We recently had the pleasure to speak with the amazing host of Thrive Spice, Vanessa Tsang Shiliwala to speak more about our story and our mission behind Joeydolls.
Samantha Ong on Self-Love, Starting a Business, and Raising Kids who are Proud to be Asian
Samantha Ong is on a mission to Stop Asian Hate and colorism, and Start Asian Love with Joeydolls, the first inclusive collection of Asian dolls for kids. The Founder/CEO, Mom and Entrepreneur gets real about juggling mom life and starting a business, creating a more inclusive world that celebrates all Asian cultures and skin tones with Joeydolls, and raising confident kids who are proud to be Asian. Plus: we drool over curry laksa and a real-life run-in with Shang-Chi celebrity Simu Liu.
Check out the full video podcast, quotes and the full transcript below as well as on www.thrivespicemedia.com.
Our guest on this episode is Samantha Ong, is the CEO & Founder of Joeydolls. She was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, grew up in sunny Australia and now lives in Toronto, Canada. Although Samantha graduated with a financial background, she followed her dream of becoming a wedding photographer and is now a mother of two young daughters.
Samantha founded Joeydolls and #StartAsianLove during the COVID-19 pandemic, a movement that is close to her heart. Being a first-generation immigrant, she knows first-hand how important it is for young children to see themselves represented to feel worthy. As a new mother, Samantha wants to fill the gap and hopes that these dolls can help both teach and celebrate Asian diversity in a fun but meaningful way.
Real Talk on Mental Health
How to Raise Kids Who are Proud to be Asian | Thrive Spice Podcast
Entrepreneur or Mom: which job is harder? | Thrive Spice Podcast
Samantha Ong, Founder @Joeydolls: “When we rise each other up, we’re also rising ourselves up too. So we all win in the end.”
Samantha Ong, Founder/CEO of Joeydolls, on dismantling colorism: “Even amongst the Asian community, there’s the issue of colorism, and white skin is preferred. I think we all really need to learn and embrace that all is beautiful, no matter who you are and the color of your skin.”
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Full Interview: Samantha Ong and Vanessa Shiliwala | Thrive Spice podcast
Our guest today at Thrive Spice is Samantha Ong, the CEO and Founder of Joeydolls. She was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, grew up in sunny Australia, and now lives in Toronto, Canada. Although Samantha graduated with a financial background, she followed her dream of becoming a wedding photographer and is now a mother of two young daughters.
Samantha founded Joeydolls and Start Asian Love during the COVID-19 pandemic, a movement that is close to her heart. Being a first-generation immigrant, she knows firsthand how important it is for young children to see themselves represented, to feel worthy. As a new mother, Samantha wants to fill the gap and hopes that these dolls can help both teach and celebrate Asian diversity in a fun, but meaningful way.
We’re so excited to welcome you, Samantha. I’ve been following your journey for months now about Joeydolls and just would love to get to know you a little bit better and hear more about your journey as a mother and an entrepreneur.
What inspired you to start Joeydolls?
Samantha Ong: Yeah. It was like right in the middle of the pandemic where I was stuck at home, just like everyone else. And my daughter was 10 months old at the time and we all experienced or witnessed, I should say the incredible hate towards Asians around the world. And it made me think about, you know, what type of world would my daughter be living in and growing up in?
And I felt scared and I didn’t want her to grow up feeling scared of who she is. And so it really made me think back to my experience, growing up as a child in Australia. And I always played with blonde haired dolls that were really pretty. And, you know, I always thought that the blonde-haired girls in my class were so lucky, and that they were so pretty. And like, “Why was I born like this?” You know? And at the time I think, unfortunately there weren’t really any other dolls out there that looked like us. And I don’t think there was that much awareness of how toys can create positive or negative influences on children.
But I know from my own personal experience, I think more needs to be done to help foster positive self-esteem and confidence amongst children. Because I know that when I was younger, I, for sure, didn’t feel proud to be Asian. And I was doing some research and studies and, you know, I saw you say that racial bias actually begins in babies as young as six months old.
