Leona Leong, a former air stewardess who traveled the world and has now landed back in Singapore, is the founder of Singaporean social enterprise Aii. Aii, meaning “love” in Chinese, is a confectionary store that sells candies, chocolates, gift creations, and food and candy tables for corporate events, weddings, or other special occasion. What makes them a social enterprise is their mission to give an opportunity for the deaf to play a role in society through employment, not unlike Mirakle Couriers, a courier service in India that employs the deaf.
Leong is a university dropout who just “could not sit still” for lessons and was not able to secure a job interview after she left her job as an air stewardess. She decided if she did not help herself, no one would, and realized an opportunity to start the candy business as a way to give marginalized members of society the opportunity to prove themselves, as she could relate to what it feels like to not get a chance.
Leong says that the deaf have a hard time finding jobs in Singapore due to discrimination but her employees enjoy their jobs because of the opportunities it gives them. She emphasizes treating her employees the same, offering the same starting pay as any able-bodied person. Employees would earn an hourly wage between $5-8 and take home $600 to $1000 a month. If they make mistakes, they will not get pity or special treatment either, but will get reprimanded. At the beginning she would communicate by writing and text messages with her employees, but she has started to learn sign language as well. Leong was introduced to her staff by the Singapore Association for the Deaf.
Increasingly, Singapore is offering a wide range of support to social entrepreneurs. Most recently, President Tony Tan made a public appearance to show his praise for social enterprises. The ComCare Enterprise Fund by the government offers seed funding to new and existing social enterprises that help the disadvantaged. The amounts typically range between $100,000 to $150,000 per enterprise.
Under a Social Enterprise Package by DBS Bank, social enterprises can open a corporate current account with no minimum deposit or minimum balance requirement, which was previously $5,000. In comparison, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have to maintain a balance of $10,000 in their accounts. Social enterprises are also given low-interest rate bank loans at 5 percent per year as oppose to the 8 percent for microcredit or 12.8 percent charged to the smallest of SMEs. This business strategy makes sense for DBS, who can turn profit in the future if it successfully helps social enterprises grow. According to The Straits Times, about 80 percent of social enterprises in Singapore already bank with DBS, including Aii.
The candy business, with start-up costs of $2,000, has succeeded to break even in its second month of operations and turned a profit in its third. Leong tells Channel New Asia, “Profitability is very important. I always believe that prosperity comes first before we can help other people. Money has to come into the company before we can actually plough this money back.”
Photo from Aii.
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