Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Misconception of success

I am influenced by my upbringing in Asia and I could see that many people consider success to be "Being Rich and Famous".

I have read on the news and know some people who are really rich and famous as well, and it seems like many of them are not happy. In fact, one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams killed himself. There may be no correlation between being successful and suicidal, but I do think that this concept of people striving to be rich is flawed.

I've several friends who are ridiculously rich, I met him in Boston recently and he brought his mom over as well. He was originally from China and had an uncle who is a government official and he is considered an "Investor" and he owns a Maybach and has a driver. I would say he would be considered by many people in Asia a successful person, but when I met his mom last week at a supermarket, she was shopping at a Chinese supermarket squeezing vegetables and throwing them back. She seemed to have a foul mouth and tried to bargain at a supermarket and cursed at the cashier when she did not get what she want.

I met up with some investors who know him and when they talk about him, they say that he was very driven by returns and often loses more money because he picks the companies with the highest risks.

I recall many people I know in Singapore who are "investors" from China as well, and they all seem to buy the most expensive things and create this appearance of "wealthy businessman" but when you start talking to them about their investments, even in real estate, about Gross Floor Area, Plot Ratio and other terms used in property development, they do not seem to know anything at all.

I know many people who would worship these "rich" folks and consider them successful. However, if you are not a property agent or investment banker, what value do these people add to you, if all they care about is money?


I would consider successful people as people who have great influence and insight. They may have a simply life, but their works affect many. Successful people also continual add value in things that they do.

Prof Muhd Yunus is someone I look up to. He has transformed banking with microfinance and he still stays true to his vision of ending poverty.

I feel that people's concept of success is flawed and picking role models, because they are rich is not a good way. I've know many people with a lot of money have a lot of addiction problems and I do not see them as being happy.

I consider myself rich when I have a choice of what to eat today and I can buy a friend a meal, yet I've known some friends who are parents and make over $250,000 a year, and never thinks about charity or giving back to the community as they feel that by donating, their children will get less money for their college funds.

I would say that children are mostly affected by their parents, and I've seen many kids growing up to be compassionate and yet with the knowledge to know the value of things.

The last thing I'd like to share is:

Pick a right model of success as it affect who you hang out with and what you do, and eventually who you become.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Paradox in the social sphere

Remember: Poor people have money

When you give out of pity, you tend to create a dependence and a mindset that the rich should give and the poor should just receive. If the poor is "given" enough to get buy and by working, this giving stops, it will destroy ALL motivation to work.

Subsidy / Wage Gap

If you work, you get less support and less that when you do not work. Sometimes, subsidies prevent people from working as the rules for subsidies prevent those low income earners from getting subsidies, making them poorer than those on subsidies.

Free things make destroy local economy

When you donate food to end hunger, the food is usually imported and local farmers and workers lose their jobs because they cannot sell. Ending up with more people who need food.

Free / subsidized housing.

When the best of intentions build subsidized housing, free schools and offer jobs, millions will move in. If there is not enough money as the money is intended for thousands, there will be slums created, schools will be overcrowded and there will be not enough jobs. Eventually, education standard will be poor, living conditions bad, and jobs scarce -- leading to more poverty. (Dertu, Quest to end poverty)

Owen Barder (Center for Global Development)

If we believe that trade is important, we could do more to open our own markets to trade from developing countries. If we believe property rights are important, we could do more to enforce the principle that nations, not illegitimate leaders, own their own natural resources. ... If we believe transparency is important, we could start by requiring our own companies to publish the details of the payments they make to developing countries.

This is seen in many developed countries as well, like rich families owning everything, creating monopolies and unfair advantage as they can influence government to create laws which favor them.

Free Mosquito nets

Angelina Jolie and a few other famous artists gave out more than 1 million mosquito nets to fight malaria, destroying the whole industry of mosquito net makers and repairs. Many could pay for mosquito net repair decide to just use the new ones which put many out of jobs.

More food /= better nutrition.

In many projects where people are given better food, more protein. (Subsidized diets) In many cases, the receipients who save some money on food do not use the protein to subsidize their diets, but decide to make it what they only eat, and spend the moeny saved on cigarettes.

Unequal perception triggers wrong innovation.

