1. Asked by Institute of Mental Health to create job opportunities for patients in 2007; Laksania was set up.
2. Started Social Food Inc to help the disabled more effectively.
3. Aims to equip disabled persons of working age with employable skills.
4. Trains and helps them find job placements.
5. Wants to tackle manpower shortage by expanding training beyond food services.
Sim Sin Sin might be working to help the disadvantaged, but she doesn’t want handouts. “I don’t take charity,” says the founder of Social Food Inc. “For a social enterprise to be sustainable, I need to address business needs.”
So while three-year-old Social Food Inc, which operates partly as a food services training centre for disadvantaged individuals, is a central kitchen that offers private catering services, it also serves as an auxiliary workforce for other F&B businesses.
At its KA Foodlink facility, two girls with Down Syndrome carefully fold precisely measured quantities of filling into curry puff skin for a local pastry company. In another room, a group of intellectually challenged young people, led by a partially sighted supervisor, break crate after crate of ginger into small pieces for a popular Chinese restaurant chain. Sim, 55, says: “The labour crunch is an issue our alternative workforce can address.”
She’s referring to thousands of able-bodied disadvantaged persons of employment age. Sim estimates that there are over 100,000 people with disabilities in Singapore, among which about 20,000 are of working age. Yet only about 3,000 are in the workforce. “Until around 2013, I was focusing on this small group like everybody else, and hired them in the Laksania cafes,” she recounts.
“The labour crunch is an issue our alternative workforce can address.”
She then realised that Laksania – which she opened when the Institute of Mental Health approached her in 2007 to create job opportunities for its patients – was not efficient in serving her purpose of providing work for the disabled. She was then CEO of her family business Secret Recipe.
Those who met Sim before 2007 would never have imagined her being so passionate about social causes. The former self-professed former tai tai spent her leisure hours at Club 21 boutiques, where staff addressed her by name. “These days, I am better at telling you where to buy the cheapest towgay!” she says with a hearty laugh.
As cliched as it might sound, her accidental foray into social entrepreneurship has given her new meaning in life. She gave up her cushy job and sold her family home in 2013 to prop up her social enterprise, Laksania.
Now, having spent almost a decade researching the issue and gathering first-hand operational experience, she sees the big picture with clarity. While training disadvantaged persons in simple food preparation skills, Social Food Inc sustains itself on catering jobs. “We use a lot of ingredients during training, because it needs to be repetitive for students to master the skills. The catering arm makes sure that ingredients do not go to waste.”
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Previous trainees have been employed by various F&B companies, such as local producer and distributor of food products Samsui Supplies and Services. Social Food Inc currently partners local voluntary welfare organisations to recruit trainees.
Her ultimate goal: to reach out to the rest of the 20,000 disadvantaged persons of employment age who have fallen through the cracks.
“Why are we aiming to touch only the 200 who can do food preparation? What about laundry or packing services? To have a big building where we can house the disabled and teach them a whole different suite of skills, that is my dream. After talking to parents of disabled young people, we find that their main concern is always the same: What will happen to their children when they are no longer around? How will they take care of themselves?” shares the mother of four. “This has not been addressed on a nationwide scale, but we have to do something now.”
Sim feels that this initiative should be led by the private sector, which would benefit from the enabling of this forgotten workforce. “The corporations I speak to get the message that there is a big, untapped workforce, but most of them still have a ‘try-try’ attitude. Indeed, it takes different management skills to work with this group of people, and they can have unexpected meltdowns.
“Yet they are able to do what normal persons are not willing to, such as peel 10kg of onions, every day, for five years. I need more like-minded people who truly believe that these disabled people can be trained to have the skills that the market needs.”
In 60 Seconds
I doubt myself the most when: I feel the frustration and ‘helplessness’ coming from my two daughters, who help me at Social Food Inc. If I had continued my commercial business, I would have been able to give them a more comfortable life. However, when I look at the people we work with and the impact we are creating in someone’s life, I count my blessings that I have my wonderful children and a healthy body to carry out my work.
The one thing I hope the next generation will learn is: Many of them are very keen on impact creation and have many creative ideas. But as Iʼve stressed many times, my work is not rocket science, not high-tech and not sexy. A social business cannot be a charity. We have to constantly look for a formula where all parties win.
The last time I laughed out loud was: All the time. Laughter helps me stay young and positive.