Serial entrepreneur and cultural maven Joanne Ooi talks curating diverse, sophisticated and inspiring art and culture content.
Since moving from the Hong Kong hustle to the idyllic English countryside, Joanne Ooi had been looking for a project that would make an impact in her new home. The EA Festival in East Anglia was born, debuting at the end of July at the ancient Hedingham Castle. From music to culture and sex, Ooi talks about curating diverse, sophisticated, inspiring content and how her previous careers informed the way she’s taken on this latest, very different challenge.
Name: Joanne Ooi
Profession: Founder of EA Festival
Industry: Culture & Arts
Startup Since: 2020
Tell us about your business. What do you do and why did you start it?
I’m the founder of a new music, art, and culture festival in the UK called EA Festival. I started it during lockdown because, since I moved to the UK from Hong Kong, I had been mulling ideas about, first, what to do with my life, and, second, how best to make a contribution to the community where I now live, the rural countryside on the border of Suffolk and Essex counties in England.
What is the message behind your brand?
The EA Festival brand is very much about fastidious, personal curation combined with the concept of ‘glocalisation’. The latter means presenting issues of importance to regional and local audiences, but through a lens that allows those discussions to resonate universally. To take an example, one of our panels in the opening festival is entitled ‘The Ethical Carnivore’. The goal is to debunk pernicious myths about livestock farming’s contribution to climate change by speaking to farmers and experts from East Anglia involved in regenerative agriculture. Grazing ruminants are indispensable to the latter. There’s no point in talking to audiences out here about the preoccupations of urban millennials, like vertical farming or going vegan. It’s important to remember my audience but also to create content of universal fascination and utility.
This festival also disregards silos completely and operates across a breathtaking range of subjects and styles, from traditional arts and letters to talks about sex and eco-fashion. Siloed content is usually the product of marketing or manufacturing convenience rather than programming devised to optimise the pleasure of the consuming audience. The most obvious example is the traditional literary festival, which is essentially a marketing platform to launch new books. But that’s not how people necessarily want to consume content. Anyone with a vibrant intellectual life is interested in a wide range of issues, not just history or wine or poetry or chamber music. Rather, most sophisticated audiences want excellence more than anything else. My sincere belief is that anything can be interesting.
Tell me about your best and worst days at work?
Monday is god awful because of the sheer quantum of work that has piled up over the weekend. The best day of the week is Saturday, for the simple reason that it’s the only day I take a wee spot of time off. At least that’s the way it’s been for the past three months.
How hands-on are you?
I’ve basically launched this festival by myself with 1.5 interns and a quarter-time volunteer. But I love it — because a festival is all about quality control — literally down to the sentence.
What advice would you give to someone looking to do a start up?
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do now?
What do you do when you’re not at work?
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
In my thirties, someone told me my writing really sucked and I took that very, very seriously and actively worked on improving it.
As a child, what did you aspire to be?
All I can remember is that I was obsessed with fashion and wanted to work at Vogue instead of becoming a corporate lawyer.
What has been your biggest hurdle and how did you overcome it?
I’ve enjoyed a privileged life, armed with a blue-chip education, so there haven’t been many hurdles, objectively speaking. The main hurdle anyone faces — in life — is connecting thought to action — acknowledging flaws in yourself or your plan — and making the changes necessary to ameliorate either the outcome or one’s character.
My biggest “hurdle” is definitely my perfectionism. I can’t accept a mere 80/20 Pareto outcome. This personality trait leads me to do everything myself instead of relying on others. Consequently, I didn’t start relying on other people until I was around 45 years old and, considering the very big projects I had undertaken until then, it was a very stressful and exhausting way to live one’s life. That’s my way of saying all my hurdles have been mental ones — in my own mind.
What’s kept you sane during the pandemic?
Switching off the phone and delving into old — as in classic and ancient — masterpieces – in short, serenity and aestheticism. This was a new diet I overlaid on top of my usual one of voraciously consuming tech and tennis.
What’s been your career highlight so far?
I’m still remembered and introduced as the former creative director of Shanghai Tang who turned it around when the Richemont Group invested in the brand BUT, in fact, my main career highlight is starting an environmental group and being an activist on the street. It was my introduction to third sector life and forever changed my perspective on what I should be doing with my life. There is no reward greater than contributing to civil society and influencing attitudes and behaviour that shape the polis, to use the Aristotelian term.
What are your goals for 2021? And in the near future?
For 2021, my goal is just to survive this upcoming festival without losing my shirt or my mind. But longer-term and following on from my answer to the last question, it is literally to increase the supply and demand of culture in non-urban areas, beginning, I hope, in East Anglia, where I live. After moving to England four years ago, finally, I figured out what I want to do with my life — what I SHOULD do with my life. That mission entails increasing the supply of high quality art and cultural events where I live.
How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?
Considering my workaholism and perfectionism, you’ll be surprised at this answer: What really counts is your children; it’s really the only thing that you’re concretely leaving behind for sure. My son, now 22, shows me that I’ve already succeeded in life.