When a neighboring village gets a clean water project and other benefits because of polluted water, many other villages will soon have polluted water, because many of them may be smart enough to see that having polluted waters may result in them having cleaner drinking water for free.

Funding do not fund results.

In many cases, funding is spent on the doing. Many people like donate to initiative to fix clef lips, give stationaries to students, deworming kids. And funding can be massive to impact millions, yet there will be no funding given to investigate reports whether doing such initiatives could reduce poverty, build capacity or give the kids a brighter future. No tests, no accountability, no results.

Overheads to run charity well are seen as "inefficient"

Most of the time, NGOs are compared based on total % delivered to beneficiaries. However, they are not measured by quality of service rendered, or transparency and detailed reporting. As intelligent humans, many NGOs pay their staff very little, and provide bad service.

A soup kitchen using a 60% of donations for free food may be seen as a worse soup kitchen than one using 80% of donations for free food. But here are the numbers.

Kitchen 1
$10,000,000 donations per year
$2,000,000 Auditing, Administration infrastructure and salaries
$2,000,000 Marketing and fundraising

Quality campaigns and events are run to engage donors, Donors can visit and communicate with receipents directly. Quarterly reports given, 2,000 beneficiaries served.

Kitchen 2
$200,000 donations per year
$30,000 for Salaries
$10,000 for Marketing and Administrative

Not much awareness created, run by volunteers. No reports or accountabilities. 30 beneficiaries served.

With just some numbers, it is hard to compare charities as numbers do not show the whole picture.

Success, scale, fail

This is seen in many projects, whether in entrepreneurship or social impact. The skill set to run a startup and to run an enterprise is very different. without the abilities to delegate, many founders of these companies will fail to scale.

Through lean startup, many people are able to run a simple model to verify their assumptions and test their ideas, and once proven successful, some are able to get funding to scale. Our idea of think big, scale fast in many cases are the root cause of these failures.

When a VC or a large foundation provide a big grant, they expect results fast. Hence the implementation is done without further testing and based upon initial prototype. In many cases, the situation is different and without understanding other communities that they wish to operate in, the assumptions that may have worked with the prototype may fail. And with testing and firefighting multiple sites at the same time, catastrophic failures is inevitable.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Entrepreneurship Training at Najayo Jail

Najayo Jail in San Cristobal holds about 2000 inmates and is in the state of transition from a traditional overcrowded prison to the new model of prison (Restorative system). However, at the end of October, there was a jail break which resulted in 4 deaths and many seriously injured.

There is also much overcrowding in the old part of prison, with many prisoners sleeping on the floors and in small "cubes" made they built as shelters which they buy. The stories of overcrowded prisons is true, and its shocking to see so many people inside the prison having their  own economy, with Colmado and barber shops all around.

Despite it all, some inmates are still trying to study, and many interested in improving themselves inside the prison without their external distractions.

Civil Innovation Lab gave a free entrepreneurship talk to the prisoners and close to 100 showed up. Most of them came prepared with paper and writing materials and asked lots of questions. There is a strong interest in entrepreneurship and when questioned whether fear will stop them from taking action, and will they be able to do it and succeed, the room roared with the cheer "YES WE CAN!"

It was quite inspiring for these inmates to have experience so much to be still interested and willing to learn a new skill.


Of course these ideas of training inmates in entrepreneurship and then starting a microfinance or seed funding platform is not without resistance. When pitch to people outside, they tend to as the simple question. "Why are you not helping other Dominicans?" The fact is, we are. Civil Innovation is participating in the Global Entrepreneurship week with many events in the Dominican Republic which includes this in the prison.

There is actually a little more urgency with working with the prison. Firstly, when the person is in prison, they are using resources of the country. There are cost involved in running the prison, organizing events, food, water, medicine.

There are many programs giving these inmates jobs when they are released, but many of them end up in prison again. There is also a 15% unemployment rate in Dominican Republic and the odds are against these ex-inmates like anywhere in the world.

The idea of starting a social business run by ex-inmates hiring other ex-inmates is trying to reduce the rate of them returning to prison. As an ex-inmate, they can understand and communicate with each other better. There can be less discrimination and as long as they perceive to be paid fairly, We think that there is a higher chance for the ex-inmate to stay in the job.

