Debra Lam, Co-founder of Society Staples — Making Waves of Change

Debra Lam, co-founder of Society Staples, shares how she navigates the choppy waters of improving society through entrepreneurship.

Debra Lam, speaking at NUS Enterprise’s Small Change Festival 2015

Beneath Debra Lam’s small stature lies a big personality, and maturity beyond her 23 years of age.

Growing up in Singapore, Debra was keenly aware of the differences in opportunities she had compared to her two autistic brothers. This forged in her an iron determination to help Singapore become a society where her brothers, and other persons with disabilities, are part of the mainstream — the staple. Thus, Society Staples was born.

A former national dragon boater, Debra used what she loved and did best — dragon boating — to help make Singapore become a more inclusive society. In 2012, she co-founded Deaf Dragons with Ryan Ng, 25, a dragon boat team for persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. This evolved into the social enterprise that Society Staples is today.

Breaking the Mould

How does Debra feel about choosing an alternative path to the Singapore dream?

Doing something out of the norm is brimming full of question marks, accompanied by judgment from everyone around you.”

Society Staples’ pioneering approach to promoting social inclusion in Singapore has led to them do many unorthodox things, from starting up Society Staples, to organising Strongman bootcamps for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), to getting deaf facilitators to teach at team building workshops and events. It was scary at the start, Debra admitted — and “still very much is now”.

However, Debra has come to accept, even embrace, this uncertainty. “I have managed somehow to sit with that discomfort,” she observed. Once you get used to being uncomfortable, and facing the judgments of those around you, it boils down to you learning how to manage, answer or ignore the criticisms you give yourself, she said. These may be the hardest and most horrifying ones to tackle of all.

Starting out as a young entrepreneur in Singapore — and in Asia — poses another unique challenge: parents. Debra, too, had to pass through a path of working through her mother’s reaction to her unconventional career choice. In the early stages of Society Staples, she disclosed only parts of her dragon boating adventures to her mother. She told AsiaOne Women, “I didn’t know how to broach the topic of these projects. I was afraid of failure. If they didn’t work out well, I thought mum would focus even more on my academic studies.” However, upon witnessing the difference Society Staples made to PwDs at a circuit fitness event attended by 100 participants, Debra’s mother, Ms. Lilian Liew, changed her mind. Ms. Liew was proud of her what her daughter had achieved — things far beyond what others her age would.

Breaking away from societal and family norms may prove difficult at first, but as Debra’s story shows, it is possible.

“I have zero traits of an entrepreneur.”

Watching Debra in action, one would imagine that she was born a passionate entrepreneur. But things were not always this way. “I never once thought I could do anything for (my brothers),” she told The Asian Entrepreneur. “I simply thought things would always be the way they were. I was a pretty materialistic kid, so being in the social sector was never an option.”

Debra briefing international participants of the NUS Enterprise Summer Programme on what to expect from a Society Staples dragonboat experience

However, being roped into Deaf Dragons by co-founder Ryan changed everything. “I have zero traits of an entrepreneur,” Debra reflected. “I love structures, details and being organised, none of which the role as a social entrepreneur or co-founder brings me.”

It took the visionary Ryan to bring out the best in her. Ryan, Society Staples’ “brain”, is ever ready to contribute bold, creative ideas, embrace risks, and fearlessly ask why Society Staples undertakes any major decision. Debra’s gifts enable her to act as the company’s “hands and legs”, building inroads into his lofty visions. Together, they make a formidable team. When seeking a co-founder, find a person who can complement your shortcomings, Debra noted.

Two better than one

It is also crucial that your co-founder shares the same vision and commitment to your cause, Debra said. When the rubber hits the road, it is important to have people you can trust standing with you. “Maybe we can do this alone,” Ryan observed, “But with each other, we will love doing the journey.”

Entrepreneurship is not a journey to be taken alone. As an entrepreneur, you get handled “a lot of curve balls”, Debra explained. “Your emotions and motivation levels are never stable”. On good days, “when all the stars are aligned”, you feel “super energised and empowered, bursting with ideas to solve all the problems you see,” she said. On not-so-good ones, you may find yourself overwhelmed by large complex problems, and asking if your organisation is making a difference. When your company is aspiring to make the greatest impact possible, having the right partners who believe in the dream as much as you do is essential.

