By Sara Chia (21S03G)
When one mentions Home-Based Learning, a shudder involuntarily comes at the reminder of all those days spent cooped up at home, with most of us spending them toiling away at our studies or getting some long-awaited rest. But while we kept ourselves occupied with that, there were heroes in our midst who were dedicating their time to lending a helping hand to the wider community.
I’m sure you must recall the time when just about everyone was frantically purchasing mask after mask to stockpile, the epitome of what Singaporeans would deem as kiasu. Unexpectedly, two childhood friends were doing the opposite — making their very own masks and selling them.
MaskeradeSGCreations is a project created by friends who banded together for their common goal of helping the community. By designing masks for Singaporeans that are far more fashionable than regular ones (such as handmade masks featuring the Singapore flag), they are raising funds for students and providing jobs for stay-at-home mums in the village of Wonosobo, Indonesia, who have been badly affected by the global pandemic.
Here in Raffles, we have one of the masterminds behind MaskeradeSGCreations. As one of its co-founders, seventeen-year-old Portia Sophie McCully (21S03G) has worked hard to make this project a reality, and is more than happy to be able to give back to the community.
“It didn’t start [off] as a business,” she admitted. “My friend Michelle — the other member of the team — has a helper, Sopiyah, who’s extremely talented when it comes to sewing. After the circuit breaker, when the mask-wearing became mandatory, Michelle surprised us with news that she had learnt how to sew face masks. Michelle, being the kind friend that she is, made me and my family some masks too.”
Fifteen-year-old Michelle Yeo, who was the one who kickstarted the project, shared her reason for mask-making. “Surgical masks are so plain and boring, so we thought, ‘why not make our own reusable masks?’ Sopiyah’s hobby [is] sewing, [so] she ended up teaching me how to make masks with the sewing machine, and it turned out well, so Portia’s mum asked me to make some for her and her close friends.”
Funnily enough, the business came about after they were — for lack of a better word — forced to start selling masks. “I’m sometimes called Michelle the Magpie because I like shiny things,” Michelle said with a grin. “So I bought sequin cloth for the parents… But then the cloth was too thick, and we broke the sewing machine.”
With the machine being Sopiyah’s, they had to buy a new one to make up for it. In order to cover the costs, they ended up selling the masks instead of simply giving them away, which is how their business took shape. After which, they learnt that Sopiyah had been donating some of her monthly salary to help her village in Wonosobo, and they wanted to help her raise funds, leading them to continue their business even after replacing the sewing machine.
Of course, no business comes about without a plethora of challenges. “We had to learn the ropes of handling a business,” Portia said ruefully. “Everything had to be considered and accounted for by us, and there are so many aspects that go into [running] a business that you wouldn’t usually see as a customer. Then there were logistical issues too, like sourcing for cloth that was breathable yet could offer protection, and wouldn’t collapse on your face, and reliable sellers of nose pieces and ear straps.”
Michelle chimed in in agreement about how difficult the initial start-up was, with there being an entire list of things to do, from researching online selling platforms to working out pricing. Even the littlest of things had to be accounted for to prevent small mistakes from snowballing into much larger ones.
On top of that, there was a lot of learning and management to be done. “We had to manage Excel spreadsheets to account for spending, sales, materials, costs, data analytics — there was a lot to account for and we needed to figure out the most efficient way to [do] it. Michelle’s mum helped to ‘train’ us to learn how to construct formulas in Google Sheets to make effective and efficient spreadsheets,” Portia shared. She also pointed out that their parents had to help them hold money coming in from sales at the start when neither of them had a readily accessible bank account. “And when I finally opened my own bank account, I had to keep track of all the money coming in and make sure all the bank account numbers matched monthly bank statements. We had to watch how much extra money we could afford to spend too, because if we didn’t have enough then we would have to take a loan from our parents.”
