Florence lost her child to cancer. Though it was an unbearable experience, she pulled herself out of the grief and went on to start a business. Her daughter’s death taught her that life was short and didn’t wait for anyone, so if you wanted to do something, it was important to seize the moment. Her inspiring story tells us how she managed to live abroad and open up a successful business in the face of such loss.
Today, Florence’s business is a known name in Malaysia, and her products are being sold in a long list of prominent fashion stores. Her next step is to focus on her creative side as a self-taught artist and enjoy her two adopted children.
We asked Florence to share her story with us ...
You said that since childhood you always felt the desire to travel… how do you explain that?
I was born in 1970, in a small village in Brittany, France, where cows outnumbered people. My parents were both hard working, self-made business owners. Their business was a morbid one… manufacturing and distributing funeral tomb stones. It was not glamorous, but there was never a shortage of clients!
Growing up, I developed a strong desire to roam the world. It must have been all the cows and the depressing death related dinner table conversations! To realize my dream of travels, I strategized and choose an education that would open the doors to jobs overseas.
How did you end up in Malaysia and how did you start a career here?
After studying International Trade and Relations, and doing a number of internships in the US to improve my English, I took Japanese as a new language; because a voice inside me kept telling that Asia was the place to be (my voice should have told me to study Chinese instead!). Since I could not string two words of Japanese together, all my applications for an internship in Japan were politely rejected. I did not give up. Instead, I applied for other countries in South East Asia and landed a six month internship at the French Embassy in Malaysia and Indonesia.
When I graduated, France was in recession (as it always is). Malaysia however was booming and construction cranes were the national bird! So, I gambled and decided to return to Malaysia. I gave myself three months to find a job here. And I did. As a media manager for a local company for two years, I learnt about media and advertising, about corporate Malaysia and driving in Kuala Lumpur! After a while, I was hired by Dow Jones to run their office here and in the region. During that time, I met my husband and life was perfect for six years.
Then, the September 11 terrorist attack happened and I lost my job. But I did not care, because I was pregnant with our daughter. Sophie was an incredible little girl and the love of my life. Like most mixed kids, she was exotically pretty, smart and could navigate between two cultures and languages. She had a mature sense of humor and her unconditional loving nature made me the happiest mum for six years.
While I was a stay-at-home mum, I still wanted to work because I needed to have my own identity (not just be somebody’s wife and mother), and show my daughter the value of work and independence. I like design and cultures, so I started to think about a business that would combine them both. I realized that Malaysia was lacking a brand of decent souvenirs, and I always liked products from Shanghai Tang or Jim Thompson. So, I started to design products that would represent the cultural diversity of Malaysia and came up with ‘Gadis Manis’.
You have experienced the biggest tragedy of all! Will you share with us what happened?
All was well until one day, during a routine doctor’s visit, Sophie was diagnosed with a death sentence: stage 4 Neuroblastoma cancer. She was five and a half. It is impossible to describe with words the pain the three of us went though. No words will ever translate the courage Sophie showed. I will never be able to do justice to Sophie’s contribution or wisdom, nor will I want to tarnish her legacy by sharing her life and her fight, with inadequate words. However, over the course of her six month battle with cancer, Sophie formulated two requests: the first was that we help children who have cancer in Malaysia. The second was a brother and a sister. At the time, we were too overwhelmed to start thinking about any of her wishes. But after losing her, I decided I would start Gadis Manis and use it to generate funds to support kids with cancer.
Please share with us how you did manage to run a business after the tragic loss of your daughter?
The morning after Sophie’s death, as I woke up and realized I would never see her again, I told myself I had two options: recover or crash. I thought about Sophie and what she will do given the choice. I remembered how she fought, her courage and her grace and choose to recover. I used her wishes to give my life a new meaning and try to put back the pieces.
I started working and four months after Sophie’s death, we adopted our son Alexandre, followed eight months later by a little girl, Rose. Sophie’s wish of a brother and sister was fulfilled. Through ups and downs, it has now been nine years since I started Gadis Manis.
How would you describe your experience of setting up and running a business in Malaysia for nine years?
Since I was married to a Malaysian, setting up the business was very easy. But I know it could be more complex if you didn’t have a local partner. I also know that setting up a business here is much easier than in France. From a legal, administrative and financial point of view, Malaysia is business friendly. But setting up the business is the easy part. The challenges arrive when you need to hire staff, find raw materials or suppliers. Those are a real challenge in my industry.
How would you describe the impact your experience as an expat woman had on your journey as a business woman?
Once I sorted out the initial questions of setting up the business in a foreign country, my being an expat had no negative effect on my business. In fact, being a French designer helped my branding. But occasionally, the culture differences can surface with staff, or a supplier who is not used to a certain level of standards and demands. For me, being an expat means you possess a certain level of independence, you are resourceful and adaptable. These qualities help in business.
How do you think other fellow expat women who want to set up a business could relate to your experience and what advice would you give them?
A common trait of expat women is that they usually follow their husband. They lose their identity as working, contributing women. Even if being a mother is harder than any job, because it is not valued as it should, she feel undervalued and loose her own identity. So, starting your own business, even on a small scale, can be a way to find yourself again. My advice is stereotypical but it has helped: life is too short. Do what makes you happy. Go for it.
How do you see the next step in your journey?
I want to look after my two children. I want to be there for them and pass on the story of Sophie. Like Sophie, they have a very important lesson to teach me and I want to listen to them. I will also go back to painting.
I will enjoy life and try to be serene and grateful for all I still have.