KLites who pursued alternative careers

We talk to people who dared to ditch their jobs and follow their passion
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Once in a while, you might find yourself daydreaming at your desk at work about what life could have been like if you followed your dreams. You might think it's impossible, but these KLites prove that it's quite the opposite. We spoke to these daring people who left their conventional day jobs for something more fulfilling. 

Jasmine Gan, Sanctuary
Photo: Jeremy Teo

Jasmine Gan

THEN: Business consultant and analyst
NOW: Owner, Sanctuary by Jasmine Gan

It was never enough for Jasmine to be just a business consultant, but deciding on what sort of business to run was a question she pondered on for a long time before she launched Sanctuary, a candle-making service.

‘I’ve always gravitated towards being a business owner and the right timing also played a big factor,’ said Jasmine, who founded Sanctuary in 2015 after spotting a gap in the local market for good quality soy candles at an accessible price range. Using her experience in consulting, branding and marketing from her previous jobs with CIMB and PwC, she created a brand of candles that has since amassed a loyal fan base. ‘It took many months of personal experimentation with methods and raw materials before I was satisfied with the quality and end result. From there, it was and still is a matter of keeping necessary controls in production to ensure our product doesn’t compromise on quality,’ she said.

Aside from product development, financing the business was the next biggest obstacle. ‘It was a challenge moving from the stability of a corporate job to bootstrapping a new business,’ Jasmine recalled. Shifting gears to becoming a business owner, she was hit with the realities of handling every detail of the business – from sourcing raw materials and supplies, manufacturing and hand pouring each candle, as well as distribution. ‘It definitely forced me to learn very quickly the ins and outs of operating a retail business.’ Her success with Sanctuary – which has now expanded to include scent diffusers – proves that it’s possible to make a living out of an artisanal craft, even if it’s not always the fragrant bed of roses you imagine it to be.

For the full range of stockists, visit jasminegan.com

Ted Lee, Sweeney Ted
Photo: Bryan Ong

Ted Lee

THEN: Manager, general operations
NOW: Barber, Sweeney Ted

Ted Lee wasn’t in the best of circumstances when he decided to become a barber: Almost two years ago, he found himself unemployed after his company closed down operations in Jakarta, which prompted a period of self-reflection when he returned to KL.

‘After months of toying around with different business ideas, it occurred to me that perhaps what I was looking for was right in front of me all along,’ he said. ‘I had already been cutting hair for friends and family as a hobby for two years so it struck me that I could actually make a living doing just that.’

In 2016, he made the leap to becoming a professional barber, creating his own brand, Sweeney Ted, and based himself at The Oven Cuttery and OTHRS Barbers for a year before moving out to his own space in Jaya One this past May. Ted admits that becoming an artisan wasn’t something he dreamed of becoming – it was almost as if he stumbled upon a craft he never really considered until his mid-30s.

‘I was always in corporate, but I never really loved what I was doing and perhaps that was why I never truly excelled at it,’ he said. ‘But barbering made sense because I was happiest when I made people look good and feel good. In retrospect, what compelled the change was the fear of living a mediocre life to the end without finding and living one’s career passion.’

Business is coming along nicely for him now, but his start didn’t come without its fair share of sleepless nights. ‘I started barbering a few days before our daughter arrived, and that was a financially and emotionally tough year for my wife and I,’ he said. ‘What really made a difference was the unconditional support I got from the people around me who really mattered. I hope I did right by my daughter and I hope that this will inspire her to follow her passion one day against any odds.’

The School, Jaya One Level P1, 72A Jalan Universiti, PJ (sweeneyted.simplybook.me). Tue-Fri, 11am-8pm; Sat- Sun, 10am-7pm.

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Dr Jason Leong

THEN: Doctor
NOW: Comedian

Many would think that upon becoming a doctor you’re set for life – money, prosperity and happiness would come naturally. Besides, who in their right mind would leave such a noble profession, let alone for a small (but growing) and uncertain industry like comedy? Well, Jason Leong did it, and he’s been quite successful at it too.

