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Interview with The Aether: These are Strange Times

Lihui Yee's Founder of Charlye & Co. feature on the AetherEmbracing our own cultures, what we can do to fix gender inequality, and how it all came to be. CEO and founder of Charlye & Co, LiHui Yee sits down with Krisha Sandhu to discuss what it means to be a small business owner in this day

Krisha Sandhu: All right, shall we get down straight to business, who is LiHui and what is Charlye & Co.?

LiHui Yee: Hi Krisha! Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I’m Lihui, a Second Year Business student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I am also the CEO and Founder of Charlye & Co. a fashion shop that aims to empower women through fashion.

KS: I see a lot of photos of handcrafted jewellery on your Instagram page. Do you feel that by having such a specific product portfolio you’ve limited your reach, in terms of your audience?

LY: Well, why we focused on jewellery at first, is because I wanted to showcase our art through small fashionable pieces. And you’re completely correct when you mention a limited reach due to a limited product line. Currently, at Charlye & Co, we’re actually trying to diversify into other areas, such as homeware and gifts.

KS: How did Charlye & Co. come about? Has it always been something you’ve wanted to do?

LY: I actually started Charlie & Co. with a highschool classmate of mine. I wanted to try out something new and to really make good use of our gap year before matriculating into University. In terms of it always being something I wanted to do...here’s actually a fun fact for you, I actually used to be a chemistry student, but after one semester I realised that it wasn’t my passion. As a result, I transferred into business so that I could learn more about the behind the scenes of how businesses worked.

KS: You transferred to business and the rest was history. But on a serious note, it takes a lot of guts to admit that you were studying something that you weren’t passionate about and then change it. I think a lot of people, myself included, worry about choosing a major or a subject and then not liking it, but having to suck it up and stick to it cause...you chose it. But here’s a sign I guess, you don’t have to stick to it, if you don’t like something, change it. It’s not the end of the world.

LY: 100%. It really isn’t the end of the world, you could say it’s just the beginning.

KS: Starting a business and changing majors. It’s a lot of work, a lot of pressure - Were you nervous about starting Charlye & Co.?

LY: Initially I was very nervous, I had always wanted to start my own business, but I didn’t really know the basics. Like how do you even start a business, you know? But, thankfully I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I was able to get advice from my Dad. I also think that joining my school’s entrepreneurship club really helped me understand the basics of running my own company

KS: Any advice to other people maybe wanting to start their own businesses?

LY: I think that you shouldn’t be afraid to seek advice and mentorship from other people so that you can acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to start your own business. You don’t have to do it all on your own, and if there are people willing to help, take it.

KS: Carpe the opportunity?

LY: What? [laughs] Like Carpe Diem?

KS: [Laughs] Yeah but instead of seizing the whole day, take pride in seizing the small opportunities - Carpe the opportunity, I don't know how to say opportunity in

LY: Carpe the opportunity, I like it. Let’s stick with that.

Charlye & Co. Floral Frame with For Old Time Sake Co.

KS: The theme for this month’s issue is ‘rebellion’ so what does ‘rebellion’ mean to you?

LY: I feel like rebellion is challenging my own limits and society’s expectations. Running my own business, and even in University, I do get comments from time to time like “You’re too young” or “You’re not good enough to succeed”. Proving them wrong, doing the best that I can and succeeding in all these different areas, these different fields, that’s what rebellion is, to me at least.

"I’ve had to rethink my entire future"

Lihui on how the pandemic has affected her

KS: I like it, it’s rebellion on a smaller scale, the sort of rebellion we tend to overlook. That brings me to the next question - We are currently living through a unique, powerful and complicated moment in history, what have you learnt about yourself recently?

LY: I think the Covid-19 situation has really made me reflect on my goals and priorities. During the lockdown in Singapore, I felt that I really learned to appreciate my family and the country that I live in more. It’s also put me in a place where nothing is really set in stone anymore, you know? I’ve had to rethink my entire future, my career decisions, life goals, what I want to achieve. It’s a strange time.

