The award-winning founder of 77th Street wants malls to make space for the displaced through PaTH.
Contributed by Wayne Chan
|CN PHOTO: Michael Chan|
The deaf. The disabled. The depressed. Ex-offenders. Unemployed, diabetic housewives. Retired army veterans and primary school dropouts.
President and founder of street fashion chain 77th Street, Elim Chew, 43, has made it her mission since 2006 to give these disadvantaged individuals a place to make a living in one of Singapore’s largest shopping mall, Vivo City.
Coming out twice a month, and selling an array of handmade accessories and ornaments, 150 different groups of people take turns to use a 3,000 sq ft space that can house up to 35 stalls each time.
From paper earrings and mini vans made out of recycled drink cans, to pen-drawn pendants and teddy bears hand-woven by disabled Thai villagers, a curious collection of cool knick-knacks can be picked up here at affordable prices.
Christened PaTH (Pop and Talent Hub) in 2006, Chew says the space is more than just a place for the disadvantaged but a platform where talented individuals can also make their mark.
The self-proclaimed “serial social entrepreneur,” says that she dreams of a world where every shopping mall around the globe would have a “PaTH,” a dedicated space for less advantaged artists and craftsmen to perform and sell their wares.
For her unwavering dedication to helping those in need with creative solutions, the fashion guru with a penchant for paying it forward is one of four Singaporeans to be named Forbes Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy this year.
The other three Heroes are former Singapore Exchange chief executive Hsieh Fu Hua, Lee Foundation chairman Lee Seng Gee and Lien Foundation chairman Laurence Lien—all major players in Singapore’s charity scene.
Chew said she was humbled and honored to have landed a spot on Forbes Asia’s third-annual list of the region’s Heroes of Philanthropy. Four leading altruists were chosen in 12 countries, from Australia to Malaysia to India, with 48 in total.
John Koppisch, associate editor of Forbes Asia, emphasized that the individuals chosen are not the biggest givers, “Instead we aim to highlight a varied group of generous people, some holdovers from last year but mostly new names who deserve recognition. By calling attention to these 48, we hope to encourage more giving.”
Many of the Heroes named are business leaders, although modest donors such as Chen Shu-Chu, a 59-year-old selling vegetables in Taiwan’s Taitung market since 1963, was also recognized for her philanthropy. Her donations include US$32,000 for a children’s fund and US$144,000 to help build a library at a school.
Commenting on the changing face of giving, Chew says a new era of philanthropy is here with a new breed of rich who are younger and more eager to be directly involved with charity projects. Gone are the days when top dollar donors simply give away their excesses to build schools, hospitals and other charitable efforts.
She added that the philanthropists of today, headlined by Microsoft’s Bill Gates who started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife, are no longer just givers but doers.
With the advent of the Internet and reality TV, connectivity and awareness of one’s individual power to influence global events has increased tremendously. People can now create online social campaigns to add pressure on governments or simply participate in voting for the next American Idol.
This growing social awareness and connectivity has made people much more interested in influencing and impacting their community through longer term sustainable initiatives as opposed to short term projects or one-off donations.
Philanthropists today are also more interested in ensuring that their money is properly utilized to help those in need.
Chew tells of the inspiring story of Peter Gautschi, a Swiss expatriate in Hong Kong, who was planning to retire after 50 years in the hotel business, including three decades managing Hong Kong’s famed Peninsular.
The 83-year old shelved his plans to ease into retirement after he discovered a UNESCO school project he funded in China’s Henan province was severely mismanaged.
Toilets had no pipes, radiators had been installed instead of boilers. With guardhouses idle, the school had also become a victim to vandalism. Student intake was also barely half of the 420 Gautschi was promised.
“I thought I could do better myself,” Gautschi said. “When a school is finished, we don’t turn our backs.”
Gautschi has gone on a rampage of giving and building through China and Myanmar since then, completing 130 projects, mostly schools, to the tune of US$1.3 million, under his Hong Kong-based Studer Trust.
Chew hopes PaTH can pave the way for similar widespread impact, but says one of the key things needed is still money.
“I only wish that I had multi-millions so I can do more things,” she said. “I just wish one day I have that kind of money to give away.”
Chew says 10 percent of 77th Street’s profits already go to funding social causes. She forks out another 80 percent of her personal income to finance her myriad philanthropic interests.
She says that one of the problems with the social sector was workers’ salaries, making it difficult for non-profit organizations to compete for talent with the commercial sector.
The other problem is capability building.
