From the United Kingdom
Interview by Lisbeth Monéton
Julia is the founder of BAMBOA, a company that makes sustainable lifestyle products made out of bamboo based in Hong Kong. BAMBOA actively promotes the use of the most sustainably resourced bamboo by designing attractive, high quality and practical home and lifestyle products that are made in rural communities across Asia. All of the products are made on a fair-wage basis as a stable source of income, thus helping to alleviate poverty in less-fortunate regions.
Hello Julia, Thank you so much for taking the time to share the wonderful story of your life in which the passion and engagement for the environment and sustainability were forged already in your young days.
We’re very excited to hear about your journey towards creating your own business and why you picked Asia! During our talk before the interview, I really felt your energy, your passion and commitment for everything you do like learning languages, traveling the world, your advocacy for a cleaner world, creating objects for the benefit of our health and the planet and setting up your own business. What an inspiration for all of us ...
FF: You were born in England, then moved to Freiburg, Germany when you were 12 years old. You then went to Taiwan and in 2008 you lived in Hong Kong. Now, you are back in Europe so, where is HOME to you?
JW: I could write pages about the word and definition of HOME. I find it challenging to give a simple answer as I feel at home in so many of the places I have lived - Taiwan, Hong Kong, England, Germany, and France. I have a base in Hong Kong, Germany, and France and therefore I feel my home is in all three places. I don’t mind adding a fourth home too 😉
I am perhaps a human version of the migratory bird, the flamingo.
FF: Tell us about your childhood and teenage years. How did the move from England to Germany influence the rest of your life?
JW: We moved from the outskirts of an industrious city in England to an idyllic university town, Freiburg, nestled in the Black Forest bordering France and Switzerland. It is one of the most eco-friendly areas in the world. Everyone rides bikes to school and to work. The town is largely car-free and has been powered by solar energy and wind power since the 80's. My parents installed solar panels in both our homes in Germany and France very early on. Living in an environmentally-friendly place and having parents who supported environmental-friendly practices has definitely shaped and defined me and made me want to protect our planet even more. From the age of 16, when I attended a private boarding school, I was labeled a “hippie”. It never bothered me. I always replied: 'If it’s to protect our planet, then you should consider becoming one too!”
My passion for environmental protection started when I was 13 years old and I knew that I had to do something in this field later on. And now, I feel true to myself doing what I always wanted to do to — help protect our precious planet.
FF: Your father played an important role in your love for languages, especially Chinese … is that right?
JW: My Father, being a linguist, taught himself Chinese in order to be able to use it and recognize a few symbols (characters) when traveling to Taiwan for work. He shared his passion for Chinese with me by teaching me Chinese characters in a fun way. I think I am artistic, so learning beautiful characters just seemed right for me. During my last year of school, I spent one month living with a Taiwanese family and attending daily Chinese classes, which is why I ended up choosing to study Chinese Culture at the University of Cologne, Germany.
FF: You've mentioned to me before that Chinese for you is like a “lifetime partner" - it never leaves you and evolves all the time. Each character has a story to tell, similar to that of a person. The language has had a huge influence on your way of thinking and the choices you have made in your life. It is very fascinating. Please tell us about that.
JW: While completing my degree in Chinese Culture, I learned over 5,000 Chinese characters (symbols) and they taught me discipline, perfection (eye for detail), tenacity, patience and to see the process of learning a language as a journey instead of a race. These have helped me to create BAMBOA - the journey from building it and sustaining it. I wish to keep BAMBOA going for as long as possible and for as long as I love it. It has always been a priority for me to enjoy and have fun with the business and work I do. It has never been about making a quick buck, but rather as a journey to be enjoyed.
I suspect that I could have had a successful corporate career with my language skills and fascination with business yet, I would never trade it for BAMBOA. The freedom and creativity it gives me is my biggest reward.
FF: What did you do before BAMBOA and what lead you to open your own business?
