A social enterprise on a mission to nurture individuals with special needs

For husband and wife duo Soek Ying and Barry, giving differently-abled individuals a space to grow and develop skills for gainful employment motivated their founding of social enterprise Mustard Tree. Their son, Ryan Koh, an autistic young artisan with an affinity for arts and crafts, was the main reason why Soek Ying and Barry started Mustard Tree. Now, an omni-channel retail platform, Mustard Tree shows no signs of slowing down on its mission to empower its beneficiaries to make a dignified living.

We speak to Barry about Mustard Tree, his philosophy, and hopes for the enterprise.

Could you tell us more about Mustard Tree? 

Mustard Tree was founded by my wife, Soek Ying, and I. We run an omni-channel retail platform (Bricks & Mortar & Online) and a modest training outfit in the hope that we can better target and enable those who have fallen behind (above 18 years old & unable to land a permanent job). We aim to build capabilities in art/craftwork and retailing and to help our clients regain self-worth.

What inspired Mustard Tree to give people with special needs a space to shine?

Soek Ying and I are parents to Ryan, now 22 years old. What started as a mummy’s pride to showcase her son’s work on Facebook quickly transformed into a little enterprise. People were reaching out to ask about his work and how to go about purchasing them. In fact, some of his initial craft work which were so rough and not well made at all were snapped up quickly. One of the buyers shared this: “”Everyone leaves different fingerprints on a piece of work. If this is his style, you can’t ask him to change.” We were so touched and inspired by these encouraging words that it bolstered our confidence to part with his very first batch of felt frogs. Spurred by this experience, we continued exposing him to different forms of materials and craft work. A dear friend of ours also volunteered to come over to our house once a week to teach Ryan how to sew. Although we were wary of his sensory issues to certain noise, we ventured to buy him a sewing machine. We were all amazed by the results. Today, our aim is to impact lives of people with special needs just like Ryan – who did not have the opportunity to uncover their God-given talents or offered a chance to showcase their talents. With like-minded partners, we develop customised training courses for people with special needs, so that they can be empowered with industry standard skills, which will either enable them to seek gainful employment or set up shop as a home-based entrepreneur like Ryan.

How are these individuals empowered through your enterprise?

We train them, we hire some of them, refer them for job placements if possible. If they cannot be placed at that time, they would continue to pursue their craft with us, as we curate these products and retail these items on their behalf.

Could you share more about a few of your artists and how they have been empowered by Mustard Tree?

Madam Tay, a 68 year-old physically handicapped artisan, has been with us the longest. We met her during an SG Enable training session. After Madam Tay attended a floral arrangement trial in Mustard Tree and was accepted into the class, she said that she was very appreciative that she was able to fulfil her childhood dream of learning how to do flower arrangements.

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Madam Tay joined Mustard Tree two years ago to show that her physical disabilities will not stand in the way of getting a job

Before we met Madam Tay, she was staying at home and did not have much to occupy her thoughts as she was unable to find work. When our physical retail store at Ng Teng Fong Hospital opened two years ago, she joined us to prove to naysayers that her physical disability will not stand in the way of her getting a job.

Another artisan with Mustard Tree is 28-year-old trainee Madelene Tan, who has learning delay and hearing impairment as a result of a brain tumour. She attended SPED Schools and was working at her father’s company for eight years. She first started attending our weekly craft classes around middle of last year. In Oct 2018, she joined us as a full-time trainee. Since then, she has progressed well. From a relatively quiet, less confident individual she has now blossomed to be more independent and vocal. She helps us to tend to the huge amounts of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree on a weekly basis – she carries, stores, conditions, trims these flowers and is now able to do simple flower bouquets. She also adds the finishing touches on our products.

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Madelene Tan tends to the large volumes of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree every week, and even puts together simple flower bouquets for sale]

Support Mustard Tree in training people with special needs and empowering them with skills to seek gainful employment by checking out their  online store and physical store located at Ng Teng Fong Hospital at Jurong East, Level 2.