Fifteen years ago, Tui Cordemans had hit rock bottom. She had spent years abusing alcohol and drugs, was hiding her sexuality from her family and had no financial security. In 2009 Tui began her uphill journey of recovery, finding herself at a meditation retreat and co-founding Koh Living, now a successful $3 million giftware business.
"I was in a terrible state, and eventually reached a place of determination to break the negative cycle I was in. I joined a meditation retreat and spent seven days there whilst detoxing. It was insanely difficult, but it kickstarted an ongoing practice of meditation and mindfulness which filled the hole I had in my life and gave me the headspace to start my business," says Tui.
Tui created Koh Living along with best friend and business partner Nyree Hibberd to bring connection and meaning to others through inspiring giftware. "Having no meaning in life can lead to addictions and destructive patterns," says Tui. "I found that Koh Living's core mission has given me purpose and allowed me to give up addiction and thrive."
Strong personal connections are incredibly important to both Tui and Nyree. Tui grew up in a disconnected household filled with alcohol abuse. Nyree also experienced a challenging childhood. Both women rallied against the challenges and suffering they faced to forge a better future for themselves and their families.
"We both gave up alcohol together, and came out together. It tested our friendship, but we managed to save ourselves in the end. Now we are indestructible business partners because of the adversity we have overcome," says Tui.
Both women traded addiction for engaging artists, designing products and establishing Koh Living as a creative homewares brand. "We built this business up from nothing with determination, passion and a lot of hard work. If we can do it whilst battling addiction, anyone can," says Tui.
Thoughtful gift giving is a good way to make someone feel special in a society that is time-poor, mentally stressed and sometimes unfriendly and hostile. Koh Living's mission is to provide meaningful gifts to help connect friends and family and strengthen emotional relationships. "When someone gives a gift that is tailored, it provides a sense of belonging and helps them feel appreciated and recognised," says Tui.
Koh Living collaborates with artists to create unique and creative designs for their products. It supports indigenous artists such as Kathleen Buzzacott and Melanie Hava, and local community projects with the Dreamtime Range. The mindful Transcendence range is particularly close to Tui's heart as it was inspired by the positive effect meditation has had on her life. The collection, which includes Minikin Lanterns and Oil Burners in various designs, helps bring balance and peace to the home, mind, body and soul.
Koh Living is a wholesale retailer whose products are available nationwide at select retailers, through their online store, and at the shopfront in Mornington, Melbourne. Tui and Nyree's goal is to inspire 5000 people each day through gifting to be grateful, loving, and generous.
Question: What is Koh Living?
Tui Cordemans: A company that designs and creates gifts with meaning.
Question: What inspired you to create Koh Living?
Tui Cordemans: My life didn't have much meaning at the time; I didn't feel very loved or important. I wanted to do something that was meaningful.
I loved buying gifts and I know that gifts are a love language for many people. I believe that if you buy a gift that is 'meaningful' to someone you will make them feel really loved, important and like they belong. However, it can do the opposite if you get something that means nothing to them and there is a lot of meaningless 'stuff' out there. We wanted to create gifts that no matter what, the person opening it would feel the love and care form that person gifting the present. We want people to know that someone out there really loves them, and thinks they are important.
Question: What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when creating your own business?
Tui Cordemans: I was young and didn't know much, but I had nothing to lose as I didn't have much. Unlike many people out there who struggle just to start a business, I didn't. I was risk averse. The challenge was more about how to get from one stage to the next stage in business with the little experience I had at that age. We had to believe that what we didn't know, we would learn along the way and if not, we looked for people or books that would have the information we needed to learn.
Question: How did you take the first step towards recovery?
Tui Cordemans: I joined a meditation course at the university which, soon after, led to a one week 'self-help' retreat which involved meditation and self-help exercises. It was the worst week of my life, but I came out a different person. I never looked back.
Question: What steps did you take to find self-acceptance?
Tui Cordemans: It's been a long journey that has taken many years. I believe with meditation and other therapeutic help, it just starts to come slowly. I can't pin point when it started as I feel it's a matter of removing layers over time. Nothing ever happens instantly, it all takes a long time. It is about being committed to the process and believing the future outlook is good.
Question: What's the best part about working with your best friend, Nyree Hibberd?
