Finding her encore career
This spunky woman has traded in being an employee to being her own boss and has found meaning in her life.
BY: Eleanor Yap
The term ‘encore’ describes work in the second half of life that combines continued income, greater meaning and social impact. Helen Lim, 63, (pictured on far right) is a great example of someone finding her encore career. She was a HR practitioner for almost 40 years and after retiring, she got called to SingHealth to pioneer its Silver Connection Movement, which helped retrain retirees and mature employees. After she left SingHealth in February 2009, she set up her own company called Silver Spring, a company that focuses on career counselling, placements and life coaching.
“My passion and dream is to help more people seek their encore (a term to describe work in the second half of life that combines continued income, greater meaning and social impact) careers and discover their unique ways to being fulfilled,” said the certified re-career coach.
Lim has however, taken on another project – running a social enterprise café called Chatters @ Silver Spring Café. This mother of one is busier than ever. Agelessonline catches up with her to find out why she has taken this path and why she feels so strongly about seniors working:
You have been in the corporate life as a HR practitioner for almost 40 years. What made you decide to start a social enterprise late last year and much less a café?
Yes, 40 years is a long time in corporate life. Ten years ago, I would have followed everyone else and simply retire blissfully and not think about “work” at all … just travel, shop and anything other than HR-related work!
But in recent years, there is much awakening to the search for meaningful pursuits beyond oneself and check out our inner voice to do something significant. It is that time when I started looking at my life in terms of the time I have left.
The café extension is really an accidental outcome, especially when I am no cook! I am attracted to the café concept as complementary to my career and life coaching, as I envision the café premises at Parkview Square to be a platform for gatherings and great conversations. Hence Chatters @ Silver Spring Café!
So hence the name.
It was over a lunch with my Australian friends when we started brainstorming for a creative name. It went from ‘gossip’ to ‘great dine-out’ to finally an ‘aha’ moment with the name ‘Chatters’!
Did you receive any funding for the business? How much did you put into your business initially?
I decided to start off on my own steam and funds to test out my belief and passion. The paid-up capital for Silver Spring and Chatters operations is $100,000. This is to meet the expense needs for the business start-up, and the investments into new equipment for the café and the rental deposits.
Do you feel you have made the money back? If not, how long do you think you will be able to reap a profit?
Silver Spring is only a year old and Chatters, only eight months. It is important for any business to stay resilient and build up its reputation and loyal customers. Within a few months we are already in the black … with reasonable profits very soon! We must also consider the intangible benefits, especially as a social enterprise.
How many partners do you now have? How many total staff?
I have two other partners, one of them used to be in the food business, both as committed to see through the success of our social enterprise. We are blessed with a good team at Chatters, majority are senior citizens above 55 years old, all wanting to see Chatters grow! We have an experienced chef, and four food handlers/servers. One doubles up as the accounting support, tapping on her previous accountant experience.
I understand some of them are secretaries and accountants previously. What was their motivation in working at the café? Was it financial?
Definitely not money! I think each has a slightly different motivation, but the overall riding factor is they find this an interesting and meaningful option. Chatters’ operation model is also sufficiently flexible and meaningful to attract people who want to try something different.
Why is hiring older workers important to you?
It is my strong belief that there is a lot of under-utilised, “wasted” talent as mature people begin to leave their working world. If I can show a way to re-engage them to add value as a flexible resource or for project work, it would be a win-win model for all.
What are some benefits to hiring older workers?
In addition to the accumulated experience and skills in their area of expertise, older workers have a wealth of general wisdom and interpersonal skills. They have experienced many situations in their life journey, and by and large can therefore not only adapt, but remain steady and resilient.
Flexible hours are particularly of importance to seniors, which you mentioned earlier. What hours do you provide to your staff? Any other benefits?
Chatters is able to offer flexible work week – two of them “job-share” three days per week. Another works for a few hours each day during the late morning to early afternoon peaks. All of them are also on CPF even though they are part-timers. I am able to obtain relief replacement when someone needs to take a holiday.
