Despite gunpoint robbery, Singaporean continues social enterprise in Central America
A publication by Singapore International Foundation, recently featured S'poreans who became social entrepreneurs overseas to help the less fortunate around them. We speak to one who went to Guatemala to study Spanish and stayed to open bakery & restaurant.
In June last year, the Guatemalan bakery that she co-owns with a partner was held up at gunpoint.
Two months later, another of her businesses, a restaurant that serves Asian cuisine, was burgled.
Despite the dangers of running businesses in Guatemala, which the United States Department of State says has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America, social entrepreneur Denise Lim, 29, remains unfazed.
"When my restaurant was burgled, I felt rage at the delinquents taking advantage of hard-working people like me who kill ourselves to build something up and have our efforts taken away," said Miss Lim, who employs at-risk youths and single mothers at her businesses.
"It took three months of my profits to secure the place and replace what was stolen. I still get afraid whenever I enter my restaurant when we are closed.
"But I figured that this was a common occurrence in any place other than Singapore and that I have to learn to live with it and get better at prevention."
Becoming a business owner in a foreign country came almost by accident for Miss Lim.
In 2011, she quit her consulting job in Singapore to travel around Central America with the aim of picking up Spanish and learning about different social businesses.
When she arrived in Guatemala in June 2011, the plan was to stay just long enough to take Spanish lessons.
She ended up living there for more than four years.
"Initially, I just wanted to stay in Quetzaltenango - the city in Guatemala that I live in - a while longer to focus on my Spanish and personal development," said Miss Lim, who is not married.
"It was after being there for a year that I realised it might be a good place for me to try setting up a business.
"There is always a flow of foreigners coming to learn Spanish, expats living and working in NGOs, as well as a huge local population," she said.
Miss Lim's businesses focus on training and imparting life skills to at-risk groups like the youth and single mothers.
She hires young people with little experience and trains them in cooking and baking.
She also tries to use these businesses as a medium for social purposes.
For example, her bakery, Mandarina, which she started with a local partner, sells food and desserts with a healthy twist, providing gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free options.
This year, Miss Lim intends to work with a group of women with diabetes and hypertension, as well as mothers with malnourished children, to give them cooking and baking classes focused on nutrition, by working with non-governmental organisations.
She said: "I believe that we all have a responsibility to give back to society and the only sustainable way we can achieve that is by linking financial gain to social gain.
"I want to find a way where we can do both: make a good living and have a positive social impact."
She has also started Rent A Language Teacher.com, an online platform that provides Spanish students with free Spanish resources and affordable Spanish lessons via Skype.
It is this passion for helping others that keeps her going, despite the risks of living and working in a country known for its high crime rate.
"I did consider closing the restaurant down after the robbery but decided against it because it seemed like a waste, throwing away three years of hard work for one bad experience," she said.
Her sister, Ms Janice Lim, 27, a marketing and communications executive who lives in Perth, said: "The robbery and burglary were quite shocking for our family, knowing my own sister was so close to danger. Our mother went into full panic mode, of course, and demanded for my sister to come home.
"But we remain supportive, because we have no choice in the matter. Denise will follow her own instincts and no one can tell her otherwise.
"Also, she is clearly capable and has worked hard enough to have her family trust in her judgment.
"She's doing more there than running a business, she's helping people as well, which is a beautiful thing to be doing."
Living in Guatemala has brought Miss Denise Lim more than just lessons in different social business models, but life lessons as well.
"Life is more than being successful financially. I live a happy, full, and healthy life, earning a tenth of what I used to earn in Singapore and spending almost nothing.
"Another lesson I've learnt is not to let the fear of failure stop me. There is always a way and a solution to a problem.
"Humans are adaptable. We can learn to live and build a life anywhere, as long as we are motivated to do so."
I believe that we all have a responsibility to give back to society and the only sustainable way we can achieve that is by linking financial gain to social gain.
- Social entrepreneur Denise Lim