ZERRIN’s Shared Journeys series spotlights individuals from various walks of life. Their backgrounds and experiences may differ, but they have all developed one thing in common. They have a strong sense of connectedness to themselves, to others and to the world around them.
This edition, we chat to Cheryl Ou, a social entrepreneur and founder of Singapore-based conscious cafe The Social Space.
You’ve been an entrepreneur for most of your career. What was your journey like?
I started my first business, Polished Divas Nail Lounge, at 22. I also won my first major entrepreneurship award, the Spirit of Enterprise, at 25. Since then, I’ve been a part of various start-ups.
In 2011, I created Singapore’s first Pod Hostel and built it up to become one of the top flash packer hostels in Singapore. Unfortunately then an investor forced me out of my own company after two years without receiving a single cent of profit.
That must have been incredibly tough to go through. How did it affect your mindset?
This episode really opened my eyes to the reality of running a business. I decided then I did not want to be an entrepreneur motivated solely by money. So that’s how I started my journey as a social entrepreneur.
I’ve honestly made too many bad decisions, more mistakes than I can count and fallen many times these past 13 years, but I’m also a big believer that everything happens for a reason.
We’re big fans of The Social Space. Tell us more about your new baby!
The original concept for this new space has evolved a lot since its inception. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the public perception of socially conscious products and services is very poor. We have a small fair-trade retail corner at The Nail Social. When some customers hear that they are made by social enterprises, the immediate assumption is that they are sub-standard and low quality. While that might have been the case years ago, the reality is that social enterprises have really upped their game and their products and services are comparable, if not better, than other similar products out there.
I felt that the only thing that was lacking was awareness, so we set out to create a platform for the public to discover and experience original, well-designed socially conscious offerings in a great, fun space. We also wanted to create a multi-concept space to show that it’s possible to be socially conscious just by going about your day to day activities – from getting a daily coffee to shopping for household essentials, to indulging in some retail therapy and even to getting your regular manicure.
“We wanted to create a multi-concept space to show that it’s possible to be socially conscious just by going about your day to day activities.“
I think you’ve really achieved that. You serve up a mean smoothie bowl too!
Actually, I’m quite hopeless in the kitchen, so my initial plan was just to create a small café serving simple drinks and snacks. After a previous business partnership didn’t work out at the very last minute, my husband Daniel stepped in to join the business (and save me!) He revamped the entire menu and used his corporate experience to make some changes to our processes. It really was a blessing in disguise, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way now.
You’ll find Cheryl’s husband Daniel, doing his thing in the kitchen at The Social Space
Your love of Bali comes through in the decor
I’ve always loved the beach and the outdoors, but to be very honest, I didn’t really like Bali at first. I felt it was too touristy and too overpriced, and I felt like everyone was just out to cheat me. But it was only after we moved to Bali for Daniel’s work in 2016 and made some local friends. They showed us around the more local spots that we got to experience the other side of Bali.
We lived a few minutes from Seminyak beach, so I would walk my dog on the beach every evening. There’s a small drinks shack run by Made, one of the friendliest guys you would ever meet. We’ll usually hang out with him and some other friends we’ve met on the beach. With a fresh coconut or Bintang beer in one hand and watch the sunset. It’s one of the things we miss the most about Bali! It’s called Made’s beach bar. It’s near the entrance on Ku De Ta. Go say hi and buy a beer if you’re ever in Seminyak!
For local food, our favourite places to go are Chandra in Denpasar for the best babi guling in Bali. We love Mak Beng in Sanur for spicy fish soup!
Thanks for the tips! You’re a social enterprise. What type of community work are you involved in?
We try to be as socially conscious in every aspect of our business. We work very closely with the family services centres, shelters and various VWO’s in Singapore. Also, we offer training and employment opportunities for people who have a higher barrier to employment. These could be single mothers, ex-offenders or youths-at-risk to people with disabilities or special needs.
Everything that we use and sell at our café and retail space is also sourced from other social enterprises who employ underprivileged persons. We hope that by giving them a physical space to display their products, we can help them increase sales and indirectly support the people they work with.
Discover a beautiful curation of jewellery, lifestyle and homeware goods from socially responsible businesses
It’s clear helping others clearly drives you. Do you think Singapore could be a more compassionate society?
I think people, in general, are compassionate by nature. When given an opportunity, more often than not, I feel people will gladly help someone else in need.
In Singapore, the main issue lies with a lack of awareness of social and environmental issues around us. Many Singaporeans are stuck in their own little bubble. We’re usually so busy and caught up with our own lives that we don’t take time out to find out more about the people around us. On the surface, a lot of people think that poverty doesn’t exist in Singapore. While it’s probably not as dire as some other countries, many Singaporeans still face severe financial problems and have difficulties meeting basic needs.
A lot of social enterprises and social projects are usually done behind the scenes. With The Nail Social and The Social Space, which are more public-facing businesses, we hope to shed more light on the various social issues around us and inspire our customers to be more conscious and compassionate.
“If we want the world around us to change, then I feel we all need to wish less and do more, and not keep waiting for the next person to do what you have the capacity to do.”
What is one thing you stand for and believe in, and why?
There is a saying that goes, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. It’s attributed to Gandhi, but it’s actually been misquoted and tweaked a bit from his actual words. I interpret it differently too, but it’s something that has inspired a lot of my actions.
I believe many of us come across problems that we wish we could fix, but we usually get too busy or distracted and end up doing nothing about it. If we want the world around us to change, then I feel we all need to wish less and do more. We can’t keep waiting for the next person to do what you have the capacity to do.
To you #shopmeaningfully means…
Being conscious of where I spend my money. Whether it’s for personal purchases or for the business, I try to find out more about the businesses that I support. So I can ensure that it is in line with my own values and principles.
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Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.