In a news article titled “Just what exactly is a social enterprise? More clarity needed, NUS researchers say” published by Straits Times in 2014, researchers expressed their concern with regard to the term “Social Enterprise” which they observed was increasingly used in the business industry. As companies that appear remotely involved with maximizing social impacts begin to brand themselves as social enterprises, researchers demand more clarity pertaining to the term.
Last Monday (14 May), I took a trip down to Kreta Ayer Road to visit a newly opened social enterprise, The Social Space. It is a multi-concept store run by Cheryl Ou and her husband, Daniel with a vision to increase social consciousness in the community. From highlighting the importance of the three R’s (reuse, reduce and recycle) to hiring people from a less privileged background, it all began when the founders decided to embark on a journey to offer viable solutions to the problems observed in our society.
Starting this enterprise was no easy feat. The founders spent months reaching out to multiple corporate groups, sharing and proposing their ideas to reduce waste. They encouraged companies to sell their items in bulk and introduced them to the concept of refillaries.
However many were hesitant to adopt this new business model as they were used to selling individually packaged products. Of course, there were other varying reasons that impeded the progress of business collaborations but with time, the couple convinced many other enterprises to buy into the idea of being socially conscious and still profitable.
The food served in the store is prepared with utmost care. Having a discriminating palate, the founders assured me that they: “Do not serve anything that [they themselves] will not want to eat.”
Due to the spatial constraints of the store, the couple has innovated a new type of kitchen. The open kitchen only has one coffee machine and a toaster (which can only toast two pieces of bread at a time). This makes it challenging to serve the overwhelming customers during the busy weekends but the founders are determined to make it work. Using the culinary skills imparted by his mother, Daniel developed easy-to-follow recipes which suited the constraints of the open kitchen. Beyond serving customers with delicious food, the simplicity gives anyone; regardless of background, the opportunity to earn a living in the Social Space kitchen. Seeking to contribute towards the current trend of maintaining a healthy diet, the menu is also skewed towards healthier options.
Aside from the cafe, The Social Space also has a retail space. It carries products from other social enterprises and/or products that promote conscious living.
One of the featured product is none other than Center Pottery’s handmade ceramic ware. Center Pottery a social enterprise which conducts clay workshops and sells handmade ceramic wares that are specially made by persons with special needs. The founders hope to promote the therapeutic benefits of clay, ceramics, and pottery for mental health in Singapore (especially among patients with anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, depression and trauma etc, and also patients who need occupational therapy for rehabilitation of their dexterity). Proceeds from the workshops and purchase of handmade ceramic ware go towards funding special clay classes which help patients with mental health issues, terminally-ill patients and the elderly cope with their difficulties.
Like many other enterprises, the founders sought to resolve problems they observed in the current society. Cheryl noted there wasn’t a suitable work environment for single mothers. Their unique situation renders them unsuitable candidates for jobs out in the market. This is what spurred The Nail Social, which is a nail salon, catered to providing these women a suitable job.
The women are not required to possess any relevant skills as Cheryl dedicates herself to training them. As described by Cheryl, it is basically more about learning on the job and therefore a willing heart is key. Although the women begin with an entry-level job, the founders assured that there are certainly opportunities for promotion. One such example is a worker that started at The Nail Social as a manicurist and is now holding a managerial position.
In the long-run, the founders are confident to further the progress that they’ve made. Their risk-taking attitude is evident from how they are prepared to solve problems as and when they arrive. Currently, they are exploring the possibility of opening a preschool after observing that the workers do not have a place to leave their kids. This leaves the workers with no choice but to bring their children to work. Realizing that wanting to provide for the mothers would also mean to have suitable arrangements made for their children, the founders both acknowledged that their cause is still a work in progress. Ultimately, the running of the enterprise will be transferred to the workers so that the couple will be able to build new social enterprises to create more job opportunities and touch more lives.
For concision, the founders have identified three main problems they encountered while running The Social Space. They are finding a suitable space, liaising with others (both social enterprises and businesses) and hiring staff.
Firstly, it took the founders over a year to find a place for their store. Initially, what they had in mind was a venue similar to what they have for The Nail Social which was located along Haji lane. People from all walks of life are found at the heart of Haji lane making it an ideal location for operation. However, the desire to have such is met with the reality of needing a place with affordable rent. Eventually, after a long search, the founders finally decided on Kreta Ayer Road.
For the former, the founders are strict on provenance and conduct physical checks at the source to verify that items in their retail space are genuinely produced in accordance with their respective social causes. At the same time, the couple has to prioritise items that they feel will sell. This in itself can be a challenge as some items that they assumed would sell, ended up being left on the shelf. As for the latter, the problem arises when their goals do not align with that of The Social Space. For instance, their coffee bean supplier had to supply coffee beans in the containers that the founders provided instead of the usual paper bags that they use. This is one such example of how other businesses had to accommodate and alter the way they do business because the founders are strict with ensuring the source and packaging of their purchases.
In hiring staff, the founders prioritises those of less privileged backgrounds. The founders shared that there were numerous occasions where they were brought to tears when they heard about the plight of some of their hires. Therefore staff members understandably will face frequent emergencies at home which may impede their ability to work according to schedule. These staff members are themselves beneficiaries that the Social Space wants to empower and thus the founders take it upon themselves to stand in for their staff during emergencies.
To-date, there are still difficulties faced by the founders but they are, as before, ready to accept the challenges as they come along. In order to ensure that the enterprise is sustainable, the founders are definitely looking into diversifying it. As mentioned, thoughts regarding establishing a preschool have surfaced and discussions are ongoing. Regardless of what happens, the founders are sure about keeping the cafe and retail a constant in all their current and future stores. All in all, everything is still a work in progress and more is yet to come.
For more information on the social vision of this startup, check out: https://www.shopgood.sg/blog/the-social-space-a-multi-concept-lifestyle-store