Staff Reporters
Mar 6, 2020

Meet 3 entrepreneurs showing how underprivileged women can help build their brands

Health and finance issues, safety and self-confidence are barriers to employment for many women in Asia, but can be overcome with the help of sympathetic employers.

L to R: Hazel Kweh, founder & CEO, BloomBack; Yogesh Kumar, founder & CEO, Even Cargo; Cheryl Ou, Founder & Director, The Nail Social
L to R: Hazel Kweh, founder & CEO, BloomBack; Yogesh Kumar, founder & CEO, Even Cargo; Cheryl Ou, Founder & Director, The Nail Social

While many brands are showing support for gender equality this International Women's Day, few companies put words into action in that same way that many social enterprises do. 

Campaign asked the entrepreneurs behind three social enterprises in Asia supported by the DBS Foundation about how they're actively empowering more underprivileged women through training and employment in their pursuit of positive social impact alongside profitability.

  • BloomBack is a Singapore-based online florist platform that has helped over 20 marginalised women get back on their feet and attain self-sufficiency since 2017
  • Even Cargo is India's first ecommerce logistics company to employ women exclusively, with a mission to train and employ marginalised women from poorer rural communities.  Based in Delhi, was inspired by  the founder's mother who was a fierce advocate of gender parity.
  • The Nail Social is a Singapore socially-conscious nail salon that trains and employs local underprivileged women with a high barrier to employment, working closely with social service agencies and voluntary welfare organizations (VWOs).

Explain how your business gives underprivileged women in Asia new opportunities?

Hazel Kweh, founder & CEO, BloomBack

At BloomBack, we provide holistic training in floristry and other skills such as customer service, operations and marketing. About 30% of our workforce today includes marginalised women with disadvantaged backgrounds such as mature workers and those with physical impairments and medical/mental conditions.

Bloomback staff family

For example, we have an employee who has epilepsy, a chronic illness and hence finds it a challenge to settle in a stable office-hour job due to the side effects of her daily medication. We gave her an opportunity to be part of our marketing team and offered flexible working hours. She shared with me that this is the only company that has fully accepted her medical condition and adjusted the hours and workload to suit her needs. As a result, she feels motivated and satisfied working at BloomBack since no one is judgemental or sees her in a different light.

We also have another employee who has hearing impairment and blurred vision from a degenerative eye disease. Before she joined BloomBack, she used to be in a vulnerable position struggling with both her physical impairment and depression but now finds purpose in life and is a qualified floral instructor at BloomBack. At one workshop we organised, we used a virtual reality (VR) headset for participants to experience walking in her shoes to create an inclusive experience.

Yogesh Kumar, founder & CEO, Even Cargo

Even Cargo, established in 2016 with a vision to create a gender harmonious ecosystem with equal livelihood opportunities for all. To achieve this, we envisioned increasing women's workforce participation rate while helping them reclaim their share in public spaces and transforming the cultural norms. We believe that improving the quality of work and its remuneration and enhancing the well-being of women is an urgent priority.

With this objective, Even Cargo emerged as India's women-only ecommerce logistics delivery company. We identify, train and employ women from low income and resource-poor communities. They are skilled in road directions, logistics, self-defence and communication to enter the formal sector of last-mile logistics. The women are then employed as delivery associates, also called courier dispatchment associates, for delivery shipments by major ecommerce companies like Amazon, Flipkart, and others, across India.

Even Cargo

The APAC region itself could add $4.5 trillion to its collective GDP annually in 2025 by employing more women, the McKinsey Institute noted. 97% of all female workers in India are active in the informal sector, engaged in low-paying activities and domestic work, the McKinsey reports suggest.

The gender-related and other socio-cultural norms are the primary factors militating against equality for women in terms of accessing and availing opportunities socially and economically. There is an irrational division of resources, opportunities, and livelihoods on the basis of sex and gender. This hinders the just and harmonious socio-economic inclusion of the individuals.

Cheryl Ou, Founder & Director, The Nail Social

The Nail Social offers training and employment opportunities for women who are interested in a career in the beauty industry but face difficulties securing stable employment due to family commitments or challenges in their personal life. Many of these women were unemployed for long periods of time or had to take on ad hoc jobs, which meant income instability and an uncertain future.

We offer flexible working hours and provide holistic mentorship in other areas of personal development such as creating a savings fund and emotional management tools, as well as assist them with the challenges in their personal lives wherever possible.

What have been the biggest barriers for some of these women before joining you?

Hazel Kweh, BloomBack

Some of these barriers are pre-existing health conditions, lack of self confidence and purpose in life, as well as general minimal understanding of the work environment.

Cheryl Ou, The Nail Social

Self-confidence is the biggest issue. They generally have a low-sense of self-worth and think they will never be good enough.

Yogesh Kumar, Even Cargo

There were various challenges which emerged as barriers that required us to address strategically.

a) Limited or lack of knowledge: The women had limited geographical knowledge. Most of them were never allowed to be out on their own. They were always accompanied by male family members. There was a complete lack of knowledge about the use of existing public transport and related networks.

b) Limited access to financial resources: The women were forced not to work as this requires investment in terms of transportation to training centres, licensing and financing of vehicles and communication. Males, being the primary breadwinners, control financial investments and expenditure. Hence, women could not proceed as they were always dependent on males.

c) Gender stereotypes: The biggest challenge that we are still facing today is also the problem that we are addressing through Even Cargo, which is deeply rooted in gender norms. For us, employing the first two girls was really difficult and took a lot of time because we were venturing into something that had never been done before. Getting the next five was a little easier and gradually improved with the subsequent hiring. But we still see a lot of girls who want to come out and work being denied this opportunity by their families and communities.

