Yong Mien Dee and Nurlin Mohd Salleh have their hands full. As career mums, they certainly comprehend the eternal struggle of wanting to spend more time with their children while trying to navigate their roles in the corporate world.
Yet, as the founders of LinDees sit down with Options at their new integrated play and work space with a restaurant in Hartamas Shopping Centre, they say they want more. “We decided that we don’t do enough, apparently,” laughs Nurlin, a mother of three.
It is this high spirit that led the two go-getters — Yong is an entrepreneur who runs a start-up with her husband Ken Izkandar while Nurlin is a partner with Boston Consulting Group — to start a business together in the first place.
“We met when we were asked to be part of a (government-linked) women’s leadership organisation about three years ago. Unfortunately, it didn’t go anywhere but that group of us became quite good friends. And one day, Mien Dee asked if I was interested in setting up something together. This was around May last year. We sat down and started thinking about what we wanted to do,” says Nurlin.
The idea was partially born out of Yong’s own business, an eCommerce platform called Kidxy that promotes children’s activities. “We have over 300 vendors and about 500 activities on our website but, on average, only 20% to 30% of them actually get purchased. I think parents here are still not used to buying activities for their children online unless they know the brand or have experienced it.
“So, what I wanted to do was create a platform for my vendors to showcase their activities, a place where they could offer workshops to which we could also bring the parents. It started from there and evolved into questions of logistics with which we ourselves often struggle, like where I can bring my kid when I work? Where can I also feed her?” Yong explains.
The duo, drawing on their personal experiences as working mums, saw a gap in the market and they believe that there is demand for an integrated service and product even if the market has not fully awakened to its potential.
Says Nurlin, “With her daughter and my five, three and one year olds, of course we started with the play area. But we also realised that to be truly sustainable and profitable, we needed to create a place for the parents as well.”
The co-working space then came into the picture, which, combined with the play land and café under one roof makes LinDees — a portmanteau word of their names — the first of its kind in Malaysia. However, it is not just this aspect that sets the outlet apart from the others, although the physical space in itself is appealing enough.
Walking into LinDees, the first thing you notice is the abundance of sunlight, thanks to its front-facing floor-to-ceiling glass façade that runs the length of the elongated space. At the forefront is the café, which is stylishly decked out in pastel furnishings with bright accents. An elegant flight of stairs leads to a loft on one side, which is where the co-working area is located, overlooking the play land further within.
Architect Soon Tan incorporated into the design decorative touches like woven rattan lampshades and faux creeper plants on the ceiling at the behest of Yong and Nurlin, who wanted a hint of Malaysia’s tropical vibe. The greenery is even more prominent in the play land. An old-school metal swing that was ubiquitous in Malaysian households in the 1980s and 1990s makes for a picturesque welcome while hopscotch squares on the floor will no doubt create a wave of nostalgia in parents. Apart from the drawings on the walls that are for children to colour in, there is a play station where they can learn crafts or pick up toys, a climbing wall, a small jungle gym and the “Harmony Hall”, which features a façade that resembles the Sultan Abdul Samad building, a library and a stage space for events.
But the highlight of LinDees’ play land is no doubt its almost life-size (well, at least child-size) kampung house at its centre, while a smaller version sits in the nearby toddlers’ play space.
Still, the likely key to LinDees’ success has to be the founders’ hands-on approach to their venture and their community spirit. “This month’s theme is ‘My Malaysia’,” says Nurlin, pointing to the batik wall, which is covered in different fabric for the young ones to touch and learn about. There is a congkak set in the kampung house while the play land’s staff stand by to teach the children how to fold traditional paper games or how to make lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
“Last month, we did ‘Under The Sea’ and next month, we’re doing ‘Tropical Rainforest’,” Nurlin adds. “We noticed that a lot of children’s play spaces are Westernised. We wanted ours to showcase our local identity, to expose our children to more elements of Malaysia, our cultural heritage and activities. Last week, we also held a wau bulan workshop.”
Yong chips in, “It’s not just kiddy activities and external workshops by our vendors — like the one with RoboThink recently. We wanted to encourage the mums as well — there are many young families here in Hartamas — to be entrepreneurial. So we had them make cakes at home and sell them in a booth here. We’ve worked with the Dignity for Children Foundation to sell clothes to raise funds. Soon, I want to set up something like a bazaar for the older children to sell things, maybe lemonade or crafts that they make.
“We’ve also tried chess. My husband plays, so sometimes he comes here and we just put up a post on social media saying, ‘come play chess with Uncle Ken’ and if you win, you get RM10. Suddenly, we got a slew of people coming in with their whole family. The father was watching the game, as was the grandfather. It’s nice to see how something as simple as chess can bring people in.”
Both women believe the community has taken to them and LinDees well thus far, with there having been private birthday parties at the place every weekend since they opened their doors for business three months ago. “We’ve even had to stop walk-ins at some points because we couldn’t cope,” says Yong. That said, Nurlin says their focus is still on balancing their profit and loss as well as trying to build a strong team alongside them. “We’re both consultants (Yong did a stint in PwC in Chicago, the US, before returning home) and so we are always focused on what we need to fix, especially our biggest challenge thus far — labour — and we probably don’t celebrate enough how far we’ve come,” Nurlin admits, but she adds that seeing the three components as separate entities with their own targets helps them ensure long-term sustainability.
The next step is to drive interest in the co-working space, which they say has been an uphill battle because, fundamentally, it involves trying to change the mindset of the working parents. “In Malaysian culture, we’re not used to going to a place where we can let our children play while we take meetings and work. The companies here don’t perpetuate that culture either, so changing that behaviour will take some time,” Nurlin observes.
Sharing that she has been lucky enough to do her meetings — both women still have their day jobs — at LinDees while her children play downstairs, the consultant says that change would only come if society and employers are willing to see that the model for working mums (or men who take on a more involved parenting role) has to be fundamentally different.
“If we appreciate and understand the value of women in the workforce, then we need to find means and ways to support them so that they can succeed and thrive in their careers. To do that, we can’t underestimate the fact that women still hold the bulk of the responsibilities of family and home, so they are essentially tackling the mental load of a second job. But if the mindset doesn’t shift faster, women will still be falling off the workforce,” Nurlin stresses.
Yong relates her own experience with her daughter. “Before we started LinDees, I hardly spent time with Kyra beyond our routine after I get back home. Now, when I bring her here, first she’s learning something from the activities, secondly when I take a break to go see her, I notice things about her development that I never did at home. It can just be 15 minutes but I learn about how she likes to play with certain types of toys or how her motor skills have improved. We’re hoping that parents can have that option to spend quality time and be productive on the weekdays, and not have a completely separate environment. You can do both.”
This article first appeared on Sept 23, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.