An elevator convo with Jo Soo-tang, the co-founder of Cookie Smiles. See here for more from our Next Up series.
What do you do?
I used to help and volunteer for a lot of different charities, and the bulk of it was with a private hospital foundation. When Covid-19 hit in March, I decided to resign from everything and to really start my own.
People in Hong Kong are always on the go but when you finally have time to sit still — which everybody did during the pandemic — you finally hear everything around you much more clearly. In the past, I was always running to and fro fundraising events and board meetings, and I missed doing things and making changes at the grassroots level. When Agnes, the co-founder of Cookie Smiles, came to me with the idea — an online fundraising platform with cookies — it hit my heart right away.
Agnes is involved in baking and coming up with different flavors. My role in Cookie Smiles is managing partnerships with all of our retailers, stockists and charities that we support. I also handle marketing and business development.
How does your business work?
Cookie Smiles is a social enterprise, and we help support two chosen charities per year via fundraising. We also offer training opportunities for the disadvantaged and provide jobs for the physically impaired.
We sell cookies and donate 20% of our annual profit to Splash Foundation and the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association. We’ll pick another one or two charities for the following year, so that we can end up helping quite a few over X number of years.
Our cookies use a traditional recipe and we’re also experimenting with different flavors. We have flavors like chocolate, almond, coconut and matcha. We’ve also developed a pet-friendly cookie “Woof Twisters”, which are available at over eight retail points. They are very popular.
How did your business get started?
Agnes has always been interested in post-retirement career. She’s almost 70 years old, and she meets a lot of ladies in their late 50s who would like to work but struggled with finding a job. Two of them, Ah Mei and Wei Wei, are now our bakers. They had been laid off three times in a row and were looking for a job, but it was difficult at their age. Agnes decided to train them in baking herself — so they can pick up a new skill and we’ll have bakers at Cookie Smiles. Most recently, we’ve been working with a vocational training program called “Shine.” They have a lot of graduates with special needs. We’re hiring one of their graduates.
We want to offer a training opportunity in a smaller environment. Once he’s comfortable enough to work somewhere else, he can move on and doesn’t have to continue with us. We can then take on more people and keep training more people with special needs.
Running a social enterprise is always challenging. It’s even more so here because there’s actually no social enterprise model that the government follows and approves. We talked to our lawyers and we’ve decided to refer to the UK model, where over 60-70% of our profits goes to charities or back to your organization. We do about 50% back to our venture, and we give away 20% — so we’re slightly above UK standards.
Who are your customers?
Our customers are three-fold. First it’s the private clubs and recreation clubs. They were our biggest supporters for the first couple months. Clubs are great because there’s a constant audience, and they were mostly open during the pandemic. Then we have individuals customers. People who are ordering cookies for events, for their pantry, or for gifts to give out during Christmas. That’s why we come up with new flavors for festivals. This Christmas, we’ll be doing a seasonal gingerbread man. Lastly we have retailers or stockists who already have a variety of goods in their shop. You can find a list of our stockists here.
What’s a day in your working life like?
I have three kids, who are 15, 12 and 9 years old respectively. When schools are suspended and they have to do zoom classes, it can be quite hard to work. Things are a lot easier when they’re back at school. In the morning, I take my youngest to school, and by 8:30 am I am on the go. I’ll be at the office making calls, going to meetings and lunch appointments. At 2:30 pm, I go pick up my youngest from school, and after that I’m on call at home. I’ll be liaising with different retailers, clients, our business development and marketing coordinator.
Agnes manages the kitchen, our bakers and the cookie-baking. We do cookies tasting at least twice a week. We’ve got Chinese New Year planned out, and next up is Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter.
My favorite part of the job is going to the shops and clubs that stock our products, and talking to the general managers, head of operations and some customers. It’s great to see your own product on the shelf. I enjoy getting customer feedback. We try to take in all customer feedback so that we can keep on improving our quality.
It’s a happy business. Every day we have a good laugh. I enjoy what I’m doing a lot.
Where do you see your business in the future?
In three years, we hope to create a bigger training school where we can work with vocational training schools and have a certified program for people in baking. We also want to extend our product range to all sorts of edible treats from sweet to savory eats.
For us, it’s not so much about the product, but the process of training people. In the beginning, a lot of them feel frustrated because they think they can’t do it. And when they finally perfect it, it’s a fantastic feeling to watch and see them grow.