SINGAPORE: When Ms Hazel Kweh began a project last year to turn wedding flowers into bouquets for low-income elderly residents at Beach Road, one of her biggest hopes was to bring back the smile to her sister’s face.
Born with profound hearing loss, Ms Kweh’s older sister, Faith, fell into depression a few years ago after a painful divorce and being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable genetic disorder that causes retinal degeneration and eventual vision loss.
Hoping that flowers could be a mood booster, Ms Kweh persuaded her sister to join her. Through the trimming and rearranging of wedding blooms, and when the wary expressions of those who received the bouquets faded into smiles, the younger Kweh noticed her sister’s joy.
“She said that for once, she can be a giver despite her unfortunate circumstances,” Ms Kweh recalled.
That made the 32-year-old wonder if there was more that she could do.
“I’ve seen my sister struggle all these years to try to find a suitable job – one that would give her the patience and understanding she needs given her disabilities,” she told Channel NewsAsia. “But it’s been tough.”
Earlier this year, Ms Kweh decided to leave her insurance agent job to start a business – something that she never thought she would do – to support marginalised women like her sister.
She founded BloomBack, a social enterprise that trains women from low-income families or those receiving palliative care in floristry skills, and lists their floral arrangements on its e-commerce platform. The start-up takes a 10 per cent cut from each product sold.
The sisters also continue to repurpose donated wedding flowers for patients at local hospitals and nursing homes. For this, they rely solely on volunteers.
SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR BOOM
Ms Kweh is among a growing group of entrepreneurs here that have set up social enterprises, or businesses that devote a large part of their resources to advance social causes or create social impact.
According to the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE), there are 401 social enterprises in Singapore, up 32 per cent over the past year, with about half up and running for less than a year.
They are mostly focused on helping disadvantaged youth or children (34 per cent), people with disabilities (28 per cent) and low-income families or individuals (22 per cent).
“Social enterprises may not be the silver bullet but I think we need a more nimble approach that includes having a revenue model to solving emerging needs, which charities may not be able to do,” said raiSE’s chief executive Alfie Othman.
Accompanying the exponential growth in the sector is a marked change in the demographic of local social entrepreneurs. Nearly two-thirds of those who registered with raiSE are below 40 years old, representing a “big change” from four to five years ago, noted Mr Alife.
Two of these young Singaporeans are 25-year-olds Lim Wei Jie and Anderson Ang.
The fresh graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) pooled together S$20,000 from their savings to open Foreword Coffee – a café that aims to brew up quality jobs for people with disabilities.
The commitment to do good through business stems from the duo’s aspiration for a more inclusive society.
“We’ve heard so many stories about how they remain very misunderstood,” said Mr Lim, noting that people with disabilities are often cooped up at home. Even those who received education would end up staying at home after graduation due to the lack of a job.
“That got us thinking whether there’s a more sustainable plan to solve this.”
Apart from training and hiring disabled people, the café, located at the basement of the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) in NUS, hopes to create opportunities for interaction through the use of slower, manual brewing methods.
“We have a table top setting where customers can see the brewing process and we encourage our baristas to share the brewing methodology. We hope that will slowly facilitate communication,” said Mr Ang. “If we run a bubble tea-style, high-speed coffee joint, it wouldn’t help with the connection.”
Since beginning operations in August, the café has hired one barista with hearing impairment and are looking to work with more, specifically those with intellectual disabilities and autism.
The founders said encouraging support from their customers has bolstered their confidence.
“We’ve seen students who know sign language coming down specifically to have a conversation with our barista. There are also others who don’t know how to sign but want to learn how to,” said Mr Lim. “Our barista said he’s enjoying the process and that to us, is an encouragement.”
Also in operations for less than a year is School of Concepts, a pre-school enrichment centre that offers children from low-income families with heavily-subsidised fees for its programmes.
To determine the level of subsidies, the social enterprise relies on the Health Assist Cards issued by the Ministry of Health and partners family services centres to identify underprivileged children.
Apart having a 30:70 ratio in terms of the children from varying backgrounds that it enrolls, School of Concepts also hires people with disabilities in varying roles, such as receptionists and planner for its phonics curriculum.
The social enterprise is in the black at the moment, according to founder Mint Lim, but the balancing act between profitability and social mission has not been an easy task.
Prior to starting School of Concepts, Ms Lim was running a tuition centre in Bedok South where she came in touch with many low-income families and their school-going children.
“Latchkey children with loose caregiver arrangements would wander into our centre, hungry and sometimes unkempt,” the 30-year-old recalled. “When we realised that some of them couldn’t read or write even though they were in primary school, we started offering them lessons.”
Then, Ms Lim offered these children and their parents a “Pay what you want” option. However, she soon realised that she, and her tuition centre, were buckling under the stress of long operating hours and a bleeding bottom line.
“There were people paying S$100 for 12 lessons a month and even though they could afford more, they wouldn’t. Some also began treating us like a childcare and there were many times when I stayed back until midnight just to wait for parents to pick up their little ones.
