#QSCelebratesWomen2024: Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs - Interview with Rachel Lim, Founder of Maelstrom Home

"Before I launched the brand, I was worried that as a female, I wouldn’t have a voice in meetings or during pitches. I wondered, “Will people believe in what I’m trying to say?“. - Rachel Lim

Welcome back to our series of #QSCelebratesWomen2024, where we share stories of the women we work with, the challenges and stereotypes they experience, and their insights on what more can be done for women.

In this second part of the #QSCelebratesWomen2024 series, we had the privilege of interviewing Rachel Lim, the founder of Maelstrom and got insights to the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in Singapore, especially women as they operate in an environment where only 27% of businesses are women-owned. She also shared on how she managed to overcome them, as well as what more she feels can be done by women to succeed. 

As we celebrate women this month, we are delighted to treat Rachel to some home cooked Pork Katsu from our All-in-one Recipe Set collection. As a busy entrepreneur, she rarely gets the time to enjoy a home-cooked meal and thus we decided to pamper her on her day off!

We urge all of you to do the same, to cook for the women in your lives this month - enjoy a 10% discount on our All-in-one Recipe Sets  for the IWD month of March!

Stay tuned for more stories next Friday as we aim to bring more visibility to the challenges faced by women in Singapore and start conversations on achieving gender equality.

Can you share a bit about yourself and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur? 

I’m Rachel, the founder of Maelstrom. 

I think I have always been interested in business because my father was a businessman. Growing up, I looked up to him, watching him run his business and thinking, "Okay, one day I want to be like him." People have always told me that if I want to succeed in life, I need to become a lawyer or a doctor to earn money.

However, I found my passion elsewhere, and I've always been dabbling in different businesses ever since I was young selling K-pop cards, running a thrift store, and starting surfing school. 

From there, I went on to study business. Business is something that is in me. I always feel the need to be doing something in business. 

Choose three words/identities you associate with, and can you explain why you chose these three words?

1. Unentitled 

I grew up in a tough love environment, where I had to work hard for everything I have. This upbringing taught me that nothing comes easy, which is why I consider myself unentitled. It has allowed me to really fight for the things I want.

2. Ambitious 

I always believe in dreaming big; many of the things I’ve achieved started as just a dream. For example, the car and the warehouse we have now were things we never thought we could achieve as a small business. But because I had set them as goals, I believe that by doing that, you will manifest them, and you will act on them.

3. Resourceful 

When I started this business, we didn’t have many resources in terms of capital or assets. Hence, I had to make it work with whatever was available, even if it’s limited it may be. My resourcefulness allowed me to seize many opportunities.

If I spot different opportunities, I’ll try to make them work instead of just letting them pass by and I will find different ways to make things work.

How did you come about creating Maelstrom and briefly share with us what this business is about?

I co-founded this with my best friend. Back then, we were discussing what kind of business we could run. We talked about other businesses, like fashion, but then realised there's a gap in the market for aesthetic tableware that is still affordable and can be used in daily life for normal meals.

As a result, we bought some new tableware and tested it with a small market. The feedback we received was positive; it did elevate the dining experience. This has always been our mission: to elevate a simple dining experience. That’s how Maelstrom grew. We want to bring something more appealing for daily use and affordable as well.

To get a better glimpse into your life, could you tell us what a typical day is like for you?

I typically leave the house by 10 a.m and spend the rest of the day outside, either at the warehouse or in meetings. I usually return home only to rest at night. 

Before I had a warehouse, I would stay at home all day, using the laptop, replying to customers, and preparing everything. Then, I would sleep, wake up, and work at home again. There was no separation between work and home.

If you live my life, it’s really all about work. While it may seem glamorous to my friends that I don’t have to go to a corporate job, the reality is that I've had to make many sacrifices, staying up very late and not getting to go out with friends that often.

If you weren’t a business owner, what’s one other occupation you would want to do!

I would be an early childhood teacher or educator. I love kids and the energy they have. When I was doing my part-time gigs, I taught kindergarten art as a tuition teacher, teaching some of the kids in the neighbourhood.

I applied for early childhood at a local university, but I got rejected. So I guess it's fate, right? I got rejected, and my next offer was marketing.

What’s your favourite Maelstrom piece, and show us!

My current favourite piece is the Persian Blue Scalloped Oval Plate, which is also my current favourite colour. I think it's a colour that really stands out. (this piece happens to be really popular at Quan Shui Wet Market as well as it’s sold out almost instantly whenever it’s restocked!)

Could you share with us what’s your most memorable Maelstrom piece, what you have learned from it, and why it is so special?

