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Why investing in startups is about both purpose and innovation for DBS Bank


By Charlotte McEleny, Asia Editor

March 19, 2020 | 10 min read

In the pursuit of new innovative ideas, many corporates have set up ways to bring startups into their ecosystem. For DBS Bank, working with startups is about its commitment to its brand purpose.

The DBS story is particularly pertinent as the world accelerates plans to pivot digitally during the outbreak of the coronavirus. Working with start-ups that are born from agile business models is useful for larger, more traditional businesses, but the need for a strong link to brand purpose has never been more important than during tough times for people, from a health and economic perspective.

DBS started life as the Development Bank of Singapore, one of the organisations that contributed to the building of an independent Singapore over 50 years ago. The organisation now counts Singapore, India, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as its core markets, and regularly punches above its weight globally in the rankings of financial brand’s digital capabilities.

Innovation and digital have arguably become a core aspect of the DBS brand but its work with startups, though the DBS Foundation (DBSF), is more about social impact than it is about digital transformation, though that does play a part.

To understand how fusing innovation and brand purpose drives the brand’s business forward, The Drum spoke with DBS and two DBS Foundation members Bettr Barista and Even Cargo about what the partnership means.

Karen Ngui, board member of DBS Foundation and DBS’ head of group strategic marketing and communications, explains that the partnership is founded on the idea of creating profitable businesses that also drive social change for the region.

“DBSF nurtures and advocates for social enterprises across our core markets of Singapore, India, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Social enterprises are businesses for good that share our passion for shaping a better future for their communities – they are focused on delivering social value, while still remaining profitable. Through the work of DBSF, we seek to catalyse the growth of an ecosystem of businesses that do business differently and in doing so, scale the impact we can make in addressing the myriad social and environmental challenges that confront a rapidly growing Asia,” she says.

For Ngui, the time for paying lip service to brand purpose is over.

“All businesses, big and small, should be purpose-driven and think beyond themselves to have an ESG focus. This goes further than just supporting socially-minded start-ups – we believe businesses should walk the talk and be socially-minded themselves, actively pursuing a dual bottom line that goes beyond profit and includes social impact. This is what we are trying to do at DBS. We recognise that we share a symbiotic relationship with the societies and communities we operate in, and we want to be a force for good,” she adds.

The model that DBS uses for the foundation is based on three things - advocating, nurturing and integrating. From an advocating perspective, the brand brings the social entrepreneurs into its activities, including its events and workshops. It was the theme for the latest series of DBS’ content series Sparks, particularly those with a sustainability edge. The bank nurtures through grant funding, incubation and mentoring. Finally, the brand integrates by bringing them into the culture and operations of the bank through conscious procurement, financing, providing co-working spaces and skilled volunteer mentoring by DBS employees.

Ngui adds that as all brands and businesses face challenges presented by the Coronavirus, it’s apparent that social entrepreneurs need additional help from larger corporations.

“In our recent conversations with social entrepreneurs supported by DBSF, it has become increasingly apparent that SEs, like most businesses, need holistic support to help them weather the uncertainties and challenges triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have just launched the 2020 DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant call, and together with various other initiatives that the bank has put in place to nurture and grow the social enterprise ecosystem, we hope more social entrepreneurs will come forward to pursue their goals and succeed at building innovative businesses aimed at tackling Asia’s growing environmental and/or social issues,” she explains.

With DBS having a strong history supporting social entrepreneurs, it's no surprise that it's quite far ahead in knowing how it can help smaller businesses and communities get through hard times during the Coronavirus outbreak. It's an inspiring example for many large businesses and should serve as the catalyst for more organisations to explore how they can contribute too.

The social entrepreneur’s view

Yogesh Kumar, founder and CEO, Even Cargo

Even Cargo is a social enterprise based in Delhi, India that aims to challenge traditional gender norms by increasing the participation of women in the labour force and providing them with increased access to public spaces. Even Cargo is India’s first e-commerce logistics company to employ women exclusively.