JW: My work experience was in project management, product development, product design, quality assurance, and people management. I learned how to get things done efficiently under very tight deadlines. I worked as a project manager for a U.S electronics firm in Taipei, then I was sent to Hong Kong by a German mail-order company to manage their household purchasing department with over 5,000 different home and personal care items. Having to visit endless factories all over China to carry out quality inspections and develop new products, I could no longer support this rat race of producing low quality, unsustainable products. I was forced to find ways of producing them cheaper, so that the retail stores in Germany could stay competitive and maximize their profits. Sadly, when you squeeze manufacturers to produce at a lower cost, the quality and eco-friendly methods and practices fall out the window. I no longer wanted to be a part of this troubling chain, sending hundreds of container loads of eco-hostile products to Germany. The consequences are irreversible. Again, I could write pages about this, as I passionately want to raise awareness of the cradle-to-grave cycle of environmental harm.
Therefore, it was my mission, and my biggest goal, to create a business promoting home and lifestyle products that are eco-friendly from cradle-to-grave. I started BAMBOA in the Summer of 2008, just after the financial crisis hit — not the easiest of times to start a new venture. However, I was determined to make it happen and to create sustainable, attractive and useful products made by rural Asian communities living close to bamboo forests, whilst at the same time promoting the wonder-plant, bamboo, and its advantages.
For me, BAMBOA achieves three goals:
1) Use of a sustainable resource
2) Provides economic help to impoverished rural areas, and
3) Increases the production of bamboo, which does not require fertilizers or irrigation and consumes carbon dioxide.
FF: Your company BAMBOA sells only products made of bamboo. Please share your fascination and your love for this resource? And how did you discover the diversity of this fast-growing plant?
JW: How much time do I have? hahaha, again pages and pages can be written. The first time I really became aware of bamboo was actually on a field trip through Ivory Coast, West Africa. I was helping a friend with a sustainable coffee and cacao plantation at the time (in 2004 -2005). We were traveling along dirt roads with huge craters. All of a sudden, I saw what appeared to be a tunnel in the distance. When we reached it, I could see that gigantic bamboo was growing on either side of the road, creating beauty, shade, and relief for travelers. I felt a majestic and protective power of these gigantic plants - something I will never forget. This natural tunnel continued for kilometers. It was amazing!
Then, after arriving in Hong Kong in 2006, I was awed by bamboo scaffolding that encased and enveloped enormous skyscrapers. This is where bamboo shows off its many fantastic characteristics: being resilient, harder than steel, yet flexible, light and durable — and of course wonderfully sustainable, unlike steel and aluminum which are wasteful and require a toxic production process. Bamboo can survive a typhoon and is easy to cut on the spot. This is where my fascination with bamboo started. I just researched the hell out of this amazing resource to get more insight and soon found that bamboo can be made into thousands of different useful products.
FF: For those of us who are not familiar with the virtues of bamboo, can you enlighten us?
JW: Bamboo has been a fascination in Chinese literature and art for thousands of years. You will often see bamboo in Chinese paintings. There are many poems on bamboo. The reason is as described above. It is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet. Through its intricate root system (rhizomes), it holds the ground together, preventing soil erosion. It has been used to write with, to write on, to sleep in, to ride on, to sit on, to cook in, to cook with, to fan with, and even to eat. This gives us a sense of the incredible variety of bamboo products that have been made by hand for thousands of years in China
FF: What is BAMBOA ’s mission?
JW: BAMBOA’s mission is three-fold -
1) To offer attractive, useful and durable eco-friendly home and lifestyle products
2) To provide rural communities an income
3) To promote the demand for bamboo.
Since bamboo releases 35% more oxygen and grows three times faster than trees, it is common sense to help promote it to help balance the CO2 and fight climate change.
FF: You have a wide range of very cute products for babies and kids. Why is bamboo fabric the perfect choice for the little ones?
JW: Due to its natural anti-bacterial properties, bamboo fabric protects babies’ fragile skin, is incredibly soft and makes babies and their parents feel cozy, peaceful, and protected. It is also great for allergy-prone skin or eczema.
FF: Do you design the products yourself or where do you find the products you sell in BAMBOA?
JW: I design 80% of our products myself and the rest have been developed by my suppliers.
FF: In which countries do you produce?
JW: We produce mostly in Vietnam, China, and Thailand.
FF: You love to travel and have been to several places amongst which Laos and Africa to find inspiration for BAMBOA products. Tell us about how bamboo is used in other countries?
JW: I love to discover and source traditional handcraft bamboo items from rural communities across the world and to see handcraft practices. In Myanmar, they make beautiful bamboo umbrellas/sunshades, traditional temple urns, baskets, and delicately hand-painted bowls that are given its lustrous color through a native tree lacquer. Vietnam is famous for making spun bamboo bowls, the ones you see on our website. China has the most bamboo plantations in the world and wherever bamboo grows artisan communities are handcrafting a lot of different kinds of bamboo products.