One of the most memorable pieces for me is from my first collection. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of those exact products anymore since I sold all of them. When I tried to reorder, I realised that each batch is different.

This was a valuable learning experience for me. I started this business without any specialised knowledge of tableware. I discovered that every batch turns out differently. So, I was never able to replicate my first-ever piece, which was a pistachio grey plate that people really loved.

We’ve learnt that each batch of our handcrafted pieces varies due to the use of natural soil sourced from different mountains. Additionally, our glazes are made from natural materials. This results in the final colour of each batch to be constantly evolving, adding to the individuality of our creations.

That’s why we have also learnt that it’s important to have our pieces at retail stores, so that customers can see, touch and feel the pieces in person and thus understand and accept these variations.

If you could only choose one to use for the rest of your life, which one would you choose: 

Plates or bowls? 

 I'll choose a bowl for sure. Bowl is the most versatile one.

Fork or spoon?

Spoon. My spoon and my bowl will be able to carry me to a lot of places. I can eat literally anything with a spoon.

Name one of your biggest strengths!

I'm adaptable. I think this is the million-dollar question that all interviewers ask, right?

So if I go for a job interview, I tell them I'm adaptable. You can put me into different situations, and I can find ways to survive and make things work.

International Women's Day (IWD) is a celebration of women's achievements and values. In Singapore, only 27% of businesses are women-owned, and you are one of them.

What were some of the worries or concerns you had, especially as a female entrepreneur in Singapore, when you first started out?

Before I launched the brand, I was worried that as a female, I wouldn't have a voice in meetings or during pitches. I wondered, "Will people believe in what I'm trying to say?".

Another worry was whether people would accept my brand. "Would the market think this is something nice that they would use at home?" or "Will the market even accept my aesthetic, my taste, and what we put out to the market?

Thankfully, the customers, clients and partners who I met on this journey are progressive and really accepting!

What are some common stereotypes about women in entrepreneurship that you've encountered or experienced? Are there any harsh comments or have people looked down on you and how did you handle these comments? 

In my experience, most people are very nice and see women entrepreneurs as a positive thing. However, sometimes, there are people who don’t understand why women want to start a business.

As a woman entrepreneur, I would get asked, “Why don’t you just get a full-time job, get married, and live a stable life? Why go through the hassle of starting a business?”

Whenever I represented my business and pitched, there was always a doubt if I’m really the one who’s running the business, as they would ask if I’m representing someone else.

Even when I represented my business at the department store, I got mistaken for a promoter. And if I said that it’s my business, they even asked if it was my father’s business or a business passed down through generations, despite Maelstrom being something I built from the ground up.

While my family is supportive, there is still doubt about whether this business is something I will choose as my career forever. They often check in, 'Oh, you're still doing this business, right? Is it doing okay? Is it scalable?'

While I understand that people may be curious or concerned about me, hearing these comments that they still think this way, there might be other people who are more doubtful when it comes to women running a business. 

Additionally, I recently had a friend ask me if I would just stay at home and take care of my kids if I got married. I responded, 'Can I do both?' He then said, 'How can you take care of your kids and also run a business? You have to choose.' While I agree that motherhood is a huge responsibility and I may give up my business to take care of a child, that doesn't mean that women are incapable of handling both roles. Even at this point in my life, I'm already wearing so many hats, so why must I be limited to choosing just one?

I think surprisingly, the harsh comments I receive are often from other business owners, notably men who run established businesses. I have experienced them not taking me seriously and saying, “Okay, this feels like a ‘passion project’. I’ll just support you because it’s like a fun hobby project to you.”

I get that a lot from men, older people, and even my relatives. Often, they think the business I’m doing is not serious and say, “Okay, just play for a while. When you’re tired, you’ll move on.”

Other stereotypes are like, “All women are very emotional and very weak. If you face something that’s too challenging, you probably just break down.” which I think it’s not true.

I was brought up by my grandmother, and she has a lot of discipline and resilience. I see these traits in her, and they have followed me throughout my journey. I think as women, we are strong. We can take on challenges just like men and navigate them with empathy. I don’t think we are any inferior to them.

Despite all the stereotypes and harsh comments, what motivates you to keep going and how do you take care of yourself?

I think I’m just a rebel at heart. Growing up, whenever my friends said I couldn’t do something, I would just do it and bear the consequences, of course.

In terms of business, I adopt the same approach—I take action and let the results speak for themselves.

With Maelstrom, I’m motivated to change up the tableware scene. When I look at what’s available in the market, I feel like there’s so much more that can be done, not just by myself. I welcome different people to bring in new ceramics to freshen up this space. 

