PEOPLE: How Mei pivoted from a mining career to becoming a sustainability entrepreneur

Mei Yong runs three businesses in the food industry, all of which involve plant-based food products, reducing waste, and using local produce. In this interview, Mei shares her experiences in switching from a career in mining, to turning her ideas into thriving nationwide food and sustainability businesses.

  • At what point did you decide to turn your idea into a business? What was the biggest driver behind this transition?

While I was working within the mining sector, I experienced that life was busy. People wanted quick nutritious authentic foods at home with ease and many people struggled with cooking with flavour. Consumers were time poor and were leaning towards quick food options – that are often unhealthy for the body and the environment – at meal times.

At the same time, food has always been in my blood. My uncle owned one of the first bakeries in Malaysia and my parents opened up one of Perth’s first vegan supermarkets and restaurants in the 1990s.

So, I combined my love for good, clean food with knowledge of what busy people crave to create spice packs and curry pastes that can be used to cook delicious food within minutes. I opted for cleaner, vegan/plant based, gluten free and local products, which also supports our planet.

I saw this gap in the market and decided to give it a go. With the savings that I had from my mining job, I invested into our concept and vision. The key was to continuously listen to your consumers at every stage of the business growth. We changed packaging, we changed price points, we changed so much at the beginning of the business. Listening to how consumers use the product and cook was vital in shaping it to be the brand it is today – an everyday food product suitable for all Australian homes.

  •  What were the biggest challenges along the way, and what were the learnings from those challenges?

Starting a new business has many challenges. When I worked in the corporate world, I specialised in Human Resources Management in the mining and resources sector. It was my focus – people, performance, retention and training. When you are in a small business, you are thrown in to do all aspects of business. From being the manufacturer, to being the marketing guru, the sales lady, the admin and accounts person. Pretty much everything. With limited resources, it was the only way for the business to be viable. To be a very hands on business person.

Although those roles were carried out, you may not be the expert in that field. I have now learnt to delegate, outsource and get help for the areas where your strengths don’t lie. Focus on what you’re good at, direct and lead the rest of the other areas. You will be able to excel a lot quicker. I took the long route to learn this important lesson.

Once you are able to ask for help and delegate, you will find you have more time, energy and passion to do what you are best at, and to work on the business instead of just in the business.

  • How did you make the decision to start a new business, rather than partner with or join an existing business that was working on something similar?

My family have always owned their own businesses in Perth and in Malaysia, particularly in the food sector as mentioned. From baking schools, restaurants and food factories. So I come from an entrepreneurial upbringing, where hard work and vision were the foundations of business. We also came from a poor family and that determination to escape the poverty cycle fuelled our focus to working hard and passionately on our own business – a value we’ve all retained from generation to generation.

So when I pitched my idea to my family, it was encouraged and supported, providing me with a safe foundation to start a business. There was an opportunity, a clear gap in the market, so I took it and they supported it!

I did not work with existing businesses, as other businesses in this space were located on the East Coast of Australia, making it logistically challenging to produce and manufacture.

Also, from the very beginning, we wanted to have a more locavore, sustainable approach and work directly with farmers and fresh produce to keep costs competitive and produce tasting amazing, grown from our region. It also enabled a better-quality product, and more control over the manufacturing process, which was paramount to providing a superior product.

  •  Many consumers are now struggling with information overload when it comes to sustainable living and purchasing. What’s your advice on how to know whether your ‘eco-friendly’ purchase really is ‘eco-friendly’?

Do your research before you buy. Check out their website and contact the manufacturer or retailer with the questions you have to satisfy your curiosity and be confident about their promise before you purchase. Transparency is key in this market and it is important to enquire and take control of your information funnel.

That way, you are in charge of the process and can weed out the noise in the marketplace. You have the right to know what is real and what is presented to you, so I suggest you push for answers to ensure that it aligns with your personal values and ethos.

The other thing I suggest is get to know the language that is often used in the industry to describe the real ingredients and what’s marketing jargon. For example, we know now that the words “natural flavouring” does not mean it is made out of real ingredients. Instead look out for ingredients that you can easily pronounce. For those you don’t, have Google at the ready to find out more about what it is to help you make your purchasing decision.

Here at Turban Chopsticks, we are big on giving information for our customers. We invite our retailers to our factory to see the process at hand, we run Insta stories to show what happens behind the scenes, we encourage people to contact us with their questions, feedback and requests.

  • What are your ambitions for your businesses this year?

We are focusing more on sustainable packaging. We already use recycled biodegradable jars and packaging. Boxes printed with vegetable-based inks that are printed and made in Perth, WA, to reduce the carbon footprint.

We are also currently sourcing bamboo plastic that is biodegradable and seeing what other innovation the market is offering and emerging in this space. Being true to our words and recognising that every business can help fight climate change and make sure our planet is safe and healthy for our kids and their kids is important to us here at Turban Chopsticks.

Sustainability also works when it is shared or part of an ecosystem. When we support and work with each other, we can accomplish so much more.

We have also launched our new artisan chutney range – where we use second grade farm fruit and vegetables and turn them into delicious chutneys and jams. We are working directly with farming regions like the Gascoyne Food Council where we can source directly and help our local farmers. We will continue to foster these partnerships and extend our product range in this space, with seasonal ingredients.

By doing this we help reduce food waste, support other local businesses to also embrace sustainability and importantly, we want to help change the narrative or perception that second grade fruit and veggies – that do not make the ‘perfect grade’ of the big supermarkets – still tastes as good!

Another project focus we have at Turban Chopsticks this year is also working on value-add products, with products that are already being farmed in WA. We are looking at ways to bring WA ingredients to the forefront of the global market through new brand extensions and unique sustainable food concepts. Watch this space.

About the expert

Mei Yong is the Founder, Director, Food Creator and Innovator of Turban Chopsticks – Australian makers of authentic South Asian and South-East Asian ready to eat curry pastes, sauces and meal kits.

Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Australia by a full house of foodies, Mei was exposed to a bold variety of cuisines and exotic ingredients.

Mei started Turban Chopsticks out of an inconvenience she encountered early in her working career where she saw busy working professionals turning to fast food, adding fuel to a stressful lifestyle. Mei decided there is a need to offer wholesome, sustainable and good foods that are easy to cook and can be enjoyed by all.

Today, Turban Chopsticks is stocked in over 300 retailers nationwide, is 100% Australian made, owned and produced and focuses on sustainability in every aspect of their production, packaging and final product.

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Image description: Mei is standing behind a table covered in fresh fruits and vegetables alonside jars of jams and chutneys. She is smiling, wearing a colourful headsband and blouse, and has shoulder-length black hair.