BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

Behind Deborah Henry’s jewellery brand that funds a refugee school in Malaysia

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As of March 2021, Malaysia has around 178,920 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. However, we did not sign with the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its protocol, and we also don’t have an asylum system regulating the status and rights of refugees.

Because of this, refugees here lead unpredictable lives since there isn’t any legal framework that guarantees them any living or working rights. 

Hence, many local organisations have taken matters into their own hands instead, and one of them is the social enterprise, Fugeelah, led by Deborah Henry, who was Miss Universe Malaysia 2011. 

No longer wanted to beg for funds

“I wanted to create opportunities for the youth and refugees, and also to build branding around advocacy. But ultimately, I wanted to build something that was profitable and could sustain our nonprofit, Fugee,” Deborah shared with Vulcan Post.

“I didn’t want to constantly be begging for funds.”

One of the girls making jewellery / Image Credit: Fugeelah

Fugeelah is a fashion brand that specialises in jewellery-making. A lot of their jewellery has its signature cursive “Lah” branding stamped on them, and they’ve got names like Pink Lah, Blue Lah, Green Lah, etc. 

Fugee on the other hand is their education arm which provides scholarship funds, assistance to access IGCSE/GED exams, kindergarten and primary education, and more, to refugees.

Involving the beneficiaries themselves

While Fugeelah has its own in-house designer, it also works with 4 refugee girls, two of whom are currently doing an end-of-school exam.

The 4 girls working part-time with Fugeelah and selling at a bazaar / Image Credit: Fugeelah

“The designer and I would look at trends and what’s happening in the marketplace right now, but we also chat about concepts with the girls and see what they think about [them], especially for the handmade collection which they’re very directly involved in,” Deborah said.

“So when they’re making it, we’ll ask for their opinions like if the jewellery should be shorter or longer or where should the placements be, etc.” 

The advantage that Fugeelah offers is that it’s a part-time job whereby the girls can choose to come in whenever they want. For an hour’s work, they’d earn RM10 from making jewellery and selling in bazaars. Deborah shared that they’d come in once or twice a week, so they’d earn RM200 to RM300 per month.

It’s not much, but it serves as pocket money. The handmade jewellery consists of colourful bead necklaces, and some of them are named after the girls themselves, like Silvia. The other projects that the girls help out with are the pearl earrings like Rie and Yara earrings.

One of the girls working on their handmade collection / Image Credit: Fugeelah

Because Fugeelah is still new, Deborah has no intention of onboarding too many girls to do part-time with them just yet. “I’ve done it before, where I wanted to help a bigger volume of people like 20 women but that’s really hard especially for a growing team,” she explained. 

“If I was going to try and hire 10 girls, and not all of them are interested in jewellery nor good at making them, I’m going to spend most of my time training them instead of building the business,” Deborah highlighted her plans to be more strategic and sustainable with hiring. 

For buyers who appreciate quality

On their site, you’d find their jewellery is priced at RM170 for necklaces, RM120 to RM160 for earrings, and RM149 for brooches, for example. It may come across as pricey, but these would be your standard prices for jewellery that is not mass-produced.

“I want people to buy our product because they like it, not because they pity us. I want them to buy it because these products have a story to tell and not because they want to do us a favour,” Deborah asserted.

Deborah and the girls / Image Credit: Fugeelah

“Sometimes we’re so obsessed with things being cheap that we forget that to make something super cheap, you’re compromising its quality, or [the] work ethics of a brand.”

In 2019, they gave away 40% of their revenue from Fugeelah’s earnings to Fugee School, but that has changed a bit now. For instance, when they collaborated with Khoon Hooi previously to make crossbody bags from textile leftovers, they dedicated a higher percentage of earnings from it to the school. 

“The earnings from the general jewellery that we produce and sell are kept [at] a fixed amount, but for some collaborations, we also dedicate 100% of the profits to the school,” she broke it down for us. 

“So, at the end of the year, we’ll have a combination of various different impact points that lead to an overall percentage of profit.”

Entrepreneurship on top of education

“What we hope is for these girls to learn both hard and soft skills from Fugeelah, like learning how to do an inventory check, stock management, salesmanship skills, and more,” Deborah said, hoping that their work helps guide the girls in deciding what they want to do next.

Some of the girls giving modelling a shot / Image Credit: Fugeelah

Running a social enterprise is never easy, and Deborah emphasised a lot on profitability as a social enterprise to sustain their work. 

“Sometimes I think, maybe in hindsight, I should’ve created an easier business like making potato crisps or something because people love them and will buy them, and we get to make more money,” she joked with Vulcan Post. “Obviously for a fashion brand, it takes a lot of time to build.”

But she’s positive that Malaysians are now more receptive and understanding of how social enterprises work, and she hopes local social enterprises will continue getting more traction as Malaysians become more conscious with their buying. 

  • You can learn more about Fugeelah here.
  • You can read about more social enterprises we’ve covered here.

Featured Image Credit: Deborah Henry, founder of Fugeelah

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