What have been some of your challenges in the business as well as in hiring older workers?
Every business operation has its set of challenges. Café operation has a wide range of challenges, from fluctuating daily customer volume to ensuring food hygiene standards, and minimising wastage. People issues are also uniquely challenging. When the majority of the team comprises seniors, it creates an unusual sense of belonging but at the same time a special need to adjust to set habits and styles.
It requires much commitment, dedication and communication to ensure proper juggling of such challenges. Take for example, the way to prepare sandwiches or the order process. It takes good communication to finally get down to the various SOPs (standard operating procedures).
Can you share five lessons you have learned from hiring older workers?
They would be:
• Aim for flexible workers
• Look out for open-minded individuals still willing to learn and have fun
• Allow reasonable degree of autonomy and instil sense of pride in what they do
• Communicate, communicate and communicate. Align with Chatters’ guiding principles, which includes caring, honesty, attitude, trust, teamwork, energy, respect, and spirituality
• Encourage trust, disallow politics
As an employer, what advice would you give to other employers in hiring older workers?
Learn from my lessons above. I am happy with the model I have developed. Turnover has improved. Especially in the first two months of operations when processes were being defined, a couple of the employees felt their ideas were not taken into account and left instead of working through as a team to improve processes. It comes back to willingness to talk things through.
Beyond just serving food during the weekdays, are there some other ways you have managed to tap on to generate further income for Chatters?
To ensure the café operation is sustainable, we need to do more than just cater for breakfast and lunch crowds from the surrounding offices. We need to cater for business meetings to their offices, organise special afternoon sessions and workshops. To date, we have organised several workshops, training sessions and an elaborate appreciation dinner for 60 pax.
You have altered your mission and have hired a young person. Can you explain?
The original mission of focusing on seniors’ career well-being is simply being enhanced to embrace an intergenerational dimension. So when there was an opportunity to bring on board the son of my friend’s senior friend, I said “why not?”
At 30 years young, he is half the age of the current average age. The good news is since he joined on early August, he has adapted well to everyone here. We told him not to address us as uncle or aunty, and just by name, which makes us feel younger! He has experience as a barista and now enjoys making gourmet coffee. Now I can say, intergenerational bonding can work!
What are some questions one should consider when becoming a social entrepreneur?
Question and be clear about your beliefs for the social cause you are pursuing. Is your commitment sufficiently strong to weather initial uncertainties and surprises? Do you have the stamina and financial, physical and spiritual means to overcome any obstacles/challenges, e.g. revenue stream not according to business plan? Do you have the confidence and conviction that with some focus on improved processes and strategies, business will improve in the longer term?
As the saying goes, we reap as we sow … so we must ensure we continue to sow good seeds and determined to weed out obstacles.
How important is family support in a social enterprise? Can you share your own experience? Where do you hope to go with Chatters?
A social enterprise, just like any business, does require much commitment especially in the initial stages. Family members will support you if they understand your strong beliefs and passion and if you are also sensitive to balance the various priorities in life. I am blessed to have an understanding husband and son who actually helped in setting up the café fittings. My brother, many friends and ex-colleagues have also been most helpful, coming by as backups at times most needed. I am indeed blessed.
I hope Chatters will grow nicely and remain sustainable for a long time. I can then take a smaller role and allow others amongst the Chatters team to assume greater responsibilities and ownership.
You hold many hats including your work with Silver Spring. You are probably more busier than when you retired? How do you balance things and have you shelved your plans to really retire?
I find that almost all the activities are aligned to my beliefs of creating options for seniors, helping them see hope in achieving career and social well-being. In this way, when these activities are in sync with my passion, it’s not deemed busy work, but simply joyful pursuits. As long as my health permits me, I can stay engaged without thinking of conventional retirement.
Any additional thoughts?
Listen to your inner voice, follow your heart and passion. Let family and close friends know of your bigger purpose in life and they will support you! Learn from sharing and receiving.