Reflecting on My Journey with PichaEats - A Bittersweet Chapter

May 30, 2023 9 Min Read
Lee Sweelin
Source:

Michelle

Farewell and Gratitude

It has been fun. 

As I sit down to reflect on my time at PichaEats, I am filled with a mix of emotions. It has been an incredible journey, full of ups and downs, laughter and tears, successes and failures. I am writing this almost a year late, but as I start a new chapter in my life, I can't help but still feel bittersweet about the whole experience. Writing this may not mean a lot to whoever is reading it, but to me, it feels like closure. 

There are just too many countless memories from my time at PichaEats, building it up from scratch since the beginning. Starting from buying the 'first' of everything, such as catering trays, boxes, and forks and spoons, to figuring out how to deliver food from point A to B before Lalamove and Grab Express were available. I had my first taste of eggplant in one of the chef's houses and experienced countless late nights and rounds of food tastings. We welcomed newborn babies, had hangout sessions, Picha family outings, and won awards. We dealt with trolleys, wash trays, set up an office, went to Hong Kong, hired new employees, and figured out how to navigate the challenges brought on by Covid-19, started a new product line, and even started another new company. It was a journey. 

Starting my first company at 23, I was excited about the opportunity to make a positive impact in the world. The company's mission was to provide a platform for refugees to share their food and stories with the world, and this resonated deeply with me. Growing up in a family filled with rich cultural stories and my love for food, I was eager to learn from these amazing individuals, to hear their stories, taste their food, and help them share their culinary heritage and culture with the wider community. Until today, I felt that I am the beneficiary of the organisation. I have learned so much from them, including valuable lessons on resilience, life, and becoming a better human being every single day. 

One of our Family Day 

Along the journey, I also realised that PichaEats was more than just a company. It was a community of individuals who were passionate about making a difference. I was amazed by the dedication and hard work of the team, and the incredible impact they were making in the lives of refugees. Although I wore a very different hat back then - one that wasn't necessarily loved by everyone - I am forever grateful to those who chose to join us when we were just a small team. When I checked my drive recently, I found I had about 600 CVs with me. 

Of course, working with refugees was not without its challenges. There were times when I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, and frustrated by the barriers that refugees faced in trying to rebuild their lives. But through it all, the resilience and strength of the refugees I met, inspired me to keep going, to keep pushing for change and to make the business model work. When someone were to ask me how is it like working with them, I would always say, we are lucky to have met good souls. Of course, every human being is different (doesn’t matter what race, religion, country you are from), so you cannot expect perfection. 

Over the course of my time at PichaEats, I have had the opportunity to work on some incredible projects with different individuals. Some might say my heroes as well. From organising pop-up events and catering for large corporations, to curating new meals every now and then, I have had the chance to hone my skills and develop new ones. But more importantly, I have had the chance to work with some amazing individuals, both within the organisation and in the refugee community. 

One of the most memorable experiences I had at PichaEats was the first time I met a Syrian in 2016. The warmth and hospitality they showed me (and the team) were unforgettable. I was immediately welcomed into their community, and I felt a strong sense of belonging from the beginning. Till today, I missed it. And I could always feel their love and generosity from miles away. 

I can never truly explain the feeling. The resilience, perseverance, and passion they displayed every day were truly inspiring. Despite facing numerous challenges, including language barriers and cultural differences, they continued to work hard, treat others kindly, determined to create a better life for themselves and their families here. Their dedication to their food and their community was inspiring and humbling. 

Our business model allowed refugees to showcase their culinary skills and share their cultural diversity with the broader Malaysian community, all while creating economic opportunities for themselves and enabling the business to fulfil its purpose. 

Coming from a finance background, I’ve always tried to balance the social impact aspect with the business side of things while running the business at the same time. (Recently, someone asked me how can they balance both profit and impact. I answered, I don’t think you can all the time. There are times where one is more than the other.) However, with every success, there are always those who disagree with our work. Some critics have accused us of taking advantage of the refugee community or exploiting their skills for profit. Some have even gone so far as to accuse us of taking away jobs from Malaysians. At first, it is disheartening to hear these opinions, especially when we know that our business model has helped to empower and provide economic opportunities for refugees who have struggled to find work here, at the same time maintaining the operational side. The criticisms can be more hurtful and frustrating when it’s directly to me (the team), especially when we know that we are making a positive impact on the lives of the refugees we work with. 

Trying out the chef's hand-sewn blouse

Despite these challenges, we continue to believe in our mission and the importance of what we do. We remain committed to creating meaningful opportunities for refugees and empowering them to become self-sufficient. I always believe that everyone deserves a chance to live a dignified life and that it is our responsibility (especially when we are the privileged ones) to help those who are marginalised in our society. 

