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Professionals multiplying impact for business and society

What do a multinational eyewear company, an online snack company and an institute of higher learning have in common? While it seems they couldn’t be further apart, these three organisations joined forces to launch a vision care programme providing 300,000 migrant workers with free eyecare education and reading glasses.

This unlikely alliance was formed by a trio that met at the Company of Good Fellowship, a talent development programme to groom professionals in implementing positive changes in their organisations to benefit both business and society.

Ms Yvonne Siow led the creation of the Migrant Workers Vision Care Programme in October 2020, and collaborated with batchmates from Boxgreen and the Institute of Systems Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS-ISS). Ms Siow is the ASEAN head of the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the European eyewear maker, EssilorLuxottica.

As part of the five-month programme created by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, each Fellow develops an action project for their organisation as a way to bring value back to the workplace while applying what was taught in class.

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Ms Siow knew what her project would be the moment she joined. The OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation had discovered that many migrant workers over 40 suffered from presbyopia, a near vision impairment.

This loss of near-focusing ability caused several problems. Workers struggled to see their phones clearly, causing mental strain as the screen was often their only connection to home. It also posed a potential safety hazard, especially if they operated heavy machinery.

One major problem Ms Siow had to tackle was the Covid-19 movement restrictions. She needed to conduct eye tests and deliver reading glasses without physical interaction. Throughout the Fellowship, Ms Siow would consult her peers to troubleshoot problems and generate ideas. She also found support among Fellows with whom they could leverage their respective areas of expertise to help enhance each of their initiatives. 

For example, it turned out one Fellow owned several vending machines to distribute healthy snacks. An idea emerged: What if the machine was reengineered to dispense reading glasses? The Fellow offered to loan the foundation the machines for free for the first two months. This allowed them to test the viability of creating the machine without worrying about financial risk.

Another Fellow was an expert in digital transformation initiatives from NUS-ISS. He contributed his knowledge in design thinking to refine their processes.

“The Fellowship brought in ideas, skillsets, and resources that expanded our scope beyond the usual partners we work with in the optical industry,” says Ms Siow. “As individual organisations, we could do small things for migrant workers. But we chose to collaborate, which allowed us to create a bigger impact.”

Finding a tribe

Mr Panneer Selvam, a partner at Ernst & Young (EY), says the Fellowship helped him to find a community of like-minded people. The Fellows in his cohort came from disparate organisations, such as government organisations, SMEs and multinationals. But he instantly connected with them.

“In the first hour of meeting, everybody was talking as if we knew each other so well,” he says. “The energy level was so high because everyone in the room had the same vision and passion for doing good.”

Since the Fellowship launched in 2017, it has grown through positive word-of-mouth. Mr Panneer learned about the programme from a former managing director at EY. Having benefited from the programme and the referral, he paid it forward by recommending his colleague, Ms Kathleen Chin, to participate.

“I heard about the Fellowship programme from Panneer and he was raving about the great experiences he had. He told me: ‘You don’t want to miss this’,” said the ASEAN lead of EY Ripples, the professional services firm’s CSR programme.

Ms Chin also noted how the diversity of the Fellows contributed to lively conversation arising from each person’s unique perspectives. 

“We all had one common thing: we want to do good. And that ‘good’ looks very different based on their company, sector, and roles,” she says. “We talked about what we wanted to achieve and the challenges we’ve been facing. And it’s not for complaining’s sake, but about how we can constructively crowdsource ideas.”

Ms Chin also appreciated the theoretical aspects of the programme. For example, Company of Good’s 4 ‘I’ Framework guides Fellows to develop a holistic strategy encompassing investment, integration, institutionalisation and impact.

She found these theories beneficial because, like many participants, she had not held a full time CSR role in the past and did not formally study the subject. The theory helped her to assemble a more robust business case to communicate the objective and impact of her proposal.

Thinking in years, not quarters

Ms Chin’s action project was to encourage EY employees to volunteer more by instituting a set number of days of volunteer leave. Previously, volunteering was done ad-hoc, with no specified days off.

One of her biggest takeaways from the project was patience. She says change doesn’t happen overnight, especially in larger organisations. After she presented the action project, she spent a year refining the proposal before it passed. It took another year before the company integrated volunteer leave.

But she says having EY’s leaders attend the action project presentation was crucial in securing buy-in from the top. “It helped to seed that thought. After that, the onus is on you to carry it through, whether it is refining the business case or answering any additional questions from leadership,” she adds.

Ms Grace Chew also echoes the importance of long-term thinking. The assistant manager at the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation was also recommended to join the Fellowship by her manager, Ms Siow. 

Apart from individuals practising patience to drive change internally, leaders also need to take a long-term view of their social initiatives, Ms Chew says. 

One mistake companies make with corporate purpose is being fixated on the immediate costs of their social initiatives. This causes them to miss out on the long-term benefits that purpose-driven companies enjoy: A stronger reputation, brand affinity and positive business impact.

Despite the lack of immediate gratification, Ms Chew says it is necessary if corporations want to remain relevant. “Many consumers today are more willing to support businesses that help a good social cause and are even willing to pay a higher price for it,” she says.

In one global survey of over 8,000 consumers, 83 per cent of respondents said they are more likely to support a brand’s need to be profitable if it also positively impacts the world.

Ms Siow adds: “It is a longer-term investment, but it will pay back in so many ways that you never imagined.”

Find out how you can help shape a better future with corporate purpose at thecompanyofgood.sg.

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