Growing the Mustard Seed // 種植芥菜籽
Charlene gave up her finance career and founded The Mustard Seed Workshop, a grassroots for-profit business that empowers members of communities in need to earn a sustainable livelihood. In the interview below, Charlene shares the challenges and surprises God took her on to start her own social enterprise.
Charlene放棄她於金融界的事業，並成立了芥菜籽工作坊 – 一個使有需要的社群能夠自食其力的基層營利性業務。在以下的這個訪問中，Charlene 分享了神給她的挑戰和驚喜去創辦她自己的社會企業。
What’s the concept behind The Mustard Seed Workshop? How was it started?
The Mustard Seed Workshop Limited was formally set up in April 2011. The idea came about after I went on a mission trip with my home church IECC in Easter 2009 to Qinghai, China. While I was in Qinghai, I met a local missionary who – together with his wife – was running an orphanage home, caring for child prostitutes and girls that would otherwise be sold as slaves. I was humbled by their work and decided to help them find distribution networks to sell their yak cheese and sausages that were used to fund their orphanage home. The products ended up being way too expensive and with the custom logistics and costs, they couldn’t be delivered to Hong Kong at the end.
But, this got me thinking: it didn’t have to just stop at yak cheese and sausages. Isn’t there a huge marketing and distribution problem for many of these grassroots workshops? I realised there is a big gap in the market for high quality socially responsible products that are beautifully packaged, aesthetically pleasing and well made. The Mustard Seed Workshop was therefore set up
to bridge that gap by serving (1) communities in need, helping them attain financial independence through gainful employment opportunities, market solutions and viable production distribution channels that expand their reach to global consumers, and (2) global individual and corporate consumers, by helping them take part in sustainable and holistic transformation of communities in need through perosnal or corporate gifts solutions.
How and when did you feel the personal calling to start up The Mustard Seed Workshop?
When I came back from Qinghai, I couldn’t sit still and kept thinking about what I saw and experienced there. I talked to my friends about the orphanage, the yak cheese, the poverty, the injustice and everything that twisted my feelings, emotions and understanding. I started to consider how I was living and what I was doing with my life. At the time, I had training from doing private banking and was a real estate investment trust analyst. I knew that my heart was not set to be a missionary on the ground, but I wasn’t using my time and talents wisely for God either.
Then, a friend said to me, “Why don’t you do something then?” This shook me and led me to one year of intentionally praying for my next step. I guess it was at that point that I realised my personal calling should be to act on what I believe God has invited me for (though at the time, I wasn’t certain what that would look like). During that one year, God opened many doors for connections on the ground and opportunities to talk about my ideas. I started buying samples from different parts of the world like the Philippines, Afghanistan and India, working from my balcony, and talking to missionaries and local contacts from around the world. When the opportune time came, I resigned from my corporate post and founded The Mustard Seed Workshop.
之後，一位朋友告訴我：「你為什麼仍在坐井觀天呢？」這說話提醒了我，並且帶領我開始在往後的一年時間裡，有目標地為著下一步禱告。我想，我應該是在那刻受到呼召去為神作工（雖然那時，我不是十分肯定事情發展如何）。 在那一年裡，神給我很多機會和網絡，讓我去分享我的構想。我開始從世界不同的地方，如菲律賓、阿富汗和印度買樣品，與來自世界不同角落的傳道人和當地的負責單位分享我的構思。當機會來到時， 我便辭去了工作，並成立了芥菜籽工作坊。
Is it difficult running this social enterprise?
Yes, very difficult. I guess one of the prime difficulties is how novel the concept of social enterprise was back then. It was quite a foreign idea for most people here to set up a for-profit business that aims to solve poverty and social injustice issues. It is still a new concept now, but there are a lot more social enterprises today in comparison to the time I started considering setting up the business. I didn’t have many supportive voices. Although it is better now, I still struggle with this these days. It was because of this that I chose the name “The Mustard Seed Workshop” for the company, which is from Matthew 17:20 “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Running The Mustard Seed Workshop has allowed me to see the constant need of deeper intimacy with God, to care only about what He thinks, and serving The One audience alone.
非常困難。我想其中一個最基本的困難是，當時社會企業這個概念很新穎，對很多人來說，成立最主要的目的，是解決貧困和社會不公平的問題。其實到現在為止，這還是個很新穎的概念，但相比我剛開始成立這門生意時，現在已經有很多社會企業了。那時侯，我沒有得到很多支持的聲音。雖然現在大有改善，但我還是會掙扎。就是因為這樣，我選擇了“芥菜籽工作坊”作為企業的名字，這是從馬太福音17:20：「…… 你 們 若 有 信 心 ， 像 一 粒 芥 菜 種 ， 就 是 對 這 座 山 說 ： 「你 從 這 邊 挪 到 那 邊 。 」他 也 必 挪 去 ； 並 且 你 們 沒 有 一 件 不 能 做 的 事 了 。」經營芥菜籽工作坊，讓我知道需要不斷地與神有更深入的關係，在意神的想法，並單單地事奉那獨一的主。
In what ways has The Mustard Seed Workshop experienced challenges and blessings from God?
