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Jewellery designing with a heart
THERE are certain attributes and misconceptions about people with autism that make it harder for them to gain employment.
A report by the International Labour Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that only 5 per cent of people with disabilities have a job compared to approximately 98 per cent of the general population.
Yet, this did not deter Stephanie Choo, founder of Eden + Elie, from hiring this group of people. Today, she has 10 employees with autism who are artisans for the Singapore-based jewellery brand, whose jewellery are all hand-made using an intricate bead-weaving process which the artisans are trained in.
Examples of Eden + Elie's work include The Modern Peranakan Collection Editions I and II which are inspired by the nyonya kebayas worn by Peranakan women and the Cherry Blossom Capsule Collection, which features a pattern specifically woven to convey the ebb and flow of the flower's cycle. Both collections comprise a set of necklace, earring and bangle.
The company has also collaborated with brands such as Ascott and Singapore Airlines.
The latter teamed up with Eden + Elie to launch the Eden + Elie Kebaya Blue Limited Edition Set. The design of the jewellery set was inspired by the iconic blue kebaya worn by the Singapore Girl.
The company was also selected as one of the local designers to present its collections at the Fashion Showcase at the 33rd Asean summit organised by the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore (TAFF) in November 2018.
Ms Choo developed an interest in this area after working on a design project with the State and Family Courts. Hoping to blend her love for design with social good, she started Eden + Elie in 2015.
After testing the market's response to the products by first launching a website and selling the jewellery at department stores such as Takashimaya and Tangs, she felt that the company was ready to train and work with a group of artisans to meet the production demand.
Hence, the hunt began.
Ms Choo met some representatives from SGEnable in October 2016 at a social enterprise conference organised by non-profit organisation raiSE.
The meeting subsequently led to the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) being identified as a suitable partner for Eden + Elie, and the rest is history.
Jacelyn Lim, deputy executive director of ARC, said: "With the right training, support and structures in place, people on the autism spectrum can excel and be valuable employees for companies."
She added that adults with autism have their strengths, such as intense focus and concentration levels, strong attention to detail and being methodical - all attributes which made this group of people an asset to Eden + Elie.
ARC matched adults with autism who had completed their education with participating businesses, where they would be trained in the required skillset in their allocated workshops at the Enabling Village, a community space for the disabled to learn and interact.
The artisans with autism are sensitive to noise and require a lot of visual material. Hence, Ms Choo made efforts in designing a conducive working environment for them, such as having stable work surfaces and a tackable surface to pin materials up.
One of the walls of the workspace was also painted blue to make the space feel more like a living area and not an office.
Ms Choo said that her company is committed to providing work opportunities to adults with autism.
She said: "At Eden + Elie, we work with communities in need by developing them into highly-skilled artisans. By doing so, we not only provide jobs but offer a means for our artisans to become more independent, engaged and fulfilled as they gain mastery in what they do."
When asked about the sustainability of the business model, Ms Choo said Eden + Elie is no different from any other business as strategy, acumen and foresight are still needed.
She added that her company is a good example of a growing social enterprise that delivers both financial and social outcomes.
"We broke even early in our journey and we've set strong revenue goals for growth in the last three years we've been in business," said Ms Choo.
"Given the opportunities we see, we believe that our ability to navigate the competitive space of jewellery will continue to prepare us for the future."
As for future plans, Ms Choo said she hopes to build on the company's strengths in design and deepen its social impact. Eden + Elie is looking at ways to grow beyond Singapore as well.
She added that the social enterprise scene in Singapore seemed to be growing as more people are becoming more aware and motivated to address societal needs and hire people with disabilities.
"It would be exciting for us to really think about designing work around a larger spectrum of needs and abilities, such that we create new types of jobs, new definitions of work that include communities of individuals that are left out of our "regular" definitions of work," said Ms Choo.
"To me, that would be true innovation in the workplace."
- This article is part of a biweekly series highlighting Social Enterprises in Singapore. Social enterprises provide business solutions to address unmet and emerging social needs and gaps. Visit www.raise.sg to learn more about these socially impactful companies.