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Agents for change
BUSINESS VERSUS THE ARTS & SUSTAINABILITY
Ravi Chidambaram, 57, President and Co-founder of TC Capital
"I have over three decades of experience in the investment banking industry. In 2002, I co-founded TC Capital, a pan-Asian boutique investment bank based in Singapore which specialises in M&A advisory and capital market transactions in Asia.
One of the things I've always been passionate about is the arts – especially music. So in 2015, I co-founded Splash Blue, a London-based record label. We take four or fi ve young jazz artists each year from around the world and give them a chance to record a fi rst album. The fi rst artist we took on was a Singapore act called The Steve McQueens.
The pandemic, unfortunately, has been a real tragedy for artists. Live shows, for instance, are the livelihood of musicians. That's really the only way they're getting paid today. (Record sales have plummeted because of piracy and streaming.) And for live shows to disappear for a year or two is absolutely devastating on their fi nancial position. I'm an advisory council member of The Foundation for the Arts & Social Enterprise in Singapore. If you ask me, the government needs to step up and do even more for artists. The arts should be recognised as a vocation and deserving of full government support. We've reached a stage where people choose to be in the arts because they're extremely passionate about it. They should be supported directly through government subsidies. The private sector has long been a huge patron of the arts. But those budgets will probably get cut because private companies are hurting too.
I'm also interested in the issues of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. And through my research, I've found some contradictory trends. Some of the research suggests that companies that put sustainability and social impact at the core of their business strategy are not necessarily rewarded with more customers. At the end of day, most customers go for the cheap, trusted, wide-available product – not necessarily the eco-friendly product, which tends to be more expensive.
What I tell people is, you should focus on your overall social impact mission, but prioritise the fi nancial a little more initially. Sometimes, you need to be a lot bigger fi nancially, before you can have a social impact. When early-stage companies try to juggle both social impact and fi nancial, sometimes they fail. When you've actually won over customers, attract more investments, have a bigger revenue and profi t base to work from, then you can start implementing more of your social agenda. At the same time, you must not lose sight of why you started the company in the fi rst place. The pandemic, unfortunately, has made all these challenges that much harder."
Joe Tan, 37, Social Entrepreneur, Founder of Love Action Project
"Covid-19 hasn't completely put the brakes on activities involving social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. But it has reduced the scale of our projects. In this climate, government funding has been very helpful in keeping us going.
On the people side, I'm happy to report that Singaporeans have been more open to donating and helping out in social causes than ever before. When I started six years ago, people didn't even understand what "social enterprise" meant. They thought it functioned like a charity, which they can engage for cheaper rates – or even for free. There was a lack of understanding on the work that social enterprises do in bridging the public and charities.
But during this pandemic, I've seen some interesting developments, and I think Singaporeans have matured somewhat. People now understand that giving can encompass actions beyond money; that they can get to know their benefi ciaries and make the relationship more personal; and use their expertise (in marketing, legal, photography or any other fi eld) to help this sector thrive.
It somewhat mirrors my own journey early on: I started out as a volunteer for grocery runs for the less fortunate. A group of us would meet in a void deck one day, put groceries into bags, and go from door to door to hand them out to low-income families. But after doing that for a while, I felt that I could do more. I wanted to work with the organisations to create events and campaigns that were socially impactful and involved elements such as music, games and other fun activities. And that's how I started Love Action Project in 2014, which helps companies organise their CSR activities in fun, fulfi lling ways.
In May and June this year, we managed to organise the fi fth edition of Music For A Cause, pivoting from our traditional on site Music Festival into the Facebook Live space. We initiated two fundraising campaigns, #fundagig and #fundahawker, and raised close to S$15,000 to support musicians, hawkers and frontliners. The funds raised from #fundagig helped musicians tide over the lack of on-site gigs in these Covid times by remunerating them for their personal livestreams. The funds raised under #fundahawker were used to buy food from the hawkers, which was then distributed to frontliners – who, in this case, we identifi ed as train station and bus interchange staff.
My advice to people who wish to start a social enterprise now is to moderate your expectations of the change you hope to eff ect, and don't be hasty in scaling your enterprise.
You should instead focus on sustaining yourself and the business, and be open to taking on smaller side projects while you work on your bigger ones. Persevere and, as things get better, people will become more familiar with your work, and you'll have a better chance of making the impact you want."
THE POWER OF TECHNOLOGY
Leanne Robers, 36, Co-Founder of She Loves Tech, a global platform for women-led tech start-ups
"There's some debate about whether technology will save us or ruin us. In many ways, it has saved us, especially during Covid. In the past few months alone, we've seen two to five years' worth of digital transformation. Tech has allowed us to work from home, kids have been able to study from home.
