“Sorry, can you tell me again – how old were you when you started?”
“All of this.”
“Oh, I was 16…turning 17? I think that was in form 7. That was when we opened Rainbow’s Dessert Shop.”
It must have been an interesting sight back then. It’s no wonder that the local media were intrigued by a fresh faced, teenage shop owner handing out desserts to homeless residents on the Hong Kong’s street alleyways.
That teenager was Rainbow Chow, of Rainbow’s Dessert Shop – which still exists today in Tai Po and Sheung Shui. Rainbow may now be one of Hong Kong’s top serially successful social entrepreneurs, but she nevertheless keeps reminding me that she had partners – as she openly admits she barely had enough money to start up on her own at the time.
After she sold her dessert business in 2004, Rainbow became a full time social worker, specializing in Women’s and Children’s issues. After two years, she established a child development center for special needs children. The center’s growth boomed and was also sold after a few years. Throughout the whole period, she had always been passionate about parental education as well. Now, she is excitedly showcasing pictures of pretty green plant ornaments – called “MicroForests”, the name of her new company.
There is one distinct feature about all of Rainbow’s businesses; they are successful, authentic social enterprises, each supporting the local Hong Kong community in one way or the other.
Strangely, Rainbow herself doesn’t seem to notice any differentiation between her companies and “non-social” enterprises – to her, helping others is just human nature. When asked why she chose to create only social enterprises, she looked genuinely confused.
“Of course I’d rather create businesses that help people. Why would anyone choose not to help others when they can?” she responded, quizzically.
During the SARS crisis in 2008, Rainbow’s Dessert was thrown back into the headlines when she gifted the stricken hospitals in her area with “Happy Coconuts” – one of their signature desserts; complete with big hand drawn smiley faces. It was a small gesture from a small business owner that resonated deeply with the strained and stressed medical staff, many of which who eventually died handling patients – a sacrifice unforgotten as they fought to cope with one of Hong Kong’s worse medical catastrophes.
Rainbow and her team delivered the desserts themselves during a time when most avoided the hospitals unless they were sick. Controversially, Rainbow’s Dessert also hired juvenile offenders from infamous “Boy’s Homes” – in a bid to offer them a kinder, safer alternative to the streets. Young offenders with criminal records do not fare well in the employment system, but Rainbow believes in rehabilitation.
As a self-admitted realist and skeptic, I tried hard to see if this was all some kind of PR-driven façade – but no, Rainbow could still pass for a fresh faced 18 year old idealist in that retrospect. Even at 33, with a proven heritage of successful ventures behind her – Rainbow is a sweet, humble yet committed individual, driven by an unhindered desire to help all others. There’s no ego, no clever guise to win over the media; she is who she is.
She earnestly pauses in between interview questions to remind us of all the people who helped her along the way; almost to the point of hiding shyly behind them.
In the midst of Hong Kong’s largely corporate, competitive jungle of constant self-promotion (those working in media would know) – her modesty sticks out like a bright pink unicorn.
Perhaps it is this stubborn idealism and optimism for the good of humankind that makes Rainbow a true social entrepreneur; a business owner capable of more than just making money – an individual driven by the desire to help better the lives of others. Social enterprises are like legends – perfect machines that make money and contribute back to society. It’s hard to establish one – let alone three, in succession.
But Rainbow’s results speak for themselves. MicroForests, her current gem – is all about providing low income single mothers and women with “dignified, skilled” jobs. Some of these women are from mainland China and do not speak Cantonese, even though their children are Hong Kong citizens by birthright due to their fathers.
They are given a “pilot” training year – where they learn how to craft decorative terrariums for home and office interiors. MicroForests also teaches micro-gardening classes – where arts and crafts hobbyists can come and make their own artwork. After their first year, the mothers are trained how to teach classes – generating more income for the company and themselves.
More importantly, Rainbow says she sees a significant improvement in the mother’s self-esteem and overall wellbeing. The hours are flexible; avoiding the need to leave the children at home (sometimes unattended), the pay is good and the workplace is highly supportive of their personal growth.
Currently, MicroForests is working with approximately 25 mothers, half of which are single mothers. The company has conducted workshops and supplied their MicroForests to large corporates such as Coca Cola, Intercontinental Hotels, Wing Lung Bank, and AXA.
Rainbow is doing well. Her work brings her a contented glow that is not regularly seen among time-starved, energy sapped entrepreneurs.
When the interview is finished, she takes out a packet of printed postcards. The postcards are the works of a professional painter – so I’m impressed yet again, when I find out that they’re all hers. (At this point I’m wondering if she’s hiding a super hero costume under her dress).
“In my free time, I paint. My friend had the idea of making them into postcards and selling them through church and friends. All the funds go to an orphanage in Cambodia – I visit them every year and my dream is to retire there, running another business that can support them,” she beams. “Here, take some for free! I love painting anyway.”
I suppose this is the biggest difference between Rainbow and the other entrepreneurs: profit is just a means to help sustain her main purpose – to help others.
If Hong Kong could foster more social entrepreneurs like her: it would be a truly successful hub in more meaningful ways than just the monetary. As a society, we need this.
Check out MicroForests at: http://www.microforests.com/