So, it’s much younger than people tend to think. And I thought it’s so important for my daughter to grow up feeling confident about herself and have positive self-esteem. Because I don’t want her to grow up the way that I, I did. So, that made me think about. Like looking into dolls and getting something that look like her.
But when I found that there weren’t many out there, and when there was one, it tended to be like the token Asian.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Mmmn-Hmmn.
Samantha Ong: You know, the token Asian doll. There is a blonde hair doll, and you have Black hair doll, and then like an Asian doll. But it’s really not representative of Asian people. Asia is so culturally diverse, with 48 different countries.
And I know that even in my own family, I grew up as culturally Chinese and I was born in Malaysia, but my husband’s Korean. So I really hope that my daughter will grow up to be proud to be Chinese, Malaysian and Korean. And so I thought, instead of wishing for these dolls to come about, let’s try to create them.
Let’s try to create diverse dolls that represent all the different cultures within Asia.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Oh, I love that so much. And I relate on such a personal level. As a mother with two young daughters, I have also gone through the same exercise of looking for dolls that looked like them. Also having mixed Asian daughters as well.
They’re Chinese, Taiwanese and Indian. And so, to your point, Asia has 48 different countries. And so just seeing like one example of the token Asian doll is just kind of ludicrous. When you think about it, we don’t all look the same. We have different skin tones, different hair types, a lot of different physical and cultural characteristics that really are our pride and joy. It’s something to celebrate.
And I also remember, you know, my first memory of getting a doll was when I became a big sister to my younger brother. And I was three and a half, pretty much the identical age to my oldest daughter now. And I remember my parents got me this Hawaiian doll. And I remember, it was my first Barbie, you know, it’s something you should be excited about.
But I remember even at that young age, when I looked at that Barbie, I thought I didn’t want her. I felt like she was ugly. And she wasn’t that blonde haired, blue eyed, Barbie doll that I’d seen in the commercials. Like she was like this off-brand Barbie and that memory really stayed with me because I think it was the first time that I had internalized this racism against someone who looked like me.
And it’s just so heartbreaking. And to your point about the research, you know, children are aware of race and differences in ethnicity. They already begin to choose their friends and shape their perspectives as young as six months. And at three and four years, they associate, certain ethnicities with being “good” or “bad.”
And so I really relate to your mission of, showcasing our diversity. And I think not just for the Asian community, but beyond the Asian community, for everyone to see that Asian dolls and Asian people are a part of our world today. I love that it really is an opportunity to kind of debunk some of the stereotypes about what an Asian person looks like or what their background is.
I’m curious, you know, starting a new business can feel so daunting at times. How do you manage your own mental health and time, especially as a mom?
Samantha Ong: Yeah, it’s a really tough question. And it’s something that I struggle with every day.
Being a mum is so challenging, especially during a pandemic where we made a personal decision to keep our children at home. There’s a lot to manage and it always feels like there’s not enough hours in the day. And to be honest, I often over-schedule myself and I have lists that are way too long.
And, but I think I really have to be realistic with myself and be more kind to myself and accept that I can’t do everything. And that spending time with my children is productive. The children really do need that support from parents, and they look up to us, and they learn from us. So I really need to give myself self care and love,
so that they know how to do that for themselves. So right now I’m also like in the middle of working on pushing back on things, and saying no to things, and being true to myself, and not working myself thin. So that I can be my best self.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Saying no, and setting boundaries, I think has been something that collectively moms have been really kind of going through this community struggle throughout the pandemic, but also kind of coming into our own. Where, finally, the world sees how much of a challenge it is to be balancing mom life, work
life, or entrepreneurial endeavors ,and then just the massive uncertainty of this ongoing pandemic. And as we were talking about earlier, I have my kids in daycare and they get sick like so often. So there’s always this kind of just feeling of being thrown for another unexpected, you know, rock in the road.
Have you ever had any of these moments where you’re facing a setback or feelings of self doubt or imposter syndrome? And if so, what does help you get through them and really regain your confidence or cultivate a sense of peace during this time of uncertainty?
