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Terence and Nelson Loh.

Keynote speaker President Barack Obama.

Novu Aesthetics clinics are owned by Novena Healthcare.

Special Feature - Nelson and Terence Loh on charity and Barack Obama

Entrepreneurs Nelson and Terence Loh share their thoughts on charity and getting Barack Obama to speak at their upcoming fundraising gala
Dec 6, 2019 5:50 AM

Christmas is a time of giving, but Nelson and Terence Loh know all too well that when it comes to charity, it's a lot easier to donate money than to give your time and effort to make a difference.

''When we were young, we would go to the old folks' home, give some angpao and that's it - done,'' laughs Nelson, co-founder of the Dorr group - a private investment company which he started with his cousin Terence. The company owns one of the largest integrated Medical healthcare and aesthetics group, Novena Global Lifecare (which runs Novu Aesthetics).

Now, the two ex-bankers-turned-serial- entrepreneurs are strong advocates of  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), having incorporated it into their corporate culture while also taking a personal interest in the various charity programmes that they support.

In fact, their efforts led to the launch of the inaugural Education Benefit Gala (EBG) - created to mark the 10th anniversary of their group. And in a major coup, former US President Barack Obama will be the keynote speaker at the Dec 14 event to raise funds for four Singapore charities that support education and training for marginalised women and children from disadvantaged families.

Some S$5 million is expected to be raised at the glitzy gala dinner, and this is the start of an annual affair which will see a rotation of charities, particularly ''those that resonate with us personally and where we can impact change beyond just giving money,'' says Nelson.

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That's why one of the four charities supported by this year's event is Dreams Academy (the other three are Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, Daughters of Tomorrow and the Muslim Women's Association (PPIS)), which builds boarding houses and creates a positive environment for youngsters who are orphans or whose parents are in jail. ''It takes the kids out of their (troubled environment) and gives them the support and education to put them on the right path,'' says Nelson.

Indeed, education is the focus of their CSR efforts as ''Terence and I firmly believe that   the key to getting out of poverty is education.''

By being more proactive, the cousins hope to build a strong CSR culture that can also be an example for other companies to follow.

Be it environment or sustainability, ''CSR is a global trend and something that international investors look for in a company,'' notes Terence, ''and we definitely see this as a way of differentiating ourselves from everyone else. But the important thing is not to do it for the sake of doing it, but because it's something we believe in. That's why we keep going back to education and healthcare.''

As an example, Terence has begun a two- year fellowship at the Aspen Institute - ''it's  partly focused on making the world a better place; so during this time I'm supposed to come up with a programme to do that.'' But how did they get President Obama to speak at their event?

''By not taking 'no' for an answer,'' laughs Nelson, who explains that when they heard President Obama was planning an Asian tour, they pushed for him to attend. ''You think that you need something grand to get his attention but it's not true. If you understand what he's trying to do with his own foundation - he keeps it really simple but he wants to make a difference on the ground. When he heard about what we're doing with initiatives like the Dreams Institute, we think it resonated with him.''

Terence acknowledges that the event is an ambitious one for them, considering that their past efforts have been more local or targeted at a specific charity. ''We're still crafting our CSR vision and there's a lot about charity and fundraising that's very different from corporate fundraising, so we're still learning.''

In the meantime, they're still pitching in where they can, from major events like the EBG to more personal projects such as a Muay Thai scholarship for troubled youth, where ''we pay for their livelihood, education and sponsor a national team at the SEA games,'' says Nelson. ''We don't just want to sponsor athletics so the condition is that they have to go to school every day.''

But what ultimately drives them?

Terence puts it succinctly. ''With success, you can make more money, but beyond success there's this thing called significance. Given the platform that we have, however big or small, we want to make a difference.''

For more details about the Education Benefit Gala, visit