Founder of LIDIA MAY

Dhaka is the capital city of Bangladesh and home to more than 14 million inhabitants. Among them is May Yang, also one of the few Chinese Americans who call this city their home.

Born in Chongqing, China, Yang immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of 10 and was raised in Los Angeles. Since then, she has lived in cities like Hong Kong and worked in a corporate law firm in New York prior to taking on a development role for a non-profit organisation in Bangladesh.

“My heart has always been with doing development work in areas of poverty alleviation and disaster management. Doing that gave me a lot of meaning and purpose,” said Yang during the interview at her office and workshop for her accessories label, Lidia May.

While working for the NGO, she yearned to create more impact in the lives of the locals. That opportunity came when she learned about the Lidia Hope Centre, a small slum school serving families that reside in the slum areas.

“I came to Bangladesh seeing two extremes. On one end, a lot of poverty and poorly made systems and things. On the other end, a very vibrant art scene and very rich tradition of hand-made goods. Including, a growing community of people who are well travelled and appreciate the finer things in life.”

LIDIA MAY was set up as a socially conscious label that would market and sell quality accessories made by women from the slums who are trained and counselled by the the Lidia Hope Centre.

Yang also taps into the skills of a tight community of Bihari craftsmen in Bangladesh. The ethnic minority originally from Pakistan (Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan until 1971) are known for their expertise and heritage in weaving intricate embroidery.

“I’ve always tried to understand societies through art. What are the driving forces, psychology or the baggages they are trying to overcome.”

“South Asia was a very caste-based society and as options have widened and taste have changed over the years, we challenge our craftsmen to manipulate traditional techniques for something different.”

As an expat minority in a foreign land, Yang credits her local friends and business mentor, Rasheed Khan, who helped her assimilate into the local culture and avoid common pitfalls as a first time entrepreneur.

“I expected a certain amount of hardship, inconvenience and traffic. Thankfully, Bangladesh is an incredibly hospitable nation. That’s evident in the interactions with the people here and the richness of local music and art. I’ve definitely found people I would consider family here.”

For Yang, her family extends beyond her own circle of friends through her work with couple, Mala and Martin at the Lidia Hope Centre, which trains women in families, living below the poverty line for many generations with a single male breadwinner working as rickshaw puller or day labourers.

“The slum is a very toxic living environment; both physically and psychologically. In order to help them break out of it, we not only have to give employment and skills but there’s also counselling offered where the Lidia Centre is involved.”

LIDIA MAY pays their beneficiary for each accessory made that passes quality control checks. These women who often have children to take care of can expect to earn comparable salaries to garment factory workers who toil for more demanding hours away from home. According to Yang, household family incomes have increased as much as 40 percent for the beneficiaries. The women are also imparted knowledge to be more financially independent and self-sufficient in providing for their families.

“I’m proud to see the progress the women we’re helping are making. One of the women who has been with us since the beginning and is now an assistant trainer have moved out of the slums (a first for her family) and have found an apartment to rent in Dhaka city centre.”

In a recent Harvard study, children, particularly girls, benefit from having a mother who works outside the home. Daughters of working mothers earned 6 percent more than working women whose moms never worked outside the home. Sons of working mothers, who grow up to have children of their own, spend 7.5 more hours a week caring for their children and 25 minutes more on chores.

It may still be too early to conclude the intergenerational effects of Lidia May’s work in Bangladesh but Yang is hopeful that her thriving startup has allowed children of these women to stay in school much longer instead of being employed from a young age to sustain the family livelihood.

Display by the entrance.

Display by the entrance.

In the near future, Yang also hopes to collaborate with more local artists and work with international boutiques who understands the brand.

“I imagine as the company grows and the manufacturing becomes more systematic, I can then focus on working with professional designers and focus on the sales and promotions abroad.”

When asked what defines a luxury brand, Yang answered, “Quality, craftsmanship and richness of design from the stories behind it.”

Mood board on the window.

Mood board on the window.

Pointing to the geometric patterns seen on her saddle bags inspired by aerial views of farmland hatches, Yang adds, “I’m a very visual person. The countryside in Bangladesh is really beautiful and serene. Being exposed to that natural landscape and the sincerity of the culture fuels my creativity. Nature is one way to connect to God’s creation.”

Several of LIDIA MAY's designs are motifs of animals and nature in Bangladesh.

Several of LIDIA MAY’s designs are motifs of animals and nature in Bangladesh.

When asked what quote would best describe her work, Yang said, “The work I do is my way of loving others and I thank my parents for supporting me in what I do.”

Part of a series of interviews on the theme of FREEDOM

Edited by Chiara Maria de Castro

Photos by Daylon Soh

Daylon Soh

Daylon Soh

Design Founder at CuriousCore
Creative Rebel, Marketer & Managing Editor of @OpenBrief. ♥ Digital Photography, Copywriting & Gaming
Daylon Soh
Daylon Soh

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