Samantha Ong: Yeah, good question. Absolutely. I started my own business before I became a wedding photographer, even though I majored in finance, I did something completely different.
So I did my own business. So that I’ve done before, but starting a new business, manufacturing a toy from scratch was a whole new experience for me. And with anything that I do in life, I want to do it right. So I often think to myself, you know, am I doing this right? Are people are going to like it? Can I do this properly?
I don’t want to disappoint people. But I really have to think about what I’m trying to achieve here. And I truly believe in the mission that we’re doing. And so I think about the lives that we hope that we can touch, and that really keeps me going. So I think about the end goal. And I keep working away at it and keep learning more.
And I really believe in the fact that if we really set our mind to something, we can achieve anything. And that’s this kind of example that I want to set for my children. So it’s also really comforting when people reach out and say things like, “Oh, I love what you’re doing here. Keep at it. I’ve been wanting to see something like this for so long. ” And, they really resonate with the experience that I had, knowing that I wasn’t alone, and that, you know, people really do believe in our mission as well. And I love that about our community that we all support each other because I think that’s so important. When we rise each other up, we’re also rising ourselves up too. And so we all win in the end. So yeah.
Vanessa Shiliwala: I I love that. I totally agree. I think there’s something really healing about leading with a vision, and really incorporating the community. And it’s seeing leaders like yourself, where you have these vested interests in uplifting the community and also addressing an experience that so many of us can relate to, having been, you know, children obviously and now being parents, and seeing that there is an opportunity to model a different world and kind of create the change as you were mentioning.
If you don’t see it, go ahead and create it. I think a lot of people can find inspiration from that. So I really commend you for that.
Samantha Ong: Thank you. Thank you.
You talk about encouraging creative play in children. Do you feel like creative play for adults is something that also needs to be nurtured for our own mental health and wellness?
Samantha Ong: Absolutely. I think we all have to have balance, but I think that there are most studies now on the benefit of creative play for adults too. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality and stimulate creativity, but it also helps improve social skills, and with the pandemic, and all of us being confined to our homes, I hope that as adults we can try to think more about creative play and how it can foster more of a community amongst us and bring us closer together, which is really what the world needs right now.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Yeah. As you’re working on the product development for Joeydolls, do you find yourself immersing in creative play, or do you test it out with your kids?
Tell me a little bit about your process in bringing these dolls to life.
Samantha Ong: Yeah. So definitely we’ve been trying to like ask, also, the community of what they want to see, what their experience is. I have got some prototypes right now, have tested out, tested them out with my daughter to see like how the wear and tear of them is.
Like, I know my daughter sometimes will try to shove things through like her crib slats, kind of like jump on them. So I, and also when it comes to representing all the different cultures within Asia, like I can’t pretend that I am knowledgeable about all those different cultures. So that’s where I’ve been reaching out to friends and family.
They know people that are aware of what’s important for different cultures to see and how they want to see them represented. Because we don’t want to mis-appropriate a different culture. And we want to do it correctly, and we want people to feel good about them.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Yeah. That’s such a great point. Right? So even though we have this privilege to represent the Asian community, the reality is, we can’t possibly know what the entire, you know, 48 country diaspora of what an Asian identity and existence is like. So part of it’s, you know, our own exploration and education in what it means to be a modern Asian person these days encompassing so many different identities.
Do you find that, you know, for many of us who started or grown businesses that predominantly feature Asians, sometimes we’re told by investors or potential partners that the market size is too small or too niche, you know, kind of a way of saying, “No one outside the Asian community is really going to be interested in buying this product or service.” Yet, we’ve seen with the recent global success of Shang-Chi, and Squid Games being #1 on Netflix, with plenty of non-Asian viewers, do you think that tide is starting to change for Asian representation? And what is your vision for how Joeydolls could help make diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity more of a reality for not just America, but the world?
Samantha Ong: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I love that the success of Shang-Chi and Squid Games, which is off the charts.
