Published – Bamboo money – Issue 5, September 2010 :: Entrepreneur’s Story: InnovAsians: http://www.bamboomoney.net/eg/issue5/investing/entrepreneurs-story-innovasians
Entrepreneur’s Story: InnovAsians
Lizette Smook founded InnovAsians, a development and manufacturing company, on the back of years of working for big corporates. She talked to Jane Cao about perseverance and passion – and having the freedom to bring your dog into the office.
The acceleration of development and globalization has created untold new opportunities for business. While it may be easy to set up a business, it is not easy to set up a successful business and to make a profit. And it is even harder in as new an industry as eco-friendly manufacturing. But Lizette Smook has made it with her development and manufacturing company, InnovAsians.
Lizette Smook was born in South Africa. She worked in industry in South Africa for ten years as a fresh graduate and then for the blue chip company Woolworths South Africa as a technology manager. In 1996, she was recruited by Nike, as the Asia Pacific Materials Manager. She then worked for Next as a Senior Technical Manager in their Hong Kong operation following her employment at Nike, as she did not return to South Africa but was recruited locally in this regional role. Speaking of those experiences, Lizette considers herself lucky to have had a good career working in big companies, with such great opportunities to learn.
But one day in 2006, after more than a decade working for big retail and manufacturing enterprises in Asia, Lizette woke up to the realisation that cheaper prices shouldn’t be the only driver for business: labour should be properly paid and responsibility should be shouldered. Thus in June 2007, InnovAsians was founded, focusing on supply chain transparency for eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle products.
When asked what it was like, starting her own business at first, Lizette answered, “Very scary! There are a lot of risks diving into a world you do not know without the security of a monthly ‘corporate salary’. And eco and sustainable is a whole new arena where I would be selling something new in a consumer driven world.”
Writing a detailed business plan and searching out funding took time. But on meeting the ‘hot’ players in the investment and fund-raising field, very few were interested in finding out about Lizette’s mission. They were interested in returns only. None of the financial people Lizette met were interested in the green arena – she was advised to “Give up her dream, return to reality and look for a job” by one fundraiser in Hong Kong, who had a reputation as ‘hot’ in finding funding for ‘start-ups’.
Then in 2008, InnovAsians was hit by the global economic recession, which was a big challenge for a start up. And to make things worse, Lizette found very little support at all for entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. At the same time, she was faced with additional technical challenges – Lizette found that corporates are not interested in selling eco textiles when sales figures drop due to the financial crises.
In re-focusing the limited customers Lizette had left, she was forced to expand her product range and not only provide (soft textile) solutions, but also acquire knowledge and technology and eco solutions for hard goods (mostly eco replacements for plastics such as hotel amenities). Some corporates additionally “feel an obligation to educate their staff” on sustainability. Innovasians had to also cater for this ‘corporate gifting’ product range. It was a vast world to deal with and these new concepts only added to the challenges.
However, with her insights in global retailing and manufacturing, as well as her sustained passion for the green business, Lizette persevered and even managed to increase business by 40% in 2008. Lizette has certainly made her green way with big strides.
InnovAsians’ competitive edge is in helping businesses understand that green is good for the world and profitable for business at the same time; building an environmental bridge to their clients’ economic goals. InnovAsians consult with their clients and find the most appropriate solutions that meet economical and environmentally sustainable goals. Listening to Lizette talk about the education necessary in the marketplace, her passion is palpable:
“People are still not aware of the green business concept. A lot of people are still misunderstanding the green business. Consumers wear an organic cotton T-shirt and think they are contributing to decreasing climate change and supporting the awareness of supporting the planet’s biodiversity – yet they have no idea what organic means. All ‘organic’ means is that the cotton grew without pesticides. It has NO reference or relationship with the way the cotton was bleached, dyed, finished and printed or made. That is a whole different world to the consumer: people need education.
“A lot of people count on other individuals or organisations to take care of their environment. Recently the example of Toyota comes to mind – we get in a Toyota and we drive and we expect the ‘brand’ to be safe and that the ‘brand’ has done all the work and testing and due diligence. But we are all accountable and everyone has a responsibility to do our own research and homework, whether it is the car or the T-shirt you buy. It should be everyone’s business. If it becomes everyone’s business, I wouldn’t have this business at all!”
Giving up a stable, comfortable job in a big company and jumping into an adventure of starting a business demands courage and passion. Lizette has certainly got both of those. “When I was working in those big companies, I did not care. But now, I feel like making a difference and making a change. I have benefited and learnt a lot from my experience in big companies and now it’s time for me to ‘pay back’ and share the knowledge.”
Now that the business is on the right track, Lizette enjoys being her own boss. She can take her lovely dog to the office and make the office more environmental and as comfortable as she likes. “But the best thing is being able enjoy what I am doing and bringing true benefits to clients and society.”
Fascinated by the charm in Hong Kong when she first set foot in that magical city, Lizette founded InnovAsians there. But Hong Kong is certainly not a big enough environment for Lizette. In the near future, Lizette will leave her green footprints all over mainland China and the rest of the world. “China is a fascinating and large market – so many consumers.”
When asked for advice and suggestions for aspiring entrepreneurs, Lizette’s recipe is” Find a niche. Find the right business partners, if you need investment. Know your market. And, most importantly, never, never lose your dream and passion. Just set your mind and you can make it happen. Believe in yourself and your dream.”
You can find out more about InnovAsians at www.innovsians.com
Lizette’s blog is at innovasians.wordpress.com and you can follow her on Twitter, where she’s sustaintologist