While many of the initial difficulties faced have been resolved, they still face some troubles now. “It’s hard to find people to take [on] the jobs we’re trying to provide, like making masks,” Michelle stated. “We’re not sure if it’s because of the way we phrased the job offer or because no one is interested, or maybe it’s because they’ve never heard of us so they don’t trust us.” And as luck would have it, the only person to indicate her interest was put under home quarantine, rendering it impossible for her to work with them.
Their journey has been a long one, and they have come far from when they first began. Although they sell high quality, fashionable masks in the present, their very first prototypes were actually made from old T-shirts. “We only started buying cloth once we became more confident,” Portia shared. “And initially, we sold the masks through Instagram direct messages, which involved a lot of back-and-forth with customers. This got a lot better after we started using Etsy as our sales platform. Oh, and our thank you cards had to be hand drawn and handwritten as well. When sales picked up, we made a stamp instead so it would look more professional.”
Thinking back on their journey with MaskeradeSGCreations so far, Michelle reflected that the business ended up taking a life of its own, blossoming forth from their main goal of helping people. “The hardest part was starting the business, but now that we’ve gotten the hang of things, it’s a lot better. It started off with us just selling to family and friends, but gradually, people we didn’t know started wanting our masks, and now we’re fortunate enough to be working with Noah Ark’s CARES, an animal shelter that helps neuter and take care of stray animals. Our CNA cover story gave us a lot of publicity too!”
MaskeradeSGCreations has always had a specific goal in mind — to raise funds for students and provide jobs for stay-at-home mums in the village that Michelle’s helper hails from. They’re not just looking to help Wonosobo, however. Michelle shared that they have plans to expand their project in the future, both within the village and outside of it. Portia spoke further about their long-term plans, elaborating, “We hope to continue this for as long as possible, to cast our net as far as possible within the village outside of just students and stay home mums. And in the future, we hope to help more villages or expand to other countries. If [Covid-19] ends and mask-wearing isn’t mandated anymore, we may even produce different kinds of sewn goods.” Michelle affirmed this, stating that there is no “set deadline” for the project, and that MaskeradeSGCreations will run for as long as it can.
When asked for their overall thoughts on everything they’ve done so far, Portia was the first to share. “It’s really been hard work, full of twists and turns, but the fruits of our labour have been ever so sweet and it makes it all worth it!” She listed all the times that they felt rewarded for their work, from seeing someone keep their card that comes with each mask to receiving a handwritten letter from their beneficiary. It hasn’t been an easy journey for them, but they are grateful to have embarked on it and have learnt so much from it. “We’re very thankful that we started this and have zero regrets. I’m so glad we got to touch the lives of those in Singapore and those beyond our shores! And of course, I’m really glad that my friendship with Michelle has gotten even stronger. She’s my friend, the sister I never had, and now my business partner, too.”
Michelle, as well, had only good things to say about the project. “Not only did it help other people, but it helped us too. I came to realise how fortunate I was through all of this, and it’s really helped me in learning how to work with others too; on top of that, it brought Portia and I even closer, even though we’ve known each other since I was born.”
So, if you’re looking for a way to make mask-wearing cool, do consider supporting MaskeradeSGCreations by purchasing their masks, or even by joining their team. “We’re no ordinary mask company, and our work funds a very meaningful cause! If you’d ever like to join our team or help out for a short period of time as an intern, any help is welcome!” Portia said earnestly, adding that enquiries could be directed to her email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Michelle added on to Portia’s response, chipping in: “Please support our business! With your help, we want to help even more people receive an education, just like the one we’re so fortunate to receive in Singapore, and provide even more jobs for [stay-at-home] mums. Thank you!”
Despite their young ages, Michelle and Portia have already done so much to give back to the wider community through MaskeradeSGCreations, with the funds that they have raised so far being used to help a student from Wonosobo — Talia — with her school fees for six months. If you find yourself in need of a new mask or have time on your hands to spare, do consider purchasing from MaskeradeSGCreations or joining their team to help out, and make your own mark on society!
For more information about MaskeradeSGCreations, feel free to visit their linktree.