On 17th October 2020, we held the fifth session of our “A Future in ASEAN” webinar series on Inspiration and Insights from Social Entrepreneurship, together with our co-organiser Social Impact Catalyst. We would like to thank our speakers Somsak Boonkam, founder and CEO of Local Alike Co., Ltd in Thailand, Minh Ngoc, Founder and CEO of Green lady Vietnam and Russ Neu, founder and CEO of Social Collider in Singapore and Venture Partner for Impact Initiatives at Quest Ventures, for their inspirational and insightful sharing. We would also like to express our heartfelt appreciation to Khor Qianyi, CEO of Social Impact Catalyst for moderating and partnering with us in the event.
Written by: Bryan Chang
Edited by: Isabelle Goh
Starting off the session, our speakers introduced their respective enterprises to our participants. Somsak introduced attendees to Local Alike, which has been running for the past 10 years and has worked with more than 160 communities and over 40,000 travellers in Thailand with the vision of uplifting communities through sustainable tourism. Apart from tourism, Local Alike also caters to the needs of urban consumers through 2 other brands, Local Aroi and Local Alot. Local Aroi seeks to satisfy the taste buds of urbanites through the provision of regional cuisine prepared by villagers through catering services, private dinner sessions and set menus delivered to customers. Local Alot aims to be the largest online marketplace selling local products in Thailand by 2022 by partnering with villagers to provide the knowledge of marketing and selling online. Since its inception just over 45 days ago, Local Alot has garnered 15,000 supporters and customers and generated 2.6 million baht in revenue for communities participating in the marketplace.
Following Somsak, Minh Ngoc introduced participants to Green Lady Vietnam, which aims to provide education and eco-friendly products for women’s health issues which would allow women to feel more empowered in taking charge of their lives. Green Lady Vietnam’s customers are mainly urban women aged 28 to 35 who are working and are active on social media. They are conscious about the environmental and chemical effects brought about by using disposable hygiene products and turn instead to Green Lady’s range of eco-friendly products, which include locally made organic cloth pads, natural washing soap and cleansing hydrosols. Apart from hygiene products, Green Lady Vietnam also produces herbal packs and teas for female consumers and had conducted extensive educational programmes through the use of workshops, exhibitions and online blogs to teach women who are either young or part of disadvantaged groups on female health issues such as menstruation.
Finally, Russ introduced participants to Social Collider, an aggregator company he founded that aims to provide resources for social entrepreneurs and connect impact organizations (social enterprises) with other groups that are interested in collaborating with them. Social Collider is built on the 4 “Es” of Empower, Educate, Enrich and Ecosystem and seeks to fulfil its mission through programmes such as social entrepreneurship workshops, hackathons and overseas service learning. It has 4 theme based working spaces at with its HQ at Ubi, Sustainability Hub at Republic Plaza, Elderly Innovation Hub at Lorong Ah Soo and Inclusive Hiring space at Tanjong Pagar. It also has an academy where workshops are conducted and it has partnered with various organisations such as the Chi Heng Foundation, National University of Singapore and the United Nations Development Programme on various initiatives.
The speakers were then invited to discuss pertinent issues in social entrepreneurship through a fireside chat moderated by Qianyi. They were asked on how they were inspired to start their journeys in social entrepreneurship. Somsak grew up in a poor rural environment in Thailand and strived towards achieving higher education to get his family out from poverty. After doing his MBA in sustainable management in the United States, he realised the potential for development in the tourism industry in Thailand given the 40 million tourists it typically receives in a year. However, the mass tourism prevalent in Thailand often left rural villagers with little earnings due to its nature, while sustainable tourism which could further benefit these villagers was sorely lacking at the time. Somsak thus decided to set up Local Alike to help uplift these rural communities while gaining market advantage as one of the few sustainable tour operators in Thailand.
Minh Ngoc was inspired to venture into female body care and hygiene products through Green Lady Vietnam after attending the eco-village design education course in 2016. She collaborated with some Cambodian friends on creating eco-friendly cloth pads as a project before realising that her vision of providing education on female health and eco-friendly healthcare products for women could only be sustained by scaling up her project to become a social enterprise, which she managed to accomplish in less than 2 years despite facing numerous challenges.
Russ was formerly an educator with the Ministry of Education in Singapore before proceeding to Tsinghua University for his MBA. He had a mindset change towards social entrepreneurship while doing his MBA thesis and was struck by the potential of the industry to uplift the lives of millions living in poverty after hearing about the efforts of a former Hong Kong banker who set up a foundation to assist families inflicted with HIV in China. Many of these families comprised of villagers who were compelled to sell their blood to pharmaceutical companies as a means to improve their financial situation, but who suffered from the lasting effects of the HIV virus as medical equipment was not properly sterilized when the extraction of blood took place. This set him towards a path in social entrepreneurship to eventually become the founder of Social Collider and Partner for Impact Initiatives at Quest Ventures.
The speakers were also questioned regarding starting a social enterprise in other ASEAN countries such as Thailand and Vietnam and the challenges they faced in their entrepreneurship journey. Both Somsak and Minh Ngoc concurred that finding a local business partner or like-minded local NGOs to assist in the setting up of business operations is important given that social enterprises are not given preferential treatment under Thai and Vietnamese laws and have to be at least 51% locally owned like any other business. Russ felt that a key challenge that social enterprises could face while operating in regional countries is the lack of infrastructure to accommodate new technologies, especially as there are still many rural parts of ASEAN that do not enjoy readily available internet access. Minh Ngoc added on sharing that the challenges brought by COVID-19 have forced many social enterprises like Green Lady Vietnam to expand their presence on the internet and this was a challenge at the beginning as she had seen the enterprise as a traditional business that made most of its sales through physical outlets. However, Somsak also noted that despite the increasing need for technology, maintaining a human connection with customers is still important for businesses in the hospitality industry like Local Alike. Finally, both Russ and Minh Ngoc acknowledged that despite the impression that some might have of social enterprises as a business which does not emphasise on profits, ensuring the survival of the enterprise while fulfilling the purpose and mission it seeks to achieve is important which necessitates a balance between the two elements.
Advice for Youths
Somsak advised youths to follow their passion when setting up a social enterprise as it takes time to scale and adapt the business to challenges and opportunities in the world of social entrepreneurship. Minh Ngoc emphasised that youths considering a journey into social entrepreneurship need to be comfortable and confident with what they set out to achieve as venturing into social entrepreneurship is not a conventional career path that is taken by a majority of youths. Russ further added to Somsak’s advice by asking youths to find their purpose when setting up a social enterprise. He noted that purpose is mostly inspired by individual experiences and having a sense of purpose is something that has helped him resolve many problems he has faced along the way. Among the questions youths could ask themselves are: 1. Who they want to help, 2. What issues do their target beneficiaries face and 3. What is their solution to these issues. Before the session concluded, he urged budding youth entrepreneurs to think about how their enterprises could help disadvantaged communities through giving them the skills they need to uplift themselves as doing so would give them the sense of purpose and inspiration throughout their journey in social entrepreneurship.
Once again, we would like to thank our moderator Khor Qianyi from Social Impact Catalyst and speakers Somsak Boonkam from Local Alike Co., Ltd in Thailand, Minh Ngoc from Green Lady Vietnam and Russ Neu from Social Collider/Quest Ventures for their insights and time at our October edition of “A Future in ASEAN” series.
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