When Jason first started dipping his toes in comedy he was still a doctor. In fact, for his very first performance – a five-minute slot at Time Out KL’s Comedy Thursday [which has been discontinued] – he drove all the way from Penang where he was based at the time to KL to perform his show. As he started to gain more attention, Jason had to make a choice. ‘Bureaucracy and inhuman work conditions’ according to Jason were among the reasons he left medicine – as well as for ‘the chance to be godlike rock stars’.

Ever since leaving his job, the local funnyman has reached new heights – he recently represented Malaysia for Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person in the World and has performed on stages all over the world. He said the biggest challenge for him was getting used to rejection – something he wasn’t used to back when he was practising medicine. ‘I had to develop a thick skin and push through. It was a mindset change that was most needed,’ he said.

However, being a doctor wasn’t a complete waste of time. Apart from helping people out, it taught him some skills that helped in being a good comedian, especially in developing an empathy and connection with the audience. And when asked for his advice to budding comedians, Jason’s answer was emphatic: ‘Please don’t do it, because I don’t want competition.’

jasonleong.my

Brenda James

THEN: Brand communications
NOW: Founder and Principal Florista, Nook Flowers

Brenda’s story of how she founded Nook Flowers doesn’t exactly play out like the usual ‘quit your boring day job and jump straight into unfamiliar territory’ fantasies we all have in our head. Before Nook, Brenda was happily working in the brand communications industry. She spent a decade building and strengthening the skill set that made her the successful florist that she is today.

Despite enjoying her role at her previous job, Brenda had always wanted a job that would make her happy in the long term, something that would allow her to expand creatively. Since floristry was something she was already good at – a talent she attributes to her mum – she decided that it was the ideal field to get into. ‘When the time came, I made a graceful exit from the world of brand communications and fell head on into the world of floristry,’ Brenda said.

After quitting her job, Brenda took a break and started planning her next steps, which quickly turned into an ‘idealistic’ business plan. ‘It was idealistic as it took a couple of months into the business to realise the reality of trade and retail business can bite hard,’ she said. Things became twice as tough as she opened her business in 2008 just as the financial crisis hit the nation. Fortunately, she managed to overcome the challenges, ‘We downsized our operational space and dug our heels in to stay for the long term.’ Brenda hasn’t looked back since; apart from a growing clientele list, Nook has established itself as the go-to florist in town for unique and innovative floral arrangements.

M-5, Lower ground floor, The Village, Bangsar South, Jalan 112/H, off Jalan Kerinchi, KL (014 368 1044/fb.com/NookFlowers). Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat, 9am-2pm.

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Adli Yahya, Autism Café Project
Photo: Eijas Ariffin

Adli Yahya

THEN: Executive banking director
NOW: Founder of Autism Café Project

Adli’s life as a corporate executive did a 180 when he started thinking about the future of his special needs son. He gave up his day job to kick-start the Autism Café Project as a way for his son and others like him to gain the necessary skills to live independently.

The Autism Café Project began in early 2016. At the time, it was operating from a corner lot house in USJ, Subang and opened only once a week. Soon, Adli needed a larger, more financially sustainable and conducive venue for the special needs employees to flourish. After a few months, he decided to apply for a spot at IM4U Sentral in Puchong, where the Autism Café Project has been running et cetera café since.

According to Adli, one of the biggest challenges in running the project is keeping it financially sustainable. ‘Financially, it was very difficult at first. I’ve sold my car and just a few months ago we were in the red, but thankfully we’re doing much better now.’ Adli refuses to turn the project into a charity. Instead he would rather it sustain itself off the efforts of the employees. Apart from the café, the project also raises money through catering services provided by the employees.

Despite the financial difficulties, Adli claims he hasn’t regretted it one bit. ‘If I wanted to choose an easier life I could, but I’ve thought about the reason God put me here on earth and why my son is in my life, and I think it’s to work for this cause.’

et cetera café, iM4U Sentral, Jalan TPP 1/7, Taman Perindustrian Puchong (012 349 0813/Facebook: Autism Cafe Project). Mon-Fri, 8.30am-1pm.

Jiman Casablancas

THEN: Lawyer
NOW: Public relations and fashion stylist

If you’re an avid party-goer in KL and you don’t know who Jiman Casablancas is, chances are you haven’t been to the right parties. Spotting him at an event or a fashion show isn’t exactly too difficult: just look out for the man with the most avant-garde sense of style in the place.

