Action speaks louder than words for Hong Kong social enterprise that hires deaf technicians

Events company founder built her business from scratch, powered by the passion to employ disabled employees and give them the opportunity to shine

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 8:00am

Ivy Lai Lai-har may be the proud founder of a growing social enterprise which never needed government aid to survive, but it is the people working under her – who have overcome their disabilities – that she draws life lessons from.

The 65-year-old project director of Dazzle Entertainment, which sets up backdrops for events and provides audio services, said she did not allow hurdles to stop her from creating a profitable business that hires people who are deaf.

Dazzle Entertainment recently won the Friendly Employment Award by the Labour and Welfare Bureau for its dedication to training and hiring deaf people as technicians.

Lai started her business on her own in 2011, but now has about 15 deaf technicians between the ages of 40 and over 60 under its wings – slowly debunking the city’s ­common perception that the underprivileged, especially the disabled, are suitable only for low-skilled labour or manual work.

“Six years ago when I started this social enterprise, I had to work on my own for 20 hours a day without pay for two years. I also had to dish out over HK$100,000 to purchase some audio equipment,” she said.

“But now my company has about 15 technicians [who are deaf and hired as casual employees], with another five full-time staff members, and it is able to make some modest profits.

“I am so glad I can make it a sustainable business without getting any government help.”

Work is project-based and employees can earn about HK$400 to HK$600 a day. Their hourly rates are higher than the current minimum wage of HK$32.50 per hour, which will be revised to HK$34.50 from May 1.

Lai attributes the success of her small business to her disabled employees who are as smart, diligent and creative as any other person.

“It was them who inspired me and gave me a sense of satisfaction. Without them I could not have achieved this today. They [taught me] to overcome challenges,” Lai said.

As a newcomer to the industry, things did not come easy for Lai. She had no knowledge of how to set up stages for events, let alone take on the daunting task of making her business model viable.

But she never thought of asking for government funding – although she was eligible for it – even at her lowest point, believing that what mattered was dedication and adhering to the values of those with disabilities.

In 2015, there were 574 social enterprises in the city – of these, 248 were started with seed money from the government.

But about 20 per cent of funded enterprises were forced to close as of 2015, when the money dried up.

Apart from finding a stable source of income for her company, Lai set herself the task of bridging the communication gap with her employees.

She taught herself some words in sign language, and is now able to communicate well with them, sometimes with written words used in the interactions.

Lai previously worked for Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun, and it was her time as a legislative assistant that cultivated a passion in her to help the disadvantaged.

In 2010, a social service centre approached Lai, offering her an opportunity to run its subsidiary business from scratch.

The centre gave her free rein but under one condition – the business must be a social enterprise that helped create jobs for the disadvantaged.

“I had been working in the same job for about 25 years and I thought maybe it was time for a change,” she recalled.

This became Dazzle Entertainment, with Lai choosing the event industry despite her inexperience because she had a contact network of event organisers whom she worked with in her previous role.

In the first two years, she had to contract out the services for projects, while picking up skills from experienced technicians.

Once her business became stable in 2013, she began to hire veteran technicians to provide on-the-job training for deaf employees.

“I found my workers very talented and creative. It was a waste of their talent to do just some manual work. My company business would be a good fit for them,” she said.

“Now that they have all acquired the professional skills, they can be self-sustaining at other jobs.”

Though Lai admitted that sometimes there would be miscommunication between her and her employees, resulting in delays, she never once thought of giving up on them.

“On several occasions, we made mistakes and I was scolded by clients, and from time to time my workers would experience discrimination and hostility from different people. But I reckon this is a process,” she said.

“My corporate vision is to help these people. There’s no reason for me to give up on them just because [the company] has lost one or two customers.”