In this week’s Community Feature, we speak to Russ Neu, the CEO and Founder of The Social Collider, a co-working and co-innovation community striving to support social enterprises in Singapore.
Who are you and what do you do?
The Social Collider is an aggregator of resources, as well as a network for social enterprises. We provide a co-working space, collaborate with different partners and engage in co-innovation. Right now, there are 23 social enterprises housed within Social Collider and they range from healthcare and wellness to e-commerce. I think this reflects what the Singapore population as we edge towards an ageing population. To me, it’s a reminder that people do care about society and try to build a win-win relationship between society and business.
What are some startups you are housing that is noteworthy?
There are some that have gotten quite a bit of attraction. One of that is SGAssist. It is an emergency responder app and they just pitched at StartupX Google. They didn’t win but from my understanding, there was a lot of interest from the investors in this particular app because it is one of the first in Singapore and probably around the region. Another is Age Gracefully Shop, which designs and makes products for the elderly. The founder, Lee Tuan, has won many awards for his well-designed walking canes.
As social entrepreneurs do not normally aim for big profit margins, how does Social Collider sustain its business?
Just to give a quick understanding, there are three angles to a social enterprise; the first is Ploughback. You plough minimally 20% of your profits to a cause that you believe in, whether it is the disabled, single parents or elderly. The second is through the provision of employment. One key example would be Eighteen Chefs through the hiring of ex-offenders. Finally, the last one is the provision of services to the disadvantaged community. If you look at these three models, any kind of startup can have a social angle. I think most of them will go through the provision of employment which I think is very sustainable and there are many intangible benefits such as emotional well-being. If you look at our social enterprises here, they face very similar issues to other startups. Of course, there’s also the added element of trying to meet the needs of society. So how do we try to balance the two? A lot of times, it’s through bootstrapping. We have a Social Collider Academy. This is our plough back model because if you look at the space here, we charge a very preferential rate to our social enterprises because we really want to help them scale. However, that itself is not sustainable so the plough back model is where we try to find other avenues of revenue generation.
How did your interest in social entrepreneurship start?
The idea sparked when I was in Laos. You will see many companies that are really trying to impact society but at the same time, trying to be sustainable. It’s not the conventional mindset of businesses where they are all out to cut corners. It’s really about meeting the needs of society and being sustainable. When I was in China, my thesis was on social entrepreneurship. I went to visit a lot of places and one of it that really inspired me is this charity known as Chi Heng Foundation. Chi Heng Foundation was founded by this Hong Kong American, who was an investment banker but he gave it all up when he heard about the AIDS orphans in China. There was an AIDS epidemic in China and either their parents have died of AIDS or the kids themselves are HIV positive. The reason why there was such a rampant spread was because of the plasma economy. In the mid-90s, many pharmaceutical companies went to China to buy blood. The villagers couldn’t wait to sell their blood because a pint of blood would get them about 20 Singapore dollars that made up 20% of their salary. I went to the AIDS villages and I spoke to the beneficiaries. If I were to use a proverb, “Give a man a fish, you feed the person a day. If you teach a person to fish, you feed him for life.” However, feeding for life doesn’t mean they can get off poverty. At Social Collider, we envision to be the third level. We are the platform for people to sell the fish, so we connect with different sources and try to scale up social enterprises. Back in Singapore, I was a teacher for 10 years. I remember there was a student, she would be on MC for long periods of time. When I visited her house, I asked her mum, “Why don’t you just take her to the doctor?”. She replied that it was a bit expensive despite polyclinics being quite affordable. Half a year later, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and one year later, she died. Such things are happening here but we don’t see it because it’s not so rampant. Nevertheless, it always got me thinking that if they had the opportunity to make a bit more money, maybe the girl will be still around. That was how I began to see things in a different light. We can work in corporations and chase after the dollars, but nonetheless is there something more that we can do? Can we strike a balance between making money and giving back to society? You can still live well while running a social enterprise, let’s try to change the mindset. Also, the government and schools have been very supportive. I think they have increasingly realised that there is a possible way to meet the needs of society and at the same time be sustainable.
Do you any examples of corporates doing social enterprise?
One key example is the Grameen Bank. I was fortunate to meet one of the co-founders. The bank was started in Bangladesh in the ’60s and they call it the bank for the poor. It is estimated that more than 100 million people have been lifted out of poverty because of this bank.
At the previous company I was working in, Flex Electronics, one of the key policies that I am proud to have pushed out was to hire people with disabilities. From less than 10 in the Zhuhai campus when I first joined, there were about 350 of them last year when I left. However, they are not counted as a social enterprise because it requires 30-40% of the staff to be from the community. Nevertheless, I think it’s great. They don’t have to rely on government handouts and gain independence.
What is your partnership with Quest Ventures?
Quest Ventures has been very supportive in terms of mentorship, investments and connecting us with partners in the region. They recently set up an Environment Social and Governance (ESG) arm that looks specifically into impact investments. I think it’s great that our managing partner believes in giving back through investments as well.
Do you have any call-to-actions?
Always buy responsibly. Also, I wrote a book last year. It is based on the Chi Heng Foundation that I spoke about and it’s called, ‘It Made A Difference To This One’. Do not think that our actions have no impact, no matter how small. Even ripples cause waves. With collective efforts, we can definitely make the world a slightly better place. I won’t say that it will be an immediate change but small efforts such as cutting out plastic straws and buying responsible things, do have ripple effects. We can’t see it but it makes a difference to someone.
Watch the full video interview with The Social Collider here:
For startup updates straight to your inbox, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.