Social commerce has enabled micro-entrepreneurs to sell stuff online in a way that doesn't need capital or even a website, just social media. On a broader scale, tech allows us to accelerate the development of a vaccine for Covid, incorporate machine-learning and data sets. The Singapore government has used tech to disseminate information so much quicker.
She Loves Tech runs a global competition to identify, mentor and raise funds for tech-based start-ups by women. We've raised our global reach significantly (while being entirely online), from 20 countries last year to 30 countries in 2020. Before, we were mostly about physical meetings, but Covid gave us a chance to reset – we had to go online to reach even more entrepreneurs. This year alone, more than 3,500 new companies have applied to us, up from around 1,000 in previous years. We've seen our reach enhanced, and being enabled, by technology.
The most important thing is having a mindset that incorporates technology into your business in a cohesive way. There's a flip side, and that's viewing technology as a one-size-fits-all cure.
Companies use tech as a band-aid solution to tide them over this difficult period. When working remotely, we're seeing retail companies not being able to set up shop fronts. An e-commerce business is very different from a brickand- mortar business – the skill sets are different. Research has shown that companies that adapted a digital-centric mindset have recovered more quickly and built a stronger foundation that can carry them through other crises.
At the crux of it, we take women-led businesses to the next level, help them to scale and be successful. Even if you have a traditional business, you can use an AI solution like chat bots. Tech is not a solution, it's a tool – we teach how to use it to scale up quicker, serve customers better.
Even though tech can be beautiful in many ways it can cause biases if we're not careful. For example, when Amazon was recruiting, the AI input they submitted was skewed toward white males. If the data input is unequal, the output is also going to be unequal.
I think the future is hybrid, a mixture of online and offline. Technology will separate the winners from the losers even faster. People who use tech to put out fires versus people who incorporate tech into their strategy – it's going to take time but those who take a proactive stance will come out winners."
ADAPT & CHANGE
Chris Lee, 49, Founder and Creative Director of cross-discipline design studio Asylum
"Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. A lot of our projects are outside Singapore, so what we've done is kind of improvise and be smart about things. We've done Zoom walkthroughs, we've had Zoom conferences with clients. Though not ideal, it's something we had to do. Because of the pervasiveness of online technology, people do their e-commerce and shop online.
A lot of brands are thinking of how they can move the experiential part such that when they go to a shop it's not just to buy something, but how they can actually get to experience the brand.
The pandemic has spotlighted an issue that's already pervasive. In the last 10 years, clients realised the big shift online. A lot of brands have asked me to design spaces that incorporate a richer experience. How? Create something that you can't get online. We are always mindful that it has to be a lot richer in that context: service, interaction between the brand and the consumer.
The brand statement is important.
A lot of brands are looking to close their regular shops and open a brand temple instead. It's not looking good for malls – the issues were already there but Covid has made it worse. Retail spaces need to be re-engineered; they're not inspiring – every mall has the same brands. Shops outside Orchard Road are doing better than those within the shopping belt.
We try to carve out more interesting spaces, being always mindful of crowds and distancing. People are afraid to see crowds now, so limited exposure is key.
My team all work from home, our projects are mainly in Asia and clients are mostly lifestyle brands. In the last five years I've had designers working for me from their homes in Russia and Holland. Our ‘office' is different now, it covers different time zones. A lot of companies realise they don't need large office spaces anymore. Covid makes it even more of a necessity.
Up to 80 per cent of our projects are outside Singapore, and not being able to supervise construction is an issue. We just launched a hotel in Seoul (The Mondrian in Itaewon) but I haven't been there for a year so I haven't seen it – it's not ideal, but it is what it is.
In future, we might have to have our project management people based in different cities. People still want their social spaces but now, we're designing smaller, more intimate spaces. There's a lot of tech in the details.
Hotels are tech-enabled, there's facial recognition, staggered check-in, a more personal guest experience and less exposure to crowded spaces in general. Restaurants will have more private rooms (very China!) and if theatre design starts with a blank canvas, maybe audiences shouldn't all be facing the stage anymore – a 360-degree view might be more appropriate.
During Circuit Breaker, food gifting was popular, so people were pushed to up their game in packaging for gifts. People crave experiences – if you can't travel you can still seek inspiration from somewhere."
AN APPETITE FOR F&B
Ivan Brehm, 36, chef-owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Nouri and multi-concept space Appetite
"I'd say Covid has obviously had an impact on our business – both negative and positive. The most obvious one is the loss of revenue and the intense despair we all fell into. We couldn't just operate as normal. But instead of taking that as a fait accompli we just really went for it, and it served us. The restaurant started to approach producing food and being creative in a different way, and we also pivoted a new business at the end of it.
What transpired when Circuit Breaker happened, we had to be non-reactionary, to pivot very fast. We could have converted our menus to takeaway and hoped for the best. Instead, we created new takeout items and products (157) and new ways of doing collaborations (18 in total), such as collaborative menus with local food producers and private dining outlets like Benfatto and FatFuku, and (Michelin-starred) Relae in Copenhagen.
