IWD 2023: How the founders of Dia Guild are empowering women through art

Power trio


By Phyll Wu

IWD 2023: How the founders of Dia Guild are empowering women through art

Where would we be without all the strong, incredible women in our lives? Be it your mum, sister, friend, or even that one woman you randomly met who shared a series of thrilling tales about her life, everyone has a female figure who inspires and drives us to be the very best version of ourselves. Yet, it’s no secret that women from all walks of life are often not treated as equals, being seen as merely fragile, sensitive beings that would crumble under the slightest pressure—and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Whilst we’ve certainly made progress in pushing gender equality, misogyny and sexism are very much still prevalent in today’s society. In the labour pool, women are paid far less than their male counterparts across many industries, leadership roles are frequently reserved for men, and maternity leaves are limited to unreasonable durations or seen as “occupational hazards”—not to mention the mansplaining, objectification, derogatory comments, and overfamiliar remarks they regularly encounter.

That said, there are many extraordinary women who have challenged the odds, letting the world know that they are more than their gender’s oppressive stereotypes. Three women, in particular, take the spotlight in this story, namely Alia Farouk, Kylie Francis, and Aisha Hassan, who joined forces to launch Dia Guild in 2020 (in the midst of the pandemic!).



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Based between Kuala Lumpur and New York City, Dia Guild serves as a platform for brilliant Southeast Asian artisans to achieve well-deserved recognition and support on a global scale—or simply, it’s a love letter to Southeast Asia, as the girls like to call it. Dedicated to changing the false narratives about our vibrant continent, empowering aspiring female entrepreneurs and creatives, as well as shining the limelight on authentic artisanship, the curated platform currently boasts 23 brands across six countries, and they’re just getting started.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we had a chat with the passionate trio about their journey as a female-owned business, their insight on the social stigma against women, the stories of their partnered artisans, and upcoming plans for Dia Guild. Scroll down to get in on the conversation!



What sparked the decision to launch Dia Guild? 

Kylie: “The idea for Dia was born out of a desire to bring niche, heritage fashion to a global platform while simultaneously breaking stereotypes of Southeast Asia. Aisha, Alia and I have always been supporters of local brands and whenever we’d travel throughout Southeast Asia, we were highly impressed by the level of craftsmanship and design that exists in the region. Yet many people associate Southeast Asia with having cheap, poor quality products.”



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“The rise of fast fashion, whose clothes are mass manufactured by factories in Southeast Asia, has unfortunately contributed to the negative perception of products in the region. So we wanted to reverse that stigma by curating a collection of incredible Southeast Asian brands and products for customers, while in turn building a bridge for Southeast Asian brands to reach the rest of the world.”


In any field, discrimination and gender inequality has been a common—and even normalised—experience for women. What are some of the hardest challenges you’ve encountered as a female-owned business and how did you overcome them? 

Alia: “There are certainly those who have a discriminatory view of female founders and they have suffered for it, but we’ve been lucky—at least from our personal perspective—that this hasn’t significantly affected our business experience. In fact, it sometimes seems that people underestimate us (as three petite, young-looking Asian women) which makes our ambition, grit, and preparedness have an even greater impact. Moreover, the compassionate work culture we’ve built as three best friends, sisters to others (and pretty much each other), and Kylie as a mother, is something we bring to every partnership or professional task we have, which has only served to take us from strength to strength.”


While gender equality in the workforce has come a long way, there’s still a lot that can be done. What are some initiatives that should be made to create a more inclusive and supportive work environment for women?

Aisha: “It’s been amazing to see Kylie juggle her responsibilities at Dia while also being a present mother. However, it also emphasized the importance of maternity leave, which we were able to offer, but that many companies, including in Malaysia, do not always adequately provide. Prior to January 2023, mothers were only given 60 days of paid maternity leave in Malaysia, which has now risen to 98 days, matching the global minimum standard of 14 weeks, but this is still less than the International Labour Organization’s recommendation of 18 weeks.

