Social entrepreneurship knows no bounds. You don’t have to be be rich or famous or be an Anita Roddick to make a positive impact in this world.
Take Mike Tee, 29, and Devan Singaram, 30, for example. Both are busy entrepreneurs running their own IT companies (Density Professional and Fuzion Interactive respectively), but they have been so inspired by the idea of social entrepreneurship – business models that are not only driven by profits but also generate positive social impact – that they started Elevyn.com.
Elevyn.com is a platform for communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs to set up online shops that support a worthy cause. A percentage of the sale of every item sold through these online shops goes directly to fund a chosen cause. Co-founder Mike Tee explains how the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based social entrepreneurship site operates and how it can empower disadvantaged communities. “Elevyn.com only works with indigenous or marginalized communities – who can benefit from access to a larger, global market to sell their crafts at a fair price.”
“Elevyn is not charity. Artisans must produce crafts that people will buy, and over a period of time, we train them to handle orders, packaging and delivery. These are all skills that will last them a lifetime. For buyers, we bring a whole new level of transparency to the buying experience. In traditional models, some artisans get as low as 6 percent of an item’s selling price – but buyers do not know that.”
“On Elevyn.com, we show how much each artisan is making from the sale, down to the very last cent.”
Helping Disadvantaged Communities Help Themselves
The idea for Elevyn.com actually came from another member of the team, Sze Ning, 25, who previously had worked with various indigenious groups in Malaysia and is now their Field Coordinator.
“(Sze Ning) told us her story at a village in Sabah, where the womenfolk – single mothers and aged women – produce beautiful crafts, yet are mired in poverty due to a lack of access to the market. She clearly remembers a feeling of helplessness, when one of the artisans asked her to find a market for their products in the city.”
One key inspiration was Kiva.org, and Mike and Devan was impressed how they successfully utilized the Internet to create a community to help poor entrepreneurs in developing countries. “Being from an IT/online background, Devan and I got really excited and realized that with our combined knowledge, and the vast availability of technology out there – there had to be something that we could do that’s not only profitable, but produces a social impact as well.”
“Then came the eureka moment – Elevyn.com would work with these artisans, get their crafts online to a global audience, and channel as much as 85% from each sale back to them.”
It’s a case of ‘Give a man a fish, and he feeds himself for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’, and something that the Malaysian government recognizes. Elevyn.com received MYR 150,000 (about US$40,000) in the MDEC Preseed Grant which helped them get started. “We also qualified for the finals of the Youth Social Entrepreneur Initiative (YSEI), which offered up to US$60,000 in startup funding. We are looking at a few more grants to continue building the company until it reaches sustainability.”
Tough Times Are Tougher For Some
The impact made by Elevyn.com may be far smaller compared to Kiva.org, but by no means any less meaningful. During the Christmas of 2008, one of the causes it supported was to raise funds for 14 kids in a Sabahan village who need supplies for the new school year. It was, Mike recalled, the best experience they had.
“We raised MYR300 – not a lot of money, but it went a long way. Our field partner in Sabah, Malina Soning arranged for a little Christmas tea party where she presented them with pencil boxes, schoolbags, stationery and other supplies, all of which were nicely wrapped. Many of the kids had never had a proper Christmas before, but they truly enjoyed the occasion and we all felt a little lump in our hearts hearing Malina’s stories and photos.”
Children in Sinompuru Village, Sabah receiving their Christmas presents of school supplies
A key objective Mike identified for Elevyn.com is to raise the incomes of all the craftsmen and artisans in their program, but to do that requires them to work with more communities and setting up more shops. He stresses that it is important to work with the communities to understand the idea, getting them organized, and producing crafts that will sell.
The other challenge is to drive more visitors to the site for more sales, which Mike admits is a whole new field and a steep learning curve for them. The current global recession isn’t helping either.
“I think the economic situation will have an impact on sales – by how much I’m not sure. But the whole economy thing is beyond our control, so we don’t stress too much on it. We’re being proactive in things that we CAN do – for example getting the word out on our artisans and their crafts, and raising as much awareness as possible for Elevyn.com.” Thankfully site traffic has been growing, albeit slowly, since their launch November last year thanks to coverage from a number of blogs and websites.
Elevyn.com is looking to build partnerships with any organizations or individuals who share the same worldview. “Alleviate poverty, empowering disadvantaged communities, or reaching out to the same markets, produce handmade crafts, etc. There are no hard requirements, but if there’s a way we can work together for a mutual benefit, please drop me a line at email@example.com.”
Networking For Success
“One important lesson I’ve learnt is to build a network of similar entrepreneurs around you. Entrepreneurship requires a different level of mindset – that 99 percent of your ‘regular friends’ will not relate to. It can be an extremely lonely road. Thus the importance of speaking to people who can understand you, and vice versa.”
“An ‘entrepreneur support group’ works best.”
Welcome to Young Upstarts then, Mike, and I hope you can find like-minded people here.