For Ms Cassie Lim, the idea of starting a social enterprise took shape during a literal shake-up in her life – it happened during the 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan, when she found herself trapped in a building.
“So what if I was well-travelled and I have a good life. So what?” Ms Lim found herself wondering. “Because if the building were to collapse on me, I would have done nothing to contribute to anybody except myself. That moment was very crucial because I started my journey of questioning the meaning behind my work.”
The result was Be Movement, a publication aimed at raising awareness about the good people do. With a mission to connect and inspire, Ms Lim’s enterprise is among a growing number of businesses in Singapore that believes making a social impact is as important as turning a profit.
“It is something like the Robin Hood system where we take from the rich and give to the poor,” said Ms Lim of Be Movement. “We invite companies to create value-added CSR stories with us which are sponsored. From there, we take that revenue and use it to fund stories about courageous people, social enterprises, and experimental travel.”
A-changin’, another social enterprise, has a more direct approach. It offers high-quality garment alterations – with a difference. Founder Josephine Ng left the marketing industry to train and provide employment opportunities for women.
“By empowering the ladies that come to us, they become contributors to the organisation and that is a great opportunity,” said Ms Ng. “You see the growth of the people you are nurturing, and that has been great for us.”
Corporates are starting to jumping on board. DBS supports A-changin’ and Be Movement, and is the first and only bank in Singapore to lend financial support to social enterprises.
“Our license to operate doesn’t just come from our regulators, but it comes from Singapore, the society that we operate in. So we do want to give back to the society,” explained Ms Karen Ngui, Managing Director and Head of Group Strategic Marketing and Communications for DBS. “At the end of the day, banking is about making lives better. So it is not profits or purpose, it is about profits and purpose. That is what DBS believes in.”
The average man on the street may view the idea of social enterprises with some indifference, or even cynicism, perhaps as it is a relatively new business model. In fact, “there is no consensual understanding of what a social enterprise is”, said Dr Lam Swee Sum, Director of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy.
“We find various sets of stakeholders have different opinions about what weighs more importantly when defining a social enterprise. There is a need for someone actually to go out there and validate as an independent so-called assessor whether in fact such an organisation is a social enterprise or not,” she suggested.
For Ms Ng, the view that an organisation which wants do good is a charity, rather than a viable business, is a misconception. “Sometimes people do think that – because you are helping people in need, you must be charity and you must be cheap.”
The key to a successful social enterprise lies in delivering a good product or service consistently, she said. “People will support social enterprises on a long-term basis only if the social enterprise gives very good quality. Because quality of work still is the most important.”