring. Then an opportunity came and I decided to switch to a French bank doing warrants marketing. After a year, I switched to their sales team. I ended up working at the bank for over 10 years and heading up the sales and marketing team for Hong Kong and Singapore.
The learning curve was steep at the beginning because my finance background was a bit weak. I received media training from the bank and became one of their spokespersons, doing a lot of media interviews on a daily basis. In the beginning, I really enjoyed what I was doing but got bored after a while. I was repeating my tasks and I didn’t want to stay within my comfort zone so I decided to switch fields.
Did you ever have any interest in baking? When did you discover your passion for it?
I started baking when I had my first daughter. I was making cakes with different themes on a monthly basis. It started off with cupcakes with fondant toppers, then I started making her birthday cakes. My friends wanted me to make cakes for their kids too and that’s how it all started.
What did your family think of you switching careers? How has your husband supported your career?
My family has been very supportive of everything I do. I discuss strategy for the business with my husband. We have sacrificed a lot for this business. We used to travel a lot but now we can’t go anywhere. It was difficult for us to plan ahead for activities as my work schedule changed all the time, especially the first couple of years. I was basically working seven days a week. No matter how late it was, he would always pick me up from work. I am very grateful that he’s been so supportive given all the sacrifices he has made.
How did you move from personal baking projects to a pop-up to retail? What needs gap did you see in the market?
When I was in finance, I started baking for my friends and created an online shop. My friends told me of a pop-up shop opportunity that had come up at LANDMARK so I decided to give it a try. I thought I would regret it if I didn’t give it a go, so I did. Without any prior experience in F&B, I started everything from scratch. The search for a central kitchen and actually getting it set up was a long process. Hiring and managing people is probably one of the toughest things to do. I have played a role in pretty much every single part of my company – admin, marketing, sales assistant, accountant, HR, baker, cleaner, sourcing, warehouse keeper – you name it!
When I had my online cake shop, people were asking for gluten-free and sugar-free products. There were very very limited options in the market so I thought I would focus on that rather than competing with other cake shops with regular cakes since I have never had any formal training in baking. I learned everything online!
What role do you now take in the business?
When we first started I used to spend most of my time in the kitchen but right now I spend most of my time handling the business side of things. However, every product design or new recipe will still have to be approved by me.
What’s next on the cards for The Cakery?
We have just revamped our website. We are also looking to expand but we are trying to find a good location. There’s no rush though. Timing and location is the key.
Towards the end of last year, we launched a sister brand, KIRR (Keeping It Real & Raw). It’s an online sustainable concept store where we try to make sustainability more accessible to everyone. Currently, I am spending a lot of my time developing the platform. I am trying to build a #kommunity and encourage people to help make the future more habitable for the next generation.
With two kids under eight, how do you manage to find the time to run a flourishing business? What’s your mantra for work-life balance?
As a working mom with two young kids, I try to be creative. I try to empower my girls to give them the courage and confidence to do things that they want to do. I give them tasks to do at work and they love the feeling of being helpful. We also cook and bake together. It is the greatest way to bond with your family. We shoot videos when we bake and the kids love watching them.
We have also started shooting simple recipe videos with my older one and sharing them on our new platform, KIRR. She loves it and always asks me how many subscribers she has. It is a great way to boost one’s confidence. She is a natural in front of the camera. I also take them to work events and markets, so they get to meet different people.
What do you most enjoy about living in and bringing up your kids in Hong Kong?
HK is a vibrant and multicultural city. It is a great place for kids to experience different things. The location also makes it easier to travel to other countries. It is also a super convenient place to live in – you can get from one place to another in a fairly short period of time, so you can get more things done in one day.
How similar or different are your children? Have they taken after you or your husband?
They are totally different. My older one is very sensitive, she gets emotional when she sees someone getting hurt or when she watches a sad movie. She is a happy kid though – she cries for a minute then you will see her laughing the next minute. This side of her I think is from me. She is also a perfectionist. She will keep correcting her work if it is not perfect – this is definitely from my husband (I always tell my husband how anal he is!). My younger one is quiet with a very strong personality. I am not too sure if she is more like me or my husband. A lot of times she actually reminds me of my little sister who is very successful in her career.
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
I enjoy watching my kids grow and seeing how they have developed since they were born. I love being able to be there for my kids when they need me and to offer them my unconditional love. One thing I miss doing is breastfeeding – yes, I know I am weird! But nothing can beat the kind of closeness I had with my girls at that time.
What is most challenging thing about being a mum?
Finding the right way to raise my kids as there is no one straight right or wrong answer. I am not a tiger mum, I just want my kids to be happy but at the same time I know I can’t let them play all the time, so I need to find a balance. When it comes to raising my kids, I like to treat them as my friends rather than treating them in an authoritative way. I don’t like to yell at them but they like to test my patience all the time. Being composed and patient can be difficult sometimes when the kids are throwing a tantrum.
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
I like to go home and have a nice meal with my family. They love eating and I get really happy when they like the food I make.
What are your top three tips for mum-entrepreneurs in HK?
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. There is a huge community of mum-entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and everyone is trying to help each other out.
- Get your kids involved in your work, you will be surprised what they can do.
- Don’t forget to leave time for yourself. It is important to have some “me” time as it can help you put things in perspective.