CLEO Hot Shots Interview: Hui Mathews, founder of ash be nimble

Tell us a little bit about what you do. What positive impact does it bring to your community and organization?

I am the founder and CEO of ash be nimble. We design affordable sportswear to make fitness more accessible for Malaysians! I started this brand because I could not find stylish sportswear of good quality which would be kind to my bank account! I told myself that money should never be an excuse not to get fit!

We are also on a mission to build and support the fitness community around us. Since we opened our own studio and store called ‘The Fox Den’ in October 2015, we have been hosting lifestyle and fitness activities in our space to encourage people to try various fitness activities, learn about injury maintenance, get in touch with local healthy and nutritious brands and products.

In my role as CEO and founder of ash be nimble, I seek to build and inspire a team of passionate individuals who are keen to make change in the fit fashion industry. I spend a lot of time coaching and mentoring my team and hope that whether it is at ash be nimble or another organisation, they can learn how to turn their dreams and passion into a reality that makes life better for others. Our motto at ash be nimble is to go the extra mile in everything that we do: going beyond just fitness to how we treat ourselves, each other, our customers and our environment...

  • to run that extra kilometer,
  • to wake up that extra hour early,
  • to invite that additional person to workout,
  • to stay in the ring those extra few minutes,
  • to start that fitness business idea,
  • to do that one more burpee,
  • to eat that one less nasi lemak,
  • to sign up for that extra core class,
  • to lift that extra kilogram,
  • to open that fitness studio,
  • to push on those few more moments in a race,
  • to say that one more encouraging word,
  • to go the extra mile.

How did you get into this industry? Tell us how Ash Be Nimble was established.

I first got the idea to start ash be nimble at my first road race in Malaysia. It was 8km at the first edition of the Malaysia Women Marathon. To anyone who starts running, your first time doing 8-10km is quite a feat and a nice little milestone in your running journey. I progressed onto doing longer road races and then ultra trail marathons. All this require more training, up from once a week to twice or at least three times during the peak of my training weeks before races. Requiring 3-4 sets of workout clothes a week, wearing out running shoes every 6 months, race registration fees and travel expenses to get to the trail races in rural areas meant a large budget required to fuel this new hobby! I thought to myself there must be a way to get my hands on sports bras that were comfortable and less than RM100!

I started doing my research, cold-calling and rudimentary sketches to design and make sportsbras I would like to wear on my ultra long races! I had ample opportunity to test them out as I completed 2 x 50km races and 1 x 70km races in 2013 and 2014 in Thailand (The North Face series) and Indonesia (Bromo Tengger Semeru Ultra), with a few local races interspersed between.

In 2014 I got the guts to launch my first 2 designs of sports bras and 2 running shorts at the 2nd Malaysia Womens Marathon! It was a crazy, chaotic and fun-filled week where we learnt to set up a pop up store for the first time, and had my apparel delivered by a UPS truck 30 minutes into the event (yes, it was late!). I did all of this while working full time at The Boston Consulting Group as a management consultant.

How is Ash Be Nimble different from other Malaysian based brands?

We have an interesting mix of being both a fitness and fashion brand in Malaysia. Compared to other fitness brands in Malaysia, we have a strong community of runners, gym-goers, yogi’s, dancers and more which we have built throughout the last 2 years through our sales and fitness events at our HQ ‘The Fox Den’ and out at races and markets. We also promote the more fashionable aspects of fitness with designs like our pleated skorts, flyaway mesh tops, rose valley tanks and nimble tee’s which can be worn casually. Compared to other fashion brands, we are live and active in the community, we don’t usually release ‘seasonal’ collections but more functional-focussed pieces according to how we want to expand our range to meet more fitness groups and needs. We have a range of sportswear suitable for men, women, muslimah, kids, and also certain styles that compliment our hot, tropical climate and also more conservative communities.

I think the essential unique factor about ash be nimble is that we are all about the community. It is about Malaysians being able to identify with our brand through being able to identify with us, the team behind ash be nimble: that we are everyday Malaysians in pursuit of a fit lifestyle and want to help make it fun and fashionable for others through our apparel and activities.

Has being a mother changed how you approached your business? How?

It most certainly has! Like how I am up at 4am thinking about responses to this interview, and having to bring my baby Asha to the photoshoot as I did not have my regular helper.

Time is extremely precious. As you can imagine or already know, a baby is all consuming, and I do not have a full time baby sitter. Having a baby basically gives you two choices in your spare time; work or sleep. Precious pockets of time are few and far between, so I’ve had to learn to maximise these pockets as well as fit in my workouts at least once a week! When I am with my staff they know I need to maximise every moment as it may be difficult for me to respond once I am back home with the baby. I always have to plan ahead to make sure I have baby sitting arrangements taken care of. I meet with my staff every week and ensure that we are outcome-driven and clear on what they are so that in my absence things still get done.

Having Asha means I’m tormented (i exaggerate) by thoughts of my daughter growing up and the feeling of wanting to take care of her forever (i don’t exaggerate). I want to be more involved in her development and make sure she gets all the attention, care and love that she needs. It has almost unearthed a more maternal manner of approaching how I coach, train and mentor my staff; although some might call it “auntie” mode I say it is enlightenment as I now see my staff as someone else’s precious daughters!

It has shifted the manner in which i manage my emotions. On the days I have to bring Asha into work with me, productivity does drop a bit, but stress levels also drop drastically! You realise that you watch your language and emotions a lot more when a baby is in the room. We are all nicer and more relaxed when Asha is around 🙂

What are the challenges you’ve faced in the process of starting your own brand?

