Five years ago entrepreneur Kei Kei Chan set up ergonomic furniture brand Ekobor to promote spine health awareness. Here she talks the key to good posture, managing work-life balance, and what she’s learnt from parenting.
“Hi!” Chan said with the sweetest smile that extended into her eyes, striding forth into the room where I was waiting, her back straight and shoulder unbowed – the sort of down-to-earth, unfussy demeanour that instantly put you at ease. Even if a profile interview often requires that tiny bit of icebreaker, with Chan it’s almost like chatting with a dear good friend from the get go.
An entrepreneur and a mother of twins, Chan is the founder of Ekobor, an ergonomic furniture brand under the umbrella of Ekpac, a healthcare supplier originating from Sweden over 110 years ago. Chan’s father bought out the company in 1983 and it has been supplying primarily the China market with all types of Sweden-imported furniture components and hospital equipment since.
With such a solid backbone in the healthcare industry, establishing an ergonomic furniture branch focusing on sit-stand workstations came off as a natural move for Chan, and like all start-ups and businesses, her venture with Ekobor began with a stroke of serendipity. “I really couldn’t wrap my head around why standing while working was beneficial at the time,” she told me.
“It wasn’t until I got pregnant in 2016 that I became interested in ergonomic furniture. I gained about 40 pounds and as my stomach grew, it strained my lower back and spine. The back pain got to a point where I needed to have injections to relieve the pain during labour. I practised using an ergonomic chair for half a year after giving birth and it really helped with the backache. That’s when I started paying more attention to spine health.”
Sizing up Chan’s background would reveal a privileged upbringing: after studying at Hong Kong International School, she got admitted into The University of Hong Kong, majoring in global business, and as she went on to start off Ekobor in 2017, she’s taking every opportunity and initiative to uplift herself. Most notably, she was trained at the ergonomic academy Worksite International in the US, gleaning the insights and experiences from her mentor Alison Heller-Ono and garnering a number of professional certificates, including COESp, CASp, CRESp, over the course of four years.
My eyes darted through her office room where we were having this conversation: Philip Delves Broughton’s bestseller What They Teach You at Harvard Business School laid upon the desk, a bunch of post-it notes hung wall-to-wall, neither overly neat nor disorderly. It gives off the aura of a vivacious, fast-paced start-up environment, and Chan the type of leader who would get a small frisson of joy with every tick on her relentless to-do list and every baby step she took.
She has also seemed to exhibit an intuitive understanding of what the market wants. “We set out to become a pioneer and now driving the work-from-home trend that has become so prevalent around the world. Rather than focusing on the product features or style, we want to communicate to consumers the health benefits using ergonomic furniture can bring.”
There’re plenty of highlights in the company’s catalogue, including the single-motor I-Standing desk and the dual-motor I-Easy desk, as well as a range of monitor arms, specifically engineered for use at home offices and workplaces. Or, consider the HÅG Capisco saddle chair that has a slightly unconventional look: taking inspiration from a horseback rider’s posture, the saddle seat and unique shape offer endless ways to sit or half-stand. It’s the go-to chair for Chan during her pregnancy period.
“Whether you're facing forwards, backwards or sideways, it’s always recommended to alternate between standing for 30 minutes and then sitting down for 30 minutes. It releases the pressure, improves blood circulation, and evenly distributes the weight in your body,” Chan was demonstrating the chair herself. It has a look and feel far removed from the slouchy, oversized lounge chair we’ve become so familiar with, something that will force a proper sitting posture out of you.
“In fact, when I first started using the ergonomic chair, it’s really unbearable in the first two weeks. I didn’t know where to exert pressure on my body,” she explained. Just as any health professional would tell you, Chan said that prevention is king in improving health and wellness. “At the end of the day, it’s about readjusting our habits and raising posture awareness among the general public.”
“A good posture means that you’re sitting with your knees apart, your legs parallel with the ground and your pelvis leaning slightly forward. It’s using hip rotation to build up the muscle memory and agility for good posture,” said the certified ergonomic specialist.
Chan suddenly recalibrated her attention to my stance: somewhat slouching, legs crossed while taking notes at the desk. “Take the example of your posture at the moment. You’re adjusting your body according to the furniture when it should be the other way around. Ergonomic is jargon and the idea is to maximise productivity and efficiency through a well-designed workstation. It should enable us to switch between different positions without interrupting our work.”
Like a student admonished by her stern teacher, I became all of a sudden conscious of my erroneous posture. The next thing I knew, my legs were uncrossed, back straightened up, my hips, knees and ankles maintaining at an immaculate 90 degree; admittedly, it did feel slightly awkward and the takeaway was, I still have some way to go in exercising my sitting posture.
In person, Chan is as gentle as her well-branded public persona would suggest. While researching for this story, I came across Ekobor’s adverts on YouTube: Chan’s bubbly personality was bouncing off the walls, talking through ergonomic interventions with such infectious zeal and enthusiasm that you couldn’t skip through the video but really listened to what she had to say.
“I’m passionate about what I do and I think this shows when you’re introducing your products to customers. There’s no way I can find celebrities or KOLs to do what I do. I think if you start out a business only for the money, the chance to success is very thin,” she said. “Everyone at the company is devoted to contributing to the community and advocating workplace wellness. It’s a meaningful mission and I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved in just five years.”
Chan’s five-year-old son and daughter are one year away from their first primary school year. How she manages to juggle motherhood with a demanding entrepreneurial career certainly strikes a chord with millions of working women out there, and it doesn’t sound like fun, at all. She “wakes up at around five in the morning, exercise and take my kids to school, then pick them up at noon. All their extra-curricular activities and homework tutorial classes are arranged in Causeway Bay so I can go back to the office or work remotely from home.”
Nonetheless, the journey of motherhood wasn’t without trials and errors. “Especially last year, I was way too busy to squeeze time out of my timetable to spend meaningful time with my kids. We rarely talked to each other and I outsourced their timetable to private tutors and nannies. The moment I realised they’re somehow lagging behind kids of the same age, I know there’s a need for change.”
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and akin to any other skills and techniques you acquire in life, no one is born to be a perfect parent. But still, Chan couldn’t help but compare herself to other full-time mums. “I beat myself up over it but then I understand it’s not possible to do everything 100 percent perfect. It’s okay as long as I know I’m giving my best both at work and at home.”
For Chan the upheaval meant letting go of society’s expectations and demands on a working mum. She’s doing it her own way: still working long hours and giving her all in building the business at Ekobor, but much more time spent focusing on her children to build their confidence and social skills, no longer missing out on the fun of family life.
“I think of love as the foundation to everything. A lot of marital or psychological problems originate from a loveless place. Children need to feel that they’re loved and secure in order to grow. Childrearing is no easy task but it gives you a sense of satisfaction more than anything else in the world.”
Learn more about Ekobor.