Conceived in 2016, the Crossing the Chasm Challenge (CCC) aims to provide student-driven consulting solutions to enable pioneering social enterprises in Singapore and across the ASEAN region.
Singapore-based enterprises seek to empower and accord dignity to marginalised communities while impactful social enterprises from ASEAN seek to alleviate poverty in their local communities in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand. At two to three years old, these enterprises find themselves teetering in the middle of the funding spectrum – they are 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 multinational companies to solve significant problems encountered by local and regional social enterprises.
For the 45 teams of 147 students from a range of disciplines – global affairs to engineering to business – across five tertiary institutions, the Challenge gave them an opportunity to work closely with social entrepreneurs, understand the challenges they face, and offer useful solutions.
The Challenge also provided a platform for the students’ 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.
The Challenge concluded with a final showcase on 17 August 2017 featuring three teams from the Regional Category and three teams from the Local Category. Team Delta Squad took home the prize in the Regional Category for 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
The young change makers were encouraged to rise to the challenge of combatting social problems with a fresh pair of eyes. “You come with no baggage,” said ACSEP Advisory Board Chairman Keith Chua in his opening remarks. This freedom from pre-conceived notions of how things ought to be done offers students the potential to generate innovative solutions in partnership with beneficiary communities.
At the same time, exposure to real-world problems through the Challenge provided an eye-opening reality check for student participants. They are “not going to save the world, but to serve the world,” said Laina Greene, ACSEP associate director (community development).
Bringing the right attitude and backed by adequate contributions, students could help social enterprises become effective in carrying out their purpose – to help “marginalised communities seek agency, empowerment and the restoration of human dignity,” said Professor Albert Teo, director of the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme (CTPCLP). 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 broad spectrum of local and regional social ventures were featured in this edition of the Challenge – from ethical fashion, fair trade, and creative arts as a training platform to products and services for persons with disabilities. Student teams were paired with 29 mentors from the corporate sector to develop relevant solutions to support these social enterprises. Students were equipped to do this through five workshops – on corporate shared values, empathy and social entrepreneurship, the process of consulting, and effective presentation structures, which were topped off by a pitching rehearsal session. Students were able to tap into this greater pool of resources, 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 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 compiled, which gave them key insights into their priorities for market expansion. Local social enterprises such as Society Staples also benefited from the students’ efforts and were able to gain more leads. Mentors were especially encouraging, investing in the teams’ solutions as if they were their own and serving as a helpful sounding board for their ideas. Students, on the other hand, benefited deeply in terms of their own growth, learning and discovery of 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” as well. For some such as Victor Zhu (NUS, Quantitative Finance) of Team Hatch, his participation in the Challenge confirmed his 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 by 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.
Most 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 opportunity to learn from their own projects, from other finalists, and from other people they met from the social enterprise ecosystem.
The journey continues …
For many of the participants, the Challenge did not end with its completion. Jasmine Tan (NUS, BBA), who participated in the 2016 and 2017 editions, 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 empower persons with special needs, were keen to continue their involvement in the venture because of the sense of ownership the students developed through 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 for certain: the Challenge helped to build bridges for a community of change agents to move towards long-term sustainable development in this region.