“Most of us start with a very good heart but we don’t have the capabilities to run an organization,” she said. “You need to develop people in terms of managing—there are business schools but not yet a non-profit MBA school that is running.”
But despite all these challenges, the social entrepreneur says we all have to start somewhere and help others first, if we want to influence a culture of giving and making a difference.
To reinforce this idea, she cites a group of young PaTH talents who were quick and unequivocal in their response to her request for them to perform at a fundraising concert for abused children.
“They were dropouts who didn’t do well academically, but we gave them a platform where they can perform, sing and dance,” she said. “Today they are doing well, because they are booked by people who pay them to perform, so when I asked them to perform to raise funds for abused children, straightaway, they said ‘Yes.’
“So I think we need to go in there to help them first. Once they stabilize, they become a contributor to society. That’s when you can talk to them about climate change and everything else.”
Speaking at length about young people today, she says many needed to come out of their comfort zone and acquire more experience.
She recalls how a bunch of 17-year-old interns were unaware that Singapore had poor people until she brought them to see a one-room flat.
“All their lives they have never seen the poor—they have been ferried to school and have maids,” she says. “Because they are so comfortable, they cannot endure or go through challenges.”
However, one boy from PaTH is bucking this trend. Elijah Ng, 14, the youngest entrepreneur at PaTH, decided to start his own arts store, “Art with a Heart,” where he sells empty canvases for people to paint on at S$20 each.
“Paints are provided for you, brushes are provided for you. You just paint and they’ll dry it for you and you can take your painting home,” said Chew, describing the store’s concept.
Ng makes about S$200 per weekend, which he uses to cover his costs and to pay his tuition fees. He uses the excess to fund trips to children’s homes where he teaches the less fortunate how to paint. He even hopes to raise enough to bring these children on a trip to Universal Studios at Resorts World Sentosa.
“While most 14-year-olds want to game or party, he has a dream to have his own business,” says Chew. “It is his attitude, he is willing to learn and willing to sacrifice.
“He makes sure he is here and he talks to people and takes care of people around him. I hope to see more young people rising up, because I think if they start early, they will find success.”
Recounting her early inspirations, from her grassroots and community-building parents to CHC’s senior pastor, Kong Hee, she said she is inspired more by ideas than people today.
One of those ideas that she remembers most fondly is the book My Voice, which she produced with DJ Danny Yeo.
“It was just a simple idea of asking young people to give feedback forms. The two of us got young people to express their voices, what they feel, things they do not tell anyone,” she recalled.
“It sparked off a lot of letters from young people telling us what they are going through. We compiled it into a book, and then it became a radio program, and then a stage drama, a live foreign theater drama … it became a big movement in which all across the board people out there are listening to voices of the youth.”
Chew added that beyond ideas, her work is still very much people-focused. She is clearly very proud of the talents at PaTH.
“I know of able people who cannot take long hours and grumble, but these people at PaTH are always smiling and fighting for themselves; they don’t say they are disadvantaged, they say they are as able as you can be,” she notes.
Among this motley crew of fighters are two retired military men who are likely the only two men alive to have served in two air forces in Singapore. Teo Yew Chiat, 75 and L.M. Mani, 77, were ground engineers who served the Malaysian Auxiliary Air Force’s Singapore wing during the British rule from 1952 to 1960, and then later the Royal Singapore Air Force from 1968 to 1977.
They now share a stall at PaTH that sells wooden flying planes fashioned after the aircraft, past and present, from both air forces.
Teo even offered to tell this writer tales of Singapore’s days before and after independence, so if you’re looking for a weekend of oral history, look out for Teo and his compatriot at Vivo City.
Another interesting store at PaTH is Teddy Thotz, which sells teddy bears made by disadvantaged villagers from Third World countries, giving the less privileged around the world a way to sustain themselves.
Chew said PaTH welcomes more volunteers and talents. 50 percent of the space now houses disadvantaged tenants while the rest of the space is taken up by other local artists. Volunteers are especially needed to help the disabled, such as those hard of hearing, to sell their wares. Pro bono writers and marketers are also welcome to help build and market PaTH’s brand.
Chew hopes that more people will go online to support PaTH on Facebook, blogs, forums and other social media platforms, and help them make an impact in the community.
To find out how you can contribute to PaTH, vist http://www.popandtalenthub.com/.
Facebook users can also join “Pop and Talent Hub (PaTH) Market” group.
To find out more about social entrepreneurship in Singapore, visit http://socialinnovationpark.org/.