The four girls take a seat, smoothing out the skirts of their Yew Chung International School – Secondary Section uniforms – the very uniforms which inspired a project which has since turned into a business of its own.
“We started off with this second-hand uniform collection activity,” explains Alice Wang Yan-qiu, age 17 and the leader of the group. “We only planned to do it inside YCIS first, but then by some sort of accident we got in contact with five schools in Shenzhen so it kind of grew in scale dramatically.”
Alice makes their project – called Uniformity – seem easy, but the four girls put a lot of effort into it to make it a success.
The idea behind Uniformity was simple: turn old school uniforms into pencil cases and book bags which could be sold as fundraising for charity. But the girls never imagined how the idea would take off.
Olina Zhu Qiu-yu, also 17, was in charge of external communications. “We have collected nearly 4,000 uniforms in Shenzhen and have already manufactured 1,200 products,” she explains. “Here in YCIS we’ve already manufactured 60 pencil cases and sold them all, raising nearly HK$2,000.”
The money they have raised, along with some additional sponsorship from a company in Sichuan (四川) province, goes right back into the community. “We are going to donate 600 pencil cases with new stationery to two rural schools in Sichuan province, along with 800 old uniforms for winter use,” explains Alice.
Right now, the girls are working to fill an order from a Shanghai-based tutoring company for 100 customised pencil cases using YCIS uniforms. They have also just set up a new online shop to take orders in Hong Kong. In the first four days after launching the online shop, they already received 42 orders.
The girls, who first started the project late last November, are thrilled by its success. Kelly Zeng Shang-shang, 17, says it was daunting to even begin. “When we were still at the planning process we thought that every stage was going to be so difficult,” she admits. “We were so negative at the beginning.” But the four were surprised at the support they found along the way, and at their own resourcefulness.
Lora Liu Nuo-wa, 18, says a big part of their success came down to the division of work and how they all pulled together as a team.
While Alice took point as the leader and Olina handled external communication, Kelly took charge of design and manufacturing of the Hong Kong products, and Lora took on publicity.
Even now that the project has grown to include 27 students, the girls still understand the importance of divide and conquer. “We broke them down into six departments,” explains Alice. “Each department has a leader, either from the four of us or somebody from higher year groups. It’s very efficient.”
As leaders in their departments, the original four can now share with others what they learned through the difficult process getting the project off the ground.
“In the school environment, everything is basically fed to you,” says Olina. “But when you’re out there in society, dealing with businesses and people like that, you have to know how to communicate. And if you fail once, you have to compromise and negotiate.”
As with every business, it’s also important to get everything in writing. “I learned the most about how to write formal documents,” Alice says. “Writing those contracts, letters of intent to collaborate, and also proposals for the public and also for the companies ... that was a hard process.”
But Lora says the biggest lesson is about budgeting. “To know how much we needed for the delivery fee and how much to make the pencil cases, we needed to do all the calculations to know the outcome,” she says.
When asked what warnings they would give to anyone considering starting their own business, the girls glance at each other and immediately burst into laughter.
“The major problem or obstacle in our entire project was money,” says Olina. “In the beginning we were just running around going to different shops asking ‘Can you do it at $15? At $10?’ and they were basically like, ‘No.’”
“You need to consider cost,” agrees Alice. “That is the main thing we ignored throughout the project until we paid that 20,000 yuan (HK$24,000) bill to the tailor, then we realised the cost is enormous.” But the sponsorship the four had secured was enough to cover the initial costs, and the sales they made recovered enough to allow them to still give back proceeds to charity.
“It was a lot of work,” admits Kelly.
“Yeah, a lot of work,” agrees Alice.
“So much work,” echoes Olina.
“But it can still be fun,” Kelly clarifies. And of course it’s all worth it when that hard work pays off. “You can start with small things at first,” Kelly says. “You don’t need to start with a big goal. You can start small. Those many little things, when they come together, they can make big changes.”