Things are slowly changing with some setting a trend for others to follow, but I feel there is still a long way to go. We will keep working on this until we can provide every girl with an opportunity to work without any social and cultural foundation that hinders her growth.




If you're interested in new ideas and strategies to promote diversity and inclusion, we will be hosting Campaign Leading Change 2020 Conference & Awards (formerly Women Leading Change) on May 28 at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.


What are some of the challenges these women still face in your employment?  How are you trying to overcome them together?

Yogesh Kumar, Even Cargo

Lack of financial support. The women are not supported for their daily transportation costs to training centres, driving license fees, vehicles, mobile devices etc. To address these challenges, we ensure that the training centres are near and connected to local public transport and within 4 to 5 km radius of their residences.

We have shortened their period of training without compromising on the quality and hours of training. We provide them with rental scooters and get their scooters financed at less than 1% down payment of the total cost of a new scooter, as well as reimburse their petrol expenses fortnightly and weekly in some cases. Importantly, we ensure that they are employed soonest possible.

Hazel Kweh, BloomBack

Mainly health issues resulting in high absenteeism rate. We came up with a buddy system to help these women and all employees in the company. Every employee will have primary and secondary roles to cover one another. I always make it a point to let potential hires know that they must be prepared to take on more tasks should the beneficiary that is attached to them be unwell.

Cheryl Ou, The Nail Social

Finding stable employment does not mean their personal challenges disappear. While juggling work performance, some continue to deal with issues at home such as abuse, delinquent children, loan sharks etc. These can take a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. The good thing is that the team at work is extremely close and we are all able to provide a strong support network for these women.

The Nail Social
 

DBS SUPPORT FOR WOMEN THROUGH SOCIAL ENTERPRISE

DBS set up the DBS Foundation in 2014 with SGD$50 million to champion social entrepreneurship. Since then it has helped 400 social enterprises and awarded SGD$5.5 million in grants across the region to SE innovations in healthcare, social inclusion, environmental protection, food sustainability, and supporting income and employment for marginalised groups.

The second season of DBS’ dramatic mini-series Sparks is inspired by the true stories of social enterprises supported by the DBS Foundation. Episode 6 of Sparks Season Two airing on International Women's Day (March 8) is entitled “Agents of Change” inspired by the Even Cargo story. 


Your business is strongly-linked to a social purpose that’s very meaningful to you.  How will you keep it that way as it grows?

Hazel Kweh, BloomBack

My hope is for the business to do well and as we expand, to train and groom more women and identify potential ones to replicate what I do, at the same time, provide opportunities for leadership positions. We want to pay-it-forward to help other women who are still struggling with issues. Faith, our floral instructor used to require hand holding and we followed her to every workshop. Now, she she conducts workshops and even trains others independently.

Yogesh Kumar, Even Cargo

The vision of the team is the foundation of which our processes, policies and organisational culture and structure are built. We ensure the alignment of the values and vision of our leaders across the organisation and communities with Even Cargo. Our interdisciplinary committed team of leaders, knowledge partners and mentors ensure that the organisation works within an ecosystem which is just and sustainable. We build a culture of peer support and not working in silos. The mission of gender equality calls for collective action; it’s a global issue. Hence, it is essential to build a harmonious culture. We are making global action work locally.

Cheryl Ou, The Nail Social

We hope for our women to rise up to take on more supervisory roles, and in turn mentor the new beneficiaries who join us, creating a positive cycle of empowerment and support.

What message would you like to see made on International Women’s day that might otherwise be lost in the noise?

Cheryl Ou, The Nail Social

Women are a lot stronger that we give ourselves credit for, and that it’s ok to feel scared and powerless sometimes.

Hazel Kweh, BloomBack

Women nowadays are busy chasing their goals and occupied with their careers. This has become a norm and are encouraged so that they are on par with men. Because of this mindset, women often don't realise that it is okay to take one step at a time at their own pace instead of being caught in this competition at the expense of their mental health.

BloomBack’s theme of the year is Bloom one step at a time. I want to encourage women to not be too focused on the end goal and neglect the journey. Just have faith and trust the journey.

Yogesh Kumar, Even Cargo

This International Women’s Day, let’s commit and synergise our efforts towards shifting the narrative from Women Empowerment to Women Empower.

At the national level, I am glad to reiterate my belief that India's women are the secret to a potential economic boom globally (see box below). Inclusivity and diversity are the secret sauce of sustainable growth of any business. I believe it’s one of the most important long-term solutions to many cumulative short term problems/challenges. 

INDIA'S SHE-CONOMY GROWTH POTENTIAL

India, the world’s fastest growing major economy, could do a lot better if only it treated its women better. The country could add up to $770 billion—more than 18%—to its GDP by 2025, simply by giving equal opportunities to women, according to an April 23 report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

McKinsey estimates that higher participation of women in the workforce, raising the number of hours spent by them on the job, and including them in higher-productivity sectors will help spur such economic growth. As women’s contribution to the country’s GDP is currently just 18%, one of the world’s lowest, with only 25% of India’s labour force being female, India’s economy also has the second-largest potential in Asia-Pacific from improving gender parity, the report said. 

 

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