“Fair maternity leave policies (and for that matter, paternity leave policies) should be in place to help parents, especially women who have been historically compromised for choosing to become mothers, maintain both a family and a fulfilling professional life.”



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“Another initiative that would help build a more supportive work environment for women is more tailored mentorship opportunities. At Dia, we pride ourselves on customising our internship experiences to what our prospective interns (who have coincidentally all been incredible women) want to focus on, whether that’s marketing, finance, or operations. It would be amazing to see more companies and female founders not only doing this, but also collaborating with each other, and even educational institutions, to create tailored mentorship experiences for as many aspiring young women as possible. This would not only nurture the pipeline of women into the workplace but also create a more thoughtful workplace culture as a whole.”


What are some of the most absurd misconceptions that you’ve heard about women? 

Kylie: “We’ve all come across a range of unhelpful stereotypes, but at Dia, we just try to focus on role-modelling attributes that we think women often excel at.  We care deeply about the company culture and foster an “assume best intentions” mindset to ensure that everyone’s efforts are fully appreciated and that everyone feels supported.  Building a business is hard, so it’s important to recognize people’s contributions and celebrate them.”


Having worked with numerous female artisans across Southeast Asia, what are some of the most empowering stories you’ve heard? 

Alia: “With 21 out of our 27 partner brands being female-founded or run by female artisans, there is a moving story behind each of them that makes us so proud to work with them. There is Lorraine Lee, who first began tying nautical knots with her father because it was cognitive therapy for his hypoxic brain injury and memory loss; these knots rooted in memory then evolved into earrings and her brand, Talee Studio, was born.



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“Another Malaysian brand, Sophia By Shirley, was founded by Shirley Ong and named for her daughter, Sophia. Shirley always wanted to be a mother and had trouble conceiving, so when she did, she was determined to work in a way that also lets her spend time with her daughter (while handcrafting exquisite obi silk bags).  These examples are just two of many of Dia’s amazing partner brands.”


Who are the women in your life that have inspired and empowered you?


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Aisha: “My late maternal grandmother helped raise me, and she taught me the importance of remembering your roots, resilience, and finding beauty in even the smallest things. And my mother has always been the epitome of selflessness, grace, and what it takes to overcome even the most difficult challenges. Both of these women have always been my pillars of strength.”


Any words of wisdom for aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Kylie: “One of my favourite Malay proverbs is “sikit-sikit lama-lama menjadi bukit.” This resonates because it reminds you that building a successful business doesn’t happen overnight; it’s the accumulation of many little steps.  So my main advice is to just start (that’s the hardest bit!)—you’ll be amazed at what you achieve in a matter of months.”


What are the exciting plans that Dia Guild has in store for 2023? 

Alia: “We have set up a pop-up store at Momaku Bangsar Shopping Centre that will be open to the public from Thursday, 9th March until Wednesday, 22nd March (8am to 10pm). Alongside showcasing our products and the brands behind them, we have organized mini-events throughout the two weeks—an open mic night, a mixer for female entrepreneurs in the city, invited local artists to showcase their artwork (which will also be available for purchase)—with the intention of bringing together different communities. Momaku will also be offering a special menu for this event, including Gula Melaka Cream Puffs and Gula Melaka Lattes. Feel free to come by with your friends to shop, eat, drink and enjoy!



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“In June, we have an exciting event planned with The Datai in Langkawi, in conjunction with their 30-year anniversary celebrations. We’re excited to share more information about that, and more exciting events and collaborations, soon!”


How is Dia Guild celebrating International Women’s Day? 

Aisha: “Luckily for Dia, with three female co-founders and 80 per cent of all our partner brands also being female-founded, celebrating women is a wonderful everyday experience. On IWD 2023 itself, we will be finalising preparations for our pop-up.  It will finish with a gathering of female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, including our partner batik artisan Intan Suria, to share her personal stories.

“On Thursday, 16 March (9:30pm), I will also be interviewed by ‘Sitting In The Nude’, a community that shares vulnerable stories, for their IWD special. Stay tuned to all of these by following us on Instagram @diaguild or subscribing to our newsletter at www.diaguild.com.”



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