To call Malisse Tan-Izham a fighter would be putting things mildly. Entrepreneur. Feminist. Eldest of three girls. Mum of two (with another on the way). Member of Lean in Malaysia’s Board of Advisors. Eco-warrior. CEO (Chief Estrogen Officer) of BOBBLE. Cancer survivor.
But I digress. To know Malisse better is to start from the beginning of her inspiring journey. This was an opportunity makchic jumped at – the chance to interview the mind and heart behind BOBBLE, Malaysia’s first eco-organic period care company, and to hear this mumpreneur’s take on the lessons life has taught her.
Breaking down taboos
Malisse and I are talking about periods – and I could swear that the couple sitting at the table beside us is eavesdropping on our conversation. After all, the topic of menstruation isn’t something one regularly discusses over coffee and croissants. But why not? The unfortunate stigma still surrounding this topic is one of the key reasons behind BOBBLE’s inception – to provide safe and sustainable period care products, and to generate awareness about the importance of menstrual health.
“We spend so much money on our face, our hair, on other parts of our body, but why not our vulvas and vaginas? It’s because of this taboo – but now is the time for disruption, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Malisse.
We at makchic know that Malisse certainly walks the talk. Having supported our earlier workshop with SPOT Community Project at The Cooler Lumpur, as well as our Mum4Mums fundraising initiative in 2020 in aid of single and vulnerable mums, Malisse’s passion for educating and empowering in the space of women’s health is a lifelong commitment.
Launched in June 2020, BOBBLE’s journey has certainly been an eventful one. Aside from navigating a global pandemic, Malisse and her husband, Azrul Izham, also found out that they were expecting baby number 2 (their son, Asher (1), joining big sister, Aleya (5)), around the same time as BOBBLE’s launch. “It was kind of like giving birth to two new babies!” recalls Malisse with a laugh. “We were on lockdown and trying to grow a business from our guest bedroom, with my husband packing orders at midnight. I’d be 6 months pregnant and packing, or 8 months pregnant doing deliveries direct to customers within 10km!”.
Although it was a physical (and mental) challenge, Malisse has no regrets, calling this stretching period a “great learning curve” and “a blessing in disguise”, with online purchasing during the pandemic accelerating BOBBLE’s growth, and affording the brand an increased presence through physical retail stores eager to explore more sustainable products.
Keeping menstruators safe
Malisse takes great pride in what BOBBLE has to offer, and it’s no wonder, seeing how hands-on she’s been throughout the entire development process. She’s committed to ensuring the quality of everything BOBBLE produces – from their certified organic cotton pads and tampons that are free from chlorines, dyes and other nasties, to their locally-sourced and fully biodegradable packaging (complete with fully compostable soy-based ink and biodegradable FSC-certified paper).
It’s an expensive exercise, no doubt – but to Malisse, it’s also a non-negotiable. “I don’t want to cut corners at the expense of our customers. In the space of menstrual health, it’s not something to play around with. I have to ensure we’re ethical every step of the way”.
Holding firm to their brand values, BOBBLE remains, at their core, a purpose-driven, impact-driven and forward thinking business. They are committed to keeping their brand inclusive ( “We try to be mindful of the language we use – for example, being conscious about using the term “menstruators”, as there are many people of different genders who are still menstruating”), ensuring that their products, customer care services and office culture continue to positively impact people, and continuing to think ahead to safeguard the wellbeing of our young.
Malisse shares, “A lot of what we do today has a ripple effect on the future. I started [my plans for] BOBBLE in 2017, when I was diagnosed with cancer, and began to be a lot more conscious about what we were using at home (laundry detergent, soaps, what we were consuming) – including my period care. I learned that a lot of the generic brands have a lot of chemicals, and I felt a gap in the market in having access to safer alternatives, coupled with a lack of education in this space. It’s not what I wanted for my daughter, Aleya, when she eventually hits puberty.”
The Big C
BOBBLE’s inception is inextricably linked to Malisse’s own cancer journey, with her having been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when Aleya was just 6 weeks old. “I had planned my life up until I was 30,” she recalls. “But I never planned for what happened after that.” At 30, Malisse had just quit her full-time corporate job and ventured into her first start-up, before finding out she had cancer. “That period in my life felt unreal. You never think this would happen – but cancer knows no age.”
