The Social Space is Singapore’s socially conscious retail space. Owner Cheryl Ou explains how she realised her vision of a multi-concept store that provides employment opportunities for those who really need them.
The whole concept of ‘social enterprise’ is a relatively new idea in Singapore. According to The Singapore Center for Social Enterprise (raiSE), the movement only really started gaining traction in the early 2000s thanks to the establishment of the ComCare Enterprise Fund, which was set up to provide seed funding to aspiring social entrepreneurs. Still, despite its short history, the number of businesses with their roots in this idea has increased exponentially. One of the companies integral to this new wave of businesses is The Social Space – a retail space taking in a cafe, refillery, florist and nail salon founded by couple Cheryl Ou and Daniel Yeow.
Cheryl has been a part of the social enterprise scene for 5 years. “I started The Nail Social, Singapore’s first nail salon and social enterprise in 2014. We provided vocational training programmes for underprivileged women – single mothers, ex-offenders, addicts, with retail space at the salon to showcase fair trade products. About two years ago, I decided to do something a bit different. I wanted to create more generic opportunities for people who are looking for work as not everyone wants to be a manicurist, and I also wanted to create a bigger retail space to showcase products that are socially conscious, well-made and can contribute to a good cause.”
After nailing down her idea, Cheryl looked for a partner to work with. “At that point, I was working with another partner who pulled out at the last minute. I was ready to give up, however, my husband encouraged me to continue’,” she says. “Coincidentally, he was looking for opportunities on how to give back at the time. We were living in Bali then. Walking along the beach there, we would always step on plastic straws, bottles and garbage. It is so in your face, you cannot really ignore it. We have become more eco-conscious as a result and been a part of the eco-friendly movement ever since.” And so they joined forces.
As a social enterprise, the most important component of The Social Space is its people. “We are one of the few social enterprises that do not focus on a particular category of beneficiaries, we open ourselves up to anybody who is capable. Our staff right now comprises of people with special needs and disabilities and we continue to hire disadvantaged women. The opportunity definitely helps them get out of their own world and be more independent.”
On the product and services side, it’s all geared to encourage people to change their mindsets. “One of the goals of The Social Space is to encourage customers to be more conscious in their day to day decisions. We want to let people know that you can create a positive impact by doing the simplest things.” To make sure that every single item they sell does indeed have a positive impact, Cheryl has to consider her suppliers very carefully. As well as their cafe serving up healthy food, they have a refillery selling household and personal cleaning products and stock a wide range of household and lifestyle items. “We ask a lot of questions about the brands we work with. If possible, we visit their factories. We visited our tea supplier in Sri Lanka, and several workshops in India, Cambodia and Bali. Our customers also recommend their trusted brands to us, so we are crowdsourcing great products from different places.”
Managing a multi-concept space with staff from different backgrounds is not an easy task. “We have staff who don’t show up for work, some have even been arrested outside the shop. When issues like these occur, we determine whether it’s a circumstantial issue which is beyond the person’s control, in which case we will always do our best to help them deal with it. As employers, we are very involved. We have helped our staff write to lawyers, speak to loan sharks, you name it. It’s tough, but you can also see the difference that we make, which truly makes it all worthwhile.” Worthwhile for their employees, their customers and for them, as they grow a business with its roots in doing the best for all involved.