Into The Unknown: The road to building a community of social innovation in SMU

SMU Social Impact Catalyst (SIC) is the SMU chapter of ASEAN’s largest youth-centric organisation focused on social entrepreneurship, with a mission to empower a new generation of changemakers. Together with the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, they’ve built up a community of young leaders who are paving the way for a future of sustainable solutions. In this interview, student founders Rayden Tan and Chua Ding En discuss the teething pains and early joys of starting the first social entrepreneurship focused club in school, and diving headfirst into the unknown space of social innovation.


How would you define Social Impact Catalyst?

Rayden: Social Impact Catalyst (SIC) is basically a university group that encourages students to learn more about social entrepreneurship and create their own social enterprises. But to me, SIC is also a community because it strives to empower people and build up a different generation—especially student leaders. We encourage each other, learn and grow together, and I feel that it’s a space in which we can form bonds through our shared passion for people and the fact that we all want to make a difference. 

Ding En: It’s also a platform for social entrepreneurship and social innovation in general. There isn’t a huge amount of diversity in terms of educational spaces in Singapore, so SIC also acts as a platform where we can come together and learn new things beyond what a regular tertiary education curriculum can provide. When the whole community of mentors, students, speakers, etc. comes together, it allows us to bounce and share our ideas around. It’s really a great way to broaden horizons, improve the way we manage and create impact, and focus on growing all at the same time. 

What are some things that you get to learn as a member of Social Impact Catalyst?

Ding En: How to create impact through business or manage nonprofit events and activities. When it comes to social impact, there is a different set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and metrics that we follow that is distinct from that of traditional business models, so it’s important that members learn and understand that. 

In terms of activities, we host things like workshops, speaker events, networking sessions and pitch competitions. But in general the two main things we want for first year members are to discover what they are passionate about and to develop their business acumen. Some of them might feel a little aimless in the beginning and we try to encourage and help them pinpoint something that they are passionate about that matches their business skills. 

Our aim is for our members to create impact beyond just a one-time event and having that business acumen will help ensure that whatever they do can be more sustainable in the long run. Subsequently they get more opportunities to grow their ideas and businesses. They also gain experience from pitching their ideas to our community of mentors, guides and feedback groups. 

What makes SIC unique? 

Rayden: In SMU, there are a lot of volunteer-based programs and clubs available for students to give back to society. But what makes SIC different is the way in which we give back to the community. It’s about how we can create a business that provides both social good as well as a good or service that benefits society as a whole. I personally find this very interesting and an alternative perspective to the more traditional idea of giving back. 

They also get a broader understanding of what the social entrepreneurship sphere is like, especially in Singapore or in Asia. Even general knowledge about this industry—how social enterprises operate here, how the government supports them, etc. SIC provides information about what kind of networks they can connect with, access to founders of various startups and enterprises and the opportunity to ask specific questions about their journeys and struggles, for example. Simply having that kind of interaction and knowledge is part of what makes being in this club a very dynamic experience. 

Ding En: Social Impact Catalyst is made up of the term ‘Social Impact’, but also of ‘Catalyst’. We hope to empower and encourage members to see this as more than just a one-off university project, and I think this catalytic element in our name is a good way of summing up our long-term vision. 

A lot of this involves generating awareness about what social entrepreneurship is about. For example, a student who has heard about it might go on to talk to their friends and share what they’ve learnt. As we educate and learn from each other, this all contributes to a mindset change within the student community and Singapore at large. 

Social entrepreneurship is becoming something that many young people actually consider a good career option outside of the traditional ‘doctor/lawyer/banker’ box. The space in Singapore is really growing and there are many successful local enterprises around now. As more awareness and passion generates, it creates a sort of ripple effect where more and more people start to see the value of and build up a community for social impact. 

What made you decide to found an SMU chapter of Social Impact Catalyst?

Rayden: It was a module on social entrepreneurship that first sparked our interest in this sphere. We were driven to find out more about the whole scene in Singapore and happened to stumble across Enactus, from which the Singapore chapter of SIC came from. Enactus is a global organisation dedicated to creating students of tomorrow and encouraging start-ups through global pitch competitions and such. We found out that other universities had their own SIC chapter and realised that SMU lacked a platform like that of its own. 

