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What Does It Take To Drive Change in Society?

At the heart of a social enterprise lies its true motivation.

In her day job, Cheryl Chong connects private investors to Asian start-ups through equity and lending-based crowdfunding platform Fundedhere. Outside of her professional work, the go-getter chairs the Young Women’s Leadership Connection, which organises networking sessions, mentorship programmes and community projects to connect and empower women.

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Cheryl Chong

“Many say men are better at networking than women, so we want to encourage women to build a strong culture of networking too,” she says. “We also work with women’s shelters and try to help those who are going through crises build self-esteem through workshops.”

Chong is part of a growing global population who are increasingly conscious of the impact their actions can have on society, which has led to a rising number of social enterprises being set up around the world. When it comes to evaluating those eff orts, motivation is at the heart of the matter, guests, including Chong, tell The Peak over a dinner co-organised with social enterprise Crib, which aims to empower women to become entrepreneurs through networking, matchmaking and business incubation.

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Leanne Teo

THE WORLD UNDER THE LOUPE

“The physical world is crumbling,” says Justin Liok, who manages his family’s investment vehicle Liok Holdings with his wife, Liu Shuyi. “People have less faith in what’s supposed to be good for humanity.”

Susan Hah & Justin Liok

Susan Hah & Justin Liok

The concept of a social enterprise – defined by the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise as “a business entity that is set up with clear social goals; and where resources are allocated to fulfil its social objectives” – is not a new phenomenon. Nearly a century ago in Singapore, it took the form of co-operatives set up by workers to render aid to one another and the first of such an outfit was the Singapore Government Servants’ Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society in 1925, according to the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy at National University of Singapore’s Business School.

Today, instead of being bystanders, many hope to address pressing social issues by providing innovative solutions. Take this year’s Power List personalities Veerappan Swaminathan and Ko Siew Huey. Veerappan’s Sustainable Living Lab aims to revive craftsmanship and runs apprenticeship programmes for juvenile delinquents, while Ko’s Artswok Collaborative uses the arts to invoke social change and to engage the community.

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Pooja Gurbani

The development of one’s social conscience begins in early childhood, and a crucial attribute is the ability to empathise, which researchers say is quickly being corroded by the omnipresence of technology in a child’s life these days. After all, emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills are typically strengthened during unstructured play and face-to-face interaction. That is why advisory firm Fusang Family Office managing director Pooja Gurbani and co-working space The Great Room’s co-founder, Jaelle Ang, try to limit their children’s exposure to gadgets. Gurbani says: “Kids are not going to learn empathy or social skills by constantly being online.”

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Jaelle Ang

Ang also encourages her young children to give to the less fortunate. “We always tell them that their birthdays are a day when they can show some kindness to others. So we invite orphans over. There is no birthday cake so no one is awkward. For us, it’s always been, ‘it’s your birthday so what do you want to give this year?’ Empathy is the heart of everything.”

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KEEPING IT REAL

But as the term “social enterprise” becomes more popular on the street, does it risk losing authenticity and credibility? Two years ago, Anthony Tan caused a stir when he labelled his taxi-booking app Grab a for-profit social enterprise. “We want to help taxi drivers earn more money. They have a tough life fighting for customers and having to pay rental for their taxis. Our app helps them do this,” he said in a briefing.

As a rule of thumb, Liu says she and her husband do not invest in companies that dabble in vices such as betting or tobacco. “We don’t even look at McDonald’s. There are so many other alternative investments. If there’s an opportunity for us to make money plus make a difference, we will go for it.”

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Liu Shuyi

Always scrutinise the impact that the venture claims to make, Crib co-founder Dr Elaine Kim cautions. “You have to be careful not to place a social mission in everything, such that even McDonald’s can be classified as a social enterprise because it creates jobs. I do think that governance is very important. Making sure that your investment in a company that claims to make social impact is actually doing so, is very important – even though that is not always tangible.

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Dr Elaine Kim

“For example, as a palliative care doctor at HCA Hospice, I’d like to think I’m making an impact and it’s very tangible. I see my patients/families benefiting from what I’m doing. I co-founded Crib for social impact – to see women’s lives being changed and them being empowered by creating a mindset shift. But it’s a less tangible impact compared to that of my hospice work.

“At the same time, social enterprises can be for-profit businesses. My husband has invested in a US education technology company called Front Row Education, which tailors educational programmes through interactive technology. It is a for-profit venture and it has an intrinsic positive impact on society, which is to help students learn at their own pace.”

FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE

Social change would not be long-lasting and widespread if the driver crumbles. That is why Power List personality Sim Sin Sin pivoted her Laksania business model into the present Social Food Inc, so that she could continue her mission of hiring persons with disabilities.

10 Leaders in Philanthropy and Social Enterprise make our Peak Power List 2016.

Convincing investors is key to a social enterprise’s sustainability – or any start-up’s, for that matter. So get stuff done, says Ang, who has invested in several start-ups. “I like the tireless hustler and the do-er. The right ones are relentless and almost bothersome, but you need that to drive something through.”

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C.Y. Choy

Be prepared to answer anything and everything a potential investor throws at you. “Since they receive so many pitches every week, they sift out very quickly and are not apologetic about asking hard questions,” says C.Y. Choy, COO of advisory firm Gluu. “Entrepreneurs need to develop a thick skin and not take things personally.”

Quotes from the dinner

  • "Get stuff done. It’s not about your five great ideas, but what you've done today to get your business out there. I like the tireless hustler and the do-er. You can tell from little things. Do they follow up after you meet? The right ones are relentless and almost bothersome, but you need that to drive something through." - Jaelle Ang, CEO of The Great Room

And never be tempted to falsely label yourself a social entrepreneur because it’s deemed attractive. “A lot of the time, many try to add in the social story just to try to get investors,” says Gurbani, who is also an angel investor. “You have to show that you are totally committed to what you’re doing. When I see that you’re doing 10 other things, my interest goes away. Knowledge in the sector you’re operating in is important, but commitment trumps that.”

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ABOUT THE PEAK SALON SERIES

The classic salon assembles leaders of society, and those in art and politics, to discuss and commune with one another. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs and The Peak have updated this concept as a dinner conversation with a difference. The SIIA-Peak salon is where sound bites and bites of good food intersperse, and guests from different backgrounds share their views on a significant topic. Exploring big questions and small, the salon conversation moves between smart and sometimes controversial, serious and irreverent, the crux of which is documented in this article.

This instance of The Peak Salon Series was hosted graciously by Jade Restaurant, Fullerton Hotel.