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Project MIRRO : The Journey

A photo I took in Brick Lane, London that always stuck with me.

2  years ago, I quit my very comfortable full time job to go back to school to study art. To some people, this was a ridiculous, “unreasonable" idea. “You’re here to study art? Well good luck to you.” said an immigration officer sarcastically. I was at Heathrow London airport, it was the first day I arrived in London to study Textile Design at Chelsea College of Arts. That wasn’t the first time someone said that to me.

The idea of “studying art” or “being an artist” has been shunned by many. It’s a “poor mans profession” someone said to me recently.  When I was 16 years old, in Form 4 of secondary school, we had to choose which stream we’d like to take for SPM. I desperately wanted to study Art, but my teacher stopped me from doing so. She asked me to come into her office to have a little “talk” about it. “Don’t take the Art stream - you should take the Science stream. You have to study Biology! Why do you want to be in a class with all the rejects when you could be in the top class?” (Yes, she called everyone in the Art stream “rejects”)

I powered through and managed to get what I wanted. I was still in the Science stream (Technical Drawing stream to be exact) but I was allowed to drop Add Maths (hooray!) and take up Art instead. 

In college, I didn’t exactly study “art”. I studied Marketing, and specialized in Fashion. To me, that felt “safe”. There are loads of marketing positions in the job market, and I would not be out of a job. The fashion part was the only creative outlet I had.

To be honest, I was very afraid to make the jump and be in a completely “creative environment” Almost everyone I knew, would scare me about being a creative Living in Malaysia, the "accepted" professions were the usual - Doctor, Lawyer, Accountant, Consultant, Engineer. These were the professions revered by society, the professions that elevate your social standing in the community. You are instantly a “thought leader”, your opinions mattered more, and you’re basically “set for life"

It’s the opposite for the creative. As a creative, your pay would be less. You are not as well respected, and you are looked down upon as people think you do not have any intellectual capacity. People think, as an Artist, you must be stupid, because if you were smart, you would've been a Dentist or something. Being an Artist was the last resort to some people.

For the longest time, I suppressed my desire to be an Artist for this very reason. As a Marketer and Business Developer, I was still able to be creative in some ways. I worked on campaigns, dealt with many Graphic Designers and Photographers, sometimes I would have to step in and design something for whatever brand I was working for at the time. I freelanced as an illustrator and portrait artist at night and on weekends. It was hard work juggling a full time job, and starting my art / design career, but it was the only way I could survive my office job. 

Unsurprisingly, I got bored very quickly in the office. A few years as a Marketer was enough for me. I did the same thing day in and day out. Social media, press releases, dealing with influencers and running events - repeat a billion times. 

It felt like I was always chasing my KPI’s all the time. My work life began to feel like I was living in a machine, and my only role was to hit my targets so my clients and bosses would be happy. My life began to look like an excel sheet. This month - X amount of sales, X amount of growth, X amount of new followers and engagement. BO-RING. What was the point of hitting all these targets anyway? I wasn’t helping the world, I wasn’t helping myself. I was a robot at that point.

Even though I consider myself a pretty okay robot, I longed to be a creative free spirit. There were days all I thought about was being in a studio, painting, forgetting the world. The feeling didn’t go away, in fact it grew and grew and grew.  I told myself, FINE, I’ll do something about this, if I still felt the same way in a year. 

At the time, I was working as a Marketer and E-commerce Manager at a luxury home decor and furnishing store. I took that job mainly to see if being an Artist (Textile Artist specifically) was really what I wanted to do. I would be exposed to beautiful prints, patterns, fabric and furniture every day, and I would be able to learn about the trade and industry. During my stint in this job, I fell in love with Tom Dixon, Designers Guild, Marimekko, Christian Lacroix, Margo Selby and my ultimate favourite - Ilse Crawford. These brands, artists and designers were my idols. I listened to their brand presentations, I poured through their lookbooks, I watched all their interviews and video content. I was in awe. They were not only creatives, they were also savvy businessmen and women. Of course, there are many other notable designers, but these were the ones that sparked my passion.

In Malaysia, we do not have that many design focused companies. It was still considered a risky venture. There weren’t many (or even any) design houses I could apply to at the time. Most Malaysian companies copy designs from elsewhere or buy their products ready made from China.

I decided I would study art abroad to learn how these international brands develop their company. I was 28 years old at the time, with no commitments. I chose to study at Chelsea College of Arts in London because Tom Dixon and Margo Selby studied there. I had no money to study, especially to study in London.

For a year, I researched numerous scholarships and study grants to fund my studies. I even wrote letters to wealthy Malaysians to help me (none of them replied though mehhh) When I graduated my undergrad a few years back, I always knew I would want to continue my studies after a few years of working, so I made sure I had a resume that was relevant, consistent, and included community work. Now, I just needed to find a study grant to fund me.

In the end, I found out about The Global Study Awards, an international study grant by Britist Council / IELTS and Study Portals. The grant accepted students from everywhere and I was able to study art! Most study grants do no offer grants to art students, so I had a lot of issues looking for a grant to even apply to.

 

In the study grant application, I had to write about my future plans. It was during this time that the idea for Project MIRRO stepped into my mind. I wanted to create, but I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to help people. How do I combine both things?

