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Bagful of opportunities

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Wise founder KT Soon (in black and white shawl) with Sales Team @ i'mable Gift Market 2019 held on Nov 23 at the Enabling Village.

Singapore

WATCHING Noraini Bte Adnan introduce the latest bag collection, it is hard to believe that she was once too shy to speak to anyone.

The 48-year-old was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was an infant, and that led to a lack of self confidence growing up.

However, things turned around after she found employment at Wise Enterprise, creator of fashion brand Flax.

The brand, which makes bags, pouches and laptop cases, was started by Wise Enterprise in 2014, and founder KT Soon created the company with the intention to provide gainful employment for the socially disadvantaged.

People from the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore (MDAS) are the designers of the leather handbags for Flax series, and sales staff members are hired from the various homes in Singapore.

Ms Soon said that in hiring this group of people, it was important to focus on their abilities.

"For example, Noraini is able to converse and connect with the customers, so we trained her in the sales aspect," said Ms Soon.

Hence, after going through a three-week training at Singapore institute of Retail Studies, Ms Noraini is now dishing style tips to customers at the company.

"It is hard to find a job due to the stigma attached to people who have certain conditions like mine. Before I found this job, I did data entry work at Singapore Cheshire Home where I was at," said Ms Noraini, who is one of the pioneer batch of fashion consultations in the company.

She added that training was tough, and learning the various products and fashion trend was par for the course. But now, "after so many years, I can now differentiate real and fake leather," she said with a laugh.

However, there are certain aspects of the job where the employee of six years requires some assistance. That is where Emily Goh - who is part of the older group of workers that Wise Enterprise also hires - comes into the picture.

Ms Goh said: "It is meaningful to be able to help people like Noraini. There is no much difference working with her as compared to an able-bodied person. I have learnt a lot from them, for example, values such as humility.

Most challenging

"In fact, working at my age - in a new environment, having to learn the various bag names and prices - now that is more of a challenge."

Founder Ms Soon said that having to design the business model around this group of people was one of the biggest obstacles.

"The most challenging part is identifying the service that we want to provide - and, at the same time, suitable for this group of people. For example, it would be more tedious for them if we were to enter the food & beverage industry, due to the nature of their condition." she said.

The next hurdle was the procurement of materials, and turning the designs into finished products.

"We had to test the fabric, choose the colours, and produce 300 bags per design as that is the minimum requirement for the factory orders," said Ms Soon.

The price tags for the bags range from approximately S$100 to S$300, and the entire process can take three to six months.

To show that they mean business, Wise Enterprise invested in a software similar to the one used in the Milan Fashion Institute, and the youths at MDAS are paid per design, and a royalty fee for every bag sold.

A spokesperson from MDAS said: "The project started in 2017, when Wise Enterprise wanted to provide job opportunities for people with disabilities. Their pre-requisite was that designers had to be proficient in Adobe Illustrator. Our designers had learned Adobe Illustrators some years back and were found to be suitable.

"It was also a job our members could do. It is often assumed that there is no future for people with muscular dystrophy because they cannot go out to work. However, others tend to overlook the fact that there are other jobs that could be suitable for people with disability. They just need the opportunities, exposure and guidance - just like anyone else when they step into a new environment."

Ms Soon said that one of the other issues faced when running a social enterprise is that people sometimes equate it to being a charity.

"We then have to clarify the misconception. We do not rely on the social angle and we let our items speak for itself.

"We still pay rent, and face the same challenges that other businesses do, just that we have an added one of recreating and redesigning jobs to include this group of people," she said.

When asked about the company's revenue, Ms Soon said: "We managed to break even in some years when we get orders to do corporate gifts. But it is hard this year for obvious reasons. Government perks are good to have, but we cannot rely on it."

In fact, the company was in the midst of looking for a retail place - they have a kiosk at Tan Tock Seng Hospital - when Covid-19 hit.

The practising psychotherapist said: "The company was closed for two weeks when Dorscon Orange was declared. We have a vulnerable group of employees working for us (older and the physically disadvantaged staff) and we cannot put their health at risk. When we re-opened, due to our location of our kiosk at the TTSH-CHi linkway, we had shorter working hours and made the wearing of mask compulsory. Now with Circuit Breaker month, as we are not in the essential services, we are closed.

"We will tap the various grants available to tide us through these months. When we resume business at our kiosk, it will be some months before sales will pick up to where we were when we opened last year. We will try to slowly expand then. I give myself ten years to make this business self-sustainable. Hopefully, by then, I can pass it on to someone else."

Ms Soon added: "My goal and wish is to see all working-class women own a bag from Wise."

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