Tui Cordemans: I trust 150% that she has my back no matter what. She has always been a rock for me. We both have completely different skills, she is left brain and I am more right brain. So we really complement each other. Funnily enough, we think alike though. I can't think of one time we ever really disagreed on something in the business. We might have initially, but when we walk away and think about it we end up agreeing. It's also fun to work with her as we get on really well. Years ago it was a very different kind of life for both of us; I feel we have lived many lives together. Fifteen years later, we both have small children, and neither of us have any unhealthy substance addictions. We have gone through a great journey together, through thick and thin we made it to the other side so our friendship and business partnership is incredibly strong. We always say we wouldn't want to be in this business if we didn't have each other, Koh Living is what it is because of the two of us.
Question: What advice do you have for other women who want to create a meaningful business?
Tui Cordemans: Find out what your personal purpose is and be committed to your personal growth. Your business growth will come from your personal growth. This isn't easy. For us it has taken years of personal development. You have to dig deep to know yourself, your flaws and all. Finding out what your void and your values are. If you want a meaningful business, you have to be authentic and true to yourself and everyone you know. And with this there are a lot of ugly things to accept and not so ugly things. One way or another, I believe the only way to be truly happy and balanced in your life, and super excited in business is to live with purpose and be authentic. I recently realised that having a meaningful business also means accepting the suffering. Many women struggle to start a business or keep going in business because of all the challenges. Maybe we expect life to be without suffering and this is not realistic. There is also meaning in suffering and as soon as we accept this, we will struggle a hell of a lot less. Creating a meaningful business means 'with warts and all'.
Question: How have you created a work/life balance?
Tui Cordemans: Understanding your values is really imperative to creating a work/life balance. If you know your values, and you give them a bit of your energy, everything will feel balanced. For me, my physical, mental and spiritual health is extremely important so I do daily exercise and meditation as a priority. I find time to cook on the weekends. My family is very important to me so I avoid working on the weekends and I try to make it home for dinner every day. I read a bedtime story every night to my daughter. If you neglect any of the areas you value in life, you won't feel the balance. I also have to accept that as the creative person in the business, if I overwork, I lose my creative flair. I can't be creative after working two weeks without a break (which has to happen at times), or if I work too many 12hr+ days (which also has to happen sometimes). When my partner is not home, I tend to work at night after my daughter goes to sleep but, even then, I have to discipline myself to not go too late. I don't have a history of leading a balanced life, so I really use mindfulness to help me in that area. I try to listen to my body.
Finally, I accept that as a small fast-growing business, nothing will get finished today and its one very long journey. If you want to change the world, it will not happen overnight! However, we have very amazing systems in place for how we manage priorities/tasks/goals/etc so this really helps, making sure we get the most out of the time we are working. We break things up into bite size pieces that way no one is feeling too overwhelmed.
Question: Can you share your daily rituals, with us?
Tui Cordemans: I wake up at 5.30am every morning and do transcendental meditation, and then I go to yoga or Pilates. After this, I go back home to say good bye to my daughter before I rush out the door. I drive 45min to work which I love because on the way to work I listen to audio books (generally business books, philosophical books or some other kind of personal development book – every day I learn something). My days are not ordered in any specific way, I'd love to share with you how organised I am but the reality is that I don't have a system that works 100% for me… I'm the scatter brain in our business and I have learned to work with that, so I trial different systems but I feel my best system is to not have one – sometimes the creative person doesn't have a set system. In saying that I have a business partner who keeps me in track so maybe that is my system.
When I drive home I mostly like silence (or I might listen to some classical music)... I think about the important events of the day and imagine a bright future outlook. I want to feel refreshed when I come home to my family so silence gives me a mini brain booster. I come home for dinner, read a story to my daughter and do a meditation after that. I try to go to bed early, I write in my gratitude journal, maybe read a magazine if I have the mental energy and sleep away.
Question: What's next for you and Koh Living?
Tui Cordemans: We will continue to create and design meaningful giftware. We are trying to find ways that we can make the gifts even more meaningful. Nyree and I have to feel like we are doing something purposeful. Up until now, we have focused most of our energy helping our retail partners as we understand what a struggle it is out there for some of them. We love business so we have created lots of videos and newsletters with the aim of helping them. Now we are going wider. We are currently looking at ways we can have a bigger impact on society (and the world) as a whole. Both Nyree and I feel very passionate about education as we feel becoming educated has really helped us get out of our challenging situation. We truly believe that if we can do what we have done under the circumstances we were in, so can anyone else. It is just about becoming more aware, believing in yourself, dreaming and educating yourself. We are also thinking about the environment and the impact we have there as we feel businesses are in the position to make a difference. We are teaming up with some pretty big organisations to find ways to have a bigger impact... So watch this space!
Interview by Brooke Hunter