The Cartier Women's Initiative Welcomes Its First Singaporean Fellow

When enrichment schools toot their own horns, they typically highlight how many distinctions their students achieve in exams. However, for Mint Lim , the founder of School of Concepts, success is about a lot more than just high test scores.

Ask the social entrepreneur to share her enrichment centre’s success stories, and she will tell you about students such as a boy with serious autism who joined the school at the age of three. When he first arrived, Lim recalls, the only word he could verbalise was “stop”. He was also unable to make eye contact with others. However, after a year at School of Concepts, his language skills improved greatly, and he was able to better articulate his feelings as well as socialise.

Like this boy, another of Lim’s students comes from a troubled family background. Five years ago, Lim happened to strike up a conversation with a private-hire car driver when she was his passenger. He shared that his daughter, who would be entering primary school the following year, could not speak or write a word of English.

When she first entered School of Concepts, the child was not able to say much, save for a colourful vocabulary of Hokkien expletives. She also had other behavioural challenges stemming from neglect.

Initially, Lim worked one-on-one with the child — at a subsidised flat rate — using the school’s visual/auditory/kinesthetic (VAK) approach before gradually easing her into group classes. Today, that student is 13 years old and has improved tremendously — not only academically but also in personal development.

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A vision reaffirmed

It is no surprise that Lim’s yardsticks of success are somewhat different from those of your typical enrichment centre. When she started School of Concepts in 2018, it was with the goal of creating a literacy-focused learning centre where no child — regardless of learning differences or socioeconomic status — would be left behind.

Having worked with many underprivileged children, even when she was just in secondary school and helping to tutor her neighbours’ kids, Lim realised that many of their learning obstacles stemmed from the fact that English was not their first language — a challenge in Singapore, where English is the main language of instruction.

In April, the 36-year-old received a reaffirmation of her efforts when she was unveiled as the first Singaporean fellow of the Cartier Women’s Initiative (CWI). Launched in 2006, the programme aims to help female entrepreneurs from around the world by spotlighting their achievements and providing them with financial, social, and human capital support.

Mint Lim Cartier Women's Initiative
Photo: Cartier

At the CWI Awards Ceremony held in Paris in May, Lim was named the third- place awardee in the South and Central Asia category. She took home US$30,000 (S$40,356) in grant funding, in addition to coaching and mentoring, networking, and media opportunities via CWI. Her win included education courses from INSEAD business school as well.

For Lim, one of the greatest benefits of being recognised by CWI is that it has helped to “uplift the school’s narrative”. One of the challenges that the social entrepreneur has faced since the beginning has been explaining her school’s “double bottom line”. She elaborates, “That means we drive impact the way we drive revenue.”

School of Concepts operates on a 70- 30 business model, where 70 per cent of its students pay full fees while 30 per cent pay subsidised fees. This is not a commonly understood concept.

Lim explains, “There was a stigma that a product from a social enterprise would probably be of low quality. And the presumption was that if a social enterprise was able to charge a high price, it was because of people’s pity dollars.” The recognition and visibility that School of Concepts has received following the CWI Awards, says Lim, is an affirmation to both her team — who she calls “the real superheroes” — and supportive parents, many of whom have been part of the centre’s journey from day one.

A long journey

It has been a long journey for Lim, who is dyslexic and grew up with limited means. Lim’s mother was unaware that her child was dyslexic and used to spend many frustrating hours with her after work trying to teach her how to read and spell. About her undiagnosed dyslexia, Lim says simply, “At that time, we weren’t privileged enough to know about this thing called ‘intervention’.”

While in lower primary, Lim figured out a unique way of coding English words in a way that would help her spell them correctly. Long words, for instance, were broken up into syllables and coded with different colours. Lim would later excel and enter Raffles Girls’ School, where she continued using her own system to learn new concepts.

Cartier Women's Initiative fellow Mint Lim with her team at School of Concepts.
Photo: Cartier

Combining her personal experiences with years of research and development paid for out of pocket, Lim formulated School of Concepts’ VAK-based approach, which helps children learn by engaging their various senses. Today, the school has reached more than 12,000 students through its two outlets — at SingPost Centre and Our Tampines Hub — as well as classes it runs at community centres, and via learning kits. The school’s focus has grown beyond English to include learning products for Chinese and financial literacy, as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.

There are also plans to expand her school’s reach in the region. However, Lim is taking a cautious approach; the first step, she says, is to understand local learning landscapes using the school’s learning app, Alphabet Explorer. Her concern is that the school might end up being a centre for only a privileged few. Says Lim, “We want to make sure that whatever we replicate in the region retains its impact. School of Concepts must have its soul.”

Applications for the 2024 edition of Cartier Women’s Initiative begins from 10th May and runs till 30th June. Click here for more information.