An Ecosystem of Creating Social Change

By Rohini Anant

Three speakers from different vocational backgrounds shared their avenues of effecting social change at work, and the experiences they face while doing so.

Social changemakers in conversation. L to R: Lee Zhihan (entrepreneur), Joanna Hioe (Social Venture Lab @ NUS moderator), Jeanette Kwek (intrapreneur), Grace Koh (social worker)

On 15 February 2016, the Social Venture Lab @ NUS Enterprise showed us how one can turn dreams to serve the community into reality. Small Change Conversations: Change At Work created a platform for dialogue among three social change-makers across various fields of work — entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship (thinking and acting like an entrepreneur in a large company), and social work. While most of us are familiar with the latter, the first two were interesting possibilities that many were keen to find out more about.

On board to share their insights were three NUS alumni — social entrepreneur Mr. Lee Zhihan, CEO and co-founder of Philippines-based Bagosphere, intrapreneur Ms. Jeanette Kwek, Assistant Vice-President of DBS Foundation and Child Protection Senior Social Worker from HEART@Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre, Ms. Koh Shi En Grace.

One key takeaway from the session was the need to maintain an ecosystem of support for social change. The three speakers agreed that social enterprises, structural institutions like banks, and social workers needed to work together in order to provide holistic support for the underprivileged in society.

Plugging into a passionate community is important for any social innovator to start strong. Zhihan, an engineering graduate, stressed how important it is to associate with like-minded individuals to convert one’s seemingly idealistic dreams into reality. As Zhihan reminded us, however, no dream is smooth-sailing.

“ There’s this article that pictures an entrepreneur riding on a lion. Have you seen that article? …Everyone is looking at the entrepreneur on the lion thinking, ‘Wow, he’s so brave.’ But the entrepreneur riding on the lion thinks, ‘How will I not get eaten?’” — Lee Zhihan
Zhihan sharing the trials entrepreneurs face.

One of the challenges in the ecosystem is in having enough resources to go around. Any start-up will experience problems of impact investment and venture funding, Zhihan said. Jeanette concurred. The former business administration major, who now uses her training to support businesses with a heart, shared that her biggest concern at work was not being able to support every social enterprise that sought grant funding. Clearly, the path to social change is not all that rosy. What gives successful changemakers their staying power?

Sincerity, said Jeanette. Sincerity is the basic requirement she looks out for when choosing which social enterprise to support. Those who genuinely want to effect change — beyond seeking possibilities of monetary support — will stay on the difficult path of social entrepreneurship in the long haul.

“I have seen many people who want to be social entrepreneurs…At the end of the day it’s about sincerity. The ones who are sincere are the ones who persist in the long run.” — Jeanette Kwek

Persistence is the key ingredient for success, added Grace, whose commitment to her role has carried her far beyond the youthful idealism that led her to major in social work at university. Given the repeated rejections social workers face on a daily basis, it is passion in serving others that enables you to persevere, she said. No matter what role one plays in the ecosystem, it is the ability to care deeply for those one helps that brings the tenacity to keep at it.

“My friend has a picture of what it’s like to be a social worker — she says it’s like opening the door, meeting someone for the first time (a client that doesn’t want to be helped), and having mud slung at you…but allowing that to slide off, and try again.” — Grace Koh
Curious social work students connecting with Grace.

Hearing such inspiring stories stirred change in the cosy Venture Lab, the N-House basement where the session was held. Audience members stayed behind for a good half an hour after the talk to engage personally with the panel in order to glean more advice on their personal endeavours. It was heart-warming to see veterans and newcomers in the field coming together because of one shared goal — the desire to erase the injustice prevalent in society.

Perhaps it is conversations like these, which bridge people of diverse backgrounds in the ecosystem, where the work for social change begins — together.

Many different types of work, one vision for social change.
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