With International Women's Day 2021 coming up on March 8, let us take the opportunity to highlight and acknowledge the accomplishments of 3 female Social Entrepreneurs in Singapore who have made significant contributions to the community.
1. Michelle Lim
First and foremost, we have very very own awesome Michelle Lim, who's the Founder and CEO of both the reputable Chatsworth Medi@rt Academy’s M.A.D. School and the Social Enterprise which is also a Certified B Corporation, Make The Change.
Michelle was born and raised in Johor, Malaysia. Coming from a humble family background, Michelle's parents who were charcoal wholesalers encouraged her to work and study hard, otherwise she would have to endure a tough life like they did.
Michelle came to Singapore to study Economics at the Singapore Institute of Management, where she excelled in her studies and was able to land a cushy job as a trader at a top investment firm in Singapore. However, by her second day on the job, Michelle had pretty much decided that this career was not the life for her, and she left to pursue better career opportunities which were more suitable.
Eventually, in 2003, Michelle started Chatsworth Medi@rt Academy’s M. A.D. (Marketing, Advertising & Design) School, and dedicated herself to equipping students with real-world working experience and skills that meet current market demands. She hoped that by doing so, fewer graduates would face a mismatch in their careers like she did.
At M.A.D. School, industry players curate the syllabus, and students are taught only by current practitioners in the field so as to provide them with a realistic view of their future. This strategy appears to be effective. M.A.D. School is considered one of Singapore’s more avantgarde design institutions. Its students have bagged awards in the creative and design field, from Crowbars to Yellow Pencil accolades.
In late 2012, she initiated Make The Change - a social enterprise that engaging design students and gurus to help NGOs in creative execution for campaign or fundraising. In short 3 years, her MTC has helped 58 organisations in various type of marketing campaigns and design execution, 40 skilled-designers and directors were activated for pro-bono services.
As a self proclaimed CEO: Chief Everything Officer, Michelle continues to lead the M.A.D. and MTC family by example, strive in her personal mission to "Be the salt and the light of the world", and continue to leave a lasting impact in the community.
2. Elim Chew
Next, we have the venerable Elim Chew, Founder of Singapore's most popular and successful streetwear retail chain in the 90s and early 2000s, 77th Street.
While the 77th Street stores are no longer around these days, it appears that nothing can keep Elim's entrepreneurial spirit and zest for a challenge down. Despite knowing nothing about food and how to run an F&B business, she took a leap of faith and started I’m Kim Korean BBQ with the guidance of a Korean Chef.
After the success of her first F&B store, Elim never looked back and that led to the birth of I'm Kim Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu, Goro Goro Steamboat and Korean Buffet, and Captain Kim Korean BBQ and Hotpot. There is also a move into disruptive technology with Mr Adrian Ng from app development company Codigo, in the form of FastFast, an application which is the courier service equivalent of Uber.
A Social Enterprise champion, Elim hopes that FastFast, which has 1,000 drivers in its stable and another 1,000 on its waiting list, will give the retrenched, the retired and those who cannot make ends meet a chance to earn some extra income.
Elim also started ElimChewTV, her own YouTube channel in which she interviews men and women who are making a positive impact on society through the work they do. Through social media and other initiatives, she hopes to start a chain reaction of change, connecting these changemakers with those who can help them, those who will be inspired by them as well as those who will benefit from their efforts.
Elim started her foray into entrepreneurship with the retail chain known as 77th Street in 1988 when she got the idea for the business. Before that, she had studied at a hairdressing school in the UK, and later returned home to work as a hair stylist in Singapore where she even opened her own establishment, Elim Emmanuel Hair Beauty and Training Centre. She later sold it to focus on the 77th Street business.
Elim and her team were able to grow the business and take it to greater heights. At its peak, they had 16 stores around Singapore, and even had a 77th Street Plaza in a shopping mall in Beijing, China. The road to success wasn’t smooth, however. This time, they were disrupted by the rising price of rental, the lack of manpower, and e-commerce.
Eventually, due to all of those factors, Elim had to reluctantly close all of her 77th Street stores and leave the China market. Her next venture with her siblings was into the F&B business, which turned out to be a wise decision and is working pretty well after all.
Elim is very involved in philanthropy. It is, as she says, her "burden", a word she uses a lot.
She has a fundamental wish to impact and change lives. According to her, only when she does something to help is her burden able to be lifted. She also has a particularly soft spot for young people and has launched many initiatives to teach the young life skills, hone their entrepreneurial instincts and develop creativity.
A former director on the board of *Scape, a hangout for youth, Elim has launched two editions of My Voice (2004 and 2006) featuring the experiences of young people, written by youth from all walks of life. Proceeds went to various youth development programmes. A Forbes Philanthropy Hero 2010, she also helped to found PaTH (Pop and Talent Hub) at VivoCity, a space for individuals from marginalised groups to sell arts and handicrafts, as well as SIP (Social Innovation Park), an incubator for social enterprises.
Elim is also well known for giving generously to City Harvest Church, which she has attended for more than 20 years. To her, "Every country has its issues, its doers and the rich who can fund. I believe everyone can be a changemaker."
3. Hazel Kweh
Finally, we have Hazel Kweh, Founder of BloomBack, a Social Enterprise which has distributed repurposed flowers to patients at Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, National Centre for Infectious Diseases, and Banyan Home@Pelangi Village, among other NGOs.
BloomBack, which was started in 2017, uses beautifully preserved flowers in the crafting of gifts such as glass domes, jewellery boxes, and bag charms. By training and employing those from marginalised communities, including single mothers and persons with disabilities, and restoring their confidence and emotional well-being, Hazel hopes to help them feel more empowered.
When Coronavirus pandemic devastated the world, her company initiated a Bloom It Forward movement, whereby customers donated preserved flower buckets and rose soaps to more than 300 frontline healthcare workers, to cheer them up and encourage them to not give up.
Before starting BloomBack, Hazel was working as a highly successful Financial Adviser, and rapidly rising through the ranks after achieving the industry’s most coveted Million Dollar Round Table membership. However, she felt incomplete as she spent so much time and focus on building her career that ended up drifting apart from her family.
Hazel’s drive for success stemmed from growing up under challenging circumstances and in a dysfunctional family. Her mother not only had to provide for three young children but also pay off debts left by her father. To make ends meets, her mother took on multiple jobs, including helping out at a hawker stall and a provision shop.
Hazel’s elder sister, Faith, who struggled with hearing and partial visual impairment and couldn’t find a job due to her disabilities, suffered from depression. To escape the difficulties at home, her elder brother, Alan, got into bad company and was arrested for substance abuse. It affected her ability to trust people and to show them love without reservation. She thought that wealth would make her happy but she became a workaholic and suffered burnout instead.
The turning point and BloomBack's genesis came when Hazel and her sister attended a friend’s wedding, after which they repurposed flowers from the event into bouquets and gifted them to the lonely and needy elderly. The happy faces of the recipients made the siblings realise, despite their own difficulties, that they could help make a difference in others’ lives.
In Hazel's own words: “Running BloomBack made me stronger and trained my patience. It’s essential to work on what’s inside of me before I can take on bigger things in life. That’s why my favourite flower is the wildflower — it isn’t deliberately seeded but simply grows in the wild — because it symbolises resilience amid rest. And that reflects my attitude these days.”