We had the good fortune of connecting with Anna Lee Xin Ning and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Anna Lee, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Ironically, I was never a risk taker. All my life, I have chosen the “safe” paths my parents laid out before me. I steered clear of risks and had and still have a dream of becoming an educator. My parents were both teachers, they signed me up for ballet, piano, arts & calligraphy classes because I was interested in them—though none of them lasted. When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Education, they thought I was going to walk down the education path—the safe path they had set out for me.
And I did. For a year. And then I quit.
At the age of 22, I became a teacher; at the age of 23, I quit my job, took a gap year, and went on a working holiday trip to New Zealand with my then-partner and now husband.
This was the first known risk I took in life which I didn’t regret.
In a beautiful country like New Zealand, I continued taking risks. Being in a completely unfamiliar environment away from home, risks were inevitable. Like the time we decided to go skydiving and the time we decided that working on a dairy farm was going to be a lot of fun.
When I came home after a year, I didn’t want to go back to teaching yet. It was not because I didn’t like teaching, I do still teach in Sunday Schools, but it was because I had another calling.
I applied for translation, copywriting, and other jobs related to language, but I stuck to web novel translation ultimately. I was lost, confused, and didn’t know what path I wanted to take.
Then, the pandemic hit.
It was during the pandemic that I learned about handmade soaps. My husband had an eczema flare-up at the time, so my mother-in-law suggested that I make handmade soaps to soothe his flare-ups. Stuck in the house with nowhere else to go, I decided to give it a go. The first time was a major fail. Though the soap did lather, it stayed mushy in the mold for at least two weeks!
The second time I made soap using Aloe Vera, I succeeded. I remembered giving it to a friend and the soap actually soothed and healed her chest acnes, something that had been bothering her for the longest time. That brought me a great sense of achievement.
Then, I started learning how to make household cleaning soaps from leftover used cooking oil. People loved it and suggested that I sell them.
So I took the second major risk in life—becoming a soap maker.
Taking the first risk to go on a working holiday to New Zealand shaped my worldview and helped develop my love for nature—another major reason why I started the soap business. The second major risk I took by becoming a soap maker brought me new challenges each day, which I look forward to overcoming with great anticipation.
Did I regret taking these two major risks? No. Would I do it again if I had the chance? Heck yeah!
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Soapan Santun is a Malaysian soap company that sells handmade soaps and shampoo bars. Perhaps what sets us apart from others is the fact that we constantly talked about using used cooking oil to make household cleaning soaps and switching from using bottled shampoo to bar shampoo. We have just started venturing into wedding favors and introducing plastic-free soaps as gifts rather than the conventional plastic-packaged wedding door gifts.
We are most proud of having our plastic-free shampoo bars in more zero waste stores and most excited about crafting more handmade soap varieties with time. The everyday challenge pushes us to do better.
If it weren’t for my mother-in-law’s suggestions, my husband’s eczema and my parents’ used cooking oil disposal issue, Soapan Santun wouldn’t have existed. This was not an easy journey as I was doing it all alone. Thankfully, things got a little easier when my husband joined me in 2022.
Starting this business, I learned so many things and picked up so many skillsets.
I learned how important trial and error is to improve and grow; how a network can grow a business; how relationships are more important than money; and how going plastic-free in the bathroom is possible. Most importantly, I learned how important it is to do something you love and stick with it.
Soapan Santun has turned 100kg (and counting) of used cooking oil into soaps since 2021, supplied more than 1000 wedding soap favors in 2022, and we promise to continue supplying soaps and shampoo bars free from plastic until we can no longer do it one day.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My family and the small business community are those that I truly want to thank. When I first started the soap business, though skeptical, my parents allowed me to take on this new path in my career. Whenever they started doubting, my brothers would step in and reassure them that I would be fine. They even offered to help out when I was short of hands and we conveniently turned it into our family bonding session instead!
The small business community is a great support group for those who are just starting out. Without their encouragement and reassurance, I would’ve given up a long time ago.