Zara Lim is a lawyer turned creative business owner and self-taught painter. Graduating from La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws with Honours, Zara worked for 5 years as an intellectual property and commercial litigation lawyer at global and boutique law firms, and as an associate to a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria. Prior to her law career, Zara trained full-time in ballet for 7 years at the Australian Ballet School and the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School before changing career paths. At the end of 2019, Zara went all-in with her true passion, Edward Kwan, a bespoke label specializing in custom hand-painted ties, bow ties and invitations, predominantly for wedding clients. In March 2020, COVID hit and the wedding industry came to a stand-still. Embodying the most over-used phrase of 2020 – ‘Pivot’, Zara was one of the first in Australia to start selling fabric face masks and also started a second ‘COVID-proof’ business, Gracie Kwan Candy Boxes.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience at law school?
Yes, I can – I had a bit of a different background to the average law student. I never dreamt of becoming a lawyer – I had spent the previous 7 years training full-time to become a professional ballet dancer. For several reasons, I decided to abandon that career path and found myself having to choose what step to take next when I had no idea what I wanted to do! I ended up choosing law because I had high enough grades (I completed Year 12 over 2 years while training at the Australian Ballet School) and I was told law was a degree with broad career prospects. In hindsight, I think I also chose to study law because, in my mind, I had failed at ballet (even though I decided to quit), and I wanted to make up for that by being really really really successful at something else.
I didn’t love law school. I found it very stressful. Having just quit ballet, that was a huge life change in itself. Then going straight into something as intense as law school when I wasn’t necessarily passionate about it, was difficult. I ended up doing quite well though and pursuing the typical path of clerkships and a traineeship at a large commercial law firm.
Q. Could you tell us about your experience as a lawyer? After having worked in the legal field for many years, what prompted you to take up your entrepreneurial venture full time?
I completed my practical legal training in house at Macquarie Bank in Sydney as I had worked at Macquarie all through university as well as for a year after I graduated. I then joined K&L Gates as a graduate lawyer in 2015 and did rotations in the banking and financial services teams before settling in the intellectual property team. I enjoyed IP law during my graduate rotation as I got to work on a lot of interesting fashion law litigation matters. However, once I settled in the team permanently, I got pigeonholed into trademark prosecution work. I really struggled to enjoy trademark work as I just didn’t find it meaningful at all.
I eventually left and was fortunate to land an associateship with Associate Justice Efthim at the Supreme Court of Victoria. I loved my time working with his Honour and for the first time, I began to love the law. It was such a great experience because I got to be immersed in real court cases every day, to learn from and be mentored by a Judge, to help write judgments and to meet lots of different Judges, barristers and solicitors every day. It was also a lot less stressful than working as a solicitor.
I then moved to a boutique commercial litigation firm where I worked as a lawyer for a year. While I was there, I got to instruct in 2 trials in the Supreme Court and County Court for the first time, as well as do some appearance work in Court. I also volunteered over a 10-year period at Southport Community Legal Centre as a paralegal and a lawyer, working on minor criminal law matters, so it’s safe to say that I gave law a good crack!
Throughout all the roles I have mentioned above, I had already been running Edward Kwan as a side business. I started it in law school and it grew slowly over the years. I used to employ my father to help sew all the bow ties and ties, and then I would hand paint them, do the marketing and run all the other aspects of the business in my spare time.
I always knew that I was more passionate about Edward Kwan than law, but it didn’t cross my mind as being possible for me to run Edward Kwan full-time for at least, say 5 more years. It wasn’t until August 2019, when I experienced a crazy traumatic life event, that all of a sudden I was stripped bare and no longer had the energy to pretend I was passionate about being a lawyer. So I resigned. It just felt like the right thing to do, and the only thing I wanted to do. And deep down I just knew I would succeed at running Edward Kwan – somehow!
Q. The glitz of a corporate law job may blind a law student and they may fail to look at different career opportunities, even if they’re interested and passionate about it. Were you doubtful about starting your own entrepreneurship venture? How did you prepare yourself for the transition?
I’ve never been doubtful about my business ventures because I guess it is a trait of ‘entrepreneurs’ to have very strong self-belief and a willingness to take risks in order to succeed. I also didn’t necessarily see quitting my job as a lawyer to run my own business as ‘taking a risk’, because I really believed deep down that I would succeed. So, to me, it wasn’t really a risk. I can see how logically speaking though, it is a risk. When I quit law, everyone kept saying to me ‘you’re so brave!’ And I kept thinking, ‘why do they keep saying that!’
As I mentioned above, it was a spur of the moment decision to quit my job and dive full-time into Edward Kwan, so I hadn’t prepared for the transition at all. I will say though that I did know in the back of my mind that I had enough money to be able to support myself in the worst-case scenario, i.e. if my business bombed. Finances are very important for anyone who is planning on diving full-time into their own business.
Q. What are some difficulties or challenges you faced when you made this career change, and how did you overcome them?
A global pandemic is the most significant difficulty and challenge I faced when making this career change! With weddings cancelled for 2020, I pivoted Edward Kwan to sell Liberty London fabric face masks in April. I then decided to start a second ‘COVID-proof’ business, Gracie Kwan Candy Boxes, as Edward Kwan was really quiet for a while and Melbourne was still in lockdown.
