Making A Difference Through Social Entrepreneurship In Malaysia
Most of us want to make a difference in the world. This is not an idealistic claim – research suggests that people who help others live longer, happier, and healthier lives. But it can be a little intimidating. You may not know where to start or if the work you are doing is having an impact. It may even seem like too much effort.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go out of your way to make a difference. We chat with Debbie Choa from Projek57 about social entrepreneurship and how anyone can make a social impact.
From company law to social work
Today Choa is the executive director of Projek57; a social enterprise founded by her husband, Collin Swee, and longtime friend Syed Sadiq Albar.
But she was not always involved in social work. Prior to Projek57, she spent 15 years as a corporate lawyer.
“But something seemed to be missing,” Choa said. “You know, you end the year, and you’re like Yay! So you take a vacation in December, right? And then it’s like, oh no, January is starting! she said laughing. It was another cycle of reviewing budgets and finding clients. “It got very repetitive and didn’t seem useful to me.”
She started to think, “What can I do other than just help others earn money?”
This led to a pivot to social work. She began by volunteering with SHELTER Home, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps underprivileged children. She also organized a workshop which gave an entrepreneurial experience to disadvantaged adolescents.
Later, Choa became involved in the Organization of Entrepreneurs in Malaysia, her husband being a member. There, they were inspired by an impact investor who raised capital to invest in processing companies, one of which provides jobs and training to low-income women in Indonesia.
The Projek57 team wondered if a similar model could work in Malaysia. “We thought, oh wow, can we do something with that?” she says.
Create impact as a social enterprise
“We thought we could[sic] using our experience to create impact, but also using a business model, ”Choa said. In addition to his corporate experience, Syed Sadiq and Swee have also been business partners for nearly twenty years.
As a social enterprise, Projek57 is a business entity that focuses on using its profits to create positive social impact. This differs from charities or NGOs, which fund their causes through donations or fundraising. The social business model allows Projek57 to focus on its financial viability. “If we were an NGO, a lot of time would be spent fundraising,” Choa said.
Projek57 funds its causes by selling T-shirts and other wearable items that display patriotic messages. The designs are trendy and young – something you’ll gladly use for your next grocery store or your next visit to the mall. “We tried to bring ‘cool’ to patriotism,” she said.
In particular, Projek57’s Jalur Gemilang-inspired Unity ribbon was popular and sold around 260,000 Malaysians. Projek57 engages with Orang Asli youth and the underprivileged to produce these ribbons, while the profits from the sale of the merchandise go to empowering these communities. Since 2015, Projek57 and its partners have raised nearly RM300,000 for these groups.
Among the many people Projek57 has helped are Farah and Bella, sisters of the Jakun tribe. “[They are] very special to us, ”Choa said.
Farah wanted to go to college, but she didn’t have a SPM degree. Projek57 was able to engage with a community learning center and private tutor to help him study and sit for SPM. Today, she is in her first year of college.
On the other hand, Bella chose not to sit for her PMS. Choa, alongside a volunteer accountant, taught him administration and accounting. Bella now works with the Projek57 team as an administrative and accounting assistant.
Any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
“First, find a job,” she says.
She advises young people to learn as much as they can in their careers. The experiences you learn while working will come in handy whether you want to start an NGO or a social enterprise or work on something else. As you build your career, she suggests looking into an area of passion and seeing how you can start by volunteering there.
This advice comes from her personal experience, as the skills she uses in Projek57 were acquired during her legal career. “I’m just changing the subject,” she said.
Choa believes that businesses have a role to play in transforming society. “Sometimes you don’t even need to label it [as a social enterprise], “she says. For example, companies might hire underrepresented groups or include beneficial training programs.” You can start as a business and then put into operation. [the] community.”
Everyone can tell the difference
While the social business model is how Projek57 makes a difference, Choa doesn’t think you have to be a social entrepreneur to create meaningful change. “Don’t worry about having to do something big,” she says. She believes that anyone can make a difference, as long as they have the right frame of mind.
If you are passionate about something, volunteer or find something else you can do. You can also support or buy local businesses that create positive social impact.
“Just start wherever you are,” she says. “And oddly enough, there’s a bit of momentum going on. You will start to meet different people who are aligned with you. Your project and your collaborations can become something that will hopefully make a difference. “
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