Beebee+Bongo founders Micheal and Monika on perseverance and passion.
Before Monika and Micheal brought the (totally epic) environmentally and socially responsible brand Beebee+Bongo to life, Monika already had big business plans. Her first business, Cambodia Knits, was a thriving social enterprise working with marginalised communities in and around Phnom Penh, though COVID brought everything to a halt. Driven by a desire to keep her producers in a job, Monika "gathered her thoughts and shouted for help". Enter Micheal and Beebee+Bongo!
What made you start Beebee+Bongo?
Monika: This is a story best told in two parts. I started Cambodia Knits, the key production partner of Beebee+Bongo, years ago and ran it for a long time as a small informal project, initially out of my apartment. Our little brand became quite popular with tourists and many return-customers locally. I continued to develop the brand and the product lines, but without making any significant headway into international markets. When COVID19 hit last year, we lost the majority of our local sales and the entirety of the tourist market. I fluctuated between wanting to shut the operations down and thinking of ways to keep it going. I was especially worried for our producers who were going to need income sources more than ever before. In the end my fight response won out and I gathered my thoughts and then shouted out for help because I felt that a key part of the strategy for CK was a rebrand and that I needed help. Enter Micheal into the story…
Micheal: When I met up with Monika, I’d recently quit my day job to be an independent consultant as I worked on my MBA part-time. I had been an entrepreneur in the past and was interested in getting involved in another business. The whole thing was a bit serendipitous. Monika had developed a wonderful product and really just needed help to take it to the next level (i.e. global). A new brand was key for a global market because most of that market won’t have been to Cambodia. And even though the social aspect of the story would appeal to customers, we strongly felt that the products still had to stand on their own in terms of quality, likeability, etc.. So we established Beebee+Bongo, a fun, light-hearted brand that could appeal to parents and caregivers everywhere, while also supporting the parents and caregivers who made the products.
Do you have a morning routine? If so what is it you do to set yourself up for the day ahead?
Monika: I try to wake up early, earlier than the rest of my family which usually means around 5:30am. I brew a coffee, grab a homemade power ball and get my journal out. I write for about 30 minutes or so until I hear ‘mamamamamamamamamama’ which effectively ends my contemplative alone time. Towards the end of my journaling time, I try to throw in one gratitude and shift my thinking to the day ahead, setting at least one intention. Sometimes I try to get in some exercise, which these days means an early morning dance party with my seven year old mixed in with some squats, weights and jump rope while answering numerous questions about bats, the pyramids, the liver or whatever she is thinking about (never underestimate the caloric burning power of the endless stream of questions from a curious child). Then it’s breakfast and off to the office, where I try (but often fail) to write a list of goals for the day.
Micheal: There is a mantra in personal finance called ‘pay yourself first’. I do this with my time. Before I give anyone else my time, I give myself my mornings. I wake up by 6 or so, make a cup of coffee and (almost) religiously do my Morning Pages first thing. After that, I plan my day. I have a daily planner where I list out the meetings I have, and the top two or three tasks that I have to get done that day (the variation to this routine is sometimes I will get up and do a workout first). After that I’ll do a quick scan of emails to see if there is anything urgent that trumps my ‘to-do’ list, and then start diving into the day.
What’s the biggest barrier you’ve found to succeeding as a socially conscious business?
Micheal: Probably constantly trying to define what it really means to be socially conscious and how to live up to customer expectations. There are always trade-offs; you have to decide which ones you’re going to feel okay about. For example, we had a supplier in China lined up last year for our organic yarn, only to find out that the cotton was being grown in a region where workers rights were being heavily violated. Our supplier couldn’t guarantee the cotton we were buying wasn’t from that region, so we had to pull the plug. In that case, ‘ethical’ trumped ‘eco’. But the answer isn’t always so clear. Our production partner (CK) has a unique business model: fair, flexible employment that allows women to work from home and on their schedule—which is ideal for them. But this also means we can’t have the same production oversight we could if it was in a factory, so the social compliance isn’t as clear. With materials: 100% natural cotton might not be organic, but going organic might mean there is more water consumption being used in production. When it comes to being socially conscious, there is rarely one ‘right’ answer. Our approach is simply to do our best, be as transparent as possible, and be ready and willing to change as new options/opportunities come along.
