Gen Y Speaks: Covid-19 has dealt my social enterprise a crushing blow. But I am not giving up
I started a social enterprise called Society Staples in 2015 when I was still in university to promote greater inclusivity for persons with disabilities (PWDs). Last year, we managed to hit a six-figure sum in revenue, mainly from the fees charged in our core business of organising community events and corporate team-building activities with a focus on inclusivity. But Covid-19 and safe distancing measures have dealt a crushing blow to our plans.
I started a social enterprise called Society Staples in 2015 when I was still in university to promote greater inclusivity for persons with disabilities (PWDs).
In the last five years, Society Staples has grown from a two-man outfit to one with eight staff, including interns.
Among other things, we design activities, events and programmes to allow people to experience what it is like to live with a disability and invite them to share what they have learnt from the experience, and how it changes the way they think about PWDs.
Last year, we managed to hit a six-figure sum in revenue, mainly from the fees charged in our core business of organising community events and corporate team-building activities with a focus on inclusivity.
But Covid-19 and safe distancing measures have dealt a crushing blow to our plans. Nothing could quite prepare us for what we went through in the last six months.
In 2019, we organised nearly 100 events, up from 10-odd in our first year of operation.
Almost eight months into 2020, the number of such events stood at a grand total of two, both in the early part of the year. This also means we have had hardly any revenue this year.
With the economic outlook highly uncertain, I could easily have thrown in the towel. But I am far from quitting. Let me explain why.
Growing up, I always thought I would take the conventional Singaporean path: Get a degree and find a corporate job.
My first foray into the social sector was completely accidental.
My friend Ryan, knowing I was more articulate, roped me in for a youth competition to pitch the idea of using dragon boating to combat discriminatory attitudes towards PWDs.
By a stroke of luck, we emerged as winners and walked away with a S$2,000 cash prize to start this project. This was October 2011, when ground up initiatives were not common.
Being 18 and clueless, I emailed 20 local disability organisations I found on Wikipedia. Three weeks later, the Singapore Association for the Deaf responded and we had our first dragon boat training with deaf paddlers on March 5, 2012.
The author teaching sign language during a dragon boat team-building event last year for participants from 50 universities across over 20 countries. Photo courtesy of Debra Lam
This soon grew to become Deaf Dragons, a competitive dragon boat team of deaf persons that participated in both local and international competitions. At its peak in 2014, there were 26 paddlers.
Having two brothers with autism, I was not blind to the stigma and lack of opportunities PWDs face on a regular basis. But it never occurred to me how I could bring about change, until my involvement with Deaf Dragons.
It was the little things that kept pricking at my consciousness. Our paddlers could not learn the land training exercises from YouTube because there was no closed captioning then.
Visually impaired individuals were turned away from public gyms. The list went on.
It was then that I decided to make it my life’s work to push the needle on inclusion of PWDs. And I knew Ryan felt the same.
So in 2015, with interest in Deaf Dragons waning, we wound it up and launched Society Staples instead to offer dragon boat team-building programmes to corporates and informal groups.
Both of us had no experience nor knowledge of running a business. Ryan was fresh out of national service and I was just starting university.
But we had interned at a team-building company and thought we could pull something off from our stint.
At one event, we arranged for our deaf paddlers, Daniel and Jimmy, to help with logistics. Ryan then had this brilliant idea of getting them to teach the alphabet in sign language.
The participants loved it and this has become part of our signature, distinguishing ourselves from other dragon boat companies while keeping true to our social mission of fostering inclusion.
We grew from strength to strength, mostly through word of mouth. In five years, over 20,000 people have participated in our programmes.
We have worked with the likes of DBS Bank and Sport Singapore, organising mass community events that brought together PWDs and the general public.
On the surface, the numbers may look impressive but that has never been our priority. Our motivation has always been improving the lives of PWDs by working with stakeholders in the people, public and private sectors.
This is why in the last year or so, we have been branching into training and consultancy to support the social sector in promoting inclusivity of PWDs and stepping up public engagement and community building.
My parents were initially hesitant in supporting what I do as they thought I would be better off finding a regular job when I graduated in 2018. But they soon grew supportive after attending our events and even helping out at some.
The last five years have been far from smooth, as I had to juggle my studies with running Society Staples. I constantly fall prey to imposter syndrome, questioning if our work is enough or right and whether we might be unconsciously creating more problems.
Being your own boss also means you have to worry about your own rice bowl and that of your colleagues, on top of other things such as the day-to-day operations and strategic planning to ensure that we stay relevant.
Because of Covid-19 and the uncertainty it brings, we have reviewed our plans at least five times in the last four months. We are fortunate in that we have some cash savings from past revenues to tide us through this difficult period.
To keep the business afloat, the entire team has agreed to take a 50 per cent pay cut for two months. This has been quite painful, especially when my salary is already much lower than an average fresh graduate’s pay to begin with.
But I remain optimistic about Society Staples and believe the tide will soon turn.
We struggled initially to shift our business online, and we have stayed positive and tried to innovate. We have since progressed well in our digital transformation and would soon be having online programmes and events which could help us generate revenue.
We have also applied for a couple of government grants for new projects. We are heartened that there are support platforms such as grants from the National Youth Council to enable businesses such as ours to explore new opportunities to help the community.
One thing we are proud of is an aggregator platform called sswithyou.sg that features six initiatives to address a range of community needs during the circuit breaker.
These include providing meals to underserved communities as well as resources on what to stay active at home. The platform is non-revenue generating but we launched it five days into the start of the circuit breaker given the urgency to help those in need.
This crisis has also given us the opportunity and space to think about the role we want and envision Society Staples to play in the ecosystem. What are the gaps that we can address? Where can we best position ourselves to create the most impact?
As we gain clarity of our answers to these questions, I remain hopeful that Society Staples will survive this crisis.
Covid-19 or not, running a social enterprise is no walk in the park. But it is something that I see myself doing in the long term.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Debra Lam, 27, graduated from Singapore University of Social Sciences, where she majored in psychology, with a minor in sociology. She is a co-founder of social enterprise Society Staples.
This article is written in partnership with the National Youth Council.
Related topicssocial enterprise disabilities inclusive
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