And I think this really proves that we’ve been completely missing a demographic for so long. But I hope that by showing the different cultures within Asian Joeydolls, we can create more awareness that Asia is so diverse, and that there’s so many more beautiful stories that need to be told. So, a goal at Joeydolls is to have a doll that represents all the different cultures, but also to show the different skin tones. That Asians aren’t just East Asian. That, you know, this is not just Chinese, Korean, Japanese, that we’re not just light-skinned people. And it’s not often talked about a lot here, but even amongst the Asian community, there’s the issue of colorism,
and that white skin is preferred. And so I think we all really need to learn and embrace that all is beautiful, no matter who you are and the color of your skin.
And that’s a message that I really want to put out there. That white skin is preferred amongst us [Asians], and that, you know, you can experience discrimination from that.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Totally. And this is such a hot-button topic, particularly for… really, all Asian cultures that I’m aware of.
Having spent a lot of time working in the beauty industry, catering to the Asian market, I’m very personally aware of how pervasive these stereotypes are and how harmful they can be for the self-esteem and confidence of young women. It has all these kinds of stories of intergenerational trauma of, you know, feeling like, you know, I’ve been told I was too dark, or I remember even as a kid, like being told, “Don’t go out into the sun,” or, “Why did you get so black?” And, you know, just all kinds of things.
And I remember going to Taiwan and you know, my relatives would like offer me an umbrella to go everywhere lest I, you know, get some color in my skin. It’s really shocking, and I think when you’re young, your first encounter with that is always kind of a very memorable one.
So I, I definitely agree that there is, you know, prejudices that we have to address even within our own diaspora in our own community. So I, I very much believe that we have, you know, ways to go, but what I’m encouraged by, is that I do see a lot of conversations, particularly in the South Asian community, about kind of reclaiming their skin color and being proud of it and not apologizing for it.
And I’ve seen even like Bollywood actresses say they won’t, you know, represent any sort of like skin lightening creams or companies. And so I think the tide is turning. As well. And I agree with you, you know, the Asian market is not niche. It’s simply another perspective that I think more than Asians are appreciative of, and are interested in, and captivated by.
So I’m going to ask a few, like real quick lightning round questions, just to get to know you a little bit better and keep it fun. Do you have a favorite daily or weekly habit that helps you thrive?
Samantha Ong: Yeah. You know what? I didn’t mention it before, but I’m actually a practicing Buddhist. So I chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo daily, and I attend regular meetings, which helps us uplift and encourage each other, especially during tough times.
And so chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, it helps me realize my inner potential, which is limitless. Instead of wishing something to happen, I use my practice to unlock my own wisdom, courage, and compassion to achieve my dreams – and also make the world a better place.
Vanessa Shiliwala: That is so cool. What is it, if you don’t mind me asking? Like, is it kind of like a mantra? Tell me a little bit more about that.
Samantha Ong: Yeah. So Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, that’s actually like the name of the Law of the Universe. And so by chanting it, it’s like awakening. So we believe that every person has their own inner Buddha nature. And so it’s all within every single person. So by chanting it you’re like awakening that Buddha nature within you, it’s like calling that name.
And so you’re really aligning yourself with the universe. And then that’s where we’re really bringing out our unlimited wisdom, compassion, and courage within us to achieve whatever we want, and also help others overcome their struggles as well.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Wow. I really love that. Thank you for sharing that.
I feel like it actually kind of is a common thread with your, your mission at Joeydolls.
Samantha Ong: Thank you.
Vanessa Shiliwala: I kind of understand… you know, it really actually aligns very well with that. And I think that being Asian-American, I have a lot of family in Asia. And every time I go to Asia, I see how kind of the Buddhist religion really is kind of this common thread or undercurrent in a lot of the traditions, whether it’s like paying respects to, you know, your ancestors and just how you treat society, or other people in your community.
So, I do see that difference. Especially, you know, there’s always a reverse culture shock when I come back to America, I’m like, “Whoa, like, everyone is only concerned about themselves right now.” So I, I do think that is a very unique and admirable quality. And I love that it comes through in the way that you lead as an entrepreneur.
Samantha Ong: Thank you.
Vanessa Shiliwala: If you had to pick – you know, just celebrating your diverse background – what do you prefer, or what’s your favorite: Malaysian, Chinese, Australian or Canadian food?
