To achieve a new year’s resolution, Karen Leong moved from Port Dickson to Petaling Jaya to turn her cake-baking passion into a fully-fledged business.
While most 19-year-olds are still in university to chase their degrees and diplomas, Karen has been joining wedding cake competitions since she was 12, fresh from completing a diploma in cake decorating with Squire’s Kitchen U.K.
Today, her baking setup does produce the average stylised confectioneries one might find in birthdays or anniversaries, but her specialty lies in creating opulent and avant-garde wedding cakes that are intricately decorated, and lavishly made with tonnes of manpower hours.
The last one that she made for a wedding at St Regis cost the client RM19k. It stood 5 feet tall, was coated in Belgian marzipan and sprinkled throughout with 410 handcrafted sugar flowers, held up by 24-karat hand-painted pillars.
Karen has also won 3 gold awards in the cake category (her first one was at a Wilton cake competition when she was 15) and these entries snagged her features in international cake magazines.
She has just gotten her business up and running this year, doing everything from customising cake orders for clients—both extravagant and otherwise—and conducting cake baking and decorating classes in her Petaling Jaya space.
Despite the obvious skill, Karen wouldn’t consider herself a master of cake designing because “like any other form of art, there’s never a finish line”.
“There’s always more you could learn or incorporate into what you already have. As an artist I’ve come to believe that you should always grow alongside your art and claiming that I’ve mastered it simply means I’ve hit the point where there’s no longer a need to evolve and grow alongside it. ”
And she would probably have never pursued this line of work had she actually completed her formal education.
Karen is the result of an up-and-coming education movement called unschooling.
“I had no inclination whatsoever in arts,” said Karen about her formal schooling years.
“I highly doubt I would have ended up getting into cake designing and baking if I went through the proper schooling system since I was an incredibly academically-driven child when I attended a few years of kindergarten and primary school, up until primary 2.”
Unschooling is a version of homeschooling that thrives on one key concept—student directed learning.
This means that a child or teenager has the luxury to learn whatever strikes their fancy, instead of going through a rigid school curriculum. The appeal here is that the learning process is entirely interest-driven. A common tagline in unschooling circles is “life is their classroom”.
As one might expect, fully unschooling a child requires very dedicated parents with the ability to provide for their kids’ pursuit for their various interests, both in education, and in Karen’s case, equipment.
“I realised that I was actually responsible for my own life,” said Karen in a video detailing her unschooling experience. “How far I push myself is how far I’ll go in life.”
Throughout her unschooling, Karen has picked up an interest in everything from language and cultural studies, being an adventure guide, and was even taking the necessary steps to pursue medicine or psychology before finally choosing cake artistry.
“I’ve always taken a huge interest and excelled with science-related subjects and I would have most likely taken this path if my parents hadn’t opted to unschool me,” said Karen.
“But no matter how much I deviated from the pastry kitchen, my path always led me back to cake artistry!”
Karen Leong Cake Design is already profitable two months into the business—mainly because she already owned most of the equipment.
After all, she had 8 years for her parents to slowly accumulate what she needed.
She leveraged this same experience and a reputation in the field as the “cake girl” to get started. In the earliest days, she mainly relied on word of mouth and a small amount of social media marketing to get things started out.
“I simply started posting my cake offers and classes on my personal and business social media pages and paid for a handful of social media advertisements, which honestly didn’t really seem to do much!” lamented Karen.
“Since my business mainly runs on the freelance side of the spectrum, one of my major challenges has definitely been consistency in terms of having regular classes and orders coming in.”
“There can be months when my schedule is packed 2 to 3 months in advance and there can be weeks to a month when it’s extremely quiet.”
Another problem she had to tackle is how to stand apart in the crowd.
In her relatively slow first few months, Karen started coming up with business ideas to set herself apart from competitors, amidst her “fretting and panicking”. This was when she thought to start teaching what she knows to children.
“Up to that point I had only taught adult classes and I wasn’t particularly fond of working with kids but I tried it out anyway; it was more of an experiment than a serious solution!”
But she fell in love, and kept on it. In the end, conducting the kids’ classes provided her with the consistency she needed. With prices at a fraction of the adult classes, most kids sign up for the 3-class package, but she is happy to report that most have stayed beyond their first 3.
Now, she’s putting in time to get her work out to wedding fairs and working with wedding planners—to live her main passion for avant-garde cakes.
But since her main business is in conducting classes, she’s been spending most of her time reaching out to baking studios around Malaysia to grow her network.
In the near future, Karen hopes to bring Karen Leong Cake Design classes to cake studios and baking academies abroad, as she slowly works towards expanding to a commercial studio space.
For Karen, unschooling is more than education.
“It’s a lifelong lifestyle and mindset that shapes incredibly passionate, unique individuals.”
“It gave me the time and space to figure out who I was as an individual, to shape who I wanted to be as an individual firsthand, to figure how I was made to contribute back to this world and to experience it all in real life, not just in theory.”
In fact, she thinks that this is something that the Malaysian education system needs more of in our academically driven system.
She doesn’t expect most to go into the extreme end of unschooling. After all, it might be intimidating for all parties, especially working parents who cannot allocate the time to be fully hands-on with their kids’ education.
“I do hope that we’d be able to infuse the essence of unschooling in our current education system and to allow people to truly see the importance of building wholesome, passionate adults. “
Feature Image Credit: Karen Leong Cake Design