Disabled female entrepreneur overcomes challenges to come out of her shell

May 07, 2023 - 07:03
Trần Thị Ngọc Hiếu, 38, is the owner of a business that sells gemstone paintings and other art objects made from seashells called Hiếu’s Gemstone Paintings. For many years she has been making decorations, picture frames and trinkets from seashells.
Trần Thị Ngọc Hiếu makes beautiful art pieces using seashells. - VNS Photo Việt Dũng

Trần Thị Ngọc Hiếu, 38, is the owner of a business that sells gemstone paintings and other art objects made from seashells called Hiếu’s Gemstone Paintings. For many years she has been making decorations, picture frames and trinkets from seashells.

Despite Hiếu's disability of having semi-paralysed legs and right arm, with her perserverance and the support of people around her, she has become an inspiration to many people, from the disabled to other women dreaming of setting up their own businesses. Hiếu spoke to Việt Nam News about how she overcame her challenges and came out of her shell.

Inner Sanctum: First of all, can you tell us about yourself?

I have been making art objects with seashells and gemstones for nearly 10 years, and I have made around 7,000 such items. My workshop is in HCM City’s Thủ Đức District, and I live in Đồng Nai Province with my family. I sell my products through my showroom in District 1 and through my Facebook Page.

When I was four I had polio. The doctor told my family that I might not be able to make it, but they did not give up and did everything in their power to help me get the treatment I needed. However it left my legs and right arm semi-paralysed, which made it difficult for me to walk and use my right arm.

My mother stuck with me, helped me train and do daily activities every single day. When I was 14, I was able to do many things all by myself.

Inner Sanctum: Why did you decide to start up a business to sell art items made from gemstones and seashells?

That started with a dream to “redraw” the picture of life, because when I was 14, I started to realise that I am different from most people, and that made me really sad and pessimistic; there was a lot of emotion that I kept inside me. I used to see my life as a sad and gloomy painting.

However, after a few years, I changed. I began yearning for being able to redraw that picture, where I would get people’s respect and be a successful woman, not by making lots of money, but by being confident and doing what I want in life, to come out of my shell.

In 2008, I travelled to HCM City to learn how to make gemstone paintings, and in 2015 I worked with a British businessman to make seashell paintings. From then, I honed my craft to make more decorative items with seashells, until 2018 when I opened my own shop.

Many people just discard seashells without a second thought, but I personally found seashells to have a great deal of natural beauty, and they can be used to make gorgeous decorative art pieces. This is my message to everyone who adores my art products, especially children: cherish this natural beauty and protect the environment.

A seashell painting by Trần Thị Ngọc Hiếu. Her disability could take her a longer time to make an art piece, but she takes great pride in creating beautiful works of art that customers can cherish. - VNS Photo Việt Dũng

Inner Sanctum: Did you face tough challenges when you started out?

I feel that crafting an art piece for me is 10 times harder than it is for a non-disabled person. I use my left arm to work, and I cannot use my right arm for a lot of things, so it takes a long time for me to finish a product.

It was hard, and at first I considered it a difficulty, but after a while I started to perceive it not as a problem, but a challenge. Thinking of it that way makes it manageable, like something I can overcome and reach my next level, as opposed to a discouragement.

I do not consider the fact that I take a long time to finish an art piece a bad thing. The most important thing is creating something beautiful that I can be proud of. I believe that the intricacy of my art works will make my customers cherish them more.

I also used to struggle a bit with marketing my products, since I spent most of my time doing art. I did try to learn by myself, but eventually I partook in start-up competitions and clubs, and I got to learn from other successful businesspeople. They have had to overcome their challenges, and their stories inspired me to do the same.

Hiếu at her stall at the Box Market shopping venue, which is organised by District 3’s Youth Cultural House every weekend. - VNS Photo Việt Dũng

Inner Sanctum: How has the HCM City Women’s Union helped you on your journey?

I partook in a 2021 Female Start-up Competition held by the Việt Nam Women’s Union, and I received a lot of love and care from them, especially the female staff from the women’s union chapters in HCM City, District 1, and Thủ Đức District. They helped me set up my stand and do other activities at the competition.

The HCM City Women’s Union also organises the annual “Beauty of the Crescent Moon" programme, which honours disabled women for their perseverance and outstanding success. This is a great opportunity for us to promote our products and brand. My art objects are also being showcased at their head office too.

I think that some women might tend to be reluctant towards starting their own businesses, because of their family obligation or lack of confidence. But the advice and kindness from fellow sisters can help them pursue their goals.

Inner Sanctum: Many people, especially those with disability, look up to your success story as an inspiration. How do you feel about that?

I am very happy that people find me inspiring, and I am also thankful to the people who have helped me along the way, as well as helped me spread the message of how everyone should recognise the capability of the disabled and not leave anyone behind.

Some people may think that a disabled person being able to do something like my art crafting is an extraordinary feat, but I think that is not how they should look at disability. With some favourable conditions, people like me can do anything that non-disabled people can do.

Things like good public accessibility infrastructure and the elimination of discrimination towards the disabled are great at helping them to be more confident. We want to be perceived as being equal to anybody else.

My workshop is also currently working with some people with disability, and before COVID-19 I also held classes to teach disabled people arts and crafts. In the near future, I aim to resume these classes to provide more people with useful employment skills and stable jobs. - VNS