Samantha Ong: Yeah. You know what? Malaysian, hands down. It’s because people don’t really know that Malaysia is actually made up of a multi-ethnic population.
There’s three main ethnic groups, the Malays, Chinese and Indians, and also it’s really close to Thailand and Indonesia. So the food is so diverse. I love the spicy food. And if you had to describe Malaysian food, I would say it’s super spicy, but also so good. So Malaysian, hands down it. Yeah.
Vanessa Shiliwala: I’m also a huge fan of Malaysian food. I didn’t really discover it until after college. I traveled to Malaysia and then I also you know, I’m lucky enough to have lived in New York City where there were a lot of like, not a lot, but enough exposure to Malaysian food. I love Southeast Asian food in general, because I feel like it has so much texture and so many flavors that you don’t really come across in Western foods.
So I would agree with you there, like Malaysian food is just, it’s so flavorful and even like their salads are like delightful with so much texture… like the sweet, sour, crunchy, and like that fish sauce…
Samantha Ong: Oh yeah.
Vanessa Shiliwala: It just makes me hungry talking about it. Right. That’s awesome. Do you have a favorite, like Malaysian dish?
Samantha Ong: I am a noodle person, so I’d say many of the noodle dishes, but in particular, Curry Laksa. Oh God, I could go on forever. So let’s just leave it alone.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Yum. Do you make any of it at home?
Samantha Ong: I’ve tried making them from scratch. And I find that sometimes it just takes way too long. But sometimes I have to buy those pastes, which is really helpful.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Yeah.
Samantha Ong: I do love cooking at home and yeah, it’s just so much more of an experience that way. And the whole family can enjoy.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Of course, of course. That’s amazing. I love those Curry pastes. It’s a great mom hack. Like, I’m so unashamed about it. I’m just like, “Yes! I love saving time. And I love to eat. And I love celebrating our culture.” so this hits on all those boxes.
Samantha Ong: It’s hard to think about time when you’re a mom.
Vanessa Shiliwala: For sure. Who’s your favorite Asian celebrity?
Samantha Ong: You know what? So I just watched Shang-Chi. So right now, it’s Simu Liu.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Yay!
Samantha Ong: He’s from Toronto. I think he’s a really great example of someone who followed his dream. He ditched his career as an accountant, and became an actor.
But I also have this cool story about him. Well, it’s a small story, but I actually bumped into him on a plane from LA. Yeah. So I was actually about six months pregnant at the time.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Wow.
Samantha Ong: And my husband and I were traveling from Toronto to Hawaii with a LA stopover. And so I was boarding the plane, and I was trying to put my luggage in the overhead compartment.
And then from behind me, someone says, “Do you need any help with your bags?” And I turned around and there’s Simu Liu.
Vanessa Shiliwala: No way. So he’s like a real-life Prince Charming.
Samantha Ong: Oh, yeah! And he was there the whole time and I had no idea. Yeah. And I, at the time I was like, “Oh, don’t worry. My husband’s gonna help me.” But I should’ve said, “Oh, please help me.” And I would’ve had this story, that Shang-Chi helped me with my luggage.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Exactly. Oh man.
Samantha Ong: He offered to. So…
Vanessa Shiliwala: That is so funny.
Samantha Ong: He’s a nice guy.
Vanessa Shiliwala: I love that. I love when people are actually nice in real life and kind of do it like anonymously. It’s like. I’m sure he wasn’t like, “Can I take a selfie with you now, and document this for my Instagram or something?” That is so sweet.
So what’s harder: being an entrepreneur, or being a mom?
Samantha Ong: Oh, gosh, I think being a mom, it’s a tough job because it’s 24/7. You know, you give your whole heart and soul to it. Being an entrepreneur is tough too, because it’s so much hustle and you, what do you drop? And you put a lot of thought into it too, but it’s just not on the same level as being a mom. And I always try to put being a mom first.
But – you know what, the juggle is really hard.
