Crossing the Chasm Challenge 2017

Conceived in 2016, the Crossing the Chasm Challenge (CCC) aims to provide student-driven consulting solutions to enable pioneering social enterprises. These enterprises stand at 2 to 3 years old, and find themselves teetering in the middle of the funding spectrum – being too large for seed-funding, and too small for accelerator grants or impact investors. The Challenge combines students’ youthful energy and the wisdom of marketing experts in multi-national companies to solve significant problems encountered by local and regional social enterprises. Singapore-based enterprises seek to empower and award dignity to marginalised communities, while impactful social enterprises from the ASEAN region seek to alleviate poverty in their local communities (in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand).

For the 45 student teams of 147 students, who came from a range of disciplines – global affairs, to engineering, to business – across 5 tertiary institutions, the Challenge gave them an opportunity to work closely with social entrepreneurs, understand the challenges they face, and to offer useful solutions. It also provided a platform for their personal growth. “We want to develop a new generation of business leaders who are not only sensitised to social and environmental concerns but are also trained to engender systemic change where there are market or government failures,” said Professor Lam Swee Sum, Director of the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP).

The Challenge concluded with a final showcase on 17 August 2017, featuring 3 teams from the Regional Category, and 3 teams from the Local Category. Team Delta Squad took home the prize in the Regional Category, demonstrating the best strategy for Colour Silk to expand their footprint in Southeast Asia. Prizes for top teams, sponsored by Tanoto Foundation, were awarded to both social enterprises and students for their co-created solutions.

Rising to the Challenge


Opening Address delivered by ACSEP Advisory Board Chairman, Keith Chua

These young changemakers were encouraged to rise to the challenge of combatting social problems with a fresh pair of eyes. “You come with no baggage,” remarked ACSEP Advisory Board Chairman Keith Chua in his Opening Address. This freedom from pre-conceived notions of how things ought to be done would allow students to generate relevant solutions in partnership with beneficiary communities. At the same time, exposure to real-world problems through the Challenge aimed to provide an eye-opening reality check for student participants: they are “not going to save the world, but to serve the world,” remarked Ms. Laina Greene, ACSEP Associate Director (Community Development). Armed with the right attitude and adequate contributions, students could help social enterprises become effective to carry out their purpose, said Director of the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme (CTPCLP), Professor Albert Teo – to help “marginalised communities seek agency, empowerment, and the restoration of human dignity”. The spirit of empathy and intrapreneurship instilled in these students through the Challenge, especially the high value placed on collaboration, would point them in the right direction to achieve social impact through partnership.

Collaborate for Impact

Co-creation is the name of the game: social enterprises alongside beneficiaries; students consulting with social enterprises; and two university departments working in partnership with each other. A wide range of local and regional social ventures were featured in this edition of the Challenge – from ethical fashion, fair trade, creative arts as a training platform, to products and services for persons with disabilities. With the help of 29 mentors from the corporate sector, whom student teams were “match-made” with, students came up with relevant solutions to support these social enterprises with their skills. Students were equipped to do this through five workshops on corporate shared values, empathy and social entrepreneurship, the process of consulting, effective presentation structures, topped off with a pitching rehearsal session. This greater pool of resources could be tapped into, thanks to ACSEP’s partnership with CTPCLP in co-organising the Challenge. Through this platform, corporates, social enterprises, and student teams were able to productively support and complement one another.

The Challenge leveraged the strengths of these various change agents to spark active dialogue and conversation. Social enterprises commended the students for their active listening skills, dedication, and creative solutions. Ventures from the Regional category who sought to expand into the Singapore market, such as Cambodia’s The Colour Silk and Laos’ Ma Te Sai, benefited from the data on customer demographics the students were able to compile. This gave them key insights into their priorities for market expansion. Local social enterprises such as Society Staples also benefited from the student teams’ efforts and were able to gain more leads. Mentors were especially encouraging, investing in the teams’ solutions as if it was their own, and being a helpful sounding board for their ideas. Students, on the other hand, benefited deeply in terms of their own growth, learning, and discovering a sense of purpose through serving social enterprises with their gifts.

Crossing Personal Chasms

The “chasms” crossed were certainly not limited to the social enterprises alone. In their own learning and personal development, students crossed personal “chasms” too. For some, such as Victor Zhu (NUS, Quantitative Finance) of Team Hatch, his participation in the Challenge confirmed assumptions of social ventures: he saw that “while social enterprises often operate amongst uncertain and unintuitive landscapes, their successes are nevertheless realistic possibilities”. In addition, students had their paradigms challenged as a result of their encounters with the social entrepreneurs. Business students Cheong Joo Yee (NUS, Marketing and Finance) and Kellin Er (NUS, Marketing and Finance) of Team Spera found themselves confronted with new situations that they had yet to deal with in the business school: evaluating smaller-sized companies with multiple bottom lines. “You have to think about the welfare of the people, as well as the value proposition,” they noted. Significantly, the students gained confidence in themselves. “I learnt a lot – how to research, how to collaborate. After going through the process, I realised I could do it, by having a heart for the social enterprise and contributing my utmost best” said Lucas Tan (NUS, BBA) of team SLZW. Participants had the rich opportunity to learn from their own projects, from other finalists, and other people they met from the social enterprise ecosystem.

Regional Category winners Colour Silk and Team Delta Squad

Local Category winners E & I Concepts and Team Hatch

The journey continues…

For many of the participants, the journey of the Challenge did not end with its completion. Jasmine Tan (NUS, BBA), who participated in the 2016 and 2017 edition of the Challenge, saw the Challenge as an opportunity for her to meaningfully invest in skills-based volunteering. “Usually when we do voluntary work, we are on the frontline, but this time we get to adopt a more top-down approach, in talking to the management team,” she reflected. A number of student teams, such as Team Emerald, who supported Bliss, a local social enterprise restaurant to enable persons with special needs, were keen to continue to be involved in the venture because of the ownership the students developed over the project, and relationships formed with the rest of the team. How far did the Crossing the Chasm Challenge help move social enterprises from one milestone to the next? Only time will tell. However, one thing is certain: the Challenge helped to build bridges for a community of change-agents to move towards long-term sustainable development in this region.

Crossing the Chasm Challenge – a collaborative, creative community