Aaron Empowers People Through His Three Social Enterprises 

What’s your story?
I manage 3 organisations, (1) Etch Empathy, (2) Fortitude Culina Pte Ltd and (3) Cycling Without Age Singapore.

Etch Empathy is a non-profit that provides skills development workshops for the visually impaired in the areas of handicrafts and culinary skills for independent living. Etch Empathy also provides community leadership training for youths, developing their community leadership skills and empowering them to create the impact needed to make the world a better place.

Fortitude Culina is a social enterprise that hires the visually impaired as chefs and is currently designing and building Asia’s first experiential and inclusive cafe.

Cycling Without Age Singapore is a charity that aims to reduce social isolation in seniors by creating opportunities for intergenerational bonding.

What excites you most about your industry?
The ability to bring smiles and empower underserved communities. I love learning new things everyday from the people I serve, as well as creating missions to provide more inclusive environments. I am an engineering graduate, but I am driven to engage in community and youth development through social entrepreneurship in the Food & Beverage sector.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Every year I send youth teams to Laos to serve visually impaired communities. This year, I had planned to extend my reach to China and Vietnam, but unfortunately due to COVID19, we could not travel. I do intend to copy my social enterprise, edited to suit the culture of other ASEAN cities, and put my footprint in major cities in ASEAN.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
My homeland, Singapore. It always has grants and funding support for social enterprises that have novel ideas to create long lasting impact in communities and make the world a better place. Singapore, being the hub of Asia, has diverse talent and innovative people.This happens when there is an intersection of different cultures within a participatory design process.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Do what you love and love what you do. Stay humble, focus, dream big and never give up.” This is from my “Minister of Home Affairs” (aka my spouse) who is super supportive of my work even though there has been a drop in take-home pay due to my career switch.

Who inspires you?
Prof. Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank. After reading his book, “Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs,” I learnt the words Social Enterprise, and since then, I have never looked back. And I continue to learn and strive to be a successful social entrepreneur.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Being a social entrepreneur is about managing 3 bottom lines, financial, social, and environmental. In the past, I learned about this sector by reading books and talking to other social entrepreneurs, and I thought, how difficult can it be? During COVID19, I have had more time to reflect on my milestones and progress, and I was blown away. To be environmentally friendly, my wares are more expensive than other Food & Beverage outlets. To be social, I hire two visually imapired chefs and invest significant time and money to empower them, so that they can be as productive as a sighted chef. The last thing I juggle is finance, wherein I constantly need to think of alternative revenue streams and partners. It’s really not easy and it isn’t surprising that many social enterprises fold. Now I truly understand and feel the pain of a social entrepreneur.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I am not sure, as I believe success is a journey not a destination. Maybe I would travel more to have greater exposure to learning.

How do you unwind?
I play with my kids. Playing with them helps me clear and relax my mind.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan, because I like the Taiwanese food culture and Taiwan is also a very family and tourist friendly country.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Doraemon” comic books, by Fujiko F. Fujo. They help you to laugh, be creative, and think out of the pocket.

Shameless plug for your business:
Chefs who have lost the ability to use their full sight, does not mean they have no vision. They aim to be Michelin Star rated and Master Chefs in their own rights.

How can people connect with you?
Social media, or by phone. But I prefer face to face over a meal overlooking some nice scenery.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connects’ series of more than 500 interviews

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Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder and CEO of MBH Corporation PLC. He is the author of three best-selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’, ‘Agglomerate’ and ‘Entrepreneurial Investing’.

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