A large lump at Malisse’s neck (possibility aggravated by haywire hormones, post-delivery) first raised alarm bells. A check with the gynaecologist and a subsequent referral to a haematologist confirmed the unimaginable.
The Big C.
“After hearing the news from the doctor, I somehow managed to make it to the car with my husband, and we just sat and cried together and allowed ourselves to feel those feelings. It was oxymoronic – we had just brought new life into this world, and here I was, trying to fight for my own”, she recalls. What helped Malisse was choosing to be pragmatic about how she approached her diagnosis, ultimately making the decision to start chemotherapy over a six-month period.
Navigating the aftermath
The higher curability rate of Malisse’s type of cancer (as well as her young age) were factors that helped – but the down days were still there. Malisse remembers having to Google for wigs, breaking down in tears at the thought of losing her hair – before taking control of her situation by shaving her head (an act joined in by her husband and daughter in loving solidarity).
She credits her husband’s support for helping the couple pull through this difficult season. “Azrul had to take on more work as we became a single income family, [and it wasn’t easy] with him being a caregiver, as well as us being new parents. I wanted to take into account his feelings and the pressure he was under to work twice as hard to make ends meet. It was important that it wasn’t just about me, but about us as individuals, as a marriage and as parents to our newborn at the time”.
Understandably, Malisse went through a process of post-traumatic growth. “It’s something that I carry with me to this day. I learned I could never “bounce back” to the state I was in, prior to cancer. Instead, I decided how to lean in and grow forward from a traumatic experience.” If cancer has taught her one thing, it’s this: resilience. “You never know how strong you are until strength is all you have left.”
Six years in- and Malisse is now, happily, cancer-free. Taking nothing for granted, she looks at this as “a second chance at life”, one that is propelling her to do all she can now to impact the future and educate the next generation.
Malisse on motherhood
Malisse’s passion for educating and empowering extends beyond BOBBLE, going to the heart of her own (soon-to-be) family of 5. She shares some of her tips for navigating her many responsibilities as both mother and entrepreneur.
“Organisation! Every weekend, I spend planning the week ahead with my husband – school runs, extracurriculars, meals. As a person, I like to be more proactive, than reactive”. She guards her time with her family preciously, stopping work at 5pm so the family can eat together by 6pm, before spending the last hour with her kids before their bedtime. Then her work continues in the late hours after.
With her third child arriving in a few short months, Malisse is prepared for the changes that will inevitably come. “I have to figure out a new dynamic with three kids, their timetables and work; preparing new routines, yet being flexible enough to adapt when the time comes.”
Falling forward – and getting back up
As for her business, changes are on the horizon as well. Malisse is excited about the new phase BOBBLE is moving into, as the business expands beyond our shores. With BOBBLE’s products being made available in Singapore, and launching in Brunei, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates (and hopefully, North America), the future looks promising.
Before we part, I ask if she has any advice to share, from the perspective of both a business owner and a cancer survivor.
“A lot of times, we hear the term “failing forward”; but I started to shift it and talk about falling forward instead. I first heard about this from [author and inspirational speaker] Simon Sinek – it denotes being able to get back up and try again. My first two start-ups [before BOBBLE] didn’t take off. But failures and experiences…they’re all just lessons in disguise and without them, without the past, I wouldn’t be as clear-minded about my passion and purpose as I am today.”
To help mitigate risks, some practical questions aspiring mumpreneurs should consider beforehand include:
- Why do you want to start a business?
- What problem are you trying to solve? Do you have a big enough target market?
- Do you have a clear business plan? Are your financials and investments in place?
- How will you manage your time with work and family?
Fighting the good fight
For cancer warriors within our #makchicmumsquad community, Malisse also has these words of encouragement to impart.
“Please know that you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to speak up, or reach out to other fighters through social media or the National Cancer Society. Connect to people you can trust. Sometimes, we might feel we’re a burden on others, but we need to ensure we’re supported – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well”.
A word of advice for (well-meaning) family and friends? Don’t tell your loved ones going through cancer “what to do, how to live or what to eat!”. Instead, “listen, have a conversation, don’t treat them any differently and spend time with them, so they can live life as normally as possible.”
We say our goodbyes, and I’m left feeling inspired by this powerhouse. Ready to (as Malisse puts it) fall forward, get back up – and keep on fighting.
By Kimberly Lee
[The contents of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.]
Photo Credit: Malisse Tan-Izham