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Singapore’s social entrepreneurs have never been better supported – and as the movement gathers pace, increasing numbers of women are embracing the challenge

Esther An


This article was first published in the November/December 2013 Singapore edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Sim Sin Sin, Leona Leong and Helen Lim hail from diverse backgrounds and age brackets, but they are united by their common purpose of not just doing well but doing good.

The three were drawn together after founding their respective social enterprises. The oldest among them, 66-year-old Lim, used the expertise built up over a decades-long career as a human resource practitioner to start Silver Spring – with the tagline ‘Put the bounce back in your life’ – in March 2009, to help seniors return to the workforce.  

Former certified public accountant Sim, 52, tapped her experience in the food and drinks industry to establish Laksania, which has grown from one laksa outlet opened in December 2010 to a chain of four cafés. Close to half her 50-plus employees are marginalised by physical or learning disabilities.  

Meanwhile, ex-Singapore Airlines air stewardess Leong was just 27 when she founded confectionery business Aii Singapore in February 2011, hiring the hearing impaired and people with mental health issues to work in positions such as business development and packing.

Although not the only women to establish social enterprises in Singapore, the trio are unusual in choosing to go solo, says Alfie Othman, executive director of the Social Enterprise (SE) Association, an umbrella organisation promoting social entrepreneurship and social enterprise in Singapore. According to Othman, social enterprises tend to be set up by groups of people where the members can pool their resources and expertise together.

Othman reckons that there are at least 250 social enterprises in Singapore, with 100 members of the SE Association. ‘Sixty or 70% of our members now have a business where they give employment to the marginalised sector,’ he says.

A social enterprise is one that identifies a social gap and develops or implements a business model to address that gap, he says. He adds that more and more of the association’s members are incorporating as companies limited by guarantee (CLGs). A CLG has no share capital and hence does not issue dividends.

‘We have a fair share of good SEs led by women,’ Othman says, adding that women social entrepreneurs are involved across a variety of sectors.

Growth industry

While awareness about social enterprises is still relatively low in Singapore, it has been growing, especially in recent years, he says.

As Elim Chew, founder of streetwear fashion and accessories retail chain 77th Street – and a passionate advocate of social entrepreneurship – notes: ‘Seven years ago, when I became a founding director of Social Innovation Park, not many people knew of the term social entrepreneurship. Today, we have SE Hub, the Social Enterprise Association, the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award, an increase in social entrepreneurs, and companies like DBS supporting SE events such as the Global Social Innovators Forum.’

Social Innovation Park (SIP) is a Singapore-based not-for-profit organisation that incubates social enterprises worldwide. Chew spearheaded Pop and Talent Hub (PaTH), Singapore’s first social enterprise talent development platform, as an initiative under SIP.

PaTH talents are able to sell their handicrafts at weekend markets at shopping malls VivoCity and 313@Somerset; Chew’s hope is that every shopping mall in Singapore – and elsewhere – will adopt a similar concept.

Recently, Chew told the 11th Ideas for a Better World Forum – organised by the Singapore International Foundation – that she enjoys ‘using a business model to solve social issues’.

Role models

The forum’s keynote speaker, Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Said Business School, notes that the term ‘social entrepreneur’ first appeared in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the concept had caught on.

Hartigan believes that women can be encouraged to start social enterprises by having women social entrepreneurs as significant role models who can mentor them. While she finds that women are no more or less inclined to become social entrepreneurs compared with men, they tend to start enterprises so that they can juggle their different roles better. ‘There are more women entrepreneurs in general but they tend to be much less visible because their businesses are smaller,’ she says. ‘They have gender roles that they have to deal with and constraints. Only 4% of venture capital money [worldwide] goes to fund women’s enterprises, which is shocking.’

Financing is available in a variety of forms, according to Hartigan and Othman. Various entities provide financial support, among them SE Hub, itself a social enterprise which has been investing in and incubating social enterprises since 2011.

Chan Ying Lock, chief operating officer of SE Hub, says that more Singaporeans, including women, are establishing social enterprises.

‘Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned SEs in his National Day speech last year, giving recognition to the rising importance of social enterprise in Singapore. At the same time, SE funds from other parts of the world have started setting up shop in Singapore,’ he says.

While SE Hub took a stake in Laksania in 2011, the Arthur Guinness Fund handed S$30,000 earlier this year to social enterprise A-changin, founded by Josephine Ng and her husband KC. The couple have so far ploughed S$1m into the SE, which has set up initiatives to equip disadvantaged women with garment alteration skills.

‘In doing good, you either donate money or volunteer your time or contribute your expertise. I decided to do all of the above by setting up a social enterprise,’ Ng says, adding that A-changin, which has trained and employed more than 100 women, has yet to turn in a healthy profit as it abides by its mission to invest in training people and technology.

‘Sound product’

In Sim’s case, the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s ComCare Enterprise Fund – which offers seed funding to new and existing social enterprises helping the disadvantaged – gave her a grant worth S$300,000 in 2008 to help her establish Laksania.

‘Your motivation and attitude towards your intended business must be right and you must have a sound product,’ says Sim.

Describing herself as an accidental social entrepreneur, Sim recounts that in 2007, when she was CEO of café chain Secret Recipe, the Institute of Mental Health approached her to look into how former psychiatric patients could find work in the food and drinks sector.

Sim spent a year understanding the group’s abilities before hitting on the laksa business. She then spent three years conducting research and development before opening Laksania’s first outlet in December 2010. By then, she had cast the net wider to work with other marginalised groups of clients such as those with autism or Down’s syndrome, as well as others with mental or physical disabilities.

Sim has invested over S$1m in Laksania, which is, she says, the first concept of its kind in the region.

‘I know for sure that I have a very sound product and it’s ready to scale,’ she says. She has received many franchising enquiries and brims with confidence about expanding not just in Singapore but also in Malaysia.  

Meanwhile, Lim’s Silver Spring has a headcount of 10, including six staff aged 53 to 69, at Chatters café, which opened in late 2009. Her focus is on professionals, managers and executives who have given up work to become caregivers for loved ones. With this in mind, she set up the CareGiver Career Club to support this group.

Leong, too, has clear aims for her social enterprise. ‘I did homework in 2010 on different beneficiaries: the blind, the hearing impaired, the wheelchair bound and the intellectually disabled,’ she says. In 2011, after founding Aii, she began to hire the hearing impaired.

Subsequently, she also took on recovering psychiatric patients.

‘I broke even in the second month because I only started out with S$2,000,’ she recalls.

During peak periods, Leong could have as many as 50 workers, and usually runs a recruitment drive at the start of the month. ‘Anyone and everyone who needs and wants a job and whom society doesn’t give a job, within my means I will hire them,’ Leong says.

Outsourcing the production of the confectionery to a factory, her products include a range of healthy sweets infused with vitamins C, D and E. Corporate orders currently account for the bulk of Aii’s business but Leong plans to expand into retail by selling through convenience stores and supermarkets.

Two graphic artists and one of the sales managers at Aii are hearing-impaired. ‘I hope when I am 50, this company can lead by example to reduce employment discrimination,’ she says. ‘My small company can be profitable and sustainable.’

Suki Lor, journalist

Last updated: 7 Nov 2013