We had a lot of questions in the beginning about how to start a club and ended up emailing the university for help. Along the way we also connected with the Lien Centre of Social Innovation (LCSI), who guided us a lot and played a very crucial role in who we are today. They saw that we had some passion and were trying something new, and gave us a lot of confidence and assurance that we were doing something right. We are really thankful for their support, advice and generally being very helpful in this journey.   

Which part of LCSI’s guidance did you find especially helpful during this process? 

Rayden: They helped us find a way to bring all the bits and pieces of our ideas together into a more coherent project. One of the things we overlooked was all the administrative needs and longer-term implications of some of our plans, and LCSI’s experience was really key in allowing us to focus on the important points and iron out all the details. They also supplemented our proposals, provided us with a lot of core actions and gave us access to a really great network of people in this space.

How did you imagine SIC would be when you first started? 

Ding En: Definitely not an online space! [laughs] We started SIC during that Circuit Breaker period when everything was held online so it was really crazy. Everything was relatively new at that point, and we had no idea how it was all going to work. It came from a lot of determination and perseverance. 

Rayden: Founding a startup is not easy, and you need a lot of support. What we had in mind was to create a space for the members to share more about their entrepreneurship journey, their troubles, hopes for the future, etc. Funnily, COVID-19 played a very big part in pushing us to innovate. It made us think of ways to continue creating that kind of community despite the restrictions of being online. We played games, did icebreaker activities together, and a whole bunch of things we never thought we would be doing. 

What other challenges did you face along the way?

Rayden: As mentioned, one big challenge was coming up with a proposal for SMU regarding this idea, and how we would approach students to join us. There were a lot of details that needed to be ironed out before we could get the club up and running. We spent a lot of time creating a business proposal and pitch, brainstorming our mission and vision, considering the logistics of processing students, etc. Of course, COVID-19 didn’t make it any easier, having to do the whole thing online. We also weren’t able to have collaborations with other SIC university chapters because of the restrictions. 

An unexpected difficulty was having to turn away potential members, because the turnout was actually a lot better than we expected. We had over a hundred signups in our first year, and we could only take in about 30-40 people based on our restrictions and resources available. How could we turn away people who are trying to make a difference? It was a ‘good’ problem and we are proud that so many people were interested, but having to limit our capacity was a tough decision for us. 

Ding En: Being a new initiative, the second semester of SIC was quite challenging because that was the period when most of our members’ projects started taking flight. They would meet with hiccups, and it wasn’t always easy to motivate them to go on or to guide their projects back on track. A lot of our members struggled with “imposter syndrome” too; they felt that they didn’t know enough, or have enough relevant experience.

From an organisational perspective we were also worried about membership attrition. The challenge was about how to increase their confidence and self-respect while balancing and navigating the various aspects of the entrepreneurship journey. We endeavoured to create a sense of belonging and appreciation in the community for all the initiatives that everyone was working on, because they really were very daring and amazing. It wasn’t just about growing and learning together as social entrepreneurs, but there was a lot of personal development for everyone too. 

What are some personal learnings that you gained from starting SIC?

Ding En: To not doubt myself. Especially during a pandemic, it’s natural for anyone to start doubting themselves for starting something like this. Being stuck at home in a claustrophobic and isolated environment, it was easy to get caught up with negative thoughts. But in the end I learned a lot about perseverance. And that’s totally how social innovation and entrepreneurship works in general too—it’s a new space with many unknowns, but despite the challenges, you find ways to stick it out and get through those difficult situations.

Rayden: Starting SIC involved dealing with a lot of people, and we had to build up a lot of courage to step up and tell people about our vision and get them to follow us. I learned a lot about communication and empathy and working together with a diverse group of people on a very big variety of things. 

What kind of commitments are expected if one joins SIC? 

Ding En: It depends from batch to batch and which phase of your project you are in, but I think apart from weekly or biweekly meetings, the personal active commitment to your own project is the highest of them all. It’s not just a school project that will end after 10 to 12 weeks. It's something that might last even beyond that. We are trying to build an atmosphere that’s more like an incubator or accelerator, so your own sense of ownership and autonomy is important.

Any last words of encouragement for someone interested in SIC? 

Rayden: Four years fly by really quickly, and I think the key thing is for everyone to explore and discover what they truly want to do. Not just for those who want to join SIC, but everyone in SMU or beyond. It’s easy to get fixated on classes and Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) but at the end of the day it’s important to think about what you want to do in the long run.


All images courtesy of Rayden and Ding En.