Within the ethical fashion community, there’s a big question that we ask which is ‘who made my clothes?’. In the scope of Beebee+Bongo, who made the things you sell? Can you tell us a bit about them?
Monika: Our products are made by Cambodia Knits (CK) in Cambodia. We have an extremely close relationship with them; I am the founder of CK and am still involved in day to day operations, on the ground in Phnom Penh. The women that CK works with are often mothers or older women who have limited opportunities for employment because of their obligations at home and their lack of formal skills or education. The goal of CK is to provide training for producers, along with all the material and support they need to be able to earn an income at home, within the constraints they face, but also with the soft skills and tools to challenge those constraints.
Why did you pick the fabrics you have chosen to work with?
Monika: Our new yarn suppliers have the GOTS, OEKO-TEX and SGS certifications which means that the yarn is produced ethically, it is tested for chemicals and produced in an eco-friendly process. We also strive to work with and/or support other social enterprises in the space where it makes sense and aligns with our values. Our cotton bags, for example, are produced by a social enterprise in Cambodia using end-of-the-roll material that would otherwise be wasted. So while we don’t have full supply chain oversight on the cotton fabric, we are contributing towards waste reduction.
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
Monika: So much but I have a terrible memory! However, a quote that sticks with me is one from Jane Goodall: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” We all make a difference whether it is something seemingly small like treating someone at work with kindness or taking time out for a friend in need, to business decisions such as going with a pricier supplier because they treat their staff more fairly. We all have an impact on the people and world around us and we get to choose how that impact can be directed.
Micheal: I do some photorealistic oil painting as a hobby, and as you can imagine, it’s a rather labor-intensive process. When I was first learning to use oil paints my teacher gave me a nugget of wisdom “Don’t try to finish it at the beginning”. Oil painting, like so many things in life, is a process. If you haven’t properly prepped the canvas, if you don’t have the foundational layers of paint, then trying to create fine details will be very challenging. You have to do the work, you have to go through the process. The same is true for relationships, and for business. Whenever I start feeling impatient about not having reached a goal or an achievement I try to remember this.
What’s next for you and Beebee+Bongo?
Micheal: Scale. We’re working with our production partner to train more knitters in Siem Reap (heavily hit by COVID) in order to produce at quantities that can serve a global market. Parallel to that, we’re looking to partner with larger retail brands in both the US and Australia who can distribute our products to a wider audience. This will help us create a more predictable production cycle—and sustainable employment for our production partner.
One book everyone should read? Why?
Monika: Mindset By Carol Dweck. Reading this a few years back after randomly picking it up for the title alone, while in an airport, the central idea in this book shifted my thinking patterns massively and for the better. Without knowing it, so much of my thinking patterns and actions had previously been undermined by what Dweck refers to as the ‘fixed’ mindset, the belief that you’re either born with it or not, whatever it is: artistic talent, business acumen, intelligence. Rather, Dweck advocates for perseverance, grit, learning to learn, thriving in the process of trial and error, in any field and in any aspect of your life. In a ‘growth’ mindset approach, challenges and difficulties are not only good, they are where learning and growth happens.
Micheal: The Desire Map by Danielle Laporte. I was an accidental reader of this book. My partner at the time had bought it and I judged it by its cover as something not for me (i.e. not for men). But I started browsing it and eventually read it—and did the work. The book challenges you to take a look at every aspect of your life (career, relationships, family, spirituality, etc.) and ask yourself: what beliefs do I have about these areas of my life? Are these what I really believe or just what I’ve been told I should believe? Are these my ‘truths’ true anymore? And if they aren’t, what are they? This book created a turning point in my life where I started, maybe for the first time ever, to design my life on purpose based on who I am now and not who I used to be. I now do a version of this ‘desire-mapping’ every year so that as my beliefs and values change, so does how I choose to live my life.
Are there any other Movers & Shakers out there in your world that you think people should know about?
Monika: One person and brand we really like/love/appreciate and feel deserves to be shouted about more, is Chomnab Ho, and his brand, FairWeave. He has committed himself to the Cambodian weaving tradition for years, focusing only on traditional, natural dyes, creates the most stunning patterns and designs and runs a sustainable brand that employs and supports women in several communities in Cambodia. He is even working on growing cotton to make his production chain even more transparent and ethical. He is an amazing example of a locally grown brand in Cambodia.