Making A Difference Through Social Entrepreneurship – An Interview With Projek57’s Debbie Choa
Most of us want to make a difference in the world. That isn’t an idealistic claim – research suggests that people who help others live longer, happier and healthier lives. But it can be a bit daunting. You might not know where to start, or if the work you’re doing has any impact. It might even seem like too much effort.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go all out to make a difference. We talk to Debbie Choa of Projek57 about social entrepreneurship and how anyone can create social impact.
From corporate law to social work
Today, Choa is the Executive Director of Projek57; a social enterprise founded by her husband, Collin Swee, and his long-time friend Syed Sadiq Albar.
But she wasn’t always involved in social work. Before Projek57, she spent 15 years as a corporate lawyer.
“But something felt like it was missing,” Choa said. “You know, you finish off the year, and you’re like yay! So you take some holiday in December, right? And then it’s like, oh no, January starts!” she said, laughing. It was another cycle of looking at budgets and going out there to get clients. “It became very repetitive and didn’t feel purposeful to me.”
She started to think, “What else can I do apart from just helping others make money?”
That led to a pivot into social work. She started out by volunteering with SHELTER Home, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps underprivileged children. She also organised a workshop that gave underprivileged teenagers entrepreneurial experience.
Later on, Choa got involved with the Entrepreneurs’ Organization in Malaysia, as her husband was a member. There, they were inspired by an impact investor who raised capital to invest in transformational businesses, one of which provides employment and training to low-income women in Indonesia.
The Projek57 team wondered if a similar model could work in Malaysia. “We thought, oh wow, can we do something with this?” she said.
Creating impact as a social enterprise
“We felt that could we[sic] use our experience to create impact, but also by using a business model,” said Choa. Apart from her corporate experience, Syed Sadiq and Swee have also been business partners for almost twenty years.
As a social enterprise, Projek57 is a business entity that focuses on using its profits to create positive social impact. This differs from charities or NGOs, which fund their causes through donations or fundraising. The social enterprise model allows Projek57 to focus on being financially sustainable. “If we were an NGO, a lot of time would be spent on fundraising,” said Choa.
Projek57 funds its causes by selling T-shirts and other wearable merchandise that display patriotic messages. The designs are trendy and youthful – something you’d gladly use for your next grocery run or visit to the shopping mall. “We tried to bring ‘cool’ to patriotism,” she said.
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In particular, Projek57’s Jalur Gemilang-inspired Unity Ribbon has been popular, and has been sold to around 260,000 Malaysians. Projek57 engages with Orang Asli youths and the underprivileged to produce these ribbons, while the profits from the sale of the merchandise go back to empowering these communities. Since 2015, Projek57 and its partners have raised close to RM300,000 for these groups.
Among the many people whom Projek57 has helped are Farah and Bella, sisters from the Jakun tribe. “[They are] very special to us,” said Choa.
Farah wanted to go to university, but she did not have an SPM qualification. Projek57 was able to engage with a community learning centre and a private tutor to help her study and sit for SPM. Today, she’s in her first year of university.
On the other hand, Bella chose not to sit for her SPM. Choa, alongside a volunteer accountant, taught her administration and accounting. Bella now works with the Projek57 team as an administration and accounts assistant.
Advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
“Firstly, get a job,” she said.
She advises youths to learn as much as they can in their careers. The experiences that you’ll learn while you are working will be useful, whether you want to start an NGO or social enterprise or work on something else. While you are building your career, she suggests looking into an area of passion, and see how you can start by volunteering there.
This advice comes from personal experience, as the skills she uses in Projek57 were gained during her career as a lawyer. “I’m just switching the subject matter,” she said.
Choa believes that business has a role to play in transforming society. “Sometimes, you don’t even have to label it [as a social enterprise],” she said. For example, businesses could hire underrepresented groups or include beneficial training programmes. “You can start as an enterprise, then put in the considerations for [the] community.”
Anyone can make a difference
While the social enterprise model is Projek57’s way of making a difference, Choa doesn’t think you need to be a social entrepreneur to create meaningful change. “Don’t worry about having to do something big,” she said. She thinks that everyone can make a difference, as long as you have the right mindset.
If you’re passionate about something, go volunteer, or find something else you can do. You could also support or buy from local enterprises that create positive social impact.
“Just start wherever you are,” she said. “And funnily enough, there is a bit of a momentum that takes place. You’ll begin to meet different people who are aligned with you. Your project, and your collaborations, can become something that will hopefully make some difference.”