The week that I launched Gracie Kwan in July 2020, Melbourne was sent into Stage 4 lockdown with the government announcing that face masks were now compulsory. Edward Kwan’s face masks sales went insane that day, and I had to put Gracie Kwan on hold for a week. I then tried to juggle both businesses for about 4 more weeks before burning out completely and stopping the face masks altogether.
I focused solely on Gracie Kwan for the remainder of 2020. It did well because everyone was sending each other gifts while in lockdown, and people in other states around Australia who were not in lockdown were sending their Melbourne friends and family gifts. In a way, Gracie Kwan’s growth was accelerated due to the lockdown. Now that COVID has stabilised in Australia, weddings are starting to return, so my Edward Kwan sales are picking back up slowly.
When I first started running my businesses full-time, I used to panic and react to the ups and downs of business. If I had lots of orders I would be happy, but as soon as my orders got a bit quiet I would start to panic and would start to feel a bit sad. My mood was almost tied to the number of orders I had. It’s taken me a year to learn not to react when things get quiet, as now I know that they’re just going to come back up again in a few days or weeks or so. Also having survived and thrived through a global pandemic gives me a lot of confidence.
Lastly, I would have to say a challenge when making this career change and in running a business in general, has been learning to ignore the ‘negative’ comments of other people. They are usually not badly-intended comments, more just people projecting their own limiting beliefs on to me. Luckily it has only been a handful of people. At the end of the day, as long as you believe in yourself that’s all that matters. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t get triggered by other people’s comments.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about both your entrepreneurial ventures? What’s your typical workday like?
I always say that I’m never working but always working! I have a pretty flexible life, which I like. Each day is quite unpredictable as it’s dependent on what orders come in. With Gracie Kwan, I get orders every day but it’s up and down. In the morning, it may look like my day is going to be quiet, but by the afternoon I’m frantically running around. Edward Kwan is a bit different as my products are more expensive, so I get fewer orders and my orders take a lot longer to do.
I spend a fair bit of time at my local café either socialising or working on my laptop and going to ballet class. I made a lot of friends at my local café during the lockdown, as going to get a takeaway coffee each day was the only thing Melburnians were allowed to do for most of 2020! People probably see me and think I’m never working! But what they don’t see is that I’ll respond to clients who email at 11 pm or I’ll make up all my candy box orders late at night so that I can go to ballet class in the morning.
Gracie Kwan is a candy gift box business. I colour-coordinate lollies and chocolate and package them up all fancy. People and businesses buy them to send to friends, family, staff and clients for all different reasons ranging from birthdays to ‘just because’ gifts to Christmas and special occasions.
Edward Kwan is an art/fashion business predominantly for wedding customers. I handmake, design and hand paint custom ties, bow ties and pocket squares and also hand paint and design wedding invitations and on-the-day stationery. Edward Kwan is named after my 89-year-old tailor grandfather who still runs his tailoring business full-time in Singapore. My grandfather took over the business, Wai Cheong Tailors, from my great grandfather. He has done really well for himself and tailored suits for the likes of George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton over the years. Gracie Kwan is a take on my grandmother’s name. Her name is Grace, but Chinese women don’t change their surnames when they get married, so technically her name isn’t Grace Kwan!
Q. On the face of it, it seems like there is no link between a career in the legal field and a career in making handmade ties and candy gift boxes, were there any unexpected skills that you retained from your experiences in the legal field that you use in your current business?
Yes, you’re right, there is no link at all. I am innately a creative person, so my ideas and marketing flair just comes to me naturally and definitely not from my legal background.
What I would say comes from my legal background is my network! I get a lot of corporate orders, referrals and personal orders from my network of colleagues and friends whom I met while working as a lawyer or from my Macquarie Bank days. That might sound funny, but never underestimate the power of a good network and always be a nice person!
Out of all my law experience, my intellectual property background has turned out to be the most relevant to running a business. I have experienced 2 IP-infringement issues so far, which I was able to resolve myself! One was a trademark issue a few years ago, where I sent the business a letter of demand myself, with some help from ex-colleagues.
Most recently this weekend, a random person tipped me off to someone who was using my candy box photos to sell goods on Facebook Marketplace. While on the one hand you may look at that and think ‘well she isn’t even a proper business I doubt she even sold anything’, if you look at it on the flip side, it could ruin the reputation or quality of my business if someone sees Gracie Kwan products being sold by an ‘unprofessional-looking listing on Facebook Marketplace.
And then I definitely notice that the communication skills I developed as a lawyer have transferred through to how I communicate with clients in my business – in fact I received positive feedback on it just yesterday from a customer. As a junior lawyer I was trained to always update the senior associate or partner on where I was up to with the task they’d given me or to communicate if I didn’t think I would finish something on time. Similarly, it was always important to provide updates to your clients so that they weren’t left in the dark.
Q. You have taken the brave decision to leave your career in the legal field and follow your passion instead. What advice would you give to someone who wants to leave the path that’s considered to be set in stone for them, and follow their passion instead?
I touched on this a bit above, but I would say the one thing that sets apart people who carve out a life for themselves that they really are passionate about and enjoy, versus people who have a stable job that they definitely don’t love but it pays nicely, is mindset. The mindset of believing/knowing with 100% inner conviction that you’re going to succeed at what you’re doing, even when there’s no evidence to show that yet. I think first and foremost that’s the most important thing.
Find out more about Zara Lim –
- LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/zaralim
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/graciekwancandyboxes ; https://www.instagram.com/_edwardkwan
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/graciekwancandyboxes/ ; https://www.facebook.com/edwardkwanclothing
Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.