It is always a risk to hire a new staff. There are additional logistics, time spent, training and costs that need to be invested and accounted for whenever we hire a new person. We always pray for who we should hire and when we take that step of faith, not only would God provide sufficient funds for that to happen, He would also open a new regional influence or a new list of corporate clientele for us to expand the business. This happens every single time. This is how we now have retail presences in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia with 11 corporate clients from hotel, airline to wedding bouquet industries.
Although participating in holiday bazaars and fairs do not generate our main stream of income, we often go once or twice a year to get relatively low-cost marketing exposure. Whenever we do participate, not only could we sell enough to cover the table cost, which usually costs quite a couple thousand HK dollars(!), there would also be sufficient cash to rent a car back, cover costs of labour and a small profit of less than a hundred HK dollars.
God always provides just enough – it’s never too much, but definitely not less than what we need. We always experience first hand 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It’s nerve-wracking, exciting, so scary and so good at the same time!
聘請新的員工總是帶有風險的。 每次我們聘請新員工時，我們需要投入時間、培訓和費用等。我們總為到應該聘請什麼人而祈禱。當每次我們邁出信心的一步，神不單預備了足夠的資金去成就這事，還會為我們開展一個新區域，或者為我撰寫一張新的企業客戶名單，去讓我們拓展業務。這個神蹟每一次都會發生，也因而造就了我們在香港、新加坡和馬來西亞等11個企業客戶（包括酒店、航空公司 到婚禮酒席行業）的零售業務。
神的供给總是足夠的，永遠不會太多，但一定不會少於我們所需的。 我們總能親身經歷哥林多後書 12：9：「我的恩典是夠你用的，因為我的大能在軟弱中得以完全。」這真是既令人煩惱，又令人興奮；令人心驚膽跳，但同時又充滿著祝福。
What are the key lessons you learnt from running The Mustard Seed Workshop?
Definitely a prayerful heart. Prayer is the fuel of running the business. All of our partner workshops and clients were given as a result of prayers and over the past 2 years or so, we could see God’s hand in blessing the growth of this business.
Having fellowship and trusted friends in our working environment is very important. We keep learning that we cannot bless others if we are not in daily receiving of His word. So, we try to create an environment that allows our staff to share what God is teaching them on a personal level through His word and through other gifts and skills that He has given them.
Personally, I have also learnt to daily release my expectations, desires, challenges, and stresses to Father God, and to remind myself as much as possible that He is the CEO and this is His company. My pride is always in the way, but I am so thankful that God forgives me everyday and still wants me to be involved in His work. He has taught me that He would always provide sufficiently and when it is time to do something else or not do anything substantial, that is also OK.
Can you detail some specific times where you felt God’s hand working in The Mustard Seed Workshop?
I must say, nearly every day is interesting at The Mustard Seed Workshop. But, there is one story that I always tell because it reminds me and our team of how crazy good God is. When I first started the business with zero staff, I had a wild dream of securing inflight sales on an airline. I figured that this would give us free global marketing exposure and certain fixed level of sales. So, I thought to myself, “Who are the big guys?” I then googled who the CEO of a major airline was and told God that I wanted to meet him some day, some time soon.
And, God answered pretty quickly. One day, I was in a shopping mall and heard that the major airline was doing an event there. I ran over and asked their staff, “Who is your CEO? Is he here?” They quickly directed me to him. And, there I was, standing in front of him with my shorts and flip-flops completely unprepared and inappropriately dressed for a potential BIG client meeting. But, I had to grab that golden opportunity. So, I pulled out all my guts and walked straight to him with two soap samples made by the slum communities in the Philippines that I so happened to have, which I originally planned to give my sick uncle in hospital. It was from that meeting that I got to pitch the business the first time to a major global industrial player, which grew to securing a 6-month period of inflight sales in 2012 for the company. Seriously, if you don’t have money and you don’t have an agent, you just have to be gutsy…there is no other way.
Where do you hope to go from here with the business?
When I first started The Mustard Seed Workshop, I was only thinking to have a sphere of positive influence amongst my peers and families. I didn’t think it would become a brand. But, when the company got our first corporate client, the spa of a 5-star hotel, I realized God wanted us to go big and to grow us from being a small mustard seed to a huge tree that provides shelters for those in need. After seeing the Mustard Seed Workshop grown over the past 2 years or so, our team could really see it becoming a globally recognized brand that produces high quality socially responsible products. The global platform would provide us a ‘microphone’ to advocate how we believe God has always intended businesses to be run. Our prayer and vision is that one day, we won’t need to introduce ourselves as a business with a social purpose or a social enterprise anymore, but that having a social impact will be the norm of how a profitable business is to run around the world.
You can find out more about the Mustard Seed Workshop at www.TheMustardSeedWorkshop.com or by following them on Facebook: facebook.com/TheMustardSeedWorkshop