From self-interest to altruism: the small but profound businesses of women

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s (GEM) Annual Report, Taiwan’s female entrepreneurial rate is one of the highest among Asian countries. If we compare the involvement in early-stage entrepreneurial activities of males and females using a base of 100 points for males, Taiwanese females have reached 67 points, which is much higher than Japan’s 35 points and South Korea’s 20 points. British newspaper The Guardian has also pointed out that in the field of social enterprises, 38% of start-up companies are directed by women.
These data show that more and more women have chosen to be entrepreneurs and that the service and social enterprise sectors are women’s top choices when it comes to starting their own businesses. Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet once said “women are born to be social entrepreneurs”.
Whether it is in looking after their family or getting involved in social enterprises, women balance their self-interest with the public interest and use an altruistic mentality to find solutions to many issues. Perhaps because of this, women often have a particularly outstanding performance in the field of social enterprises, which requires “social-oriented” thinking.
Born in the 1980s, a Taiwanese woman, Claire Lin, is one of the best examples. After graduating from university, she devoted herself to working for a non-profit organisation, which gave her opportunities to take volunteers to many developing countries. During one of her volunteering experiences, she found out that female menstruation is often considered “unclean” in Nepal. The next year, soon after she bought herself a reusable cloth sanitary napkin while travelling in southern India, she decided to set up Dharti Mata Sustainable Workshop back in Nepal. With this organisation, she aims to advocate the production and use of cloth sanitary napkins in the hope that women’s periods can become something more of a positive experience.
At that time, this young lady who was not even very familiar with a sewing machine, took the grant of one million Taiwanese dollars she was awarded by the Keep Walking Fund to Nepal, where she started her cloth sanitary napkin business from scratch. Dharti Mata not only provides job opportunities to local women by training them in how to sew sanitary napkins, but also spreads health education knowledge in local villages. It hopes to bring about positive experiences of using sanitary napkins comfortably and hygienically, helping women learn more about self-care.
Today, apart from in local villages in Nepal, you also can buy Dharti Mata’s colourful napkins in floral patterns at nine locations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Every napkin embodies care for women and friendliness to the environment.
Like in the case of Claire Lin, the birth of Sanchong’s Geng Xin Lian Yuan was also inspired by an inadvertent encounter in the founders’ lives. Twenty years ago, when teacher Su-hua Yu and colleague Ruei-chu Chen went to Sanchong for home visits, they saw many idle children wandering the streets. Back then, many small families residing in Sanchong were those who had moved to the greater Taipei area in search of a better life. Most of these families were of blue-collar class and their children often loitered on the streets after school. Compared to those economically well-off students who were sent to cram school directly after finishing school for the day, the academic performance of these children was more likely to fall dramatically behind.
Su-hua Yu and Ruei-chu Chen
In the first year of Su-hua Yu’s teaching life, she and Ruei-chu Chen had already started voluntary after-school counselling at her own house, where they helped students of lower socio-economic background. Later, they set up an “education fund” with one million Taiwanese dollars from their own savings and bank loans. With this fund, they initiated an after-school program tutoring children from the community.
Geng Xin Lian Yuan attaches great importance to the ethics and wisdoms embodied in Chinese traditional culture. Therefore, students are encouraged to study or even memorise the Confucianist canon after school. The organisation teaches children to respectfully greet elderly family members and relatives, strengthening the knowledge and practice of filial piety, etiquette and character cultivation. Because it restores family education that has been lost, it has also helped repair parent-child relationships in many families.
Although the community at first criticised the program because they suspected it would turn into a private cram school, the local residents gradually softened their attitude when they witnessed the children maturing with each passing day. Some community members have even donated money or volunteered, allowing Geng Xin Lian Yuan to continue to operate.
However, because the canon reading class adopts a “pay as you like” approach, Geng Xin Lian Yuan’s finances became increasingly stressed when the number of enrolled students eventually exceeded 100. To supplement the educational program fund, it opened a community-based canteen which also adopts a “pay as you like” model. This method has not only tested human nature, but also the resolution of the founders.
At first, some people came to the canteen for food without paying anything month after month, which resulted in some of the volunteers leaving out of disappointment in the greediness of human nature. Fortunately, with the help of some enthusiastic locals, volunteering vacancies were quickly filled. During the 2008 financial crisis, the canteen even allowed many recently unemployed people to eat their fill. Over time, the canteen has gained full support from the local community. Many community members volunteer to prepare meal ingredients and chop vegetables. Fruit and vegetable wholesalers nearby also send unsold produce to the canteen, which has reduced its costs a great deal.
Today, this canteen that treats its food business as a family affair has already become one of the main financial sources for the canon reading class. Geng Xin Lian Yuan has also moved further to establish the Family Love Social Enterprise, which combines the energy of mothers from the local community, who together produce delicious products with no food additives, such as walnut cake, pineapple cake and Chinese mahogany paste. The proceeds from the sale of these products are donated in full to Geng Xin Lian Yuan to be used for educational purposes.
Moving from self-interest to altruism, these women are fully dedicated to helping others. The small but profound influence they have on local communities in Nepal and Taiwan cannot be ignored.
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