We went all-in and we learned a bunch. It was a little nerve-wracking but it paid off and we were profitable.
We learned a crucial thing: stay true to your beliefs. If you have something that underpins that commitment, it doesn't feel flabby. We are very collaborative as a group, we just riff, brainstorm. Generally, the wackiest idea is the one that needed the least convincing. Like an out-of-thebox collaboration with Swee Choon Tim Sum – we weren't afraid to take risks.
We learned to extend the boundaries of the restaurant to include the digital space. Our cheque average was substantially lower, and people who normally wouldn't dine in had the opportunity to experience some of our ideas. Tech was the enabler, and figuring out how to use that to the best advantage is an important part of the conversation.
People with immune deficiency wouldn't survive a Covid outbreak. It's the same with restaurants. If there's a part of the operation that's not sustainable – say, prioritising profit over morale or having clear traffic problems on weekdays versus weekends – any defect that was manageable during normal times was unmanageable during Covid.
Sixty per cent of our vegetables come from our organic farm in Cameron Highlands so there was no disruption.
We paid our staff properly, and little ideas factored into the idea of sustainability. Those Japanese restaurants that relied entirely on supplies from Japan – that's not sustainable in the long run. The incentive now is to drive sustainability, with a capital S, more than anything else. It is no longer viable to operate a business without this.
I think the future of F&B is still up for grabs – we're writing the future as we speak. The one thing we know is that it is time to really do things with principle, to stay steady with your belief systems. I think restaurants that were open for profit only have suffered dramatically whereas places that had a fortified kind of concept that unified their message – those have pivoted quite well.
Appetite opened immediately after Circuit Breaker. F&B investors are typically very risk averse, but restaurants thrive when there's complete alignment between concept and core message. Places with cookie-cutter formats of luxury will suffer. There's a basic disconnect that exists between people in general and spaces with very little intimate interaction. This space brings that connection into the equation – it's not a transactional thing. Any outlet built on fostering meaningful connection between people will succeed, and that's where I get my kicks from."
A NEW DAWN FOR NIGHTLIFE
Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz, 34, Co-founder of the SJS Group, which owns and operates six F&B and nightlife venues
"Covid really exposed strengths and weaknesses – any crisis does that. The way we put the strengths into action quickly, I was very proud. SJS is quite unique in that we have a varied portfolio, from a full-on nightclub (Bang Bang) to a full-on taqueria (Papi's Tacos). Our strategy with Covid is to play a waiting game. Nightlife has been affected since January and there's not much we can do except stay in hibernation mode. It wasn't until March, when I was running from one venue to another, that I had an understanding of how restrictions were affecting the industry.
The way my venues are designed, I always want to feel that they're really fun when busy, but also when they're not crowded. We do this through layout, lighting, fabrics and so on. Even with restrictions, as long as they're fun first, recovery can happen. With nightlife, you're only as good as your last night. If it's fun, the money will come – and there will be a huge demand once the restrictions are over.
In our industry you have to be constantly innovating.
March was the hardest month ever, probably of my life.
At that time there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Once government announcements came, at least we had some help. In New York, my friends in the industry were not so fortunate – they're still closed to indoor dining.
Every day since April, I've said we're so lucky to be here. Bar Milano, a venue that transports you to the streets of Italy, opened in July. The opening was delayed so we had more time to tweak. I was pleasantly surprised with the strength of the market. It came at a perfect time, offering an escape when people can't travel and they've been here for months. Our restaurants are doing really well.
There's a spending power that exists that hasn't faded. If you can't travel, there's discretionary income.
Pre-Covid in F&B and nightlife, I believe there were many people who wanted to go into the industry because they thought it was fun. That's exactly what people did, because there's no barrier to entry except for capital. It's a tough business, with a high rate of failure due to a lack of professionalism in the industry. Now, there'll be a more measured approach. It's a positive in some ways because it'll give those who remain opportunities to expand and grow.
The market will shrink but the professionals aren't going anywhere and the offerings will still be quality a year from now. The veil has been pulled back in F&B and nightlife.
You look at these incredible restaurant companies in the US that had insufficient relief packages, they suffered mass layoffs and huge losses, and gave some insight on ‘what am I getting into?' It's not that easy – I hope all of this wasn't in vain.
At any given time, my partner (Josh Schwartz) and I have many concepts that are fully formed. Where, when and how is where the measured approach comes in. Moving forward, concepts will be tweaked but expansion plans are still there – we'll adapt to the situation. There were moments, especially in March when everything started to take hold, that I didn't know how we would survive. There was no Plan B – this was our whole careers. However, those fears diminished and survival mode kicked in. We were able to come together, get creative with a delivery platform and do everything we could to survive – and do it well. It made me very confident in our future as a company."