When I gave in to the little voice in my head and started ABN, I was still working full time at a rather busy consulting firm. I worked almost 20 hour days at this company, with a lot of regional travel and weekend work. With whatever spare time I had when I was not catching up on sleep or training for races I found the quickest, most efficient ways to get my designs made into samples, set up my online store, and post-launch I would be packing customer orders around midnight most days. I probably averaged about 4 hours of sleep every night and 3 cups of coffee a day.

My salary funded the start up of ABN and i can honestly say that I did not fully anticipate how much of a money vacuum a new company can be. You get to a point where you’re so far in, and you wonder whether not owning a home and getting the cheap car is actually worth it. My bank account balance is a constant challenge: there is no room for fancy dinners, nice hand bags, extended overseas trips, dream running pram...

Only you know and love your brand the way you do, but unfortunately there is only one you. Adding pregnancy into the mix only ensured that I was stretched (like literally as I physically grew such a huge belly!) and in need of support all the time. I had to learn to share as much of my vision and build a team. This, whilst being rewarding in the end is a very tiring process, and one that requires a constant and often repeated interaction.

What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now, and how are you making it happen?

As mentioned, building a high performing team is paramount right now, and I feel like we are on the right track in grooming a team who treat ash be nimble as their own. No successful or epic brand or business is built by one person alone. By building an authentic and relatable brand, I have been able to attract amazing talent in Kuala Lumpur who are passionate about ash be nimble and the potential we have to grow our brand here and beyond. I have made sure to hire people different from myself so that we bring something different to the table. I spend at least half my time coaching, managing, debating with, brainstorming, talking and eating with my team one-on-one and in a team setting. I find this the toughest but more rewarding part of building ash be nimble as it is such a great responsibility and privilege to be able to offer employment and have someone’s career in your hands - that you are responsible for moulding them into who they are in the workplace. I encourage and welcome ideas, flexibility and creativity but at the same time expect quality and utmost excellence in execution.

What is your proudest achievement since you started your label?

Winning the 2015 Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge - Sustainability Award, emerging in the top 4 and then delivering my baby the next day. That was the weekend that changed my (our) life! On Friday 11 December 2015 at 930am in the morning I delivered my final pitch for the competition (including 4 other pitches that same week for various shortlisted categories and semi-final pitch), then checked myself into the hospital as I was 39 weeks pregnant. We got clearance to leave the hospital and with a hospital wristband on my husband, ash be nimble team and I attended the awards night where we were announced as the top 4 (of several hundred companies who applied and 20 who were shortlisted) and winner of the Sustainability Award - winning RM100,000 for the business in recognition for ‘Making Life Better’. The next day at 2.45pm on Saturday 12 December 2015 my first baby Asha was born through natural delivery (no epidural either, which I am might proud of!). Needless to say the few months leading up to the final pitch and delivery was quite harrowing, waddling around to the various activities which were a part of the Innovation Challenge, moving office and setting up our first HQ ‘The Fox Den’, training new staff, prepping for my ‘maternity leave’ and time away, designing our 2016 collection, planning our christmas sales & activities and trying to find some time to read up about childbirth and taking care of a newborn! I barely managed to pack my hospital bag and set up the baby room (only the cot managed to get some attention).

I am so proud of the fact that I did not give up - that I did not keel in to the immense pressure during the final weeks of presentations and pitches and pregnancy, that our customers and friends of ash be nimble showed huge amounts of support during the voting portion of the competition. It really showed me that we have been building something people believe in and want to see succeed, that they believe in me and my vision for ash be nimble!

What is your biggest fear in terms of your career?

Running out of steam and ideas! Essentially lacking motivation. I have seen people burn out, brands come and go but I want ash be nimble to be something that stays, makes a difference and continues to go the extra mile in being creative and nimble and relevant to the fitness community

Who or what inspires you to be the person you are today?

Asha - relating to the week when she was born amongst the chaos and pressure, the thing that kept me going was wanting to have a great story to tell her one day about the week she was born, that mama didn’t give up but gave her best and her all. That has stuck with me even post delivery - that in everything that I do I want to make her proud and be a shining example of how to do life, to run a business, how to treat others, how to be a good wife / daughter / sister / mother / entrepreneur / boss AND how to make fitness an essential part of life and inspire others to do the same

Ashish - my husband is my pillar of support, my counsel especially when it comes to asking me the difficult questions and bears the difficult position of holding up a mirror to help me clearly see where I need to improve and change. He understands my love for fitness and actively supports me in helping me find time, the right gear and motivation to train, race and run ash be nimble. He has been my muse for ash be nimble and continues to be my biggest cheerleader, especially in the past few months with pregnancy and baby, in some of my lowest and most vulnerable moments physically and emotionally. He has put his dreams on hold so that I can build mine and that motivates me to work my hardest and give my best.

What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Life is good, but it doesn’t mean it is easy.

Share with us your favourite inspirational quotes.

When in doubt go the extra mile

What is your definition of success and how do you know you’ve achieved it?

To be the person you wanted to be like when you grow up. When others tell you they want to be like you when they grow up.

If you weren’t in this career path, what else could you see yourself doing?

Starting some other business or idea or helping others do it!

Where do you see yourself in five years? And, the brand?

I hope to have taken Asha on some amazing hikes and trails in and around Malaysia by the time she is 5!
ash be nimble will be known as THE asian fitness apparel brand in 5 years

What’s the one thing you wish to achieve by the end of 2016?

I turn 30 at the end of 2016 and will celebrate Asha turning 1 and me being a 1-year old mother. That for me will be a big achievement already! BUT I would love to be able find the time to train, race and win a trail race before the end of 2016 - the last race I did was Kemensah Krazy 45km trail in April 2015 and I came in 4th, without knowing I was just 4 weeks pregnant.

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