Handbag business provides people with muscular dystrophy a purpose
It is more than just a product these businesses are selling, with items crafted by talented but disadvantaged communities. The New Paper speaks to three such businesses about the social cause behind their products
Running a retail business is challenging enough in Singapore, but for some, it is more than just the finished product that sets them apart.
More so than focusing on profit alone, these businesses seek to empower those in need by harnessing their talents.
Ms K.T. Soon, founder of Wise Enterprise, can attest to that.
The handbag retail business employs creative people suffering from muscular dystrophy as its bag designers.
"Many of them have nearly zero opportunities for employment due to their conditions," said Ms Soon.
The 51-year-old founded Wise Enterprise in 2014.
The designers, all from the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore, are trained under the direction of Ms Rina Khoo, the product design head.
Each bag takes six to nine months to come to fruition, from the first draft to the final product.
The designers are paid a regular design fee, as well as royalties for products sold.
Ms Soon feels the process gives them so much more than just financial support.
"We aim to dignify them with gainful employment rather than just meeting the basic needs that other charities focus on.
"It is about giving them the psychological need of being useful," said Ms Soon, who is also a psychologist.
"They are so proud of their designs. When they appear at roadshows, they make sure to dress their best."
Furthermore, the company also employs other disadvantaged people as its retail assistants, or what the company calls fashion consultants. These include people with hearing disabilities or mobility issues.
But the social impact of the business is not a selling point for them, Ms Soon emphasised.
"The leathers, fabrics and hardware we use are as good as the top brands."
Ms Soon said customers are often impressed by the thought put into the designs.
For instance, one bag can be converted from a work bag to an evening bag and to a shoulder bag.
"I am constantly being surprised by the level of creativity they have," she said.
"We don't want to focus on their disabilities, but their abilities instead."
Boheme Style Nomads empowers single mums with jewellery making
Ms Kim Ong, 58, knows how tough single mothers have it.
Growing up in a single parent family, Ms Ong told The New Paper how her mother would constantly have to work to support both her children and her parents.
"She didn't have time to be a mother and was almost a stranger to us," Ms Ong said.
"But she also didn't have another person around to shoulder the burden of supporting the family."
It took her many years in social work and volunteering, and Ms Ong, along with Ms Anisa Johnny, was finally able to give back to women in need when they founded the social business Boheme Style Nomads in 2012.
The business trains disadvantaged women, many of them single mothers, in jewellery making and sells the finished products. Forty per cent of the cost price is given to the women who assemble the jewellery.
Ms Ong has worked with more than 40 women with different issues - women with hearing impairments and mobility issues, and many single mothers with young children, or those without educational qualifications.
The co-founders want to offer women opportunities for a sustainable livelihood, when many of them would otherwise not be able to find employment.
One of them, who wanted to be known only as Lisa, has 10 children, and her family had been struggling financially as her husband suffers from a spinal injury.
But after she started work with Boheme Style Nomads, she discovered that she had a talent for jewellery making and now makes and sells her own jewellery.
With Ms Ong's help in creating an art portfolio, Lisa was even able to secure a job with the Ministry of Education as an art teacher in primary schools.
- EVAN SEE
Our Barehands helps craftsmen across the world
Some disadvantaged communities around the world do not receive the same levels of social support that First World countries can provide.
So Ms Germaine Lye, 28, aims to provide a First World network to them instead.
Ms Lye - along with Mr Mitchell Hong, 29, and Miss Chanel Go, 23 - founded lifestyle business Our Barehands, which collaborates with global communities with unique, creative skill sets.
For instance, it worked with an indigenous tribe from Colombia, where the skill of weaving is highly valued.
The collaboration has yielded a line of unique handwoven sling bags, each crafted by hand and taking three weeks to assemble.
The company makes sure discussions are made with the craftsmen to determine a meaningful sharing of revenue, and the items are sold on the company's online store.
Said Ms Lye: "We have met with communities without basic needs such as healthcare, clean water and food.
"Under these circumstances, it is unlikely for them to even think about starting a sustainable business."
Currently, Our Barehands is in contact with communities in India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Uganda, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
Ms Go said: "We can upskill them, provide designs for them, anything that can value-add to their craft."
Still, the team believes the company should be seen as more than its social cause.
Said Mr Hong: "We can't rely on 'sympathy' dollars. The offerings must be excellent, so that we can bring in recurring business.
"This way, we can create open, honest and lasting change in these communities."
- EVAN SEE