We speak with Rebecca Eu, founder of social enterprise Mei’s Own, on her quest to make a positive social impact ahead of Open Circles 2019.
With her natural elegance and bubbly demeanour, you may peg Rebecca Eu as a typical girl-next-door. But make no mistake here, Rebecca is most definitely not one. Sure, she comes from one of the most influential families in Singapore, but that does not define who Rebecca Eu is in the slightest bit.
In a couple of days, Eu will speak on her journey at Open Circles, an invite-only event for leaders and entrepreneurs which will take place in Bali, Indonesia on June 20 to 23. The event builds thought-provoking environments and experiences to ignite collaborations in social impact and innovation. She will join the likes of Hollywood actress and environmental activist Alicia Silverstone and entrepreneur Marc Weinstein of Netflix’s Fyre fame.
At just 25 years old, Rebecca Eu has already begun her quest to make a positive impact on the world around her.
“I was doing International Relations in college, and had started learning about sex trafficking in Southeast Asia and how big of an issue it was,” she said.
“I realized how little I knew about the region so I made it a point to visit the Philippines and just started volunteering.”
The experience changed her perspective on she viewed the world, and she stayed in the Philippines for a year doing volunteer work, helping them in whichever areas they needed help in.
In 2016, she founded Love, Mei, a social enterprise retailing handmade apparel and accessories. Through Love, Mei, she hoped to improve the lives of survivors of human trafficking, abuse, and poverty in the Philippines through education and employment opportunities. To her, this was not a short-term pet project, but something she had a long term vision for.
“I have seen volunteers come and go and there is this thing called “voluntourism”, [where] people go to third world countries and think it’s great to take pictures for their Instagram, and they treat the shelter like a zoo. You visit, pay a donation and then you take pictures to feel good about yourself,” she explained.
“But these girls, they are left there, and they don’t see you ever again. That was really hard to see because these people [the girls] meet, they would just go on with their lives and completely forget about them.”
For Rebecca, starting Love, Mei meant that the girls could “earn an income and not keep thinking they had the foundation to rely on”. This was crucial to her because of the prevailing context where many foundations had insufficient capacity to take in new cases.
Through this, Rebecca hopes for these women to pick up new skills, to upgrade themselves and to get used to the idea of earning an income, rather than relying simply on donations. Her brand was later relaunched as Mei’s Own, a lifestyle company based in the Philippines, which works with survivors of sex trafficking and artisans.
Rebecca explained that her pivot to Mei’s Own was a result of changing market conditions as the fashion industry. When she first started Love, Mei, the market became more saturated with competitors who could provide the same quality at cheaper prices. More importantly, her volunteer experiences in the Philippines have led her to recognize an asset that she could leverage on to not only help her beneficiaries but also contribute to a wider cause of retaining and spreading the rich cultures and heritage of the Philippines.
“The Philippines have amazing artisans. Within the country, you have groups of weavers from the native areas like the Yakan tribe, and woodcarvers [from Paete who] carve beautiful life-sized statues. Many of them are third generation woodcarvers and their craft is dying. That is so sad. I felt that we could use their skills to create something with our beneficiaries that would offer people a glimpse of the culture and heritage in the Philippines while doing good for society.”
“[Collaborating with the artisans] who have a native link to their country, who know the motifs and stories can actually help reintroduce the Filipino culture to those girls. They are no longer victims of sex trafficking, but they become artisans and creators. That is where the product serves its purpose, not just to customers but also to my beneficiaries.”
As she spoke of her future plans, the themes of empowerment and ownership are apparent. These values are in fact what inspired the rebranding of her company; Mei’s Own is a homophone of “Maison” (which means house or home in French) that alludes to the sense of belonging and ownership she wishes to imbue in her beneficiaries.
“When I feel like they have a system set up and their own thing going, I want to train a CEO to take over and I want [the CEO] to be a beneficiary from my programme and to give the company back to them.”
Eu also shared her plans to adopt a co-op model, where beneficiaries could become shareholders and help train the next batch of beneficiaries.
“The idea is to build a system that is really made for their community and move on to build it at another community. It really is about helping them to discover their capabilities and do what they do best. And maybe in 5 years, I will start working with boys as well; human trafficking also affects a lot of fishermen in the Philippines or the domestic workers in Hong Kong. This is something I am very passionate about and I want to build a model that works, that is not a charity and [that is] beneficial to society.”
Throughout our interview, she spoke with such maturity and conviction that it is easy to forget that she is just a millennial like the rest of us, struggling to find direction and clarity while dealing with “whatever the hell happens in our early 20s”, as Rebecca simply put it.
“I have been in therapy for this and sometimes, it gets very scary. I’ve received some very threatening messages before. There were days where I would go back home and sit on my balcony and cry because I was just so, so heavy. I needed the detachment.”
But, true to her optimistic nature, Rebecca shared with us her newfound strength amidst her journey.
“I have rediscovered my faith in the Philippines because of the work I do. [The Philippines is a Catholic country and they are very religious. I guess their influence taught me to revisit my faith –I’m Christian– and that has helped me see things a little bit differently. Before, I didn’t have such a clear focus but now I have much more clarity about what I want to do. Faith has been a very big part of that and it makes me so happy.”
She smiled as she quoted the Bible, John 14:1 specifically: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.”
“No matter how difficult the day gets, I think about this verse and I wanna believe in myself, and in [my beneficiaries]. It speaks to me so clearly that this is where I am supposed to be,” she explained.
“My life has completely changed. I used to be that girl [who only cares] about bags and shiny things but my priorities in life have definitely shifted. The way that I look at relationships, the way that I look at my work, the way I look at people, community – it has completely changed because of faith.”
Now, Rebecca Eu is changing the way she approaches her work.
“[Since the early days of Love Mei till now], Mei’s Own has been something that was mine and for whatever reason, I was very afraid of sharing that with others but over the years, I have learnt to ask for help, to connect with people and be more open about it. Because what I have learnt to do is to defend my cause and justify why I am doing what I am doing.”
As we approached the end of the interview, we were left only with a deep respect for this young woman who possesses such a clear vision and such a strong passion to serve the Southeast Asian community. It is no wonder that Rebecca has also earned her well-deserved spot at Open Circles 2019 in Bali, where a global community of visionary leaders will meet to exchange ideas and push for causes which will contribute to bettering our global society.
“To be asked to be part of Open Circles, it is such an honour because it makes me feel like I have really accomplished something and people want to hear what I have to say. It is very humbling to be part of something as big as this.”
Words: Agalia Tan, with additional contributions from Joel Lim.