Some entrepreneurs are motivated by profit. Others, by the pure challenge of creating a business from scratch, and being handsomely rewarded. For Cheryl, who has done 6 start-ups and sold 2 of them, her 7th start-up began when challenged to solve a distribution problem faced by social enterprises.
So, what exactly makes her tick? We sat down with her to find out more.
What were your previous startups about?
“I’ve started businesses before. Sold two and closed down three. So I have gone through the gamut of challenges that came from starting a business from scratch and selling it off, and going through the pain of closing businesses because they were not profitable. So, starting my seventh one was not an easy decision.” …
So why do it?
“My past businesses were what I wanted to build for myself. But in this season of my life, I wanted to do something that is socially and spiritually meaningful.”
Tell us how the idea came about.
“Six years back, I bought some hand-made cards from a Thai pastor. They were made by HIV-infected, former prostitutes who were thrown out of brothels in Chiang Mai. I was moved. How low can one sink? The church took in the homeless ladies, rehabilitated them and taught them useful skills to start their lives afresh.
I wondered how I could get more of her greeting cards. Should I email her? Do I have to queue at the bank to send money? What a hassle!
In October 2014, I was selling pressed flower calendars to raise money for a social project to help liberate child slaves. A few customers commented that they had bought the calendars before and really liked them, but did not know where to buy them again until I came along. Later, a lady asked if she could put a few sets of animal hand puppets on my table for sale. Apparently, her friend started a sewing project for impoverished women in Sulawesi to make those hand puppets for sale.
It dawned on me that there was a major distribution issue. There are many kind social entrepreneurs in rural communities trying to create livelihood for the needy. Their hearts desire to restore dignity to the needy, and not perpetuate a beggar’s mentality through handouts. However, if these goods are not easily available to shoppers, then there is clearly a big distribution problem that needs to be solved.
So I thought, if we have a global marketplace like a website, I can shop anytime I want, wherever I am. Perhaps e-commerce can enable such social enterprises to be sustainable.
From left: Founders David, Kwok Shong, Eric, Cheryl, Rachel and Desmond
I pondered over the idea for many months. The burden just grew heavier. Then I shared this idea with a few friends and got their support. I then decided to take on this project although it could be extremely challenging.”
How is ACTSmarket different from other online marketplaces?
“Unlike other online marketplaces, we only accept vendors who are social enterprises, charities and VWOs. ACTSmarket is about making social impact. So we only partner with those who are committed to serving the disabled, poor and needy. Our customers can enjoy unique, handmade, limited-edition products at reasonable prices; and have the satisfaction that they are helping someone needy make an honest living.”
Have you made any personal sacrifices in starting ACTSmarket?
“Money, of course! (laughs) There are so many risks involved in e-commerce start-ups. My husband and i provided the initial capital, and we didn't expect any return on investment.
My second sacrifice is time. Launching a start-up takes long hours of hard work and I have sacrificed family time and leisure.
It's not easy to find well designed and well made artisanal crafts produced by disabled and needy communities. We had to work with these communities to develop new brands and products that will appeal internationally.
Generally, many social enterprises are small and run by individuals with no or little business experience. So they face huge struggles in every aspect of running a business, building economies of scale and working with beneficiaries who cannot work at the same level of productivity as fit and better educated workers.
Thirdly, for ACTSmarket, it's challenging to find competent people who share the same mission, vision and heart for this work. I mean everyone knows that when we do a start-up, we are entering uncharted waters. So I have to look for those whose heart can resonate with our vision and mission, but are also adaptable and flexible to changes.”
Where do you see ACTSmarket in 3 years?
“It would be great to see a global and active network of people groups and organisations – an ACTS community – connecting and collaborating to make this world a fairer and better place for all. I am such an idealist! (laughs). Truly, I believe we can retain our ideals and yet be practical in living out our ideals.
ACTSmarket is just the platform for the ACTS Community to come together to trade, exchange info and ideas, and to have better access to talents and resources.”
How do you think you can fulfil the vision of the ACTS Community?
“Collaboration! Most definitely.
This is a huge and challenging vision and it will take different communities of people to build a global ACTS community. The ACTS community should grow organically, with catalysts like the ACTSmarket team. Each of us offers different talents and gifts. For example, the charities and NGOs are good with implementing social programmes that take care of the welfare and health of the needy. The social entrepreneurs are the ones equipping the needy with skill-sets and run the business. ACTSmarket is strong in branding, product development and mobilization. So ACTSmarket will work with diverse community groups to build capacity in marketing, sales and operations, to build economies of scale for all.
We also hope to mobilise volunteers. Who knows? If you are good with designing jewellery or crafts, you can volunteer your talent. We can help mobilise people through our platform to come together and collaborate with the goals of empowering the needy, doing social justice and making the world a better place.
How can a social enterprise balance serving the needy and being profitable?
“A social enterprise must be profitable in the long term or the social impact it desires to do will not be sustainable. The mission of every business is to meet human needs and doing these in ways that create employment, release creativity, drive innovation, increase resources and wealth. Meeting human needs should be its reason for existence. However, profitability is necessary to continue serving consumers. So a social entrepreneur must learn and apply good business practices and disciplines as he serves.
ACTSmarket is a non-profit social enterprise, serving other social enterprises. By partnering with them, we are also serving the needy people.”
What motivates you or keeps you going?
“I am gratified when I see breakthroughs in people’s lives and they are transformed for the better. And if a few come back and give me a sincere ‘thank you’, that’s icing on the cake.
Deep down, it’s the steadfast love of God that I have experienced in my life that motivates me most. I am not gifted with a huge amount of patience to do what the NGOs and social entrepreneurs do in serving the disabled and needy communities. But I am willing to offer my talents and experience in business to enable them.”
You are already a veteran in business. So what would your advice be to young aspiring social entrepreneurs who may be struggling between life practicalities and passion?
“If they can find work or a social cause that puts their talents and passion to meaningful use and yet make money, that will be fantastic! Ultimately, no matter what work you do, no experience is wasted.”
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