These five initiatives are paving the way for impact entrepreneurship in Bangkok
n the capital city of Bangkok, where coworking spaces are as ubiquitous as street stalls, tech startups rub shoulders with food trucks and art collectors. In and amongst this activity, a number of ventures have cropped up to stimulate social impact in their city. Here are five of them.
Located in the de facto international hub of Southeast Asia, Bangkok is a haven for entrepreneurs and young professionals seeking new horizons.
The country has many social issues, but you can definitely see how startups are trying to tackle these very real problems
Social entrepreneurship, while not yet a widespread concept in Thailand, is also on the rise with the help of government backing. In February 2019, Thailand passed the Social Enterprise Promotion Act, which offers tax breaks and other incentives to ventures seeking to reconcile profit with purpose.
Startups are also becoming part of the effort to elevate social entrepreneurship in Thailand. “The country has many social issues, but you can definitely see how startups are trying to tackle these very real problems,” says Kineret Karin, founder of startup accelerator ImpacTech.
We take a look at five pioneering social impact initiatives in Bangkok, three of which are featured in our Startup Guide Bangkok book (ImpacTech, SkillLane, and Ooca), that are making waves in their local ecosystem and beyond.
Socialgiver is a social enterprise in Thailand that provides a platform for socially conscious consumers to focus their spending power on good causes.
The organization works with a number of businesses, such as high-end hotels and restaurants that provide rooms or gift cards for free. Customers then purchase the service for a small discount and Socialgiver donates 70 percent of the revenue to selected nonprofit organizations.
Arch Wongchindawest had founded a number of impact-driven initiatives and social enterprises before he cofounded Socialgiver with Aliza “Alice” Napartivaumnuay.
“While helping out a lot of smaller nonprofit organizations, I discovered that two of the biggest problems they face is the lack of funding and a lack of public engagement,” Arch told Startup Guide. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to design a social enterprise that would maximize social impact but sustain itself and scale.”
However, getting investors and consumers on board with the idea was an unprecedented challenge for the founders.
“In Thailand, not many people understand the concept of a social enterprise,” says Arch. “Some people would ask “Why is this company trying to do good for society?” They would have suspicions.” He adds that Bangkok lacks investors who are willing to take risks and channel capital into companies with a social mission.
Still, Arch is hopeful that the more social enterprises bloom in Bangkok, the more need there will be for the government to create an infrastructure to support them. “If one social enterprise becomes very successful, then it can become a case study and people will take the concept on.”
HiveSters offers unique and sustainable travel experiences in Thailand to travelers looking for authentic cultural interactions: from walking tours in hidden Bangkok neighborhoods to lessons in planting organic rice with rural farmers.
HiveSters was founded by two sisters with a sense of adventure. Having grown up in Thailand, cofounders Achiraya and Chayanic Thamparipattra realized they had collected a treasure trove of hang-out spots and off-the-beaten-track activities over the years that they wanted to share with the rest of the world.
Not only that, but their family’s travel agency business had opened their eyes to the devastating effects tourism can have on society and the environment. This spurred them on to do something different.
“We saw much of our precious culture and neighboring communities disappearing from urban development,” the sisters told Booking.com. “That’s why we wanted to use our expertise in development and business to start a travel social enterprise that would bring impact through sustainable tourism.”
The HiveSters team works with local communities and social enterprises in its incubation program to create and promote activities that can bring more income to the local population, protect the environment and preserve what the founders call Thailand’s “disappearing cultural heritage.”
What began as an idea dreamed up by two MBA students in 2014 is now an online digital learning platform offering a variety of self-paced courses to young professionals.
Despite early challenges in securing funding, SkillLane now has over 300,000 users enrolled in more than 500 online courses that cover everything from marketing, business and information technology to public speaking, nutrition and childcare.
Founders Titipong Pisitwuttinan and Ekachet Asavarujikul turned to online learning when their university schedules clashed with extracurricular programs they wanted to study. This inspired them to launch a platform where people could pursue their passions and develop skills in a cheap and flexible way, no matter where they are in the world.
Having initially offered courses to individual students as their primary customers, SkillLane has now expanded to provide corporate training to large organizations in various industries such as banking, insurance, retail, real estate and energy. The startup has also secured partnerships with Microsoft Thailand to offer professional training to Office 365 subscribers.
Ooca’s founder Kanpassorn Suriyasangpetch describes her company as an online therapy startup that “breaks geographic boundaries” to help people access mental-health services.
While stationed in a remote area as a military dentist for the Royal Thai Army, Kanpassorn’s long trips to routinely see a therapist gave her insight into how hard it can be for people in remote areas to access quality mental health services.
In Thailand, where many people own more than one smartphone, the solution seemed simple: an app to connect people with therapists via video or text. “Ooca makes it easier for people to access proper care nationwide and aims to educate society about what mental health is.” Kanpassorn told Startup Guide.
While Ooca has been “driven by social impact since day one,” Kanpassorn says that she has avoided attaching a label to her company.
“In Thailand, the concept of impact companies isn’t widely understood,” says Kanpassorn. “We’ve tried to remain more neutral in terms of our categorization to ensure that people understand what we do. Right now, I think Ooca is more recognized in Thailand as a healthtech startup rather than a social impact company.”
Ooca has now expanded its services to the corporate sphere. Companies can offer their employees comprehensive mental health services to help reduce work-related stress and improve overall wellbeing. Ooca even generates analytics that can identify common concerns among employees while preserving privacy.
“We’re now pushing to get stronger support from the government to destigmatize mental health and make services more digitally accessible and affordable,” says Kanpassorn. “With help from our partners, we will expand Ooca to ASEAN countries next year.”
Founded in 2015 by Israeli entrepreneurs Kineret Karin and Yoav Elgri, ImpacTech is an accelerator program designed specifically for startups with a social mission.
Each program supports between five and ten startups that are working on solutions, from helping the elderly to increasing financial literacy in lower socioeconomic communities. Additionally, ImpacTech creates bespoke programs for corporates developing clean energy initiatives.
When ImpacTech’s founders first started out, they were looking specifically for impact-driven startups to participate in the programs. They’ve since broadened their scope to include any startup using technology. “We believe that by using tech, individuals can create meaningful and large-scale impact in our society and economy,” Kineret told Startup Guide.
While the startup ecosystem in Thailand is still in its early stages, Kineret says that there is “growing support” for impact entrepreneurship from various organizations, including government and corporates.
Additionally, Bangkok is a center for tourists from all over the world, bringing international talent to its shores.
“You can see many startups forming from locals and foreigners collaborating,” says Kineret. “This kind of cooperation is an excellent way to grow a company. You can get an international overview of how to build and scale a startup, as well as knowledge and insight into the local culture.”
For an inside look into Bangkok’s burgeoning startup scene, grab a copy of Startup Guide Bangkok here.
Arch Wongchindawest profile photo: Komthat Ninpan for Startup Guide Bangkok