I have been fortunate enough to witness the growt of the organisation from its early days, and I have seen firsthand how it has positively influenced the lives of those involved. I am forever thankful for the numerous awards and recognition that I and the organisation have received. From being selected Forbes' 30 Under 30 Asia, to Generation T List, Tatler Asia, to being selected to visit Silicon Valley in the United States, immersive learning in both Amsterdam and Germany. 

Many people have asked what my main role was. Of course, as the owner of a business, I had to wear many hats and take on a range of responsibilities to ensure that the business thrived. When people asked me about my main role, I found it difficult to pinpoint just one area that I focused on, as I was involved in many different aspects of the business. 

One of my primary responsibilities was managing the finance side of things. For the first four to five years of the business, I managed everything from start to end, including the management accounting, until I eventually (more like gave up as it was too much) hired someone to help me with the day-to-day operations. Things like, I had to figure out how to transfer the cash from our bank to the chefs for payment. There was a time where I had 10 thousand dollars in cash at hand. I was also heavily involved in logistics and operational flow. This meant figuring out how to move our products from one place to another while ensuring that they remained in excellent condition. There were so many variables that I had to consider, such as what types of transportation, food (is the food okay to travel at least an hour away?) and packaging, making sure that our customers received their orders on time and in great shape. I’ll stop at no. 3, and lastly, curating new products and menus for the business (so most of what you see we sell. It was mostly me at first until I decided to hire an internal chef to up our products offering). Most of the time, you can't just whip something up because you have to consider things such as temperature, the types of ingredients that are in it, and the wet-dry condition of the food that you want to serve. 

If you were to ask me today, is it challenging? Yes. Is it easy? Heck, no. Do I love doing it? Well, sometimes. 

A year ago, as I prepare to leave PichaEats and start a new chapter in my life, I am filled with a sense of sadness and loss. Today, as I’m writing this, the feeling is somewhat similar. I'm taking it as it would never go away and will always remain as it is. I will miss the incredible team that I have had the privilege of working with, and the amazing community that I have had the chance to meet. But I am also excited about the new opportunities that lie ahead, and the chance to continue making a positive impact in the world. 

I am grateful for the lessons and experiences that I have gained during my time at PichaEats. I have learned so much about the refugee crisis, about the challenges that refugees face in trying to rebuild their lives, and about the power of community and collaboration in effecting change. I have also learned a great deal about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and my passions and goals. As a manager and leader, I have had the chance to develop and learn about effective leadership and emotional intelligence, which has helped me to become more self-aware, empathetic, and better at communicating in general. 

That being said, I am truly thankful for all of the mentors that have also put their time in guiding me as a person. They have thought me many things, developed my own creative skills, and learned about the importance of taking risks and trying new things. 

I might have said this, but the journey has been challenging yet rewarding, filled with ups and downs, and the wisdom I have learned and the experiences I have gained are priceless. It was the most meaningful and transformative period of my life. 

I will continue to be an advocate for, I don’t know. The world, the marginalised communities, the environment and to work towards a more just and equitable world. And I will always look back on my time at PichaEats with fondness and gratitude, knowing that it has shaped me in ways that I could never have imagined. 

It’s time to move on to a different chapter of my life, I will always cherish the lessons, memories, and friendships I’ve gained and carry them with me throughout my life. 

I would also forever remember my silly mistakes, which are:- 

  • Calling one of Picha’s client a food name.
  • I almost lost probably about 20 meal boxes in a moving lift (in a corporate building!) during the early days. And I was outside the lift. 
  • Ok, this is not a mistake. But I just thought it is funny. I usually never eat innards, (at this point, I'm trying to be a vegan), but I was at this chef's place, and the whole family invited me to break-fast with them during Ramadan period. Imagine the grandparents, and parents putting food on my plate. They served me a full plate of lamb/beef innards, and by the end of the dinner, I was just laughing to myself because I had literally forced myself to eat everything. #neveragain #burp 

It’s a bittersweet goodbye, and please continue to support PichaEats at www.pichaeats.com. And my new venture manekNya at www.maneknya.com and theswee.co. Bittersweet. Maybe more sweet!

This was also published on Lee Sweelin's LinkedIn.

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Lee Sweelin is a passionate advocate for food sustainability, income inequality, quality education, climate change, and human rights. As the co-founder of PichaEats since 2016, she has earned recognition from newspapers, magazines, websites, and radio stations. In 2017, her team received The Edge Inspiring Young Leaders Award, and in 2018, they were listed in Gen T and Forbes 30 under 30. Sweelin is now focusing on her new venture, ManekNya, while also offering F&B consultation services. With an unwavering commitment to creating positive change, she thrives on working with communities and making a difference. Follow Sweelin's journey as she continues to shape a better future through her dedication to social causes and community empowerment.

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