KS: It is a strange time. But do you think, these strange times have made it good to be a business owner?

LY: It’s definitely a tough time. I think Covid-19 has made it hard for business, especially small business, to succeed. But, on a brighter note, it’s also given impetus to digitalisation and online businesses. Lately, there’s been a spike in demand for e-commerce, which in turn means that online advertising has become more crucial than ever before.

KS: I’ve actually seen that a big part of what you do roots itself in supporting women, specifically your #girlsunite campaign, and I really admire that, you've created a platform for women to support women and I think it’s beautiful, what’s the story there? Why this specific area?

LY: The reason I started #girlsunite was that I wanted to showcase the journey of ordinary women, and prove that every girl has the potential to succeed, with the hope that these stories inspire young girls everywhere to pursue their dreams. We’ve made a lot of improvement in society when it comes to gender equality, but with that being said, there’s still a gap that exists. Statistics show that we need, at least, another 100 years before we can reach full gender equality. There are still so many women who face discrimination and violence. From my own experiences, growing up in Singapore, discrimination still exists. They may be subtle, They may be subtle, but they’re still there. I’ve heard people say ‘Women aren’t good in business’ or that ‘Women are meant to be the caretakers of the family’, and it still shocks me.

KS: Yeah, it’s like, we’ve been burned at witch trials, we’ve marched for grain, we fought for the right to vote, we were a reserve force of labour during the wars, and you’re still telling me that my only role is to 'stay at home and take care of the family’?

LY: Yeah, it’s mind-blowing. But I do hope that in the future, we see more women take up C- suite positions and more female business owners. I truly believe that in order to achieve this, we need more of a talked out approach. Big businesses, educational institutions... the government needs to take the lead to implement policies to bring this moment forward. But, as individuals, we can also make changes. As consumers, we can support women-run businesses, I’m not saying only buy from women-run businesses, but by just buying one thing from them....a gift, or artwork, just by showing an ounce of support, we can make so much of a difference.

KS: Your designs are absolutely stunning, I fell in love with your beach and nature earring sets, where do these ideas come from? And how are they made?

LY: A lot of my designs are inspired by my own culture, my Chinese roots. I want to showcase my culture through fashion pieces

KS: In such an almost desensitized and commercial world, it’s important to go back to your roots. I think a lot of young adults, even teenagers nowadays, don’t show as much of an appreciation for their cultures or their ancestral histories... as maybe our parents did. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s more of an interesting observation I guess

LY: Yeah, I mean, I hope that my work, my fashion pieces, encourage young Chinese- Singaporeans to embrace their culture more. But also just to spread and show the love that I do have for my culture to other parts of the world.

KS: That’s a really nice message. I really like that.

LY: Some of my items are outsourced, others are custom made by hand. And as I’m still a student, I do still have to manage school work while working on my business on the side. I try to around 1-2 hours of my time a week to Charlye & Co, when school is ongoing, and then I can increase this during Summer and Winter breaks.

KS: Is Charlye & Co. something you continue to take on all on your own, or do you have a team?

LY: I am currently the sole proprietor of Charlye & Co. But sometimes I do get help from my family members, as well as interns elsewhere.

KS: All right, final question, we made it! What’s the vision for Charlye & Co.? Where are you headed next?

LY: In the long run, I hope to turn Charlye & Co. into a household brand and hopefully set up a shop somewhere in Singapore. However, this year specifically, I hope to be able to expand Charlye & Co., as well as work on creative partnerships with other brands

KS: Thank you so much LiHui for joining us for this interview, it’s been a pleasure talking to you!

LY: No, thank you so much for this opportunity, the pleasure is all mine!

The original article appeared in The Aether.

A space created by everyone, The Aether defies The Self to form The Collective. It is where each of us will finally become exactly who we are meant to be.

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