One-on-one with founder of The Nail Social, an entrepreneur inspiring social & environmental change

Meet Cheryl Ou, founder of The Nail Social and The Social Space, businesses that strive to make a positive impact on the community and the environment. At The Nail Social, Cheryl provides training and employment to local marginalised women, while at the same time, ensuring the products used in the nail parlour are non-toxic, eco-friendly, and cruelty-free. It’s essentially beauty with a conscience, and given the world we live in now, something we can use more of.

In this interview, Cheryl expands on the role her parents play in shaping the person she is today and how the pandemic has changed the way the community helps the less fortunate.

Portrait shot of Cheryl Ou
Credit: Flavien Prioreau and Zoe Kovacs

Zat: Humour me a tad. Describe what you do for a living in exactly five words and elaborate on your thought process behind this choice.

Cheryl Ou: Inspiring social and environmental change.

I currently manage two social enterprises, The Social Space and The Nail Social, both of which are public-facing businesses. Through the hiring and sourcing decisions we make daily for our business, I hope to show our customers that it is possible to make a positive impact in the community by being conscious about their day-to-day decisions, such as where they go for their daily lives coffee or weekly manicure. We want to encourage consumers to understand the power of their purchases and make a conscious choice to support brands and companies whose values align with theirs.

What was your childhood like growing up, and how has this affected the decisions you’ve made now in both your personal and professional life?

Cheryl Ou: I had a very carefree childhood and was never really forced to conform or fit into a sort of ‘box’, and I have my parents to thank for that. My brother and I were encouraged to experiment and try new things, choose our path, and most importantly, we were allowed to make mistakes—and God knows, I’ve made many. My parents were the kind who would probably stay up all night worrying about us but never let their worries hold us back.

Through it all, I was never once told I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl, or because I was too young or too weak. For example, my brother is four years older than me, but I was never stopped from playing the same sports as him or going to the same rock concerts as him or even go on solo backpacking trips to Africa and India. And because of that, I grew up thinking I was capable of anything.

That has shaped the person I am today (thanks, mum & dad!), and I am more willing to take risks and embrace failure.

A cashier cabinet with The Nail Social in front and a wall with words

Zat; You founded Anchora in 2014, The Nail Social in 2015, and The Social Space in 2018. Having been in the social awareness space for close to 7 years, what have you observed to be the most significant difference between the world of social causes then compared to now in a post-pandemic world?

Cheryl Ou: I think, for one, people now realise that they don’t live in a bubble and that we’re all in this together. The plights of people in the less fortunate community than us or smaller businesses that are suffering are now in the spotlight and cannot be ignored. It’s heartening that many people are realizing that they are actually in a position to make a positive impact and are more conscious in their day to day decisions, such as choosing to support a local F&B business during circuit breaker or supporting an organization that donates meals to migrant workers, or giving out thank you packs to healthcare workers etc.

Zat: What is one social enterprise business idea you’ve always wanted to explore but haven’t had the opportunity to bring to fruition?

Cheryl Ou: I’ve wanted to open a childcare centre that operates in the evenings and weekends to cater to low-income women, and I’ve had many discussions with various VWO’s and other social entrepreneurs—even with Ms Carrie Tan, current MP and founder of Daughters of Tomorrow. Still, unfortunately, it hasn’t materialised yet.

At The Nail Social, I work alongside a lot of single mothers or mothers from low-income households. The reality is that many of these women are in this service sector, either in retail or F&B, which means they don’t work regular 9-5 office hours. However, the current childcare system closes at 7 pm and is closed on weekends and public holidays, catering solely to the 9-5 office workers.

I have interviewed many women who are desperately looking for a job but cannot work evenings and weekends (which is the peak period for the service sector) because they have no childcare options. Most times, they also have limited family support and cannot afford a freelance nanny or babysitter, so it becomes a chicken and egg situation. I still haven’t entirely given up on this idea and am still trying to reach out to relevant people in the industry, so fingers crossed we can find a way to fill this gap soon.

Photo of freshly manicured nails at The Nail Social

Zat: What is one piece of advice you wish you had been given in your journey as a social entrepreneur that would have made the work you do now a tad easier?

Cheryl Ou: Start defining how you will measure your impact right from the start.

I’m very involved in the day to day operations of both my businesses, and I work very closely with the beneficiaries, so I feel like I’m making an impact, but that’s all it is—a feeling. It’s not measurable or quantifiable. When things get tough, which it does, and often, it’s easy for negative thoughts to creep into your head and imposter syndrome to set in, and that’s when I start to doubt my ‘feelings’ and wonder if I’m making as significant an impact as I think I am.

As we are a member of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE), we are held accountable for our actions and are made to list our impact for the previous year and goals for the following year. While it is a tedious process, measuring and quantifying the work that we do helps reaffirm my conviction and motivations as a social entrepreneur.

Zat: Who or what inspires you the most, and what can we learn from your source of inspiration that would help us live a more fulfilled life?

Cheryl Ou: As an adult, I’ve found very few public figures that genuinely inspire me, BUT I am amazed by some of the “ordinary” people around me—my everyday heroes.

The most recent example would be my friend Sherry, the founder of BeKindSG, a local micro-volunteering group. For the last few months, Sherry and her team at BeKindSG have been spearheading multiple projects to help various vulnerable groups cope with the effects of Covid-19, including rallying corporate sponsors and volunteers to put together 7,000 care packs for healthcare staff. And she does all this while coping with a chronic autoimmune disease she’s dealt with for 20 years.

Her positive outlook on life and her belief that no act of kindness is too small to make a positive impact on someone’s life has been a massive inspiration.

Zat: What are your current top three favourite cultural phenomena that you’re obsessed with, and why?

Cheryl Ou: I’m not one to follow trends and pop culture (I had to Google cultural phenomena in 2020/2021 just to see what I’m missing out on), but I have to admit that my one guilty pleasure these days is Korean dramas. The plots are usually so easy to follow, and the characters are incredibly entertaining, so it’s a great way just to take my mind off work for a while.