Beauty book: Elaine Hong of Enya on menstrual care standards in Malaysia and what makes a #PowerWoman
Go with the flow
Did you know that "period poverty" is a serious health issue that is widely experienced by the underprivileged community here in Malaysia? While statistics remain scarce, the National Population and Family Development Board has quoted that women from the bottom 40% of households face this issue—and occasionally use period pad alternatives such as coconut husks, newspaper sheets and even banana leaves.
That's where personal care brand Enya comes in. Co-founder Elaine Hong is determined to fill that gap by offering women the right to proper period care products i.e. organic cotton pads that are breathable and comfortable—for free.
On feminism and its modern-day context...
"My personal opinion is that women already are powerful. You just need to come across a person or an experience to unlock the power on your own. We always say, “Let’s come together as a community to empower each other.” But what does that really mean?
"For Enya, we’re not a feminist brand per se. The word 'feminism' is thrown around simply as if it doesn’t mean anything anymore. But our company's core value is to rely on each other—whether you are male or female.
"My co-founder is my business partner and boyfriend; we complement each other a lot in terms of everyday tasks. He goes out to pitch to investors about period pads and the benefits of using organic cotton pads as though he has experienced bleeding, and he’s not! Sometimes when we meet investors, they get skeptical and say: “How would you know?”
"But he takes his time to know what I go through and the problems I face every month, and that’s why he was willing to start this business with me. It’s because I go through a lot of discomfort when it comes to menstrual care, and he’s a problem-solving kinda guy, so naturally he wanted to do something about it. One of the reasons why he dived into this with me is because he cared for me, his sister, his mum and women who go through the same period problems as we do.
"Feminism isn’t exactly being pro-female or pro-male; to me, a business should progress with plenty of opinions and back-and-forth from the community. As the saying goes, men are women are like wings of a bird—without one or the other, you can’t fly or move forward."
On her definition of a #PowerWoman...
"The first thing that comes to mind is my mum. She’s not a business owner—she actually sells insurance. She worked her way up from when she was young. For someone who wasn’t well-versed in English, she decided then to take up lessons and now she’s absolutely proficient.
"I think that’s the main factor of a being a successful woman—when you decide that you want to do something and you stick to it. It can be something as simple as 'I want to learn English.' I remember how she used to read newspapers every day to improve her English, and now she’s actually selling insurance in the same language—the way she sells to her clients really bowls me over as well!
"Nowadays, most people think that: to be a strong woman, you have to own a business, you have to be a mother, you have to be a good wife—but it's not true and it's extremely stressful to live up to these expectations.
"Just go with the flow. Do what makes you happy; do what makes a difference. As long as you are genuine in what you do, your beauty and strength shines through. Good intentions are beautiful and you can tell when someone isn’t keeping it real."
On challenges of being a female entrepreneur at this day and age...
"I am very grateful that Chris has been my supporting pillar when I first launched Enya. I believe that, as a business owner, you need someone to support you 100%. It’s challenging to start a business on your own and to risk it all to hope for a better return just because you want to improve something as simple as menstrual care. Every day is a challenge.
"But to convince people why I’m suitable enough to lead, it gets challenging. It doesn’t help that I’m very petite—people are judgmental and think that I’m still a kid who’s not capable enough. It's sad to say, but that is still the truth.
"But as a woman, it’s important to recognise what is advantageous for you or your business. For example, if entrepreneurial competitions offer grants to women-led companies, you should consider it as an advantage. We shouldn’t see it as a weakness and I feel that we should be grateful that we do get opportunities too."
On what she's most grateful for...
"For people in the media to recognise our business. I find the community here very supportive of women-led companies and brands. When we first launched last March during International Women’s Day, we had a little pop-up at a corporate headquarters of a bank and randomly called a representative to ask if they could give us a chance to deliver a short speech and give our samples to the bank’s employees—and they said, "Sure, come right up!".
"We do have substance—and so I feel that when we present ourselves with a compelling story to tell and that our product works, it makes it even better. I’m thankful for the support and the loyal customers. Our traffic relies a lot on peer-to-peer recommendations and organic growth. One of the most notable moments I had at Enya was seeing men subscribing for their girlfriends—a male influencer subscribed for his girlfriend and it went viral on Twitter! My team couldn’t sleep for two weeks at all—every time we refreshed the page, we had another 20 new orders.
"But that’s what we had set out to do from the start. Enya means 'fire' in Irish; we wanted to spark a conversation about period and that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. And now we realise that the market is ready for this kind of conversation.
On her current plate...
"Enya just launched in Singapore so most of our efforts are channelled towards that. Here in Malaysia we’ve just hit more than 1,000 active-paying subscribers. Of course, the misconception about subscription service products is that not everyone is ready for e-commerce subscription. But we believe that this is the future of shopping for frequent purchasing, especially for daily and monthly necessities.
"For us, we wanted a subscription service for period pads because it’s a straightforward way to go. Most women need it on a monthly basis and some of them forget to occasionally stock it up. And that's where Enya comes in. We truly believe that every woman deserves quality menstrual care at an affordable price. Scotland just implemented a ruling whereby tampons are free—and that’s amazing."
On what she hopes can be improved in menstrual care...
"Earlier on, there was little to no innovation with period pads. It’s always about adding more products into a product—and we realised that we actually don’t need that many products, like fragrances, in our pads. We do have clients asking us why don’t we add fragrance into our products, but I think it takes education to change their mindsets. We're making our brand relevant with the way we craft our storytelling—it can’t always be too formal, instead it should be more relatable.
"Currently we’re focused on catering for sensitive skin and making sure all our products are skin-friendly. We're splitting our resources on ensuring that the subscription business model works in Malaysia. Then we’ll have a round of fund-raising to have more flexibility with R&D.
"We’d like to pour it into making the pads eco-friendlier. When we talk about biodegradable things, our misconception is that 'nature can take care of it'. But biodegradable plastics only decompose at a certain temperature, so we’re sourcing for a suitable material for such pads."
On her downtime routine...
"I unwind by play games on my phone. It takes my mind off things and I can just not think about anything when I'm in a game. My shoulders ache occasionally because of my (awful) desk posture—but recently I’ve been swimming and I feel that it helps. My skincare routine is super simple: Cetaphil face cleanser, Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner, The Ordinary’s “Buffet” serum, moisturiser and sunscreen. I like clay masks for a weekly detox too."