This is our social experiment, and if there are any information or similar projects, feel free to contact me, and I am glad to put up more information once I get some results.

-- Robin Low

Entrepreneurship training at Najayo Correctional and Rehabilitation Center

Civil Innovation Lab has been planning to work with prisoners on giving them options to support themselves. Getting a job is tough in their situation as many employers do not want to hire ex-prisoners. In the case of Dominican Republic, where there employment rate is 15% (est), it is not easy to find a job that pays living wages.

In a country where there are lots of problems, there can be lots of opportunities as well. We want to investigate whether the (women)prisoners are interested in starting their own business, and so we ran a free social entrepreneurship talk to share lean startup methodologies and talk about entrepreneurship mindsets.

We were surprised by the overwhelming response and feedback, and many of them like to start their own business, and are not sure how. Some of them have pretty savvy ideas and after understanding social entrepreneurship, they asked many question and had concerns about resources and reach, and wanted to learn more.

As such, Carlos Miranda Levy (Certified lean started trainer), co-founder of Civil Innovation Lab will run a 8 week Entrepreneurship bootcamp to train lean startup methodologies to them and work with them on their business model and prototypes.

Civil Innovation Lab will also seek to create a funding platform to seed fund some of these companies to get them started, and hopefully employ others in their communities as well.

-- Robin Low

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

You don't need to be rich to give.

A story of a woman living in a rental flat with public assistance allowing a homeless man to sleep in her house is very heart warming.

There is always a misconception of selfish people to believe that you need to be rich in order to give, but how does one consider themselves rich?

This lady in a wheelchair living with public assistance gave a safe space for a homeless man to sleep. Her action speaks a lot and puts a lot of us to shame as we just think of the negative things.

The reply from the government is also very disturbing.

HDB says...
"HDB rental flats are heavily subsidised and meant for needy families without other housing options and family support.
"Therefore, only tenants and authorised occupiers are allowed to occupy the rental flats.
"Subletting of rental flats is not allowed, and will be investigated.
"Some of these needy cases (of individuals living in an interim place) may have deeper underlying personal and social issues, which extend beyond housing.
"If HDB is alerted to such cases, we will work with the relevant social and government agencies to see how we can extend more holistic assistance to them."

So are they going to take action on people allowing homeless people to live in their homes?

-- Iron Bowl

Friday, September 26, 2014

A definition of social innovation

“We contend that social innovation is the best construct for understanding and producing lasting social change. We redefine social innovation to mean: A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Source: Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller (2008)

A definition of social entrepreneurship

  • Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value
  • Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning
  • Acting boldly without being limited to resources currently at hand
  • Exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served

There may be many ways of solving a social problem.

1) NGOs / Government - Mission Driven Way

Funds can be raised, the government can set up departments and fund social projects

Government usually like large scale projects, focusing on equity, and the funds used should be accountable to voters. Generally slow moving and takes a long time to implement.

NGOs are often shaped by beliefs and values and the projects tend to be responsive to the board, community, donors and the public. It is also mission driven and operate under a non-distribution constraint.

2) Social Entrepreneurs

4 main criteria:
  • Innovation
  • Financial Sustainability
  • Impact
  • Scale
Mission and money are balanced Takes the best of “both worlds”

Goal: to create innovative, sustainable, effective, and scalable solutions to social problems

“Not just businessmen who see that something has to change…” 
M. Yunus

"As I see it, there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others. Capitalism harnesses self-interest in helpful sustainable ways, but only on behalf of those who can pay. Philanthropy and government aid channel our caring for those who can’t pay, but the resources run out before they meet the need… To provide…for the poor we need a system that draws in innovators and businesses in a far better way….I like to call this system creative capitalism…."
B. Gates

"Social entrepreneurs are…the practical dreamers who have the talent and the skill and the vision to solve problems [and] to change the world….Social entrepreneurs have a unique approach that is both evolutionary and revolutionary, operating in free markets where success is measured not just in financial profit but also in the improvement of the quality of people’s lives."
Skoll Foundation


For social entrepreneurs, the starting a business with a social cause is not enough. Taking an Entrepreneurship approach brings innovation up front is key. I strongly feel that problems should be tackled at the source.