Debra with co-founder Ryan Ng at the President’s Challenge Networking Dinner (Photo Credit: Debra Lam)

The dream…

“You are not required to finish your work, yet neither permit to desist from it,” Debra said, quoting The Thought Collective’s co-founder and director Kuik Shiao-Yin’s speech at the Societal Leadership Summit 2016. Solving social problems is an extremely long process, she noted, because the change you seek to make may be beyond your lifetime.

Ultimately, Debra dreams of a world where Society Staples is closed down, because persons with disabilities have become fully integrated, and included, in all spheres of everyday life.

In the meantime, the ambitious co-founder aspires for Society Staples to lead change in the field, and to scale up by putting in processes to improve productivity, and ensure the team delivers programmes and events to the highest standards — until the day comes to hand the work over to someone else.

More advice for young entrepreneurs…

1. Know your audience. Stay close to the ground, advises Debra. Talk to all stakeholders, remove your tinted lenses that shape your perspectives, and never assume. She warned, “You have not been in their shoes long enough to understand their struggles.”

2. Be authentic in communications. In serving your target group, it is important to leave your ego at the door. Transparency is important in communications with those you serve — even when you have failed. “Do not be afraid to admit how you have failed, always check back with your stakeholders on pointers for improvement and how you can serve them better,” she said.

3. Ignore the critics who try to put you down. When should you pivot or persevere? Faced with this scenario multiple times, you develop this ‘sixth sense’ that can help you make a decision. She recommended that entrepreneurs question and analyse why the other group is saying no. “I have come to learn that 99% of the people are going to tell you ‘no’ so you have to distinguish between people who are saying that to put you down or because the landscape and factors needed to make that idea work is not ready.” However, she added,

“Sometimes we all need to be rebellious to pilot something radical.”

Gain all the insights and knowledge you need from these stakeholders and then pivot or persevere if you have done enough research to be certain that your idea will work, she encouraged.

On the other hand, circumstances may not yet be ripe for a radical idea. For example, if Singapore was to talk about promoting inclusion 20 years ago, Society Staples would probably have failed in her first six months, as it was “just not ready for such things”.

Educators, you can get involved too!

Schools have an important role to play in developing an entrepreneurial mindset too, Debra noted. The payoffs and values learnt — critical thinking, ability to innovate, problem find and problem solve, standing up again after failure — will last a lifetime, Debra told the audience at an EduTECH Asia conference. “These skills are also widely appreciated by future employers and will make the students more industry ready,” she said.

How to get involved as a Society Staples intern / volunteer…

Minimum time commitment: 3 months (short-term). Long-term part-time options are also available (e.g. 2 days a week, open date)

If interested, email your CV to hello@societystaples.com.sg

Own Time Own Target roles

  • Workshop facilitator
  • Blog Writer
  • Copywriter for Website

Part-Time/Intern

1. Systems Creation

Help Society Staples to evaluate their systems and procedures in running the business, and think of strategies to streamline the process so that the company can be more efficient.

2. Marketing

  • Manage social media handles
  • Run outreach events in the form of pop up booths etc.
  • Conceptualise and execute marketing campaigns with intended objectives, and form partnerships with brands/events to strengthen Society Staples’ market presence

3. Sales

  • Go to GeBiz to scout for leads
  • Meet with clients to sell their services
  • Prepare proposals and presentations

4. Product/Service Development

Take ownership and work on the new ideas Society Staples is embarking on/experimenting with and report progress weekly, guided and supervised by Ryan and Debra.

(This effectively means you will be running a small business, doing everything from needs assessment, R&D, pilot test, pivoting etc.)

Ideas include:

  • Inclusive School Program SS Academy
  • Mobile Activity Café
  • One Week Challenges

5. Program Creation

  • Design and brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects like social entrepreneurship bootcamps, etc.
  • Draft proposals and pitching to clients/partners

Follow Society Staples online…

Website / Facebook / Instagram

Email: hello@societystaples.com.sg

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Ready to develop your social enterprise idea?

If you are seeking support for your social enterprise idea, NUS Enterprise has a host of events and funding opportunities to equip you on your journey.

One such programme is the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, where Society Staples emerged as a raiSE grant awardee in 2015, receiving SGD$25,000. Take part and stand a chance to grow your innovative, scalable solution with sustainable impact.

Another programme is the NUS Enterprise Start-Up Runway, which supports start-ups at any point of your entrepreneurial journey.

More information on the Social Venture Lab @ NUS is available at our website.