In Good Company

A firm believer that doing good and running a business can go hand in hand, social entrepreneur Elim Chew shares her motivations and vision for a better world.

BY KAREN TEE
PHOTO JASPER YU

 

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lim Chew is one of Singapore’s most prominent women entrepreneurs, and a vocal advocate of social entrepreneurship among youth. She currently sits on over 30 boards and committees of public service as well as youth and community organisations in Singapore, including the School of the Arts; the School of Science and Technology; and the National Youth Council, the national coordinating agency for youth development in Singapore.

She founded the now-defunct iconic streetwear chain 77th Street in 1988. At its peak, the brand operated 16 stores across Singapore, with overseas ventures in Malaysia and China. More than just a place to get kitted out in cool clothes, its boutiques provided a welcoming space for many teens to gather with their friends and even seek advice and mentorship from Chew and her staff. Although 77th Street has shut its doors, the spirit of social enterprise and youth mentorship that Chew espouses lives on in her other projects, businesses and community engagements.

She has supported the Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) programme since its inception. SIF’s YSE programme aims to encourage international youth to start social enterprises. Serving as both mentor and judge, Chew has shared her experiences to help young entrepreneurs grow their ideas. She is a founding member and director of the Social Innovation Park (SIP), a non-profit organisation based in Singapore that incubates social entrepreneurs worldwide. Through the SIP, she helped set up the Pop and Talent Hub (PaTH) arts market to provide a platform for disadvantaged and talented individuals – from the disabled to ex-offenders to the unemployed to showcase and sell their craft.

In her personal capacity, Chew also contributes to charitable causes and has sponsored children through humanitarian relief organisation, World Vision. Through her mother, who is also an active volunteer, she has supported an elderly home in China, a children’s home in Myanmar and even an entire village in Indonesia.

Chew’s most recent project is the FastFast app, a social impact business designed to give retirees, people who have been retrenched or those who are between jobs a way to earn some income by connecting them with individuals and organisations that need courier services.

To cap off an eventful year, Chew, who turns 50 this year, has launched a book, The Elim Chew Story, to share her life experiences and journey to becoming a driven and socially conscious entrepreneur.

“I hope to inspire more people to be entrepreneurs – to start young, gain experience, and to be the change that they want to see in the world. I strongly believe that the goal of an entrepreneur should not be purely to make money; there should also be a greater purpose of wanting to give back to society.”

Elim Chew, social entrepreneur

1. You leverage your businesses to help social businesses and entrepreneurs. Why is this important to you? What are you busy with?
I was a founding member of the social entrepreneurship movement in Singapore about 10 years ago. Now, I feel a sense of satisfaction to see more and more social enterprises being set up, with people solving social issues through them, and more lives being empowered and impacted. I hope the sector will continue to grow with time.

I have launched a platform called ElimChewTV. It is a YouTube channel that features people from different fields around the world who are making a positive impact on society through their work. I hope it will inspire more people to become changemakers.

Another venture I’m involved in is FastFast, which I co-founded. It is a social impact business offering instant delivery services through a mobile app. It seeks to fill the employment gap and provide additional income for people who need it.


2. What are your views on the social entrepreneurship scene in Singapore?
Social entrepreneurship is gaining more traction in Singapore. Singapore’s President, Tony Tan Keng Yam, has endorsed it through the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award, which recognises outstanding social enterprises with significant and sustained contributions to the disadvantaged in our community. There is also the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise, launched last year, to increase awareness and support for social enterprises.

Still, more can be done. For me, a social enterprise should run like a normal business. Often, people focus too much on wanting to create a social impact, and neglect the number-crunching aspect of the business. It is imperative that the revenue model makes business sense while meeting its social mission.

More stringent guidelines and criteria should be applied for a business to qualify as a social enterprise. Both the business model and social mission have to be clear and measurable. This is to ensure that people do not take advantage of government support for social enterprises for their own benefit.

3. Tell us about your work in advocating social entrepreneurship in Asia.
Over the past 10 years, I have held multiple social entrepreneurship talks in Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Hong Kong to encourage and inspire budding social entrepreneurs. During a visit to Shanghai, I spoke about PaTH, a social enterprise market based at VivoCity shopping mall, which I started in 2008. Someone in the audience happened to own a shopping mall, and decided to bring the concept of PaTH to Shanghai, resulting in a space for social entrepreneurs and the marginalised to sell their products.

