The Power Of Small

“International understanding facilitates cross-country communication, reduces misunderstandings, and generally promotes peace and tolerance. People are less likely to support a war aimed at their friends.”
Social entrepreneur Denise Lim

Aside from promoting international understanding, Singaporean Denise Lim wants to use her experience of starting small businesses with social goals in Guatemala to help others do the same.

BY DESMOND NG
PHOTOS JUSTIN LOH

 

F

or someone whose bakery was robbed at gunpoint in July 2015 and whose restaurant was burgled just two months later, social entrepreneur Denise Lim is unperturbed. No one was harmed in those incidents, reasons the 29-year-old Singaporean, who relocated to Guatemala in Central America more than four years ago.

She simply lost a day’s revenue, and the perpetrator of the bakery robbery has since been arrested. She says: “It doesn’t happen often. All they want is money. I have to say it’s usually very safe there. After the incidents, there are now more police on the streets.”

In 2011, the search for a different way of life led Lim to quit her job in Singapore as a management consultant with multinational consulting firm Accenture. She set off on a round-the-world trip that took her across Asia and then Canada. Along the way, she visited different non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to learn and to volunteer.

After travelling for about six-months, she ended up in a Guatemalan city called Quetzaltenango, about 200km from the capital Guatemala City. She had planned to stay for three weeks to learn Spanish and volunteer with local NGOs. But she came to a dilemma.

Although she felt relaxed and happy in Guatemala, she wanted to continue travelling. She says: “I didn’t know whether to stay or to go. I then met someone who told me that if you cannot find happiness within, you will not be able to find happiness no matter where you go, because happiness is really more a state of mind than about where you are. So I decided to stay for a while to work on understanding and learning about myself, and being okay with who I am.”

Since then, the city has turned into a launchpad for her entrepreneurial ideas. The Singapore Management University graduate with a double degree in business and social sciences had always wanted to find out how she could merge financial and social goals. In Guatemala, she saw an opportunity to further this dream.


LEARNING CURVE

It was a lonely venture at the beginning, as she had no support or network to lean on in Guatemala. Plus, she had to do everything in Spanish, which she was still learning. But she picked up the language easily, and quickly learnt to be resourceful to get things going. She found Guatemala to be an ideal place to start a business because of the low start-up costs, ranging from US$2,000 (S$2,800) to US$5,000, as rent, labour and raw materials are cheap.

“I was able to experiment with different businesses in a low-cost environment,” says Lim, who was back in Singapore in October 2015 to attend a conference on women in leadership and social entrepreneurship.

In the last four years, she has set up three businesses with local partners in Guatemala. These are a restaurant, a bakery and an online language learning school, which are all driven by different social goals. They also have an implicit objective of fostering international understanding.

She says: “International understanding facilitates cross-country communication, reduces misunderstandings, and generally promotes peace and tolerance. People are less likely to support a war aimed at their friends.”

The bakery, Mandarina, aims to introduce locals to healthier food options through its nutritious offerings, and public talks on health and nutrition. The restaurant, La Esquina Asiatica, which serves mainly Asian cuisine, regularly holds fund-raisers for local NGOs.

The online language school provides employment to local Spanish teachers by linking them with international students who want to learn the language. Her food and beverage businesses employ a total of seven locals.

She started her restaurant with US$2,000 and recouped her investment in a few months. With that money, she opened the bakery. When that broke even, she set up a language school to connect people interested in learning Spanish with language teachers in Guatemala.

From these experiences, she realised she could do more to facilitate the growth of entrepreneurship and jobs in Guatemala. She decided to set up Cosecha Ventures, which pairs business students from around the world with local entrepreneurs in Guatemala to start small social businesses.

She will mentor the students and entrepreneurs for a year, after which the students will return to their home countries armed with practical business experience, while the locals retain the businesses.

“My dream is to start micro-businesses in developing countries, perhaps a hundred or a thousand companies that hire locals to contribute to the economy, and all with social goals,” says Lim, who also teaches yoga on top of everything else.

Although she is not ready to give up her life in Guatemala just yet, she plans to return to Asia to continue her social goals in the future, and to be close to family and friends.

She says: “I realised that I could choose to live a different way no matter where I go, as long as I understand and keep to what is important to me. My experiences have helped cement certain principles that I would bring back to Asia and apply in my new ventures.”

 


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