What started as a humble blogshop selling flip-flops has today grown into a consultancy helping international corporations do more to transform lives.
In 2008, three Singaporean teenagers set up Soule to help children in need. Two years later, Soule was a winning team from the Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) programme; it now helps companies develop corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes.
Soule’s co-founder Justine Lee, 25, says: “We want to help companies become better at doing good. We help identify real needs on the ground and match beneficiaries with corporations, so there is long-term sustainability. For example, some elderly people who receive food donations throw them away because they are too frail to cook. What they need are befrienders to visit them, take them to the doctor and sort out their medication.”
Soule has been working with Japanese conglomerate Meiji to distribute food hampers to 15 low-wage families in Singapore twice a month for a year. It also works with Shanghai Huaxiang to provide financial assistance to the textile company’s factory employees and bursaries for their children living in remote villages across China.
Making impactful footprints
Soule started as a social enterprise to help children from rural China have a better education, by providing shoes and school supplies. Lee says: “I went on a humanitarian trip to Yunnan after my GCE O levels (secondary school leaving examinations). I saw kids without shoes who had to walk five hours across mountainous terrain to get to school. Their feet had cuts and infections. The kids associated school with pain and would rather stay on the farms. I was determined to change that.”
So, in 2008, he roped in two friends who shared his vision and started a web-store donating a pair of shoes to a less fortunate child in China for every pair of flip- flops sold. The early days were tough, with the founders juggling polytechnic studies with part-time work to fund the business. As teenagers, getting suppliers to take them seriously was also challenging. But over time, they did.
When their first batch of S$15 flip-flops sold out in two weeks, they knew they were on to something good. But it wasn’t until the YSE programme in 2010 that business took off, growing their connections as they networked with mentors and similar-minded peers from around the world. Lee says: “We met mentors like entrepreneur Elim Chew of 77th Street, who gave us valuable advice and with whom we are still in contact. We learnt things like social impact measurement. The experience helped us scale up our business.”
The founders have since visited Yunnan twice to distribute shoes and school supplies to children. They also donated supplies to the Philippines in 2013, after the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan. So far, Soule has given 1,877 pairs of shoes to five schools in Yunnan, and 154 schoolbags to low-income children in China, the Philippines and Singapore.
In return, the act of giving has won them friends among the locals and helped to change mindsets. “The local education ministry sends a representative to take care of our every need every time we visit. They have gone as far as to take us to dig for crabs at the local river and always give us their best food. Whenever we visit Yunnan, we find that they are so hospitable.”
Collaborations for good
The jump to CSR consultancy came naturally after Soule received more media attention for its work. Calls started streaming in from corporations to explore possible collaborations.
As CSR consultants, they continue to forge close ties with the Chinese, of whom their most significant friendship is with Mao Ping Hua, founder of Shanghai Huaxiang. In their three years of partnership, they have helped her improve her company’s insurance schemes to help low-wage factory workers in Shanghai in times of crisis. She says about collaborating with Soule and her lessons learnt: “I was inspired. If teenagers from Singapore can do this, then I should do even more. The Soule team is really good at what it does. Society needs more compassionate young people like them.”
The young entrepreneurs hope to grow their CSR consultancy and are in talks with more companies, including an airline and a preschool service provider. Lee says: “In whatever we do, we think about what we can give, not what we can get. Because true success is measured by the legacy that we leave behind.”