“It became a case of us being unable to say no and they didn’t stop taking,” Ms Lim said.
“At the end, we realised that we needed to come up with a model that would be fairer on us yet allow us to continue helping these children.”
“PROFIT IS NOT A DIRTY WORD”
This straddling between dual goals of mission and profit is not uncommon among local social enterprises given that they are mostly small-scale businesses, noted Mr Alfie.
Figures from raiSE showed 74 per cent of social enterprises reported an annual revenue of less than S$250,000, while only 14 per cent earned more than S$500,000 a year.
Access to additional financial support also remains one of the top two challenges faced by social entrepreneurs.
While raiSE offers funding to help social enterprises get their ideas off the ground, its resources remain finite, said Mr Alfie. The centre, which was set up in 2015 to develop the sector, committed S$8.8 million in grants and investments to social enterprises in the financial year of 2015.
Having a viable business model with a clearly defined social mission, unique value proposition and best practices hence remains the key for social enterprises to be sustainable.
“We keep saying that profit is not a dirty word. By maximising your revenue then will you be able to channel them to the group that you really want to help,” Mr Alfie emphasised.
At SEOcity, whose digital marketing team is mostly made up of people with muscular dystrophy and are wheelchair-bound, the founders emphasise on a “business first” mentality.
“You may be able to leverage on grants at the start but you need to know how to evolve your business after that,” said co-founder and business director Mr Hendrick Ho. “That means you’ll need to think about being self-sustainable right at the start.”
Citing his previous experience of running a social enterprise called Hearts Aflame, which aims to alleviate poverty through art, Mr Ho explained: “I did that out of passion and back then, I was running it more like a charity.
"After some time, things got very difficult which made me realised that only when the business aspect is well taken care of, then can we ensure the sustainability of the inclusive part of our business.”
SEOciety charges market rates for the marketing project it takes on. It also pays its staff, who have flexible working hours that accommodate their conditions, competitive salaries of above S$3,000 a month.
While there have been clients who requested for lower rates after knowing about the team, such negative sentiments remain held by a minority.
“In the business world, it’s the value of your work that counts so we choose that as our primary focus when we meet our clients,” said co-founder Quek Jing Yan.
“But we are not ashamed to tell people about our team members. In fact, they are degree or master’s holders who are not inferior to any able-bodied, and I wouldn’t angle them as anything less.”
OTHER STUMBLING BLOCKS
But even as social entrepreneurship grows in popularity, there remains a lack of understanding about the sector and entrepreneurs said they often find themselves having to explain their model to “confused” customers and corporate partners.
“There are those that think we should be giving things for free and then there are those that ask why should they be supporting us if we are making money,” said Ms Elizabeth Soh, business development manager at School of Concepts.
This mismatch in understanding also serves as a stumbling block for hiring.
“Most Singaporeans still want to work for a multinational company (MNC) and even if they know you are young, they don’t understand that it takes time to build things up,” Ms Lim added.
Statistics from raiSE showed that 69 per cent of social enterprises here employ fewer than 5 employees. Only 5 per cent have a team of more than 30 workers.
The sector developer said initiatives that might help smoothen out some of these challenges are in the works.
Talks with a private equity fund to explore the set-up of a fund are ongoing, said Mr Alfie. raiSE is also mulling tie-ups with human resource agencies to help match job applicants with social enterprises more efficiently.
But for Ms Quek from SEOciety, the biggest challenge she had was dealing with the death of a co-worker.
“We still had meetings scheduled for the following days then we saw a Facebook post by his mum saying that he had passed away during the night,” said Ms Quek as she recalled the day when one of her team members, who was suffering from muscular dystrophy, passed away.
It had been a “rude shock” until a counsellor from the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Singapore assured Ms Quek that the social enterprise is helping to make a difference to the lives of its members.
“That gave me the courage to continue. Technology is an enabler that allows my team members to take on high-value jobs, instead of settling for a normal administrative role,” she said.
For Ms Kweh, while BloomBack remains unprofitable for now, she takes comfort in the fact that her sister Faith has gotten more than just a mood booster from her work with flowers.
Faith, 40, now handles the liaison work with volunteers. For her, 2017 is a “growing up process” that has rebuilt her confidence.
"Because of my hearing impairment, I had low self-esteem and after I got divorced, all the more I felt like a useless person who knew nothing except housework,” she told Channel NewsAsia as tears welled up in her eyes.
“I tried to find a job but because of my eyes, I can’t stare at a computer for long. For retail jobs, I need to be of a certain distance (from) the customer but there will be times when I can’t hear them properly to know what they want from me. I know I’m not up to it so I will leave on my own.”
But Ms Faith Kweh no longer feels this way.
Regaining her composure, she added: "There are still many women out there who are like me. Now, I want to be the one to reach out to them to tell them that they are not useless."
"We can be useful people too."