You’ve heard of social enterprises like 18chefs, Dignity Kitchen and School of Thought, but have you heard of SEOciety?
Of course you haven’t.
Jing Yan, the woman behind the enterprise, deploys her vision so discreetly you’d think she’s smuggling diamonds rather than addressing an employment gap.
Why the silence? Behind the market researcher’s pragmatic approach is a humility that prefers to go without a fuss. Despite runni
ng an internet marketing company that trains and employs people with muscular dystrophy (a group often marginalised from the workforce) to deliver SEO services, she insists “social entrepreneurship is still business.” Now in its second year, Jing Yan is finally ready to share the story that drives her vision.
An uneasy start
After living in the States for 8 years looking at “adoption rates and domestic trade” for companies like Walmart, Jing Yan grew tired. When she migrated back to Singapore in 2010, she joined the government sector, hoping it would lead to something more fulfilling.
Suffering from culture shock on her return, Jing Yan asked her friends what do people for fun in Singapore?
She got the typical response: shopping and movies.
At the peak of feeling displaced, Jing Yan was introduced to Beautiful People
, a volunteer and mentorship program with the women’s shelter and at-risk teenage girls. She immediately discovered a new perspective of Singapore.
“Even though I grew up here, through Beautiful People I saw the neglected side of Singapore. Usually it’s ‘out of sight out of mind’ but there’s more social issues here than I was aware.” The girls in shelters, she explains, have low confidence. Some are juvenile delinquents, but most are there because they are under child protection.
“When I heard their stories it was a shock. I have had a very blessed life. When I was 14 all I had to worry about were my grades. Many of them have not seen their parents in years and some have children. It was a huge learning for me.”
Becoming active in the program gave Jing Yan the clarity she needed. It reconnected her to Singapore. It gave her the motivation to tackle the problem on another level: she wanted to work with wome
n with problems.
With Beautiful People as a catalyst, Jing Yan left her job to create economic and employment opportunities for women stuck in a cycle of poverty and government dependence.
But it wasn’t an easy journey. Jing Yan struggled, admitting she went through trial and error to find a framework that worked. “I tried a different project at first. I wanted to create an experience where tourists, who usually go for history tours, visit local families instead. But there were a lot of regulations and it was difficult to scale.”
Although a failed venture, it was through the project that Jing Yan set her sights on internet marketing, realising it was the best way to attract tourists. “It was close to what I was doing as a market researcher, specifically the search engine optimisation. There’s a lot of numbers: demand key words, looking at website traffic, how much time are people spending, and finding out what these numbers mean for a website. I’m good at it.”
By 2013 Jing Yan set up SEOciety and began teaching internet marketing at the women’s shelter, but found the learning curve was too steep for the women to become prospective employees. “For the company to grow, I need people with analytical and technical skills so I began working with people with disabilities. Most are well-educated and catch up fast. In a class of eight students I hired three to work with me.”
Over the course of three months Jing Yan provides theoretical, practical and hands-on training to people with disabilities with the intention to hire. “It’s a drawn out process. There’s frequent meetings, training and I’m grooming them to lead. They’re smart, it’s just their health that’s affected” she says.
To date, Jing Yan has four staff members and the business is growing at a steady pace. Since most companies do not have the resources for an in-house marketing team, there’s space for internet marketers like SEOciety, particularly in a day in age where getting on the first page of Google is a priority to snuff out competition.
When asked if hiring people with disabilities is suitable for everyone she says “if you’re willing to mentor, it’s rewarding. It can solve staff turnover, provide an opportunity to give people with disabilities high value jobs and it helps to pay it forward as they come back to volunteer with the group training sessions.”
Ever practical, Jing Yan says she initially worked with people with disabilities because it was a better fit to her social business model. But the more she works with them, the more she can see how directly she impacts their lives. “They are my staff, but I also see them as my friends and people I can learn from. The heart of SEOicety is people – people who are keen to help our customers achieve results because they have been given the opportunity to prove themselves.”
Anyone who runs a business knows you need to continually draw inspiration and energy to spearhead an enterprise. For Jing Yan, the determination and resilience of her staff is what keeps her going. “When we have meetings that run over an hour, one of them tires and needs the help of a breathing tube but he is very keen to continue contributing to the discussions, even though he has to speak slower than before,” she shares. “Even on wheelchairs, some of them participate in soccer games and music performances.”
But the backbone of her motivation is where it all started: in a community of likeminded individuals committed to make a difference in the long run. “I have a lot of volunteer friends who are like that. And sometimes I participate in conferences in social enterprises to get the good energy and motivation there.”
So what does success look like for this unsung social-prenuer? Real success and empowerment, she says, will be when leaders can take it forward without her, completely self-sufficient, and when SEOciety becomes a recognised brand that people flock to for both results and a positive social impact.
What’s next for Jing Yan? Her greater vision is to work with the disadvantaged as well as people with disabilities. She’ll be working with SG Enable to carry out training to a broader audience, bringing about empowerment through the use of sustainable skills. More importantly, she says, is that they’ll be working with more businesses to help clients to grow their business while creating job opportunities so that people with disabilities can be a part of the mainstream society.
Are you a business with heart? Let me know what your vision is in the comments, I would love to cover your story.
You can reach Jing Yan at 9622-1439 or firstname.lastname@example.org