Underneath the punk fashion, however, is a lawyer at heart. After graduating from law school at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Jiman went on to become a litigation lawyer at a law firm. At one point he was also the Chief Legal Adviser at Sepang International Circuits Sdn Bhd. But he found the legal profession too dull, especially since he was based in Sepang at the time, which wasn’t exactly a nightlife hub. So he called it quits and decided to go into PR. Since he was formally trained as a lawyer, he had to learn most of the skills on the job. ‘When I was offered the PR job, it was really a sink-or-swim situation. I had to learn everything from scratch and learn them fast. You have no choice but to read up and ask questions,’ he says.

Jiman’s curiosity and connections developed during his time in PR led him into other creative fields such as fashion styling, writing and event organising. His latest undertaking sees him steering the creative direction of Tarik Jeans, where he debuted his collection titled ‘Anak Liar’ at KL Fashion Week 2016. When asked if he regrets leaving the law field behind, there’s hardly a trace of regret: ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fashion is just an extension of who I am. I love being immersed in that creative process.’

instagram.com/jimancasablancas

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Lynda Chean, Pink Tattoos
Photo: Eijas Ariffin

Lynda Chean

THEN: Copywriter
NOW: Tattoo artist and owner, Pink Tattoos

‘It isn’t sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s a lot of hard work,’ Lynda says about the life of a tattoo artist. Depictions of tattoo artists in the media seem to portray a lifestyle of badassery and hedonism when Lynda claims it’s quite the opposite: ‘I’m probably the most boring and serious tattoo artist – I’m a mum, a homebody, and I take my work very seriously.’

Before Lynda established herself as a tattoo artist, she used to be a copywriter in an advertising agency. Feeling unfulfilled in the advertising industry, she ditched her copywriting job to become a full-time tattoo artist. While she found working in advertising unrewarding, it did teach Lynda some valuable lessons. For example, it gave her plenty of experience in handling and managing clients. She even drew lessons from her days of pulling all-nighters as an undergrad. ‘Tattooing and owning a tattoo shop is basically all of that put together: hard work, long hours and managing people,’ she said.

Now with over 10,000 followers on Instagram, this trendy tattoo parlour has established itself as one of the go-to places to get quality tattoos in a safe and clean environment. For any budding tattoo artists who wish to open their own parlour, she warns that a lot of hard work and hours are needed. ‘Don’t be just an artist; to make a tattoo shop work, we need to be business minded too,’ she advised.

20-A, Jalan Telawi, Bangsar, KL (03 2201 7465/fb.com/PinkTattoos). Tue-Sun, 12noon-8pm.

Joycelyn Lee

THEN: Communications consultant and writer
NOW: Founder of Pit Stop Community Café

Before coming up with the idea of opening Pit Stop Community Café (commercial eatery by day, soup kitchen of sorts by night), Joycelyn was leading Project Tikar, a project that provided rattan mats to the homeless in KL. The mats mean comfort, as it’s an extra layer atop cold concrete and is a better alternative to cardboard beds that got water-logged. But after many nights of the project, she realised that there was more to be done to help. So, she left her comfortable corporate job, looped in co-founder Andrea Tan and a few like-minded friends, and opened Pit Stop Community Café.

For Joycelyn, she finally took the leap to run Pit Stop full-time after coming to a point when she asked herself if this was all there is to life. Upon reflection, she decided it was people that mattered; family and community mattered. But what was she really doing about it? ‘I don’t want to just exist,’ she said. ‘I look at the line [at a soup kitchen] and sometimes I see someone that could be my grandfather, my mother, my father, an uncle, an auntie, a blood relative. And there’s a part of me that won’t let someone suffer or let someone go hungry if I can help it.’

And help she does; the café serves everyone who joins the line during dinner service. It doesn’t matter what their street clients have done that got them to where they’re at; you just help because they need hope.

101 Jalan Tun HS Lee, KL (03 2022 2036/pitstopcafekl.com). Mon & Wed-Fri, 11.30am-8pm; Sat-Sun, 2-8pm.

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Ng Ping Ho

THEN: TV writer, director and producer
NOW: Owner, BackHome and LOKL

Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ping Ho was riding high as a TV screenwriter, director and producer best known for creating ‘Kopitiam’, which aired for seven seasons. But as the years went by, working in the media line took its toll on him and his partner Anne Low, which prompted them both to look elsewhere for something more.