FF: I hope it’s ok that we reveal that one of your customers is Buckingham Palace. That's very impressive! How did you get in touch with them?
JW: I can’t really get into that but obviously it took a great deal of hard work and a bit of good luck. We are also very proud of our relationships with some of the world’s best-known luxury hotels.
FF: You started BAMBOA in 2008. What is your role in your organization now? And which part are you most happy to work with?
JW: I am the Director, CEO, and creative director. I come up with new products and collections. I also oversee the marketing and digital marketing. I am most enthusiastic about coming with new products and designing. This includes the packaging, which is always using bamboo fabric or recycled cardboard - we avoid any plastic.
FF: Did you find it difficult to start up a business in Hong Kong as a woman?
JW: Hong Kong is perhaps the easiest place to start up a business for anyone. It took me a week or two to set up a limited company. In general, I find that gender equality in Hong Kong has a lot of room for improvement. As my field is in the home and design sector, I think I have it easier than those in finance or perhaps the legal sector. I generally believe it's just as easy or hard for a male or female to set up a business.
FF: BAMBOA actively supports Mother’s Choice in Hong Kong, which is a local charity serving the many children without families and pregnant teenagers in Hong Kong. Tell us about how you engage with them?
JW: Hong Kong is the most expensive city in the world, and it is a very tough place for many to survive, particularly young mothers without the necessary means. Education plays a huge rule in fighting poverty and increasing gender equality. Mother’s Choice makes a meaningful impact in supporting disadvantaged young mothers. BAMBOA is a sponsor of prizes and gifts for their various fundraising events. We have also provided hundreds of bamboo kiddies and dining ware to their childcare centers.
FF: What were some of the toughest moments or decisions you’ve had to make on your journey? And how did you tackle them?
JW: In tough times, I nearly gave up and threw in the towel. However, being surrounded by supportive friends, I have always been able to retain my passion for what BAMBOA stands for. I had to find the patience and positivity to simply tackle through hard times and believe that better times were on the horizon. I have been practicing yoga for 14 years, which has helped me get through the rough waters and to see the bigger picture, instead of transient hardships. Meditation and listening to positive and uplifting podcasts and YouTube videos helped me tremendously.
FF: What were some of the happiest moments on this journey?
JW: One of the happiest was landing a huge order from a well known international retailer in Spain. That really helped me launch the first Bamboa collection in 2009. It also enabled me to move into my own office space on Wellington Street (a main shopping street in Hong Kong), where I also could create my first retail outlet. We had a beautiful roof top terrace too, which I utilized and turned into a Bamboa garden, with bamboo decking and bamboo plants all around. It was a dream come true. Then, when business was tough in 2015 and I was about to quit, out of the blue — and actually on my birthday — in came a lucrative order for a significant project in Macau. It would keep my business running for at least another year, without any other income. At times, we have had to consider pulling the plug. I am extremely glad I never did, especially after investing so much time and money.
FF: What inspires you to continue?
JW: I still believe in our mission, I love my own products and know that our customers love them too. There is nothing better than happy customers, who love your products and service. This is what makes me continue.
FF: Who are the women and men that stood behind you?
JW: My parents were a huge moral support. My best friends have been great supporters too. And the biggest support I have received is from my partner. Over the last 8 years, he has been my rock. Without him, BAMBOA wouldn’t be what it is now.
FF: What do you attribute your success to?
JW: My previous product and project management experience has helped me to get things done in a timely manner and stick to promised deadlines. I am also a problem solver. Wherever there is a problem, there is a solution. I am also creative which has helped me build and execute a brand without having to pay external companies for it.
FF: How did your career affect your family life?
JW: I built a business that I can manage from anywhere so, I have been able to spend my time in Europe with my family and only travel around the world when I need to find business opportunities. These have always been priorities.
FF: What are your recommendations for people who want to live more eco-friendly and sustainable?
JW: Before grabbing a product, whether from a food aisle in a supermarket or a fashion, home, or daily use item, ask yourself: Do I really need this? Is it healthy for me and the environment? Or does it create waste that doesn’t biodegrade? How is it packaged? What is the durability of the product?
