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Talkshop 06: EPIC Collaborative

Social entrepreneurship is all the rage right now, but EPIC (Extraordinary People Impacting Community) Collaborative CEO and Co-Founder John-Son Oei doesn’t believe it’s about sitting around brainstorming on how to retrofit your business plan to include donations to a charity. It’s about going out there, bumping into real problems, and finding out how to solve them.

“Social enterprise is a nicely coined term, that packages what I believe business is supposed to be about. I’m supposed to give you something that you need, and you give me a validation of my performance by currency,” John-Son iterates. “There will still be a need for charities, but social enterprises will show bigger companies that there’s a better way to conduct business.”

EPIC Collaborative currently runs the EPIC Homes project, a donations/volunteer programme that builds houses for the Orang Asli of Malaysia who are in need of proper shelter. And it has proven how a commercial approach can produce results much faster and more efficiently as compared to a charity without a solid goal.

Aside from pulling participation from the general public, EPIC Homes also provides a programme for companies who are looking for an effective team building exercise. Considering the nature of the activity, these team building exercises doubles as their Corporate Social Responsibility.

It all began when John-Son and a few friends volunteered to help at an Orang Asli village in 2010. They had previously volunteered on a similar project where they went to a village to help paint houses and build a toilet, but this time they encountered a broken down shed that shockingly turned out to be a person’s home.

“It had no walls, it was lacking roofing sheets, and the man had been living in that structure for two years,” says John-Son. It struck them that what they were doing was merely plugging holes and it wasn’t the long-term solution. “We realised that to really help this guy, it wasn’t about putting up a house, we had to first build relationships so we can get to the real problems.”

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The house that inspired EPIC Homes

John-Son and his friends set out to recruit more volunteers and received an overwhelming response. Over 60 people showed showed up with up to 50 of them being strangers. That first house was completed gotong-royong style, integrating the communities involved.

From then on John-Son and his friends made it their goal to bridge the urban and rural divide with home building being a vehicle to facilitate that process. That mission remains to be EPIC Homes’ core value even up until today.