Vanessa Shiliwala: For sure. I agree with you there. I would also pick mom and I think to your point, it’s 24/7, 365. Like, I’m kind of half joking, but not really, I always tell my husband, like, “I quit. Like I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be the one who like always has to get up in the middle of the night.”
And I’m like, why does the kid always ask for mommy at like 3:00 AM? I’m like, Learn “Daddy,” like, ask for daddy! But yeah, I think, you know, both are clearly very difficult and being a mom and an entrepreneur is like it’s special, you know, own version of just like the ultimate challenge. So props to you.
Samantha Ong: You too.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Thank you! And I think, you know, what we were talking about before about like really taking it at our own pace and being kind of mindful of that because, you know, we can’t go full speed ahead in, in all directions at once. I found it’s a really easy way to burn out fast. So, and you gave birth literally three months ago.
So I cannot even. I’m just in awe of you, like, literally, I can’t believe you’re even, you know, working on this and doing an interview at the same time, when you’re technically on [maternity] leave. You know, you’re still very much a new mom, also juggling a second older child.
So, I definitely salute you on your mission. So difficult and you’re doing an amazing job.
Samantha Ong: Oh, thank you so much.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Finally, what brings you joy these days? You know, something that makes you smile or laugh or just makes you feel gratitude in your life?
Samantha Ong: Yeah, I think that’s an easy question.
It’s my kids. Seeing them grow and become their own person, it’s such a wonderful experience. And I really hope that they grow up to be confident young women. And that really brings back to, you know, why I started Joeydolls and I did it with my kids in mind, but I’m also thinking about like other kids out there that I hope that these dolls will bring joy to as well. Just the thought of that makes me really happy. And so I really hope that we can realize its vision and bring these dolls to life.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Absolutely. And I love that we both have two girls. Yeah. And it kind of naturally fit in there,
but I know you mentioned, dolls are not just for girls. Anybody can play with dolls and you know, use imaginative play to really develop their own creativity.
Samantha Ong: Yeah. And that’s something that we want to do in the future as well. Some people have reached out and asked us if we’re going to be doing boy dolls or gender neutral dolls.
And that’s definitely something that’s in our vision. But we just want to start with something first. So we do have a set that we’re going to do a first run, and then if it’s successful, we’ll continue to push out more. So definitely would love as much support as we can to get these dolls and to bring them to life, basically.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Absolutely. And then I know you’re launching with, like, eight different kinds? I’d love you to just tell us more about that, and where we can find you and follow you and support you.
Samantha Ong: Yeah. So we’re still figuring out how much demand and interest is going to be in the dolls and like what people are wanting.
So, right now, if you are interested in learning more about us, you can follow us on Instagram at Joeydolls or hop on our website, www.joeydolls.com. But you can also sign up to be a Joeydolls VIP, where you’ll have access to exclusive discounts on launch day. But also we’ll be sending out some private survey invitations, so that’s where we’re going to be getting some feedback about what people want, what cultures are in demand, more than others. Perhaps we might only do three, perhaps may do more. That’s going to be really important to us, but also going back to what I said before about like, you know, the other different cultures that we want to do.
That’s where we would love to reach out to people that have a culture that we aren’t too familiar with, that we also want to do right by. So that’s where we can help gather that feedback and what people want to see, and really bring dolls that will bring joy to people.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Oh, I love that. That’s great. And I love that you’re also relying on the community to kind of be a collaborative force in developing these dolls. I think that’s such a fresh, modern way to go about it, and really keep it rooted in what the community is looking for. It’s also just a great learning opportunity to understand more about the diaspora and the 48 different countries in Asia. And you know, you layer on different nationalities, there’s American, and Australian, Canadian, et cetera. And we’re just of all flavors and stripes. So I love that it’s being celebrated. Thank you so much, Samantha.
I’m so happy you were able to join us today. I really loved hearing your journey. We’re so inspired by you, and can’t wait to see where your journey takes you next.
Samantha Ong: Thank you so much for letting me speak to you and letting me speak about the vision that we have here.
Vanessa Shiliwala: Of course. Good luck. And I had so much fun talking to you. Take care.
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