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Leona Leong is the founder of Aii Singapore, a corporate gift giving company and award winning social enterprise providing sustainable employment for the disabled. With her team of ten, she not just packages customized candies for her corporate partners. She gives her staff the family and future they always dreamed of.
Written and interviewed by Ayla Kremb
1. What was the moment you knew you had to make Aii Sweets happen?
Having started my first business at the age of 19 selling ladies clothing online, I started teaching prisoners to alter clothing, I understood business success rides on its people, not its product. So when I joined Singapore Airlines in my early twenties, my goal was to learn as much as possible about how people connect and communicate in a company environment.
While I was gaining invaluable work-place experience, I knew all along my heart was set on solving one problem: How can we create sustainable work for the disabled? Because I still had so much to learn about the daily challenges of our deaf, blind and physically impaired communities, I resigned from Singapore Airlines and gave myself one year to explore the issue at hand. At the end of my self-funded hiatus, with only $2000 left in my bank account and wondering if I was ready to take the leap, I asked myself: If this was the last day of my life, what would I do with my last $2000? I knew instantly I’d give it to charity. So why not start today?
2. How did you answer the ‘What do you do?’ question at dinner parties when your business idea was still undefined?
I didn’t. I simply said ‘I’m not working at the moment, I’m just taking a break.” Only knowing the social issue I wanted to tackle and not having a validated business idea yet, keeping my Social Enterprise plans to myself felt most natural.
Initially I started selling cookies and later transitioned into candies to match my corporate client’s budgets better. To manage my changing business, I focused on defining what job I was meant to do within my company: To build a rock solid stage for my employees to perform their best. Not to showcase myself.
3. How did you select your first team member?
My hiring philosophy is to provide employment to anyone who needs work, regardless of their physical or mental challenges. So when I hired my first employee, a hearing impaired girl, it was more fate than selection. She needed employment and Aii needed her help. It’s my prerogative to provide work that anyone can complete and ensure every single employee is set up for success.
To share the kind of impact this kind of work experience has on my employees lives, I like to tell the story of Auntie Doris, a hearing impaired lady in her 50s. When she joined the team she was so intimidated her hands would tremble. But the longer she worked at Aii the more confident she became. Today she’s our top sales person by far and to the team she’s like a mother, making sure everyone is taken care of.
4. How have you structured your daily schedule to be most productive?
I believe in staying flexible, yet accountable. Breakfast with my dog Dopey is my only must-do daily ritual. After that my day is filled with meetings, managing my office and supporting my employees. My mom jokes I’m like a puppy. I have boundless energy and am always ready to play. Only when everyone gets tired do I take a break. And the second they are back I’m instantly wide awake. The one thing I do insist on is being accountable. If I schedule a meeting I’m committed to follow through. If I’m busy I’d rather make the appointment for a later date than rescheduling last minute or being late.
5. What do you do to get yourself excited when you find yourself in a mental funk?
Two words: My employees. They are my passion, my motivation and my daily energy boost. Even when I have a packed day I will go out of my way to drop by the office between meetings. Seeing them at work and knowing they feel the sense of belonging and purpose we all deserve, fills me with such joy.
When I was struggling to get my business off the ground I had to choose between paying for marketing or paying my employees. While many business owners may wrestle with the decision, I drew on the marketing wisdom of my virtual mentor, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn via youtube videos. His belief of investing in staff salaries and leaving advertisement at the door, became Aii’s core. If you do great work others will notice. You don’t need to seek publicity. Publicity will seek out you instead.
6. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in yourself since becoming an entrepreneur?
I’ve grown up a lot. I’m more grounded and less impulsive. Being responsible for my employee’s well-being has taught me to think through decisions thoroughly and consider what I say carefully.
Another thing that’s shifted are my friendships. My life is now 100% centered around family. Both my Aii family and my family at home. If I had pick a night with friends or a day with my Aii team, without a doubt Aii would win.
7. If I met you two years from now, what’s the one thing that would make you feel like you’ve made a dent in the Universe?
To be honest I’m not sure where I’ll be in two years. Over the last 3 years Aii has gone from just me, working on a laptop out of my room, to a 1200 squarefoot office with 10 employees, a company car and winning both the Enabling Employers Award and the President Challenge Social Enterprise Award of 2012.
In the future I want to franchise Aii in other Asian metropolitan cities like Hong Kong and KL, empowering the regions many disabled through meaningful work. I do have a 10 year goal though: A big founder’s party to celebrate everyone Aii has impacted. The vision of a fantastic feast with many round banquet tables, delicious food and lots of love and laughter inspires me to give even more.
8. How do you feel when you say ‘My name is Leona and I run Aii Sweets’?
I feel pride. Not necessarily pride in myself, but pride in my employees. They have overcome so many challenges to arrive at Aii and it’s my mission to bring out the best in them. I’m just the face of the company, the medium through which my team’s accomplishments speak. They are Aii. And I feel honored to serve such an incredibly loving group of people in any way I can.
Photo cover credit: danielavladimirova
Guest Post by Ayla Kremb: Ayla loves helping start-ups get their 1st customers, is obsessed with all things tea, can’t get enough of art museums and zen-ifies her Saturdays with meditation. When she’s not connecting with entrepreneurs in the making, her inner word-nerd comes out to do the blog thing. As a self-proclaimed ‘Topicana’ that just happened to be born in Sweden, she believes sunshine is the key to happiness and Tigerbalm is the cure for everything.