In an era where gender stereotypes are no longer a barrier, women entrepreneurs are on the rise. Three Malaysians saw this as an opportunity and decided to seize it. In 2020, they founded Dia Guild, an online fashion platform. In conjunction with Mother’s Day, The CEO Malaysia interviewed the founders, Kylie, Alia, and Aisha, on how they are using their platforms to inspire women and how being a working mother changes the perspective of becoming a mother, while still excelling in their careers.

The founders of Dia Guild: Kylie, Alia, and Aisha

1. First off, tell us a bit about yourselves and what inspired you to start Dia Guild? (AISHA)

Kylie, Alia, and I (Aisha) are all born and bred Malaysians. Alia and I have been best friends for over 20 years, while Kylie and I met in 2015. We’ve had the privilege to live abroad, and there is a wide spectrum of both academic and professional experience between us. We also have mixed ethnic heritages that root us firmly across Southeast Asia.  We’re  currently split between New York and Kuala Lumpur, but Dia Guild  is our shared lifeline to home.

We created Dia because in our experience working and living abroad, as well as through extensive market research, we discovered that Southeast Asia’s fashion and craftsmanship were underappreciated on a global scale, or disproportionately associated with labour exploitation and low-cost goods. This jeopardises artisans’ livelihoods, compromises craft legacies, and diminishes the perception of regional brands who are producing high-quality, exquisite goods.

It was also critical for businesses to digitise during the pandemic (Dia launched in November 2020) if they wanted to survive. Many small fashion businesses were underserved by existing e-commerce platforms, which prioritise scale and dilute brand value, and the dominance of fast fashion pushed independent designers, not to mention already struggling artisans, to the edge.

We built Dia — a curated platform that champions artisanship and designers from Southeast Asia — in response to these issues and in pursuit of changing the narrative around Southeast Asia.

2. How does it feel running your own business instead of working for other people? Is the liberation fulfilling and has it inspired many more women to take a similar approach? (AISHA)

It is liberating, and a privilege, to be running our own business. It has also been incredibly special to go on this journey with Alia and Kylie, who are both women I deeply admire and who I get to call my best friends. We are mindful of creating a work culture that’s full of drive, openness, and compassion — working for ourselves lets us do that.

While making your own rules is great, however, it can also be relentless because you need to be constantly proactive when it comes to evolving and problem solving. Furthermore, when you’re so deeply invested in a company, not to mention working with close friends, it’s increasingly crucial to draw boundaries between your personal and professional lives.

However, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Kylie, Alia, and I work so hard because we truly believe, down to our core, in Dia’s mission. Running your own company is tough and sometimes thankless, but when strangers tell us how much they resonate with Dia, or we see the success of our events, or a new brand reaches out hoping to join the platform,  the fulfillment is unparalleled.

I think that Kylie, Alia, and myself inspire each other in different ways and all of the time. While we cannot fully speak for other women out there, we have often had supportive and admiring comments about our all-female founding team. One highlight is from the launch of our event at London Craft Week last year, which was opened by the Malaysian Ambassador to the UK and attended by the Queen of Malaysia; the ambassador kindly spoke about how inspiring we were, three enterprising and passionate Malaysian women, to other people out there.

We’ve also had the privilege of working with several young women through our internship program, and all these interns write about their time with Dia. All of them have reflected that Dia’s team culture and co-founders created a nurturing, inspiring, and purposeful environment. We are proud that they feel this way.

3. What does a day in the life of a working mother look like in such an incredibly evolving world? (KYLIE)

One plausible positive aspect of the pandemic is that many jobs have become fully or partially remote. As a result, my husband and I are both able to work from home. He travels up to Boston, where his employer is based, for two days every week, but the rest of the time we divide household and parenting responsibilities fairly evenly. On days when he isn’t travelling, we get up around 6:45AM. My husband gets the baby out of bed, and I breastfeed while he eats breakfast and checks work emails.

My husband then entertains the baby while I prepare. By 9AM, the baby is sleeping in his crib, while my husband and I are working at our desks (or, in my case, the dining table). Our son sleeps for about two hours, during which time Aisha, Alia, and I can check in. As there is a 12-hour time difference between New York and most of Southeast Asia, all of my calls come in the mornings or evenings after my son has gone to bed, and I can spend the afternoon caring for him while working from home.

4. What are some of the misconceptions and myths about working mothers in society today? (KYLIE)

The most common misconception about working mothers is that you can’t be both a good professional and a good mother. But this dichotomy is false; I’ve had the pleasure of working with many women who excelled at both.

5. How can working mothers build sustainable careers and how can they overcome the challenges of striking a balance between personal life and work relationships? (KYLIE)

First and foremost, establish boundaries and communicate them openly with your colleagues. Second, be gentle with yourself. I struggled a lot when I first returned to work with feelings of guilt that I was neglecting my son when I had to work, or that I was neglecting my work when I was engaging my son. That was extremely difficult for me, and I wondered if I should take more time off to be fully present as a parent.

However, I like to remind myself everyday that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Thinking about my own experience with my parents who both worked long hours – it’s not about the micro trends of the day, but about the consistency over a long arc. I won’t always be perfect, but I’ll always be there for him and with him.

6. How do the Southeast Asian mompreneurs on Dia Guild inspire Kylie to embrace motherhood while continuing her career? (KYLIE)

At Dia, we are fortunate to work with some incredibly talented mom-preneurs. Eight of our partner brands were founded by moms! It is not only deeply fulfilling to help them succeed, but witnessing firsthand how they juggle their work and parenting duties inspires me to do it too!

7. Following Malaysia’s growing recognition of artisans and crafts, what are Dia’s future plans? (ALIA)

A night of canapes with UK based caterer Makan Malaysia

It’s been incredible to witness Malaysia’s growing appreciation for artisans and ethical fashion. We’ve seen this firsthand with the positive response to Dia’s mission and curation, as well as the incredible feedback we’ve received at our various events. We are excited about the future.

We began with only seven partner brands in November 2020 and have since grown to incorporate just under 30 brands from six different countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. We definitely intend to add more brands to our platform, particularly in categories that we want to develop, such as home goods, and from Southeast Asian countries that aren’t yet represented on Dia!

We also have a few potential pop-ups planned for Q3 and Q4, with our annual Christmas pop-up capping off the year. This summer, we will finally meet for the first time in two years (with the newest member of the Dia team, baby Miles, in attendance) to discuss our next steps.