Kal Joffres first moved to Malaysia to help foster the growth of creative industry clusters.
Recently I wrote about a Hellen Fong, a successful banker who switched careers to pursue her passion in starting a cooking school. It’s pretty rare for someone in the financial services industry to chase idealism over profits but she’s not alone.
Kal Joffres had originally moved from Canada to Malaysia when an investment bank brought him here to work for Khazanah Nasional to help foster the growth of creative industry clusters.
“When I was in Canada, part of the work I was doing was about the kinds of mechanisms that make creative industry clusters like Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Boston what they are,” says Joffres. “I was brought over to Malaysia to help build those kinds of clusters here. I looked at potential investments in the creative industries — film, animation, games.”
After his consulting stint was over, he came across many interesting opportunities here and decided to stay in Malaysia. Instead of going the corporate route he decided to pursue social entrepreneurship.
“I saw how the private sector, which had great access to technology, was becoming more efficient, advanced, and effective,” he recalls. “The social sector, on the other hand, wasn’t. It’s stagnating and the gap was getting wider. I wanted to see how the things I knew how to do using technology could contribute to the social sector.”
So, he started Tandemic, which is an amalgamation of the words “Tandem” and “Pandem”. The core idea, Joffres says, is “that by working together, we can achieve growth at scale.”
Social entrepreneur can mean many thing and manifest itself in different ways. To Joffres, it’s about an organisation whose primary mission is a social or environmental cause and that is designed to use a commercial business model to sustain itself. “At the end of the end of the day, it means we put our purpose above the profit motive,” he says.
And what is Tandemic’s purpose? According to Joffres, it’s “to build a society of creators” – people who start new businesses, new social projects, who invent things. “They’re the people who push society forward,” he says. “It spells trouble if our society becomes just one of consumers.”
As Joffres describes it, Tandemic has three focus areas:
“We build innovations — either incubating and growing ourselves or in collaboration with other organisations. For example, we’ve been designing a mobile app that helps form lifestyle habits that could prevent diabetes in collaboration with Novo Nordisk and the Ministry of Health in Malaysia,” he says.
Tandemic also teaches innovation. “Through Makeweekends, we bring people together for an intensive two-day programme that takes a deep dive into social challenge, develop new approaches of addressing it, and rapidly build prototypes. Over the past four years, 4,000 people have taken part in Makeweekends nationwide, making it the largest design thinking-based programme in Southeast Asia,” Joffres says.
Lastly, Tandemic fosters creator communities. Says Joffres: “Every month, we host the largest gathering of people interested in making a change through the social sector. It’s called Do Something Good: Connect and it includes social entrepreneurs, NGO staff, foundations, volunteers, and the general public.”
As with all social entrepreneurship businesses, it’s no easy to make a profit – especially since profit is not your main objective. Still, it’s necessary to make a profit in order for the business to continue.
Tandemic is profitable, although not hugely so. “But that’s not really the point,” says Joffres. “I wouldn’t say our search for a business model is over, though. We’ve narrowed down our thinking about how to generate income significantly since we started but it’s still a continuous experiment,” he adds.
Some projects, like sponsored Makeweekends or its social innovation consulting work generate revenues for the company. “But we sink our profit into other projects, like building Do Something Good or running community events,” he says.
And that’s watch social entrepreneurship is all about. Contributing back to society through socially-conscious business activities.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.