We should slow down and think before making a purchase and avoid impulse shopping. There are also so many things you can easily make at home: hand sanitizer, face creams, face masks, house cleaning products … I make these myself at home creating little waste. Have fun making your own things at home!
FF: What’s the next step for you or what are you most excited about right now?
JW: I have started the “Grow Bamboo Initiative” where parts of our proceeds go to growing bamboo in impoverished rural areas to help create a bamboo cottage industry and economy.
FF: Looking back on this journey, would you do it all over again?
JW: I don’t have regrets and am proud of what I’ve created. However, there are so many interesting professions nowadays and it would be a lie to say I wouldn’t want to try something else in the future.
THE RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
FF: What did you have for breakfast this morning:-)?
JW: I had Greek yogurt with berries, flax seeds and nuts, plus a coffee with coconut milk.
FF: How do you prepare yourself for the day?
JW: It depends where I am. Mostly, I go for a run or a workout to start the day. When in Europe due to the time difference I tend to start the day with breakfast, followed by catching up with my team in Hong Kong, and in the afternoons I do my creative thinking, along with sports and workout.
FF: What are some of your favorite things to do on a day off?
JW: I am a huge fan of water sports and have been doing outrigger canoeing, surf ski, and stand up paddling on a competitive level, attending races all around the world. I was a Women’s captain in our paddle club and I love to encourage women to get into this sport. I also love cross country skiing - it's a new passion of mine in the winter months.
So, on my off days, I will either be hiking or skiing in the mountains or paddling on the ocean. I also love musical instruments and play the cello, piano, and also a bit of guitar. I like to practice these instruments and just goof around a little and improvise.
FF: As a child: What was your dream job when you got older?
JW: My dream job was to be a jazz singer. I still love jazz and sing for myself mostly. I have also composed a few tunes.
FF: What is your education? And did it match your childhood dreams?
JW: My education was an M.A in Chinese Studies, so it doesn’t really match becoming a jazz singer. Maybe I can eventually link them both and will write a song about bamboo!
FF: If you should describe your life with just one word, what would that be?
JW: `Formidable!´ Seriously, its been a wonderful life so far and I feel extremely blessed with being a visitor on this incredible planet and having a great family and friends.
FF: Do you have a motto or a saying that guides you?
JW: Live life to the fullest and in the NOW. Travel as much as possible, learning about different cultures. Never dwell on past mistakes or let regrets stand in your way..
FF: Who is the most inspiring woman for you?
JW: Angela Merkel - she’s tough and blunt yet compassionate and gets things done
FF: Julia, before we finish the interview, you asked me to add a special tribute to your mum and I find it perfect to add your loving words here:
JW: My mom is my hero and inspiration. She is the most giving, compassionate, and kind person I know, who will always go out of her way to serve or help others. My mother came to Hong Kong in 2014 to help me open my 2nd store in the beautiful heritage center. Besides being such a great supporter and partner, she truly is a trooper who keeps and holds our family together. She gives me this strength of being grounded and always thinking of how my business can benefit others.
FF: What brings the most joy in your life right now?
JW: Working on new projects, travel, and sports.
FF: What is your absolute favorite book or film?
JW: Book: The Art of Happiness (An interview with the Dalai Lama) & Film: The Big Lebowski
FF: What are three things you are grateful for?
JW: Health, freedom and our wonderful planet Earth.
FF: What is your best piece of advice for people who want to live out their dreams?
JW: Never stop believing in yourself.
FF: Is there anything you would like to share before we close that we didn’t touch on?
JW: I think the most important is to find meaning in whatever you do, and doing it with good conscience - without harming our environment, animals, or people. I wish that all newly founded companies can incorporate these three principles, which are quite basic really – one would think!
FF: You do some incredible work for others, so is there anything we can do to help you?
JW: I would like to offer a special 15% discount with the code FF2020 to all Femme Formidable community members so they can experience our wonderful products. Our online store is: www.bamboahome.com and follow us on FB and Instagram! That is already a huge help! Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Thank you so much, Julia, for sharing your advice, for your enthusiastic and honest story and especially your beautiful words to your mother. It is very important that we recognize and also express the love and respect we have for each other. As well, thank you so much for the generous discount you've given the community.
We wish you lots of continuous success and happiness in life.