4. How can we help to nurture social scene? What key traits should the youth possess to succeed as social entrepreneurs?
My vision and hope for the future is for all businesses to be social enterprises. That is, every business should start with a social mission in mind. But, of course, being business-minded is important because we can only do good when we do well. If your business is struggling, you will not have the means to help people.

Young people need to know that giving up is not an option. They should see every adversity as a challenge to be overcome. Even if they fail, the learning process will make them better and stronger. They should stay humble and be willing to learn and do everything. The experience gained through such efforts will put them ahead of others.

5. What is your vision for the future business scene? What key traits should the youth possess to succeed as social entrepreneurs?
My vision and hope for the future is for all businesses to be social enterprises. That is, every business should start with a social mission in mind. But, of course, being business-minded is important because we can only do good when we do well. If your business is struggling, you will not have the means to help people.

Young people need to know that giving up is not an option. They should see every adversity as a challenge to be overcome. Even if they fail, the learning process will make them better and stronger. They should stay humble and be willing to learn and do everything. The experience gained through such efforts will put them ahead of others.

6. How have you leveraged your businesses to inspire the young? What youth-related programmes are you now involved in?
When we opened our first 77th Street shop at Far East Plaza in Singapore, it was more than just a retail store. It functioned like a community space or a hip youth shelter where many young people could chill and hang out. My staff and I were agony aunt and mentor to them, listening to their troubles and offering them advice on problems they were facing. It felt like we were one big family.

I would like to think that the success of 77th Street also demonstrated to the youth that they could be successful if they worked hard, regardless of their background or academic performance. I am someone who did not like to study and often failed exams. Yet, I managed to start 77th Street through sheer hard work. I hope this gives people hope to work towards their dreams.

I continue to mentor youths in my personal capacity, and I do speaking engagements in schools during which I share my story and experiences. I also commit to judging entrepreneurship and youth competitions and events, and am always open to opportunities that give back, especially to youth-related initiatives.

7. How did you get involved as a mentor on SIF’s YSE programme? What were some of the highlights for you?
I sat on SIF’s Board of Governors for seven years, from 2009 to 2016. So, when SIF came up with the idea for its YSE programme, I supported it because it empowers both local and international youths. I believe in raising a generation of change makers. I’m glad that they now have more support and resources to change the world.

For me, the success of young people under SIF’s YSE programme is my greatest achievement and satisfaction. We plant the seeds of change in them by equipping them with knowledge and connecting them to networks and resources so that they have the capacity to turn their ideas into reality. SIF’s YSE programme participants never fail to inspire me with their passion, energy and fearlessness.

8. What was your experience in managing cultural differences as a mentor under SIF’s YSE programme? How does it contribute to positive cross-cultural impact?
SIF’s YSE programme has brought together young people from different countries to learn about one another’s culture and expand their horizons. For me, such cross-cultural collaborations are important. For example, if we want to introduce e-learning to a school in a developing country, we have to ensure that it has the necessary resources available such as Wi-Fi and tablets. If these are not in place, we have to figure out how to obtain them. Otherwise, the idea remains an idea, without any significant outcome.

Cultural differences are inevitable. Different government regulations and support systems give rise to various social entrepreneurship models in different countries. What we share with the youth may not be applicable in their country due to these differences, but I try my best to link them up with my networks and friends in businesses in their countries to help them.

9. You are big on philanthropy and giving back to society. What drives you to do this? What do you enjoy most about philanthropy and what is most challenging about it?
My passion for giving back comes from my mum. She helped set up a children’s home in Myanmar and an elderly home in China. Now, she is doing community outreach at a village in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia.

I find joy in seeing lives being impacted positively, and using the money I’ve made to benefit communities. The downside of philanthropy is that sometimes people doubt my true intention for doing good; they question whether I’m trying to gain more business and attention. People can say what they want. Ultimately, and more importantly, I stay true to my heart and what I believe in.

10. You launched your book, The Elim Chew Story, to coincide with your 50th birthday. Why did you decide to write it? What do you hope to share through it?
The book is about my life – from my days as a naughty young person to the start of my entrepreneurship journey to the current projects I am involved in. This year also marks the closure of 77th Street. After the news of its closure was announced, I received many kind messages from people from all walks of life. They shared their stories and fond memories of 77th Street with me. I thought it would be good to put all these together, and share my journey through a book.

I hope to inspire more people to be entrepreneurs – to start young, gain experience, and to be the change that they want to see in the world. I strongly believe that the goal of an entrepreneur should not be purely to make money; there should also be a greater purpose of wanting to give back to society.


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