Singapore flip-flop business finds its heart and soul in rural China

Singapore flip-flop business finds its heart and soul in rural China
Employees of Soule Group donate sneakers to students in remote villages of Lincang, Yunnan province.

The three young Singaporeans who started a flip-flop business more than five years ago have gained a certain amount of fame after walking into another line of work: corporate social responsibility consulting.

But what's really remarkable is that the two men, John Tay and Justine Lee, and one woman, Lim Jing Ying, are all just 24 years old.

Their clients include large multinationals like South Korean giant Samsung Electronics Co and Japan's Meiji Dairies Corp, as well as a long and impressive list of Singaporean companies and Chinese corporations like clothing maker Shanghai Huaxiang.

The three entrepreneurs, whose grandparents emigrated from China, were still teenagers when they started their company called the Soule Group. At first they were financed by the Young Social Entrepreneurs programme of the Singapore International Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation.

Their second line of business was embedded in the DNA of their first. The trio, all from lower-income families, knew each other from attending the same church in Singapore. Shortly after starting the flip-flop marketing business, they heard an acquaintance who had visited southwestern China's Yunnan province talk about how the children in some remote villages were walking long distances barefoot because they had no shoes.

They shipped sneakers to some of the children using their profits from flip-flops, and a whole new world opened up for the company. Now, for every three to four pairs of flip-flops the company sells in Singapore, it donates one pair of sneakers to an elementary school student in remote villages in Yunnan.

The company had to be put on hold for two years a few years back so the young entrepreneurs could complete their compulsory military service in Singapore.

Soule has donated 1,568 pairs of sneakers to four elementary schools in the villages of Lincang, a prefecture-level city in Yunnan, and John Tay estimates around a tenth of the company's revenue now goes to those donations. He said that before the programme started, many of the students had to walk barefoot everyday 15 kilometers to school.

"These kids are growing so we donate a new pair of shoes to them every year, and we plan to do that until they graduate from elementary school," Lee said.

Soule's flip-flops are made in Malaysia and China and sell on the streets of Singapore for S$19 a pair.

But to generate sufficient cash to carry out their commitment to the children in Lincang, the three young entrepreneurs also began offering their services as corporate social responsibility consultants to companies from China, Japan and South Korea.

Their donations scheme has become so well known that they now count large multinationals as CSR clients.

Before they started their work with the schools, all three young Singaporeans said they thought most people considered CSR nothing more than a glorified title for donating money to disaster-stricken areas. But now they are working with companies that include some with deep pockets that can do significant good, and not just during disasters.

Take one client from China, Shanghai Huaxiang, a wool garment-making company that had US$70 million in turnover last year from selling its textiles to global fashion brands such as Sweden-based H&M and US-based Ann Inc, marketers of Ann Taylor apparel.

With the help of Soule's management team, Huaxiang will soon create its own foundation to provide educational loans to the children of Chinese factory workers who earn the minimum wage. Tay said most of the workers it helps are from remote villages across China's mainland and the foundation's creation has made a significant contribution to many of their lives.

"It is very well received, and I believe it will help keep many of the workers really motivated," Tay said, adding he is currently working on Huaxiang's CSR plan for this year.

Soule finds that the social responsibility work they do for companies sometimes goes hand-in-hand with company strategy. The Shanghai company now plans to open a showroom in Singapore and ship some of its garment-making machines there.

"Chinese garment makers have better skills and more experience than many in Bangladesh, for instance, or the Philippines - but because of the language barrier they are often ignored. By having an office in Singapore, we will be able to help raise the profile of Chinese-made garments with international clients," Justine Lee said.

Tay said he and his partners noticed differences in approaches to CSR. For multinationals, Tay said, such programs too often focused only on large donations, and were more of an afterthought compared with other parts of corporate strategy, completed at year's end after everything else was finished.

"Multinationals used to be like that, but now they are not content with just giving away money. They want to be more involved in doing the social work with the charities and, if possible, use their products to benefit the needy," Tay said.

Lee said that the time is now right for Chinese companies to embed social responsibility deeper into their daily operations.

"If companies - even in some developed countries, too - have been established for years, changing their business process for the sake of society may incur a lot of cost and they might encounter internal resistance," he said. "But for many Chinese firms, they have only really grown over the past 10 to 20 years, so they can do it much easier and ... be more beneficial to the community."

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