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Nailing the concept of a social enterprise

The Nail Social has successfully combined business with its goal of making a social impact.

The Nail Social uses products that are sustainable and non-toxic - and it also serves wines on weekends.

The Social Space supports other socially conscious businesses and non-profits.


WATCHING a Netflix programme on an iPad and sipping a glass of wine while getting one's nails done - that is a regular scene of The Nail Social on a weekend.

Founder Cheryl Ou said: "We want customers to enjoy the experience. We are looking into having meditation apps while customers get their nails done so that they can have a more relaxing and fulfilling session."

Ms Ou said: "When we first started four years ago, the concept of a social enterprise was unheard of. There were misconceptions such as customers thinking that we were a charity and hence did not expect good service. It was tough initially but I think we managed to prove to the public that we can be a viable business that provides good quality and still have a strong social impact."

Candice Muller, a customer at The Nail Social, said that the company provides a much better service than other nail salons.

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She added: "They use sustainable and non-toxic products. And the fact that they hire women with social difficulties convinced me that this way of doing business will be the only way in the future."

From Ms Ou's previous negative experience with an investor in a hostel business venture, the founder knew that she wanted to set up a business that had a social conscience as well.

And when she got in touch with the Family Service Centres and shelters, Ms Ou discovered that a lot of women were having difficulty finding jobs.

"The single mums needed flexible working hours (which may pose as a challenge when seeking employment), and a lot of them were interested in the beauty industry. Currently, besides single mums, we also engage youths at risk and ex-offenders," Ms Ou said.

The business's revenue is on track and has expanded since it started at Haji Lane. Chinatown was ticked off the company's expansion map as its second outlet opened there last year, together with The Social Space, a socially conscious multi-concept store.

Ms Ou said it was the next natural step to take as it encompassed a tea bar and cafe that could reach out to the masses and promote a greater awareness of sustainability.

"They are two separate business entities (The Nail Social and The Social Space), but the social mission remains very much intertwined and the concepts complementary," she added. "With The Social Space, there is an evolved social mission as we can hire people from a more diverse range of background, such as persons with special needs, mental health issues or certain disabilities. I also noticed that when the ex-offenders work alongside people with special needs, they become very patient. It is a learning experience for all of them as they get to interact with people from different backgrounds/circumstances."

Ninety per cent of the firm's staff are beneficiaries themselves and through the company's support for other socially conscious businesses and non-profits, "we want to show our staff that despite their background and challenges, they are able to use their skills to give back to society".

When asked about the challenges that such a business model posed, Ms Ou said: "It is in balancing our social impact, our customer's needs and our business needs. Due to the nature of the people we work with, our role is not just of an employer, but many times also as a social worker, counsellor, therapist all rolled into one, and this can be pretty mentally draining at times. At the same time, we need to keep our customers happy and maintain the nitty-gritty of the business to ensure that we remain financially viable and sustainable, so as to be able to continue supporting our social cause. This is the reality of the situation."

But she added it was all about managing the staff and customers' expectations.

"After speaking to them, you realise the employees' predicament, and they somehow learn from the incident as well and become better versions of themselves, and grow with the business."

An employee - who declined to be named - said that the job has helped provide some stability in her life.

She added: "As a single mother of six children, it has been hard for me to hold down a full time job as I have to take regular absences to deal with my family commitments, and most times employers are not able to accept that. At The Nail Social, my bosses are very understanding of my situation ... They have also helped me through some very tough times in my personal life, and they treat me as more than just an employee."

Not wanting to rely on the fact that they are a social enterprise, the founder has been continually innovating and growing the business - while also retaining the regular customers.

"There are already grants and financial support for SEs which is great but we still need to ensure that our business is viable and is able to support itself. Being too reliant on grants is not sustainable in the long run," Ms Ou said.

Hence, the company is looking to target different revenue streams by hosting corporate events and organising workshops or talks.

"Most of the women who apply for the vocational training programme at The Nail Social are single mothers who are not able to work on weekends due to childcare arrangements. At the salon, weekdays are typically much slower than weekends, so we don't need as much staff. To tackle this problem, we are now actively looking to secure more corporate event bookings during the weekdays, so if the plan pans out, we will be able to provide more single mothers with employment," said Ms Ou.

The Nail Social customer Ms Muller said: "We are all part of a community, so the way we consume has an impact on others and our environment. The Social Space and The Nail Social meet my standards of consumption and I feel like I am doing some good in the world."

  • 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 to learn more about these socially impactful companies.

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