SUZANNE, REFUGEE ADVOCATE & SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR, KUALA LUMPUR MALAYSIA
INTERVIEW BY ALANA BURMAN // @ONTHESTAIRCASE
Meet Suzanne, she is young but she is mighty – and focused on making her mark by making the world a better place. She is enthusiastic, thoughtful, and ambitious - a co-founder of The Picha Project, a social enterprise startup that works with refugee families to help them sell their cooking to support their families and their children’s education. Our conversation was food for thought – and as we chatted, it became even more clear that helping others is how Suzanne grows, so oh yeah she is Blooming.
Where did the idea for The Picha Project come from?
I was starting university when I became aware that in Malaysia, refugee children can’t go to school. It disturbed me quite a lot. So, I started teaching in a learning center contributing what I had, which was a very small action, but it was what I could offer. Last year, the economy was suffering and refugees were affected seriously. Many of our students dropped out of school because they had to start working odd jobs to support their families. It happened so quickly - a class of 15 went down to 5 in just a month.
We needed to do something. As students ourselves, we couldn’t donate a lot of money, but then one of my cofounders realized – everyone has to cook for their family, so why don’t we help them sell their food? At first we asked our friends to buy the meals. After they tried it, they started telling other people and it grew from there. We got more and more people to buy and realized it was a workable way for them to earn a living. We decided to do this social enterprise properly – build a business model, get it registered, and that’s how the journey started.
"There was one day a startup mentor asked us to write a resume of our failures, and I had nothing to write. That hit me hard. What’s the meaning of living if I don’t allow myself to fail?"
Why was important for you to get involved and do something?
In my childhood, my parents showed me some great examples of how to care for people who needed help. For example, if a beggar came to the table while we were eating, instead of giving money, my father would invite them to sit with us and eat together. So that’s how I grew up – always seeing my parents’ little actions that showed how we should care for people.
I felt like the world was good and everyone could make a change but really, I had never taken action. Then when I was 19, one of my close friends passed away. It was very sudden. She had so many dreams – but she hadn’t even started on them. So it hit me: we can die at any time. I realized that death is very near, and if it’s me, if I’m the next one to leave, have I done enough? Have I made enough things happen in this world? It hit me hard – I want to leave something behind.
How will you Bloom in the next year?
Even right now, I am in a stage of blooming. Taking on a social enterprise never crossed my mind before. I thought I would go on to a masters, get a job. Already, this thing happening to me is something Blooming into a surprise! This year, it will be a focus on picking up the skills needed to run a business properly: how to manage a team as we grow, go about managing this social enterprise, and how to be businesswomen – when the three of us have no idea how to do it yet. I’m quite excited to see how things will go. It will be a lot of trial and error, there will be a lot of failures, I believe. It will be a learning process just to accept the fact that there will be failures.
Describe an obstacle you’ve overcome.
My high expectations for myself. I’ve always been someone who plays it very safe, I don’t really accept failures – but I’m overcoming that, I’m trying to embrace how things don’t always go right. There was one day a startup mentor asked us to write a resume of our failures, and I had nothing to write. That hit me hard. What’s the meaning of living if I don’t allow myself to fail?
Now, ever since we started The Picha Project – failures happen all the time! I’m getting better at embracing it, knowing it’s how I can work toward being better.
Learning from these failures, taking them as opportunities to grow and change --has it helped you find who you are as a young woman, in business, in school, in the world? Where does your feminism come from?
My cofounders and I always joke when we are doing things we think are hard, we always laugh and say, “It’s okay, we are strong, independent women,” and then we do them anyway. It’s not about proving anything to anyone, we just want to do what we think is right, whether or not it breaks a stereotype.
The startup world and the social enterprise world, in Malaysia especially, is seen as a man’s space. The percentage of women is small and us being a team of all women has brought some attention. Now people always like to say, “three young girls are doing this” and “three young girls have started that” and I guess, to the public, it’s something that they appreciate because it shows that even if we are “three young girls” there is a lot that we can do.
I used to be quite...a soft girl, all the way. Until, really, it was a bad relationship that changed me. I didn’t feel my own worth in that relationship and once I got out of it, I started having a new mindset where my worthiness shouldn’t rely on someone else. And that was also almost the same time my friend passed away. It all happened together. So that was my turning point in university where I started taking up new activities, new roles, and I went after leadership positions. It all started from there, then I got involved with the refugee community, and The Picha Project followed. I would say it’s actually been the bad experiences that made me overcome and realize my feminism; which is that even as we learn and grow and rely on other people for help, we shouldn’t rely on them to define us, we should find our own value.
The first story you shared was about when your father would invite someone in need for a meal. So from the beginning, your understanding of how to care for people was rooted in food - and The Picha Project also celebrates that. How do you think the experience of sharing food impacts your work?
I believe that food really connects people. Especially in Malaysia, everyone loves to eat and try new things and we think that people who like the same food can click somehow. With The Picha Project – the food also shares some very important stories. It's not just thrown together by a chef, it’s not something from a restaurant, these are meals from a home, prepared by a family that has gone through so much. And as they cook - the time, the techniques, the ingredients – it brings their culture alive, and they can celebrate it, even being far from home.
We say you can actually get a taste of their story through this food. You can feel more empathy with the family cooking the meal. You hear their story and you visualize this family cooking this meal for you, and all they have gone through and experienced – war, violence, oppression. Then, you take this gift – and it’s something you eat, something you consume, you take in the energy and it nourishes you. It helps build understanding.
What do you want to be remembered for?
The work I’ve been doing and the lives that have been impacted.
Sometimes I imagine my funeral. I imagine my students, the kids that I’ve taken care of, the families I’ve worked with – they’re there, and I love it. I know, it’s sad – it’s a funeral, it’s my funeral. I know it’s a bit weird. But it shows me what’s important and I want my life to be able to touch different lives.