Most of the options in the market are from very old legacy brands. I believe that as a young brand, by introducing new designs, we can increase our competitiveness and bring fresh perspectives. 

That’s what motivates me. Being a small business, we can bring new things and it’s easy for us to change. We have the flexibility to try anything, fail, redo, and try again.

As an entrepreneur, I'm constantly reminded of work. However, I try to go to Johor Bahru (JB) every weekend with different friends to try different experiences. Recently, a friend introduced me to fishing, and we went to Kukup! We rented fishing rods, spent the evening off our phones, and caught fish. It was good to spend time away from work.

Whenever there’s a chance, I travel to see the world. I also use these opportunities to understand different cultures, including the pottery scene.

Who are some of the figures in your life that supported you along the way

Definitely my father. I’m grateful that he provided me with an environment to pursue what I like. At least I’m not burdened with immediate financial responsibilities like paying bills and such.

I have had quite a comfortable environment to start and space to store my products. I cannot imagine starting out having to rent space from the beginning. I think I wouldn’t have lasted more than half a year; I would have run out of money by then.

Other than my father, my greatest inspiration in life would definitely be my grandmother. I was brought up by her. When my father was out working hard, she was the one who raised three kids including me. She was the one who kept the entire house in order without a helper throughout my 26 years of life. 

She managed everything, even when I had three dogs. Witnessing her ability to handle so much makes me feel like I have no right to complain. If she could do all that without much education, then what excuse do I have?

One of her regrets is that if she had more money, she would have studied and probably travelled the world. So, a reason why I work so hard is to earn money to help her realise her dreams that she couldn’t because she had to take care of us.

Her resilience truly inspires and motivates me.

It must not have been easy on this journey of being an entrepreneur and on top of that, being a woman in such a male dominated industry. In general, what do you think are the biggest challenges women entrepreneurs face today? 

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of community. I may be unaware, but whenever I go to networking sessions or entrepreneurship clubs, I see a lot of men and I feel intimidated. I worry that if I attend, will I be listened to? Will they think it’s just a ‘passion project’ again?

It would be nice if there’s a support system, a close community of people, especially women who probably face the same problems.

On this journey, I actually met a lot of brand owners who are women as well.
When we sit down and talk, we realise we face the same problems. For example, we have a lack of resources. We don’t have a place to feature our goods or enough space to store them.

We also struggle with finding the best accounting system or how to run e-commerce.

It would be nicer if people collaborated together, even women-led businesses coming together.

I think by growing this space as a community, we can support each other and compete with bigger companies out there instead of competing against each other.

What do you think women can do more to help break these barriers and stereotypes?

In the context of women entrepreneurship, I believe women can first come together as a community to discuss the challenges we face. Instead of trying to figure things out alone, having a community means we can ask for help and move forward faster.

We can celebrate small achievements together. No matter how small they may seem, sharing our successes can show others, including men, that we are taking action and making progress, not just talking about it.

Is there a particular female figure that inspires you?

I really like the founder of Love Bonito, Rachel Lim.

Not only because we share the same name, but also because I remember when she came to my polytechnic school to give a speech; her story with Love Bonito really inspired me.

She started during the pre-e-commerce period, packing her stuff in her house. It was quite similar to what I was doing with my thrift store at that time. I thought, if she can scale her business to such a massive size, then I can do it too. 

I was very inspired by her as her brand grew beyond just selling clothes; she empowers women and brings a lot of confidence in them. To this day, I always follow her updates. I would love to meet her in person one day.

I used to work for Love Bonito as well, as one of their part-timers. I really love their whole concept. They don’t do things just for money; they also do it for the entire women’s community, which is something I really appreciate.

I kept thinking about this brand and wanting to work in this space to see how she leads and runs a business. She’s a mom of two and still manages to do so much, which is truly impressive. I listened to all her podcasts, and through her, I realised that there are actually some support systems in Singapore for women. 

Any words of encouragement do you have to all the females out there who might be thinking of starting their business as well?

Just do it. Don’t overthink it. Dream big.

Often, we tend to be perfectionists, focusing on things like the logo, branding, or website platform, and spending days deciding. But in reality, the market will tell you whether it works or not, so just launch your product and refine it as you go.

Don’t be afraid to set aside your ego and ask questions. I’ve noticed that many men let their egos get in the way, but actually, women are more open to asking questions and having heart-to-heart conversations, which often leads to more ideas flowing.

I like to live by this quote: “If your dream doesn’t scare you, then it’s not big enough.” So, think big and work towards it step by step. The universe will help you get there.

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