WHILE most Singaporeans view our nation’s ageing population with a sense of gloom, Ms Helen Lim sees it as a “silver reservoir” of glittering untapped resources and opportunities.
“When you recognise the stability, maturity and wisdom that come with age, you will realise that seniors are not a burden but an asset to society,” she explained.
This led Ms Lim to take the leap of faith after her retirement and venture into businesses catering specifically to the silver market. Today, the 70-year-old social entrepreneur is not only the founder and chief executive of Silver Spring, a job matching and recruitment service for mature workers, but also manages two cafés run by seniors and a co-operative that customises travel packages for seniors.
Her third age
Ms Lim was a regional human resource director at an American-based multinational corporation for 10 years when in October 2005, the company decided to move its Singapore office to Shanghai, China. That was when Ms Lim, who was then 59 years old, decided to retire instead of relocating overseas. She admitted: “At that time, I never thought of working again.”
Four months later, she received a call from Singapore Health Services (SingHealth) inviting her to be part of Silver Connection, a programme that helps local healthcare professionals get re-employed. Her job was to get retired nurses to return to the profession, and it was through her interactions with these nurses that she realised that retirement was far from what she had imagined it would be in her mind.
“They shared with me that the first year of retirement is very fun because you don’t have to wake up early, you just do whatever you want… but after the first year, it gets boring. How much coffee can you drink with your friends? How much shopping can you do before you spend all your retirement money? That was a moment of awakening for me,” she said.
Ms Lim’s three-year stint at Silver Connection eventually motivated her to become an avid champion for the re-employment of seniors. Understanding the challenges faced by mature job seekers, she saw the need to provide them with coaching and guidance.
She explained: “When you have applied for many jobs and are still jobless, negativity can get to you. You’ll need somebody to pull you back a bit and give you confidence.”
So, when her contract with SingHealth ended in February 2009, Ms Lim decided to tap on her personal connections and coaching skills to help mature workers get re-employed and remain financially independent. This marked the beginning of her entrepreneurship journey.
“Accidental” social entrepreneur
Besides launching Silver Spring to help seniors re-enter the job market, Ms Lim also set up her first café in a move to take the lead in hiring retirees above the age of 55. From the chef to the service assistants, the café is run entirely by an all-seniors team.
Taking the lead: The employees whom Ms Helen Lim hires for her cafés are above 55 years old.
As a veteran HR practitioner of over four decades, Ms Lim never anticipated that she would become her own boss after retirement. Labelling herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”, she confessed that she was mentally prepared to lose all her investment if the café business did not work out.
Indeed, running a business has not been all that rosy. After three years of operation, the café at Parkview Square had to be relocated to Ren Ci Community Hospital due to rising rental costs. Ms Lim also faced issues such as staff turnover.
“There were times where I thought of giving up… but I knew that if I did, the rest (of my staff) would lose their jobs too,” she said.
As such, Ms Lim stuck to her social mission, constantly thinking of ways to help seniors while making her businesses more viable. Her passion and perseverance eventually paid off as she opened another café at Wilkie Edge Shopping Mall.
Drawing inspiration from the silver reservoir
Where do these business ideas come from? Ms Lim gets her inspiration from interactions with seniors.
Once, she was chatting with friends on the topic of travel and many of them complained about how tour agencies’ itineraries were too packed and tiring for seniors, as well as how trips with younger companions would include visits to theme parks that they could not really enjoy. Ms Lim saw this as an opportunity to help address the travel needs of seniors.
In 2012, she started Silver Horizon, a co-operative that works with tour agencies to tailor travel programmes for seniors. Five years on, Silver Horizon’s members have grown to over 380 seniors.
Even as Ms Lim expands her business ventures, she remains focused on her social mission of helping seniors. She is optimistic that her work will change Singaporeans’ perceptions of seniors.
“Once we disassociate ageing with dependency, we will be able to see the true value of the silver market. It’s not a silver tsunami; it’s a silver reservoir of resources, waiting to be tapped,” she said with a smile.