In the second part of our special feature on social enterprises run by female Singaporean entrepreneurs, we speak to a young lady whose online shopping platform enables women from developing countries make a living with their crafting skills.
Rachel Lin, matcha5.com
What made you want to start matcha5?
I came from a low-income family myself. During my junior college days, my form teacher and my friend actually helped pay off my school fees. In 2008 during my university days, I was in impoverished Tala, Philippines on an overseas volunteer trip. What left the deepest impression on me was a group of women who were relatives of lepers making very beautiful and unique reversible dolls, but could not do much to help as there was a lack of market access and hence no demand for the dolls.
I felt thankful to be born in a nation that provided me with opportunities to be where I am today. It is thus my desire to use my skill sets to empower the less advantaged to have a sustainable livelihood.
When I graduated from university, I embarked on my career to acquire skill-sets and experiences that can bring me to my dream of helping lift poverty through sustainable businesses. I ventured into FMCG retail market research, business development and corporate strategy in the first 4 years of my career life. While analysing the state of the world and the underlying stories that play out on the big picture level, a part of me was searching for the places my personal strengths and passions could bring about an impact to the poor. matcha5 became the intersection point for me which keeps me alive and allows me to contribute to society in a meaningful manner.
I don’t think I would have become an entrepreneur if not for matcha5!
How does matcha5 contribute to social causes?
Matcha5 offers training and an online marketplace to marginalised artisans from Cambodia to Peru, so they can set up and manage their own e-store, build a sustainable business in the long run, and better the lives of their communities.
In Asia, there are limited avenues to buy social-conscious products. Many people still hold the perception that such purchases are “charitable” and would only purchase once in awhile because the products are “ugly-looking”. We put great efforts into product curation and working closely with the marginalised artisans product designs, in order to provide a consolidated online retail platform for customers to shop for unique and stylish products that go towards sustaining livelihoods of the marginalised. We also partner with fashion influencers to style the handmade products by marginalised artisans, to drive the awareness that socially conscious products can be stylish and functional for everyday use!
At the same time, we connect our retail customers directly to the marginalised artisan vendors, bypassing middlemen such as wholesalers in the typical retail chain. This ensures that bulk of the margin 70% – 85%of the retail selling price goes back to the artisans and their communities.
How many women has your company helped?
We currently have 18 marginalised artisan groups from Nepal, Africa, Philippines, Cambodia, India and Singapore on board our platform. Typically, marginalised artisan groups work in small groups of women of about 3 to 10. Last year, with orders put through matcha5, we maxed out the capacity for 3 full-time low-income mothers and 2 part-time low-income mothers from one of our artisan vendor Mori Notes till end of the year.
What are 3 things people don’t know about running a social enterprise?
1) Balancing business profits and social impact is an art
To me, balancing business profit and social impact is an art. From a strictly business point of view, if a corporation is not the most cost-effective, then it might be wiser to cease its operations. But the social impact is equally important to us. Many of our marginalised women handmake items in small co-operatives. We cannot compete with machine-made products. Also, some of them may not be the most efficient and skilled worker even after training.
For example, a young lady I know is disabled and slow in her hand movements and when trained to make mini clay trinkets, she is relatively much slower. But the satisfaction gleaming on her face when she completes one really touches one’s heart! The job allows her to raise her self-esteem, knowing that she is able to create something beautiful. In terms of efficiency, it is not going to be cost-effective for a business. I think it requires first and foremost compassion, but also integrity and wisdom.
Even within social enterprises, the definition of “social entrepreneurship” can be ambiguous. There are social enterprises who sell machine-made items (which have significantly lower costs) and donate a portion of their proceeds to charity. It is not definitely not wrong, just different way of doing good. To me, that is a good way of fund-raising! There are also companies who provide subsidised rates to underprivileged customers for their goods and services. For example, Gobbler5 a really great social enterprise – sells grocery necessity items to low-income families at very low rates. This is their main business model. However, there are also companies who are running a normal business such as selling a service, but will provide subsidised rate for low-income customers. In such a case, defining the company as a social enterprise or for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts becomes blur (since the main business model and revenue generator is still a normal business).
2) People who do good are not necessarily good and happy always
When I first started, I had misconceptions that all people who do good are genuine and kind-hearted. I quickly learned that some practise unethical methods to account to board members, some simply see it as a quick way to get rich, while some others do it to create for themselves a false image of a good samaritan.
On the other hand, there are those whom you wish to help but don’t make it easy for you to help. It may make me sound really naive but I was really disheartened at one point of time. There were many hard lessons I had to learn.
That’s okay. I embraced the revelations. Death to self is always the start of life.
Someone once shared rightly that it is a myth that “doing good and meaningful things makes one happier”. I have learnt that to think this is self-righteous. Sometimes, passions can be painful and dangerous. I have found that the moment you prioritise your passion over people, you’ve become a fire outside a fireplace. I have learnt and still am learning to be okay with the timing, required work, and the pain that comes with passion.
3) Value perception gap
The 3 areas of growth that supported matcha5‘s direction are 1) growth in e-commerce in Asia, 2) growth in handmade artisanal flea markets in Asia, 3) according to AC Nielsen, Asia Pacific has the highest percentage 64% of consumers who are willing to pay extra for social-conscious products. It is still on the rise. Unfortunately, based on our experiences in past year, there is still a value perception gap in which people are hesitant to pay more for social-conscious products. matcha5 is hoping to narrow this with curation, styling, influencers endorsement. We are also currently exploring working very closely with one selected marginalised artisan group on product development so as to launch something unique and of value-add to customers.
Visit www.matcha5.com to shop socially conscious products and support her cause to empower impoverished women.
UPDATE: matcha5.com is now operating under actsmarket.com, Rachel Lin is now co-founder who is in charge of Marketing and Business Development in the organisation.