Batik Boutique, Malaysian social enterprise supporting artisans

If you tuned into the Budget 2024 tabling last October, you may have noticed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim carrying a rather eye-catching bag.

Featuring black leather and an interesting geometric pattern, it was supplied by a homegrown social enterprise named Batik Boutique.

According to Amy Blair, the founder of Batik Boutique, the Prime Minister’s office had contacted her directly to propose batik designs, keen on supporting Malaysian batik for a good cause.

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

“We stopped what we were doing, and my team and I began to propose which artisan to work with,” Amy shared with us.

They chose to feature a third-generation batik artist from Kelantan, working with a local leather maker for other elements of the bag. The final result ended up plastered on many Malaysians’ screens on October 13, 2023.

Image Credit: Anwar Ibrahim

“We started receiving inquiries afterwards if people could buy the bag,” Amy shared. The team has since made replicas of this “PMX Bag”, some using cheaper materials so people can afford it.

Even before this though, Batik Boutique had already made quite the name for itself. Founded in 2010, it’s a social enterprise that empowers artisans across Malaysia through skills training and economic opportunities.

It was also featured on Vulcan Post in the past. In 2017, to be exact. But it’s been nearly seven years, so here’s a look back at how Batik Boutique came to be.

Be the change you want to see

Originally from Texas, Amy has lived in Malaysia since 2007, having moved here to work in hospitality and tourism. Being in this field, she noticed there was a gap for a quality gift that was locally produced and “authentically Malaysian”.

“I thought someone should do something about that,” Amy mused. “Generally, though, that’s not usually me but someone else.”

Later, she befriended a woman, Ana, who lived in the PPR flats. She learnt about the women living there who couldn’t work traditional jobs because they had children to take care of.

As a new mum herself, she understood the struggle. That’s when she thought of merging her ideas for an authentic souvenir with her friend’s sewing skillset.

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

With that, Batik Boutique got its start in Amy’s own home. She told us, “I never intended at the time for it to grow into what it is today.”

Although Amy had experience in for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, this was a whole new challenge.

Yet, she persisted. “I understood hard work and I understood grit. I was raised in a family that was not well off. We had financial struggles, and I’ve worked since a very young age to support myself through university. For me, I was able to get out of the cycle, to break the cycle of poverty in my own life.”

Still, Amy looks like an unlikely person to be leading a batik-focused social enterprise. She said she often gets asked, “Kenapa matsalleh ni kena buat batik, kenapa kita tak boleh buat, as orang Melayu?”

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

(Amy has quite the impeccable pronunciation, having put in the effort to learn the language.)

She generally laughs and agrees with the sentiment. But it’s not surprising that it takes an “outsider” to produce new ideas and solutions.

“If you came to Texas, maybe you would see and appreciate something I wouldn’t see inside,” she pointed out. “I do have advantages coming from another country to have a fresh perspective.”

Increase profits to increase impact

When Batik Boutique started, Amy was more focused on the charity part of things, but she has since realised that charity doesn’t keep a business running. Rather, it requires true entrepreneurship.

While Batik Boutique falls under the umbrella term of “social enterprise”, Amy clarified that their business model is set up to be what’s called an “inclusive business”.

That means Batik Boutique is intentionally set up to be a for-profit business that uses its value chain to uplift its beneficiaries. As the business expands, the impact expands.

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

“Through that growth in me and my mindset, I’ve realised the best way to create impact is to grow the business,” she said.

With this goal, Amy has shifted her mindset to have more of a global vision for Batik Boutique. Instead of just focusing on women, she now wants to support artisans from all marginalised communities.

“I want to see Malaysian batik as a major player in the fashion industry globally and Batik Boutique is the way to do that,” she said.

And to put Malaysian batik on the map, she understands it will take families, communities, and more than one gender to do it. It’s like a cycle: Helping the local community contributes to business growth, and growing the business will ultimately increase impact for the community, too.

A growing landscape for social enterprises

While social enterprises have always existed, the term has become more of a buzzword as of late.

To Amy, this is not a bad thing at all. She credited this increased awareness to the generational shift in our thinking.  

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

“I think we all realise we all have to work and we have to earn a wage, we have to live, but we also want to do things that matter to us, that have causes and are impactful at the same time,” she said.

But the increased number of social enterprises might mean increased competition. However, as Amy pointed out, it’s not easy running or leading a social enterprise, especially when you want to scale it.

“You need to understand how to solve problems in society or in an environment, and also how to run a business,” she explained.  

There’s another layer of competition that Batik Boutique faces, though—the rise of batik brands.

To that, Amy has a message for consumers: “Make sure you understand what batik is.”

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

For the uninitiated, batik isn’t just a design. It’s a wax-resist dye method. Amy said that oftentimes, brands may claim to use batik, when it’s just using batik-inspired patterns manufactured via machines or screen printing.

While there’s nothing wrong with beautiful, batik-inspired items, Amy believes they don’t serve the heritage or the local community, and thinks that such brands should have the integrity to clarify that.

Leading a cause and a business

Today, Batik Boutique has grown to support 400 artisans across Malaysia, with 1,500 beneficiaries. Consistently, they employ about 100 people on a full-time basis.

Last year, the social enterprise became B Corp-certified. This is a global accreditation that can take years to achieve, as it looks at various aspects of a social enterprise, from how it treats its employees to environmental factors.

Image Credit: Batik Boutique

For 2024, the business will be opening a store in Mont Kiara as well as raising funds in order to expand their operations and, subsequently, impact.

All this will push them towards the long-term goal of putting Malaysia on the map for batik.

“My jalan may change, or my direction may change, but where I’m going doesn’t change,” Amy shared.

The journey won’t be easy, but that’s something she anticipates.

As a person who may seem “unqualified” to do what’s she’s doing through Batik Boutique, Amy often returns to one of her favourite quotes: “It’s only impossible until it’s done.”

  • Learn more about Batik Boutique here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Batik Boutique

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