ECONOMY | Contributed Content, Singapore
Isaac Zhang

5 things nobody told you about starting a social enterprise in Singapore


Singaporeans are known to be pragmatic. Yet these days graduates and professionals do not simply want a good paycheck but also an intrinsically rewarding job – a mindset that is even spreading to entrepreneurs. Here are five key things to bear in mind as one considers undertaking this rewarding journey in Singapore.

1. Aim for profit, but keep things in check.
Whenever the term 'social enterprise' is mentioned, one imagines an even poorer version of the poor bootstrapping sole proprietor. Only now the entrepreneur pulls the hours with a wide smile and is rewarded with smiles instead of money. Certainly a mission worth undertaking by only the magnanimously big-hearted.

While it may be true that poverty is a state of the soul rather than the wallet, no mortal being thrives on warm fuzzy feelings alone. Social entrepreneurs equally have to meet revenue bottom line to ensure its goodwill programmes will be a long-term continual effort rather than one-off projects. Common sense of the business world applies: employees need to be paid, good managerial practices need to be in place, and so forth.

2. Funding is readily available
Burn rate (meaning negative cash flow) is a key metric for any new startup, so no exception here. Even if one strikes out with little capital, fret not for there's plenty of funding available in Singapore, thanks to strong governmental and corporate support. Hence, build around the social cause first, then weave a sustainable business model into the architecture.

Here's an inexhaustive list of funding sources:
raiSE is the latest agency set up to, literally, raise awareness and support for social enterprises in Singapore. Funding ranges from prototyping to seeding, and financing.
● SGEnable readily supports employers hiring PWDs (person with disabilities) through its Open Door Programme.
● DBS's funding caters from prototyping to scaling grants.
● Fun fact: youth is defined as between 15 - 35 years old, according to the National Youth Council, who provides grants for youth-targetted initiatives.

3. Start with a heart for people
Starting with the right mindset goes a longer way than starting with the right formula. Intrinsic motivation from personal experience is the best kind for social entrepreneurs.

Ask yourself this: if there's a group of people who you feel dearly for, who would it be? Do you have a disadvantaged sibling, relative, or friend? Do you feel strongly for a person with a certain condition or social status? Talk to people. Read up and research. When your heart is convicted, the vision becomes clear and effortless to communicate.

4. Changing the world starts with your backyard
In the course of my profession, I had the privilege of meeting the founder of Dignity Kitchen, Mr Koh Seng Choon. Years prior when he returned to Singapore from overseas, he noticed an interesting trend – the disadvantaged and disabled rarely surfaced in society. Digging deeper, he learnt the lack of job opportunity for these groups of people tucked them away from public eyes. Thus was born Dignity Kitchen, whose mission is 'to build and return the dignity to the disadvantaged and disabled through vocation with passion'.

Likewise, when Gobbler5 founder Janan Kwek was in Seattle, helping out in soup kitchens deeply impacted his heart towards the poor. Since returning home to Singapore, memories etched on his heart stirred him to rechart the course of his startup into a social enterprise that creatively provides the underprivileged a chance at a better life.

Society and the government try its best to cater for the majority of the people. Shortcomings of the system mean the vulnerable can seep through the cracks. Social enterprises can be a huge anchor of hope for those leaning on it.

5. Scalability is social impact, not profit.
At the end of the day, the social entrepreneur's main concern is the social impact dished out and how much more can be done. This detraction from conventional startups means that one does not plan for an exit strategy after crossing the chasm. They may not hit millions or billions in dollar figures, but who can put a price on the wealth of one's heart and soul?

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Isaac Zhang

Isaac Zhang

After catching a whiff of the startup scene from his college days in Ireland, Isaac caught the entrepreneurship bug. Having spent some time with startups and a social enterprise, he is currently part of Chef At Work, which specialises in helping new and existing food businesses succeed in the marketplace with industry best practices. Isaac's passions lie in digital marketing, startups, tech, F&B, and things that make the world a better place.

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