The small business scene in Malaysia is finding its way into the spotlight now, popping up like mushrooms after a rainy day. From connecting consumers to skilled worked to ride-hailing and food delivery, there are startups offering just about everything – and Malaysia is really getting into the game now.
Check out our list of 15 Malaysian-made startups:
One form of startup that is gaining ground, both in terms of profit and responsibility, is social enterprise, which is a little different from the more traditionally profit-driven business. While some traditional businesses also channel part of their profits into corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects as a way of giving back to the community, a social enterprise combines the business model of a for-profit organisation with the social mission of a non-profit.
Essentially, a social enterprise applies a market-driven approach to their business with the goal of solving social problems by completely reinvesting their profits into their chosen field of social work. It’s what you get when a business makes their CSR the main objective of the organisation, rather than a sidebar.
Many of the startups in Malaysia have adopted this business model to help tackle specific social issues in the country, and some are already making a real impact in society. So, we’d like to shine a spotlight on these local social enterprises in an editorial mini-series here on ExpatGo.
First up is Seven Tea One, a company that makes and sells herbal infusion drinks while helping adults with special needs. We caught up with Seven Tea One’s founder, Majidah, who walked us through Seven Tea One’s progress and goals.
Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself, Majidah?
I am a certified sustainability specialist and founder of Seven Tea One. I have over 12 years of professional experience and have lead a number of corporate sustainability departments.
Why did you decide to start Seven Tea One and how did it all begin?
After years of working in sustainability and corporate responsibility areas with various MNCs and GLCs, I wanted to work in building long-term solutions in addressing social issues. Don’t get me wrong, corporate Malaysia is extremely generous and their sincerity in helping the community is really admirable. There was this time when we rallied our company staff to feed the homeless around KL. Over a hundred volunteers turned up for the program.
But the question is, what happens the next night, and the night after that? Same goes for visits to orphanages and old folks homes. Who looks after them when we are not there?
I wanted to build a company whose purpose is to address some of the most difficult social issues the country faces. A company built for good. We did not want to keep fund-raising and we did not want to be considered a charity, so becoming an NGO was not a option. So the idea of building a social enterprise came up.
At the same time, I was really into urban gardening at that point. I grew all kinds of vegetables and herbs in my own garden and was already experimenting on drying herbs and turning them into tea. I became fascinated with all the amazing things Malaysian herbs and flowers could do and all their traditional health benefits! That was when it struck me. I was going to build a social enterprise that makes tea with Malaysian herbs, spices, and flowers!
What makes Seven Tea One a social enterprise?
Three things makes Seven Tea One a social enterprise:
- We are a for-profit company registered with Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia (SSM, the Companies Commission of Malaysia). We are not an NGO. We have a business plan that is designed to scale and grow the company’s profitability for the purpose of increasing our social and environmental impact.
- Our operational workforce (which is more than half our company) consists entirely of families of adults with special needs. Currently, a majority of them live with a condition called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In our office, sometimes they are quiet and zoned out. At other times, they are singing, screaming, and jumping. We do not work with children, only adults. Even as adults, they are always accompanied by a parent or guardian because they are not independent. The parent or guardian has had to stop work to care for them. So we hire them, too. Together, we process fresh leaves and make them into tea. There is no work discrimination at our place. Whether they have special needs or not, everyone has the same productivity and work quality standards to meet and are paid the same.
- The leaves that we use to make our teas arrives at our office fresh and on the stalk. The leaves are removed from the stalks by hand so as to not damage the leaves. The stalks are then given for free to our families, our neighbours, our communities, companies… Actually anyone who wants to start their very own urban garden. In the last six months, we have enabled the cultivation of over 3,000 new plants all over Klang Valley itself.
What were the challenges you faced in starting up a social enterprise?
Trying to get people to understand what a social enterprise is! People still mistake us for an NGO.
How big is the current team and do you have any plans on expanding?
We are a team of 10 now, operational staff and all. We started the company in July last year  with two families. In January this year, we brought on board our third family. We currently have a fourth family on trial to join our team.
The growth of our company is tied directly to the number of families we ‘adopt’. The more we grow, the more production we have to meet, so the more of them we have to hire for operations. We can only grow by increasing our social impact.
How can people get involved with Seven Tea One?
We have had people wanting to come and observe our operations; however, this is not possible because we work with people who are easily distracted, have disruptive social behaviours, and more importantly, have had to deal with discrimination their whole lives. What they don’t need is an audience staring at them working!
We also receive a lot of inquiries about sending their family members with special needs to work with us. While we really want to adopt more families, this is only possible if our company grows.
How can you help our company grow so that we can adopt more families? Buy our teas! Buying our tea helps our company sustain more and more families of people with special needs. More importantly, buying our teas bring a sense of pride to our families who make the tea because it means that customers appreciate and enjoy what they make and the work that they do.
We call this ‘having a dignified incomes’. There is dignity is working and earning and we have seen obvious development in the confidence level of all our families since they have started working with us.
Social enterprise startups seem to be really taking off here in Malaysia. Why do you think that is?
As I mentioned in the beginning, Malaysians truly are a generous bunch and we are sincerely concerned over social issues. I think that social enterprises are booming in Malaysia because there is a market for it here. People want to help and want to see an improvement in our social and environmental conditions and are therefore very supporting of social enterprises.
Malaysia is therefore a great social enterprise incubator. I personally think this is a win-win situation because it means sustainable solutions to social and environmental problems are being rolled out and SME businesses (because most if not all social enterprises are SMEs) are thriving – which is good for our economy!
Where do you source your raw materials? What’s the process of making Seven Tea One teas?
We source as much of our ingredients as possible from urban gardens, community gardens, kampung areas just outside the city. Almost all our tea varieties are 100% locally sourced. All our growers and farmers grow organic so we always find the odd insects like snails and caterpillars in our leaves when they arrive. The leaves are plucked from the stem by hand one by one and cleaned. They then go into food dehydrators to gently dry the leaves.
After the leaves are dried, they are sorted and blended with other ingredients to make the different types of tea. All of this needs to be done by hand, resulting in tea with perfect, unbroken leaves. Our leaves are also processed with no chemicals whatsoever. The most obvious difference between our tea and other teas is that other teas are often in black powder / dust form. Our teas are in full leaf form.
Where can we find Seven Tea One teas?
Seven Tea One is available online at seventeaone.com. On our site, you will also find a list of restaurants and retail outlets we are available at and bazaar events that we participate in. Links to purchase are also available on our Facebook and Instagram pages. We also make a lot of personal orders such as wedding favours and corporate orders such as hampers and tokens of appreciation.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
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