What are the challenges of being a start-up? How does also being a social enterprise add to these challenges?

There were various challenges that required strategic thinking on our part:

Limited or lack of knowledge: The women had limited geographical knowledge. Most of them were never allowed to be out on their own. They were always accompanied by male family members. There was a complete lack of knowledge about the use of existing public transport and related networks.

Limited access to financial resources: The women were forced not to work as this requires investment in terms of transportation to training centres, licensing and financing of vehicles and communication. Males, being the primary breadwinners, control financial investments and expenditure. Hence, women could not proceed as they were always dependent on males.

Gender stereotypes: The biggest challenge that we are still facing today is also the problem that we are addressing through Even Cargo, which is deeply rooted in gender norms. For us, employing the first two girls was really difficult and took a lot of time because we were venturing into something that had never been done before. Getting the next five was a little easier and gradually improved with the subsequent hiring. But we still see a lot of girls who want to come out and work being denied this opportunity by their families and communities. Things are slowly changing with some girls coming out and setting a trend for others to follow, but I feel there is still a long way to go. We will keep working on this until we can provide every girl with an opportunity to work without any social and cultural foundation that hinders her growth.

Is it important for customers to know you are a social enterprise? Do you think it helps your business?

The vision of the team is the foundation on which our processes, policies and organisational culture and structure are built. We ensure the alignment of the values and vision of our leaders across the organisation and communities with Even Cargo. Our interdisciplinary committed team of leaders, knowledge partners and mentors ensure that the organisation works within an ecosystem which is just and sustainable. We build a culture of peer support and not working in silos. The mission of gender equality calls for collective action; it’s a global issue. Hence, it is essential to build a harmonious culture. We are making global action work locally.

At the national level, I am glad to reiterate my belief that India's women are the secret to a potential economic boom globally. Inclusivity and diversity are the secret sauce of sustainable growth of any business. I believe it’s one of the most important long-term solutions to many cumulative short-term problems/challenges.

Pamela Chng, co-founder, Bettr Barista

Bettr Barista is a vertically integrated speciality coffee company with a professional coffee academy, eight retail bars that serve workplace communities, a roastery and events arm offering full-service mobile coffee experiences. As a social enterprise, Bettr Barista not only trains disadvantaged youth and women to brew coffee but coaches them in personal resilience too. As the first Certified B-Corp in Singapore, Bettr Barista is a coffee business that exists first and foremost as a vehicle for changing lives and creating positive social impact all across the value chain.

What are the challenges of being a start-up? How does also being a social enterprise add to these challenges?

Like any business or start-up, there have been numerous challenges along our journey - this includes growth, funding and resources to name a few. On top of these, there are also social challenges with the marginalised groups we work with, these are all part of a day’s work for us.

We also place great focus on creating a truly inclusive and diverse workplace, both internally and also with the partners that we work with. As this is something we are constantly working towards, it can also provide its own set of challenges.

In order to be able to make a profit, be financially sustainable and create real impact, social enterprises need to be even more well-run and more efficient than an average business. It needs to be able to pay for the business cost and the social cost of whatever impact it is trying to create. Which is probably one of the hardest things to do!

Is it important for customers to know you are a social enterprise? Do you think it helps your business?

It is important because it's at the very core of what we do and it's who we are. Our social mission is part of our fabric and influences how we go about our day to day work. It is definitely something we would like our customers to be aware of, but we don’t shout about it.

We interact with customers and clients with various interests and from diverse backgrounds, as we currently run a professional coffee academy, retail outlets, a roastery that provides coffee for wholesale clients and we sell coffee products. At least 50% of our customers do not know we are a social business until we tell them.

Being a social business may attract conscious consumers. However, I would like to believe that the quality of products and services that we provide are of a high standard and this attracts people to us too, despite the fact that we are a social enterprise.

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