The accidental social entrepreneur

Sim Sin Sin (BAcc 1984)

simsinsinWhen you run a social enterprise, the focus has to be a little different from that of running a commercial enterprise. When others depend on you, giving up when the going gets tough is not an option. No one is more aware of this than Mdm Sim Sin Sin, former CEO of Secret Recipe and founder of social enterprises Laksania and Social Food Inc. She sees these social enterprises as her “new life” and her days in Secret Recipe and as a certified public accountant as her “past life”.

“In a way, you can say that I am an accidental social entrepreneur,” she says, for running a social enterprise was not something that Sin Sin had considered until she was approached by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2007 to run a central kitchen designed to employ ex clients of IMH. “I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to be involved in, but the business model of Secret Recipe could not incorporate the use of a central kitchen,” she explains.

Undeterred, Sin Sin went ahead with the project in 2008, conceptualising a new F&B chain, Laksania, to which the central kitchen could supply. This was seeded through $300,000 in funding from the Ministry for Social and Family Development’s ComCare Enterprise Fund.

“It wasn’t simply a case of opening up the restaurant and beginning operations,” Sin Sin recalls. Before launching the first Laksania outlet at Nex Shopping Centre in 2010, she and her daughter conducted three years of research and development in two phases: one phase was to perfect Laksania’s proprietary Laksa paste recipe so that it could be produced and the chain scaled without its core recipe losing its unique combinations of flavours; the other phase was to establish the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of the central kitchen in a way that all employees could work effectively within their existing capabilities.

“Our employees need to be engaged in single repetitive tasks that they can be trained to complete day in, day out,” Sin Sin explains. “Any variation in their duties may upset them and the balance of operations tremendously, so we had to build the SOPs on that premise.”

She put a lot of research hours into finding out not what her employees couldn’t do, but rather what they could, and building their individual job scopes around their capabilities. Having been involved with these employees for so many years, she had built a close bond with them. So when the use of the IMH kitchen was recontracted to a different supplier in 2012, Sin Sin couldn’t simply drop the project. Given just a month to move out, she temporarily rehoused the central kitchen in her Laksania East Coast outlet, taking with her 11 employees who wanted to make the change. “I had to let 13 employees go, and that was my most painful experience,” she recalls.

And the problems kept coming. She lost her Halal license due to the loss of the central kitchen license. Despite slow sales at Laksania and higher operating costs with the loss of the IMH kitchen, Sin Sin did not want to let her employees down by closing the business. Instead she sacrificed personally by selling her landed property, and added in her life savings to continue the project. More than $2 million has been pumped into the business to date.

Even when she thought things were looking up with the launch of a new Laksania outlet at Jem in Jurong, sales suffered when the entire mall had to be closed for repair following a ceiling collapse. On top of that, the East Coast outlet had to close in December 2013 due to slow sales.

Sin Sin laughs at the irony of the situation: “My friends asked me if I had lost my mind, especially given my history as a CPA, but I just couldn’t give the project up. I had to find a way to make it work. It wasn’t just the business at stake, it was these people’s lives. I couldn’t let them down.”

So, determined not to let the downfalls beat her, Sin Sin soldiered on. The company relocated the central kitchen to larger premises at Kampong Ampat in August 2013 and has since obtained its central kitchen and Halal licenses. It is in the process of obtaining HACCP certification.

To keep the central kitchen going now, she is looking to rebrand Laksania to attract a wider audience and have the central kitchen supply other businesses as well as Laksania. Providing meals en masse daily to institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools is one way she can keep the kitchen going without having to retrain her kitchen staff.

Having invested a great deal of time and funds into training research, and amassing a depth of highly specialised knowledge on how to train individuals with special needs, Sin Sin has now identified an additional avenue through which she can help the disadvantaged – through specialised training geared specifically for the marginalised in society, such as those with autism, Downs Syndrome and other mental and physical disabilities.

Having stepped down as CEO of Secret Recipe, Sin Sin now devotes all her efforts to her social enterprises or her “new life”, and is currently seeking investors who believe in her social cause. With more than 20,000 marginalised people with disabilities in Singapore, 70-80% of whom aren’t in gainful employment, it’s a cause worth supporting.

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