Edited by Dr KK Tse

A local social entrepreneur Ms Deborah Wan (溫麗友) has won the 2008 Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs Award presented by the Hong Kong Women Professionals and Entrepreneurs Association. The award honors and celebrates the achievements of women in Hong Kong who have made significant contribution to their professions, business environment and society. These women are also outstanding in providing a strong example to business leaders, peers and youth alike, in exercising values of integrity and high ethical standards. This is the first time that a social entrepreneur is honored by this award. Congratulations!

A Pioneer Social Entrepreneur

Ms Wan is well known in the social sector in Hong Kong. She is the Chief Executive Officer of New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NLPRA) (新生精神康復會), a non-governmental organization providing psychiatric rehabilitation services for ex-mentally ill and the mentally handicapped. She is also the Chair of the Commission on Work & Employment of Asia-Pacific Region, Rehabilitation International.

Ms Wan is a graduate of the University of Hong Kong and a Registered Social Worker. She has served as the CEO of NLPRA for the past 28 years and is a pioneer in introducing the social entrepreneurship concept to Hong Kong.

Ms Wan is committed to creating employment and training opportunities for people with psychiatric disability through the establishment of various social enterprises. In 1994, Ms Wan set up a “simulated business” that would now be referred to as a social enterprise. The Kin Sang Market Stall in Tuen Mun created a real work situation in which people with psychiatric disability could interact with customers. The project was well received by the community and won the Outstanding Pioneering Service Project Award from The Hong Kong Council of Social Service as well as the 1997 Lilly Schizophrenia Reintegration Award for outstanding achievement in helping schizophrenics reintegrate into their local communities.

A Series of Social Enterprises

Riding on this first success, Ms Wan went on to create different types of social enterprises to provide diversified opportunities for people with psychiatric disability. Ms.Wan won government cleansing contracts in 1995 and opened convenience stores in Kowloon Hospital in 1997. Catering services were developed when the first New Life Restaurant commenced business in 1999. The restaurant business was awarded the Champion Project of the 2003 Best Practice Award in Social Welfare organized by The Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

Responding to a growing community concern with healthy lifestyles, Ms Wan has set up five Healthy Living Specialty/Organic Shops since 2004. The shops sell organic vegetables grown by the New Life Farm and a variety of organic and health foods.

Up till now, a total of 19 social enterprises have been developed, including vegetable stall, fruit stall, convenience stores, restaurants, light refreshment kiosk, healthy living specialty/organic shops, souvenir shop, eco-tourism, cleansing service, property management service and coffee shop. Together these enterprises have created 223 positions for people with psychiatric disability, the disadvantaged and able-bodied, and they have provided 457 training placements for service users. The 19 social enterprises generate an annual turnover of more than HK$25 million with a small profit.

A Role Model and an Inspiration

Ms Wan has been a role model for fellow social workers, but she does not think that every social worker could become a social entrepreneur. She feels that social workers are trained and socialized in different ways and it would be unrealistic to expect all of them could be comfortable in creating and leading social enterprises.

Although Ms Wan is herself a social worker without any business operation experience, she has strong business sense with proactive attitude of not getting frustrated and not giving up when facing difficult problems. She could always find a way to solve the trickiest problems. She taught herself how to carry out market analyses, location selection, risk assessment, as well as formulating marketing and promotion strategies, she makes every effort to maintain the viability and sustainability of the business. Customers’ feedback is always taken into consideration through periodic surveys for continuous improvement.

Ms Wan considers that the single most important factor for anyone to become a social entrepreneur is the commitment to the dual objectives of social enterprises, that is, social mission and financial sustainability. The key word is COMMITMENT. Very often one may have the knowledge of the dual objectives, but commitment to it is quite another thing. She observes that more often social workers would retreat to the social mission side when the financial challenges prove too overwhelming. This is hardly the way to run a social enterprise.

A New Mission and Challenge

Having won the prestigious award, Ms Wan is setting herself a new challenge: to inspire and enable business people to become social entrepreneurs. This is an admirable and most timely task. I am sure Ms Wan would be very innovative in approaching this challenge, I venture to offer two modest suggestions for Ms Wan.

First, please do not leave out the social workers. Leverage your experience in social entrepreneurship to continue to help inspire and transform social workers into social entrepreneurs. Second, try to work with a lady training consultant in creating some high power workshops for the community. I am absolutely sure that these would have a major impact on the citizen sector.