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Start Up 101

October 27, 2015

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Take The Leap (or not?): An Interview with Alfie Othman

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Alfie Othman is the Executive Director of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) launched in 2015 to promote and support social entrepreneurship and social enterprise in Singapore. Alfie is himself an entrepreneur, having started and been involved in several new business ventures over the last ten year. Here, Alfie tells us why it’s important to think carefully about becoming an entrepreneur.

Tell us about your career?

I began my career at Citibank where I worked as an Account Manager. I left after eight years to start my own catering business. Once I got the business up and running, I got bored and began looking into other new ideas that I could get involved in. This led me to start up the SEA and since then, I have helped launch Singapore’s first urban Micro Credit Business Scheme and NuMoni, a digital platform that enables foreign workers to make micro remittances, payments and loans. I am also an advisor to Javacrop, an investment vehicle that mainly focuses on creating social value through a Community Plantation Project

What led you to pursue this new path?

I wanted to spend more time with my children and help my immediate community by providing jobs. I didn’t have the flexibility to do this while working in a corporate bank environment. My corporate experience did however give me the skills to create a workable business plan for a catering business that was able to provide work for those in my community.

What have you learnt in the last ten years of setting up and working with SMEs?

Becoming a small business owner is very challenging, particularly the first few years when you really need to prove yourself. As a new business owner, you don’t have a corporate brand to hide behind or a financial safety net. Many times, it can also be quite lonely. On the other hand, as an entrepreneur you have freedom as well as the ability to truly change people’s lives. There are many pros and cons to starting a business and it’s important that would be entrepreneurs really weigh these up before making the leap.

What is your advice to those thinking of starting their own social enterprise?

Starting a business is just one of many career choices that you should consider when you come to a crossroad. Firstly, ask yourself why you want to make a career change. Once you have a clear understanding of your underlying motivations, do some research to find out what your options are. For example, if you are driven by a desire to contribute to social good, you could find a cause to volunteer for or work in a social enterprise, rather than start your own business. Starting your own business is seldom the only way forward in order to achieve your goals, nor is it always the best way forward.

What are your top tips for someone starting their own social enterprise?

  1. Think finances. What will make your product or service sell and will it sell enough to sustain your business?
  2. Ensure that your financial revenue model and social mission align. If they don’t, there is a danger that the social impact will be lost.

Looking back on the last ten years, what are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the close relationship I have with my kids, which has only been possible because I made the decision to leave the corporate world. I’m also proud of the role that I have played in inspiring others to take the leap to live their life with value