Thats when I decided my entire business model and design process would be focused on an idea, a community or a cause. This way, I was able to highlight all the issues and communities that needed help, and create at the same time. My creations could actually make a difference to someones life - hopefully. I wrote my application, attached my CV, and sent it away. I didn’t think much of it after that. I was already losing hope at that point. 

A few days before Eid, an email came in. I was shortlisted as one of the finalists for the study grant! I couldnt believe my eyes. I was one of the 6 people chosen out of 100,000 applicants. 100,000 applicants!!! Me - Miriam Omar - some minah from Kajang, was chosen as one of the 6 finalists. I think that was the moment that changed my life. I never thought anything I did was special, but apparently, my essay moved the judges. When I applied for the study grant, even my own dad doubted me (this was also the moment I realized you always have to believe in yourself, even when no one else believes in you - even when it's your own parents!)

I proved to myself that studying art can lead you to opportunities for growth and land you RM50,000. I, the Artist, was chosen, and not the Engineer. Hello world, check me outttt!

Winning the study grant was a big deal for me, it proved that my existence mattered, that where I come from didn’t matter.

To put things into perspective, I attended a typical Kebangsaan school. More like a kampung Kebangsaan school for that matter, complete with chickens in the classroom. Sometimes we wouldn’t have electricity for weeks. I had teachers who punished me for speaking in English because “This is Malaysia, speak Malay” It was not a very positive studying environment and it was hard to think big growing up in a place like this.

So from that, to winning a study grant that enabled me to study in London, chosen out of 100,000 applicants - was a really big deal. 

 

My desk in London

 

I had a wonderful time studying in London, and I was contemplating moving there too. Back home in Malaysia, things weren’t looking good politically. People were suffering, the mood of the country was sour. Everyone I knew back home wanted to leave. I lost hope for Malaysia at the time.

As a Global Study Award winner, I had the opportunity to travel to various places in Europe and UK to attend and participate in conferences, seminars and talks about studying abroad and education. One day, after speaking at an education seminar in Berlin, one of my sponsors asked me “Now that you’ve moved to London, and also planning to move here permanently, how do you plan to help the communities here?” Such a simple question, but I was at loss for words. Usually I could slay answers like this, my years of writing press releases and managing PR campaigns were designed to make me spit out all sorts of fancy answers. But at that very moment, I had no answer. I had a growing sense of guilt. In my mind, I thought about all those times as a young student in Malaysia, I was hungry and desperate for more stimulation because I was stuck in a broken education system. I thought about my classmates, who were always distracted by stressed out, burnt out, uneducated parents who physically abused them all the time. I thought about all the people I knew who became drug addicts as they had no proper guidance and positive environments growing up. Some of my classmates even lived in shacks! These were the people I had to help back home. I already knew about their sufferings, I grew up affected by these sufferings - and here I am, in London, expected to help a community in a first world country. It didn’t sit well with me. Migrating was not an option. My skills were better off in Malaysia than anywhere else. I’ve always wanted to move to the UK, Europe or the US, and I had an opportunity to do so if I really wanted to, but I could not shake off my guilt.  If I really wanted to help, make a change, back home is where I should focus on. Such a simple question that changed the course of my life.

 

Berlin, with the rest of the Global Study Award winners.

 

A few months later, I found out that I had to cut short my studies and move back to Kuala Lumpur. My study grant only covered 1 year of my studies, and I didn’t have money for my second or third year. I thought I could pull finances from my family, but that fell through. After a year in London, it was time for me to head home. 

Project MIRRO was an idea I had for when I finished my studies, but I had to start the company immediately. I was back in Malaysia, out of a job, living with my parents (I haven't lived with my parents in 10 years. It was very demoralising) I had to start this now, or it's back to a desk job. 

Behold - Project MIRRO was born, and my first collection - The Curiosity Collection, will make it’s way into the Malaysian market. 

The objective of this collection is simple. I want to raise awareness and promote curiosity as a tool against adversity and ignorance. Life is uncertain, there will be ups and downs and hardships, books and reading can provide an upper hand for people who are resourceful enough to seek the answers. Being curious is akin to having a growth mentality. By constantly asking questions, having the desire to grow and seek answers, you become more and more conscious about the world and how it works. You may find tools you will need to help you in all your hardships. Books help spark your curiosity, and help you in unimaginable ways - all you need to do is read it, and continue reading until you find the best answer. 

 

Read Print, by Miriam Omar 

 

In line with my quest to promote curiosity, I started the #MIRROBookDrive. I will donate a portion of my sales towards buying books for school libraries across Malaysia. This cause is very dear to my heart, as I know very well the impact a book can be to an individual. If not for Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton (or Ahadiat Akashah - I read malay books too!) I am not sure if I would be here writing this blog post. As a reader, you are transported into different worlds, it plays with your imagination, you are able to live a different life. For underprivileged under stimulated students, a book can change their life, as it did mine. 

I am also looking at different methods to get students to start reading. I understand, just giving them a book is not enough, they must want to read the book, they must understand the importance and value of reading. That will be my next campaign - to change attitudes and beliefs about reading. In this world of instant gratification, books have become widely unpopular. Books are not Instagram, books are not Netflix. But that doesn't deter me, I will attempt to continuously promote reading as a healthy activity.

Join me in my quest to get people to read - or better yet - pick up a book yourself! Learn something new. Be curious, ask questions and find your answers! 

Watch this space for more updates and news about Project MIRRO!

Thank you for reading.

Lots of love and pink hearts, 

Miriam.


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