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Tembusu Talks: An Interview With Seng Choon

Could you share your career background and how did you transform your experience to become a social entrepreneur?

Hi, I am Seng Choon, the founder of Project Dignity. I graduated with a master's degree in engineering, I used to work in Europe, China and the United States. In 1994, I returned to Singapore with plans to start my own consultancy firm.

My parents once told me, “In your first 25 years of living, you learn and grow; between 25 to 50, you earn and build your reputation; after 50, you have to give back to society.” — and it stuck. With giving back to society in mind, I decided to dedicate one day a month to doing something meaningful for others. It all started with hiring a bus to take the elderly on a day tour every month.

Being a consultant, I always thought “If I could make the rich richer, why can’t I do the same for the less fortunate?”. I realized I could do more than that. In 2006, I conceived the idea of establishing a hawker stall run by people with disabilities — the inception of Dignity Kitchen.

How did you build your first F&B stall from scratch and what were the challenges faced? What was the response from the public?

With the disabled at the heart of Dignity Kitchen’s team, I first needed to skill them. I spent two years developing the curriculum needed to run a hawker stall while considering their circumstances in order to guarantee a comfortable and conducive environment. Being a business, I had to ensure that operations were sustainable without having to on others for financing.

There definitely were hurdles along the way, which we were able to overcome and continually improved. The first two years were exceptionally tough, after losing $700k. It was difficult when friends stopped picking up my calls, but it hit the hardest when my mum passed away. She was always a pillar of support who told me not to give up. Eventually, I managed to secure financial assistance from my family to continue the business.

Our staff used to don badges to identify their disabilities, such as being deaf, blind, having mental health issues etc. The intention was to promote empathy, hoping that people would be more understanding. I even wished the badge to be worn with dignity, as a symbol of my staff overcoming their disability, encouraging them to be proud of what they achieved.

But this train of thought was too idealistic.

One day, a guy asked me, “Aren’t you worried that the mentally challenged people would put dirty things in the food?”. I was taken aback by the stigma and doubt and reluctantly asked my staff to take off the badges. Our grit and tenacity were rewarded when we turned profitable in the third year! We then expanded Dignity Kitchen to Hong Kong.

Today we celebrate our success at Project Dignity, in becoming a welcoming place for the disabled while transforming the public perception in both Singapore and Hong Kong!

Food waste problem is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore. Are there any initiatives from Dignity Kitchen to reduce food waste and promote awareness on this topic?

Food Waste is a common challenge faced in the food industry. In Dignity Kitchen, our primary goal is to prevent the generation of food waste. We do so by having an experienced team forecast daily operation demands and then purchasing the right amount of ingredients to minimise excess. Furthermore, we train our staff on proper handling and storing ingredients to preserve freshness and quality, while reducing spoilage.

Another way to eliminate waste would be to upcycle it. Fruit peels from our stalls are fermented into enzymes, using a formulation developed by biologists. We can use it for cleaning floors or sell them at $5 per bottle.

Project Dignity has also started Dignity Mama to support families in need to start their own businesses. How did you come up with the idea and get support from the local hospitals?

Dignity Mama is a second-hand bookstore run by mothers of children with disabilities. Many people often overlook the welfare of parents who are caring for children with special needs. Some of them are struggling finically, but mental strain also takes its toll, which is even harder to notice. Sometimes, the partners simply run off! This leaves the spouse in a difficult position to solely care for the challenged children while being the sole breadwinner of the family.

We set up Dignity Mama in the hospitals where the children receive treatment and care, hoping to create a community where mothers can work together in relief, knowing that their children are taken care of. When visiting Dignity Mama stores, the sight of the challenged children – whom I love to call my Little Managers, helping around by arranging bookshelves is simply heart-warming.

The project commenced in 2013 and with the ardent support of the community, we have Dignity Mama stores located in five hospitals across Singapore. Every month, we recycle thousands of books, while providing employment opportunities for the mothers.

Any advice that you would like to give to your fellow entrepreneurs?

If you have a dream, go for it. Failure is only when you stop trying. The key question that I would like everyone to ask themselves is “What is the legacy that you would like to leave behind in this world when you die?”


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