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High hopes, higher yield
Published on Thursday, 09 Jun 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Howard Ling
Joe Leung
Virginia Li

The social enterprise sector opens up a whole new world of opportunities to business professionals who aspire to take on more social responsibility.

Also known as "the third sector", social ventures refer to businesses driven by social objectives rather than the need to maximise profits. To sustain business or to achieve philanthropic goals, the venture typically reinvests its profits.

"A good social enterprise involves three parties - the government which contributes the seed money, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that coordinate human resources, and private businesses that provide sponsorships," says Howard Ling, head of HKCSS-HSBC Social Enterprise Business Centre (SEBC).

Ling, who received a master's degree in business administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2004, is an entrepreneur who had worked for Nestle and LVMH. A year ago, he worked with the Hong Kong Movie Stars Sports Association Charities to set up Happy Veggies, a vegetarian restaurant that hires hearing-impaired staff.

The restaurant, at 99 Hennessy Road in Wan Chai, has earned rave reviews for its quality food and excellent service and managed to break even on the second month of its opening.

"Running a social enterprise enables you to utilise your management ability which is about leveraging resources," says Ling.

The key is to find the right team for the right business and turn handicaps into strengths, he adds.

Ling says people who are hearing-impaired have a stronger taste sensitivity, which makes them excellent chefs and members of the catering staff. Vegetarian food is now the trend and is likely to attract health-conscious diners, he adds.

"They contribute to the business with their strengths and we complement them with strategies," Ling says.

Managing a social enterprise requires business management skills and is therefore good training for aspiring managers.

"You must have diverse skills. You need to know business concepts and be flexible and adaptable to carry out projects with very limited resources," says Virginia Li, a former marketing director with IKEA who joined New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association a year ago as business director.

Li supervises the association's social enterprises, which include retail, catering and eco-tourism businesses. "You also need to build a very good network of individuals and private businesses from which you could ask help," she adds.

Joe Leung, mental-care business manager of the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong, says there's a "double bottom line" for social enterprises when hiring management talent - candidates must have business knowledge and a genuine passion for social work such as helping disadvantaged or marginalised groups.

Leung says that people used to think that business and conscience don't mix. "Corporations now talk about social responsibility while NGOs know they need to be sustainable," he adds.

Ling says that while the salary in the third sector is lower than market average, there's something priceless about it. You may get 20 per cent to 30 per cent less but you will be happier, Ling says. You will also meet "a wide variety of amazing people" because of the multi-disciplinary nature of social ventures, he adds.

"What's the point of making money if you aren't happy?" he asks.

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