‘While running the production company, my father had spoken to me about doing something interesting with the heritage shophouses that have become BackHome,’ he said. ‘We didn’t expect the hostel to flourish the way it did, so the both of us decided to take some time off TV production to see if we missed it. Surprisingly, I didn’t.’

It wasn’t easy to make the jump from being a hands-on writer-director to launching a hostel like BackHome in 2009, but it helped that they were focused on a simple goal. ‘Anne and another colleague, Calvin Ko, were instrumental in setting the initial systems at BackHome. But all of us had zero experience in hospitality... we learned along the way, talked to guests and other business owners, and just asked ourselves, “If we stayed in a hostel, what would we want?”’

\In the years since they launched BackHome, Ping Ho has gone on to start LOKL in 2012 together with his wife, Cheryl Samad – a testament to his will and ability to thrive in new industries. ‘When I was young, I never thought that I would be involved in TV. Not everyone has had the chances I have, but you really only have one life. Do what inspires you before it’s too late,’ he said.

BackHome, 30 Jalan Tun HS Lee, KL (03 2022 0788/backhome.com.my).

Sam Hepburn

THEN: Copywriter
NOW: Comic-strip artist, ‘Welcome to Agency X

Before becoming a well-known cartoonist, Sam was behind a desk working in advertising as a copywriter until she took the leap to becoming a full-time artist. ‘I felt something was missing; I came to the point where I wanted to communicate my own message and speak in my own voice,’ said Sam, who took her skills and humourous observations of agency life and turned into a comic strip that was picked up by The Star in 2015.

While Sam’s experience in editing, planning and developing narratives during her agency years helped inspire the comics, there were some challenges that took some time getting used to. ‘Shifting from being “on the payroll” to being an independent creative person meant that I needed to have a lot more self-discipline; I no longer had a boss breathing down my neck, but sometimes that could be a bad thing as I’d get lazy or I’d experience periods where I had a lack of direction. These challenges don’t go away, but as long as you work hard, you get better at dealing with them.’

To those thinking of doing the same, she can’t stress enough on the importance of developing your own voice and ideas. ‘It’s very tempting to do what others are already doing because it’s been “proven” successful. If you’re struggling in comics because you’re playing the long game – not taking shortcuts, but developing a loyal audience over time – then I would advise you to keep going at it, keep improving your voice and your craft,’ she said.

Sam’s work can be found in ‘Welcome To Agency X’, a 156-page book published by Keropok Comics. On sale now at Popular Bookstore, RM29.90.

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Wong Yu Jin

Wong Yu Jin

THEN: Lawyer and corporate banker

NOW: Wellness coach, wongyujin.com

It’s hard to imagine the chiseled Yu Jin as being an unfit, overworked corporate banker – but that was exactly who he was before he decided to change his life and career. ‘The work hours were very long and stress was immensely high; I ballooned up by almost 20kg. There was no exercise, plenty of opulent food and lack of sleep,’ said Yu Jin. ‘When one of the directors of my department suffered a heart attack, it was a wake-up call for me. I immediately resigned and re-thought my direction in life.’

He was unsure of what he’d do after tossing in the letter, but in the process of getting fit and healthy he thought of inspiring others – particularly his colleagues in banking – to follow the same path as he did. He decided to enroll in a series of courses and subsequently became a certified trainer under the International Sport Science Association, learned Neuro-Linguistic Programming, signed up for a degree in nutrition, and became a certified hypnotherapist.

The first few years into his switch was a challenging period, he said, because he was an unknown brand. But after several years of brand-building – which include producing video tutorials, contributing to Esquire Malaysia and appearing on the cover of Men’s Health Malaysia – business started rolling, and his company is now the top provider of corporate wellness in Malaysia. ‘There’s a huge potential upside to being in the health and wellness industry,’ he said, but emphasised the importance of having a passion to help others. ‘We’re helping to make this a better world. Money will come if you sincerely believe in optimising people's lives,’ he said.

Yu Jin’s first book ‘Fit in Five’ is available at major bookstores,RM35.90.

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