For example, instead of giving homeless people food and shelter (which many other NGOs are doing) A social entrepreneur should focus on how to prevent people from getting to that point of homelessness. Or ways where homeless people can get back on their feet and eventually rent / own a home.

Getting the beneficiaries choices and empowering them to solve their own problems should be key as they should feel more involved in the solution that will directly affect them. I've met many brilliant social entrepreneurs who would "think for" their beneficiaries, and for many cases, it works after much iteration. However if the beneficiary is a person, shouldn't they be engaged be part of the solution, instead of being seen as the problem?

I always have a quote which I deeply believe in. 

"Poor people are NOT stupid people.
M. Yunus.

And I feel that engaging them from the start, and empowering them to be part of the solution should be the first start of any social enterprise. 

-- Robin Low

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

State of Social Enterprise in Singapore

I went for a talk on ACSEP Social Entrepreneurship (SE) Series: Landscape of Social Enterprises in Singapore by Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP)

There was some insight on the state of social enterpreneurship in Singapore.

The seminar will address current issues surrounding social enterprise, focusing on: —

  • Core principles underpinning a social enterprise — 
  • Public perception of the social enterprise model — 
  • Challenges and opportunities facing the sector

With some comparisons with the UK, South Korea, the SE in Singapore does not seem to do as well as other developed countries.

There was some talk about the ambiguity of definition of Social Enterprises, and how some organizations identified themselves as social enterprises but there were only about 150-300 SEs in Singapore compared to 1000+ in South Korea where the government started the SE initiatives later but seems to have more SEs in the country.

There was a little focus to talk about how NTUC is one of the largest social enterprise, but during the Q&A, many people questioned why NTUC is considered a social enterprise.

There seems to be very little support from the government on social entrepreneurship. Back in 2008, there was a lot of talk on Social Entrepreneurship, much funding and training provided. However, even with NTUC and various other companies like Grab Taxi identifying themselves as Social Enterprises, there is 150-300 of them in Singapore?

Many questioned on why NTUC is considered a social enterprises and the response was "NTUC is a cooperative which gives a % back to the members"

I asked if Unilevel and SAP, companies who partnered Grameen Creative Labs on several social initiatives for social impact can be considered social enterprises, the reply was they only donated a small % of their profits as CSR.

Then a model was shared and according to the Social Enterprise Association in Singapore, an organization that gives 10% of the profits to a social cause can be considered a social enterprise. So can Marina Bay Sands or Resorts World Sentosa be considered a social enterprises if they donated 10% of their earnings to Gamblers Annoymous?

Currently, there is no legal structure for a social enterprise in Singapore. An organisation can choose to either be registered as a charity (in which case it forgoes doing business) or be registered as a full commercial company (where the profits can, but need not, go to charity). In UK, there is the CIC organizations, in the US, a L3C, and in South Korea, a Social Enterprise enjoys different tax structures and funding. Nothing here in Singapore.

With NTUC labeled as a social enterprise, I feel that it opens the door for all sorts of companies to be considered social enterprises. I have heard about some social enterprises hiring ex-convicts, handicapped people and the elderly, getting a tax break and underpaying the people they hire, and yet still considered social enterprises.

I disagreed with several NUS business school professors who say that it is important for a company to do well before doing good, and a social entrepreneur has to juggle with decisions whether to make less profits or to exploit the employees.

When profits is the primary focus of a company, I feel that that company should not be called a social enterprise. Some of these companies are merely companies with a CSR program. Giving 10% of your profits to say that you are doing social good is not bad, but it does not make you a social enterprise.

A social enterprise should not pay a handicapped person or a marginalized person less, just because they can, and still call themselves a social enterprise. Sometimes, that is the only reason these companies can be considered social enterprises in the first place, and using the faces of these marginalized people for marketing purpose is definitely worth not exploiting them. They are the marketing material.

There is much to progress as a nation and I hope people do not do things for the sake of doing. But first, stop white washing your company's name. NTUC by itself is a good brand without being a social enterprise. Perhaps you can be more competitive in your pricing and pay more decent wages for better service.

-- Robin Low