On 7th November 2015, the AirAsia Foundation launched its first public event, Destination: Good, at Nexus Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur. This first edition of Destination: Good brought together corporates, social entrepreneurs, academics, students, and capacity builders from across Southeast Asia. Participants discussed themes of inclusive business and the social enterprise ecosystem in ASEAN. This was followed by a showcase of products and services from 30 innovative ASEAN social enterprises at a Social Enterprise Marketplace.

Motivations to Start Businesses With Purpose

Panel Discussion 1: Inclusive Business examined the motivations and methods in engaging with socially inclusive business. Moderated by McKinsey & Co. Head of External Relations (Southeast Asia) Cecilia Ma Zecha, the panel consisted of business leaders who practise social engagement in diverse forms: Richard Eu, Group CEO of Eu Yan Sang International, Tony Fernandes, Group CEO of AirAsia, Shinta Widjaja Kamdani, CEO of Sintesa Group, and Vichien Phongsathorn, President and Group CEO, Premier Group of Companies.

On his motivation for starting a business, Fernandes stated that he wanted to “look after people better” through creating a family culture within the company, where each employee could “live their dream” and collectively give back to society. “Doing good is not about writing a cheque. It’s about using your assets to help communities around the world and educating your staff,” he said.

Eu concurred, emphasizing how the ethos of “Eu Yan Sang” was inherent in its name, which communicates “caring for mankind”. This was embedded in the value system of his family, and was integrated into the rest of the family-run business.

Although Kamdani similarly found herself born into a family business where conversations around the dinner table often involved work, she was hungry for more than profit. “What is this? Where are we going? Where is our group going?” were difficult questions she began to ask, in her bid to include social values in the key performance indicators. This was especially a challenge given the hierarchical structure of the company.

At 23, Phongsathorn had ambitions to become successful in the corporate world by aged 40, and choosing to give back to society after that. However, he has managed to strike a balance of generating both financial and social impact in his work. This has kept him going so far, and he has no intention to stop.

Shinta Kamdani (CEO, Sintesa Group) relating the challenges she sought to overcome in striving to transform Sintesa Group, a family business, to a socially engaged company with a triple bottom line.

Methods of Creating Social Change  

Fernandes advised budding entrepreneurs to look at the top line, manage cost, and derive cash flow. Ask yourself if there is a market for what you are doing, and surround yourself with great people. “In AirAsia we have 17, 000 brains working for us,” he says, emphasizing the importance of a good team, which he manages with a flat structure as far as possible, implementing ideas from members of the staff, regardless of their position. Strong culture is a magnet for talent, he said: “If you create a culture that allows talent to flourish, talent will come to you.” Eu agreed, sharing how his company’s values emphasised care for the staff, and avoided retrenching them where possible.

To solve social problems, cross-sectoral collaboration is key. “When we talk about solving social issues, normally we look to the government to provide leadership. We also look to the social sectors – the NPOs, NGOs, but it is still not enough,” said Phongsathorn. “But collaboration between business and civil society is required if we want to see big change.” Kamdani agreed: “We can’t do this alone,” said Kamdani. “The private sector has to work together.”

However, government leaders play a crucial role in living values of risk-taking if they truly want nations to be entrepreneurial, the panel unanimously agreed. Success stories of social enterprises could help the government become more aware of the value they bring to society.

Demonstrating value is fundamental to gaining trust and buy-in when working with external stakeholders, advised Phongsathorn. “What’s in for you? What’s in it for me?”

Even among existing communities that attempt to create change, more transparency   and awareness is required to move beyond “small silos and big silos”, Phongsathorn observed. Collaboration requires openness to working with others, preceded by a fundamental paradigm shift. “We’re not looking at ourselves as ‘Sintesa group’. We’re looking at it as an Indonesia organisation,” said Kamdani, on the importance of seeing the big picture, and linking arms with other companies, the government, and civil society to create social change.

Platforms such as Destination: Good serve as an avenue for a meeting of minds between corporates and social entrepreneurs. The panel agreed that best practices from across the region could be shared at similar events, for example, lessons from “shining stars” of social entrepreneurship, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mindsets in Making Entrepreneurs

Collaboration is also significant among stakeholders who invest in entrepreneurs. Beyond funding, entrepreneurs need an ecosystem to thrive, Kamdani said. The question is: how do we bring others along to develop ideas like this?

Her answer: mentors. “Go out there and start mentoring,” she advises entrepreneurs. Though it is a sacrifice of time and energy, it is, in her view, a worthwhile pursuit. “We can’t be looking at ourselves,” she says. “We must also look out and see how we can open up to others.” Access to finances also allows the ecosystem to grow, through angel investing with the right business model.

Reflecting on his own experience as an entrepreneur, Fernandes said that it was about “trying”. “I don’t think you can teach it,” he says, reflecting on the courage required to risk a stable salary to start a business. “Entrepreneurship is about passion, it’s about an idea, it’s about never saying no.”

Here’s a series of exclusive video interviews with the movers and shakers of Southeast Asia ecosystem by our team at the Social Venture Lab @ NUS.