The young do-gooders who profit from their ethics
How does one build a business with a conscience? Shaun Koh of Syinc.org explains how he got started in social entrepreneurship.
Youth is wasted on the young. They’re usually feckless, sometimes clueless, and fond of spewing cliché life statements and fighting words to show that they're fiercely independent and want to change the world before dinner time. But more often than not, it's NATO. No Action, Talk Only.
It's not always the case though. These same youths can sometimes shock us into considering what’s really important, so much so that we wonder what we’ve done with our lives. Meet three groups of young entrepreneurs who are determined to make the world a better place, without sacrificing an income.
Money or morality?
Shaun Koh of Syinc.org has a rule about social enterprises: "If making good is directly correlated to making money, then it’s what I call a social enterprise."
The 24 year-old student took leave from his engineering course at the University of Michigan Ann-Arbor, to work on Syinc.org where he does everything -- from building databases to web strategies. He's designed a social innovation program for schools where students use design thinking to build more effective solutions to problems, as "opposed to merely going down to the beach to clean it up," said Koh to CNNGo.
Koh explains that the very notion of a profit-generating business that does good is quite new. Two years ago when he entered a social enterprise proposal into a business competition, the judges had no idea how to rank the venture because they were looking for the project with the most profit. Koh’s business was definitely not profit-focused.
But things have changed. "Nowadays, there are categories for social enterprises in business competitions. But most people think that social enterprises are about employing disabled people to make things and sell through the internet, but I think it’s not particularly innovative. Where is that Amazon with a heart?" he commented.
Amazon with a heart
Perhaps that example of "Amazon with a heart" might be found in Give.sg.
The website uses social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to help charities raise funds. The three founders, Assem Thakur, Zwee, and Pong Yu Ming, all fresh graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS), designed it as a business that does good while sustaining itself.
Assem says, “There are big administrative costs for charities to hold an offline event -- about 20 per cent. Through Give.sg, we bring down the cost to 5 per cent. That’s how we give them a cost-effective solution and sustain Give.sg at the same time.”
A gathering of minds
Tomithy Too, a second-year student at NUS, contributes to The Social Entrepreneurship Forum (SEforum), a place for social entrepreneurs to discuss projects, share practices and raise awareness of their work.
Too is convinced there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. "I’m exploring, finding meaning in my life,” he says. “And at this stage and point in time, there’s simply nothing for me to lose. So why not knock on some doors, look at some things, but most importantly create meaning as well?"
Right now Too is busy with a new project that's perfect for the information age. "We’re building a flash game that’s based on current events and personalities to help people understand what’s happening in the world."
Measuring the bottom line
Social enterprises do not rely on handouts to survive. They are ultimately businesses even if they fall into the 'do-gooder' category, but what they look for is a different matter entirely. They just want enough money to cover operating costs, and invest in research and development. How they earn it depends on their business model.
For example, profits could come from service fees that are worked into the system, ala Give.sg which devotes 3 per cent of the raised funds for partner charities to maintaining and improving their online services. Or it could follow a retail model, such as SEforum’s online shop Dothingsdifferent where shoppers pay cash for community goods, where 70 per cent of the selling price goes back to the community or programs set up by the social enterprises to benefit a social cause, environment, or community.. Response has been good for them as well -- according to Too, "Dothingsdifferent is on target to be in the black by the first year."
But that’s not all. They also have the added burden of having to quantify the amount of goodness that they’ve created for their beneficiaries. As with their profits and costs, the amount of goodness given is also measured in dollars and cents. Thakur estimates "that we will save our partner charities S$250,000 which can be used to help a lot of people."
Good first, study later
But social entrepreneurship isn’t a short-haul event. It’s a long-term investment of time and energy. Koh took a year off, and the Give.sg guys took it easy with their studies.
For them it’s time well spent. Yu Ming says, "Study is important [but it took a backseat] because we wanted to do something with our lives. We also wanted to give something back to the community. So we could always find time apart from our studies. We could sacrifice our fun time to do research, how we could do things, and how to connect with the right people."
And it’s not a one and done affair either. Our young entrepreneurs categorically state that they’re in it for the long haul. In fact, they’ve already mapped out roadmaps for their social enterprises. SEForum will continue their networking and information-sharing model for readers while at the same time, they hunt for local designers to create well-designed products to support the local cottage industry. As for Give.sg, the trio hopes to expand their online service into other Asian countries.
And it looks like it’s paying off, for them and those they help.
Social enterprises by Singapore students
This is an online platform where donors can give directly to a charity project of their choice. www.give.sg
Social Entrepreneurship Forum
SEforum is a directory of regional social enterprises and networking portal for social enterprises. www.seforum.sg
Syinc is a youth group in Singapore that connects people to seek innovative solutions for social change. www.syinc.org