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Building a business and community through empathy

Sogurt founder Lee Li Ping has created a community for her female employees.

Apart from being an all-day dining cafe as well as serving the brand's signature self-serve frozen yogurt, KARA Cafe and Dessert Bar in Bukit Timah is also a perfect venue to host community events organised by schools, churches and other organisations.

WHEN Lee Li Ping founded frozen yogurt brand Sogurt in 2010, three months after graduating from university, she had a larger purpose: To build "healthy individuals, families and communities".

Sogurt was the first to introduce the concept of a fully self-serve frozen yogurt store in Singapore. The brand's soft-serve recipe offered a healthy low-fat, high calcium product. The company's staff were made up almost entirely of part-timers and, due to the nature of the business and its branding, attracted many female students to its ranks.

Only a few years older than her employees, Ms Lee made a conscious effort to connect personally with each of them; helping them deal with personal as well as work issues. "I could understand their mindset as they were only a few years younger than me. I could understand their struggles, hopes, dreams and aspirations. I was not just building a business but also a community," she said. "The conversations were not just about work; we would talk about boyfriends, family, world affairs."

These casual sessions grew organically and, while never formalised, became a key part of her efforts to build Sogurt into a family. Not only did her efforts create a "safe space" for these young people to bond with their peers, it also helped to improve their performance at work. "Connecting with my employees also helped them to reach their potential, and overcome certain barriers. This helped them in their work," she explained.

Sogurt was an Honouree in the Brands for Good 2019 Awards in the "Workplace - People Development" category.

Sogurt's business grew and, at the height of its expansion, had some eight outlets across the island. As her "family" expanded, Ms Lee had to appoint "outlet captains" to continue fostering a sense of community.

However, in the face of tough business conditions, Ms Lee decided to consolidate Sogurt into one flagship outlet and introduce a new concept. This led to the opening of KARA Cafe and Dessert Bar in 2017. The café features all-day dining as well as the brand's signature self-serve frozen yogurt. The space at Bukit Timah also serves as a venue to host community events organised by schools, churches and other organisations.

At the same time, the company introduced a new line of locally-produced frozen yogurt ice-cream with probiotics. Today, the company has over 20 part-time and full-time employees made up of locals and foreigners. Helping Ms Lee mentor her young employees is her general manager, Lora, a Filipina who has been working at Sogurt for the past five years. Said Ms Lee: "She's truly played a pivotal role in mentoring, training and grooming our Singaporean millennials!"

While Sogurt may have consolidated its footprint, Ms Lee believes that through Kara and her dedicated staff, she can continue her mission of "building love, joy and friendships in all we do".

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