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Top 50 Corporate Citizens 2008

The New Corporate Battleground


"Corporate citizenship" is no longer merely a moral concept to which companies give lip service; it's the new battleground for corporate excellence.



The New Corporate Battleground

By CommonWealth Editorial Department
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 393 )

Dawn breaks as the doors to Dajia Township's Jhenlan Temple open and the faithful drift in to worship at the 278-year-old altar.

At the adjacent First Market, Tsai Li-e has been operating her dumpling shop, a classic example of a Taiwanese social enterprise, for the past 13 years.

Online Sales Support Disadvantaged Families

With a steady throng of worshippers flowing in from Dajia Temple as well as brisk online sales, Tsai's shop – the largest dumpling vendor on Yahoo! Auctions Taiwan – sells around 10 million dumplings a year, each one fetching from NT$3 to NT$5.5. The enterprise also supports 20-plus disadvantaged families.

The little shop's workforce includes 13 female employees, all of whom single mothers, handicapped mothers, or immigrants who married Taiwanese husbands.

After sending their children off to school, the 13 mothers make their way to the market a little after eight in the morning to make dumplings while Tsai tends to the customers.

At a small table in the back, Tsai's daughter Lin Fang-yi, a graduate of Tunghai University's Landscape Architecture Department, is busily copying orders from the website she designed and calling the delivery service for an afternoon pick-up.

Since its inception, Tsai's handmade dumpling business has employed over a dozen women from disadvantaged families.

"These mothers have it hard. They want to work, but no company will hire them," says Tsai, who understands the plight of wives and mothers who try to re-enter the workforce.

In Central and Southern Taiwan, most mothers who re-enter the job market choose to do handicrafts from home for a meager income.

Women are eager to work in Tsai's dumpling shop, where the hours are flexible and workers are paid in cash.

A small whiteboard in the shop records the hours put in by each mother, and they are paid accordingly at the end of the day. "Working here, you get paid over NT$25,000 a month, which is much higher than the NT$7,000 or NT$8,000 you'd get doing handicrafts form home," says Tsai.

The dumpling shop loses half its workforce around 11:30 every morning, when Tsai says "everyone goes to pick up their children from school or to take them to after-school programs."

Tsai gives her employees a free lunch, and extends her care to her employees' neighbors too. One "dumpling mama" lives near a mother who is a temp worker and the sole bread earner for her impoverished family. Since hearing of her predicament, Tsai sends her leftovers every day.

"I wish everyone could support themselves," says Tsai, who bought an electric scooter for a handicapped single mother who works for her. The woman was referred to Tsai by a friend in the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation after she lost her husband. "She can pay me back when she has the money."

Taiwan's Largest Online Dumpling Site

Tsai has had a hard life herself. Having lost her father at the age of 19, she supported her four younger siblings by selling watches, working in a shoe factory, and then selling grilled kebabs.

Thirteen years ago, she started selling boiled dumplings from a cart at the entrance to First Market in Dajia, where she discovered she could sell over 3,000 dumplings on a good day.

Five years ago, Tsai's son Lin Chen-wei, then a student in the National Chengchi University Department of Slavic Languages & Literature, suggested selling dumplings on the Internet. After her daughter lent a hand with the design work, Tsai's dumpling site was born.

"We now sell over 30,000 a day, over 10 times more than our closest competitor," says Tsai's daughter. Once, the Changhua Christian Hospital even bought over NT$100,000-worth of dumplings in one order.

Single Mother with a 50 Million Turnover

The theme of the disadvantaged helping one another through social enterprise is also playing out in the city of Tainan, where bowl after bowl of delicious danzi noodles tell of the efforts of over 50 brave single mothers.

The area around Tainan's 17th-century Dutch colonial landmark Fort Provintia is ground zero for the city's specialty danzi noodles. Six of the restaurants in the neighborhood date back over a century. The youngest establishment on the block, founded just five years ago, is Chi Kan Noodles, headed by 47-year-old single mother Tseng Feng-yu, who, with the help of other single mothers, is now besting her older, more established rivals with an annual turnover of NT$50 million.

As a child Tseng lived in an underground gambling den. When she was in fifth grade, she ran away from home to escape domestic violence. Penniless, she kept herself alive by working odd jobs. "To this day, I still dream of being cold and hungry," she confides.

At the age of 21, Tseng married into a Tainan family famous for its danzi noodle tradition. Her security was torn away, however, when her husband lost the wealth of two generations to gambling.

In 2002, Tseng left with her 18-year-old daughter after finally being granted a divorce, on the condition that she shoulder her husband's debts of over NT$7 million.

It was then that Tseng decided to create a new life through the danzi noodle business, and took over a decrepit, century-old building next to Fort Provintia.

Now she is the owner of three danzi noodle shops staffed by single mothers. Of the 70-plus women she employs, over 50 are single mothers, and six were victims of marital violence. Thus, her restaurants serve as safe houses for the disadvantaged.

While a bowl of noodles sells for only NT$50, Tseng is generous when it comes to employee training. She spends nearly NT$200,000 each semester on marketing management classes at the National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) for 10 employees, and arranges monthly cosmetics application lessons from the manager of the local MAC cosmetics store at her three danzi noodles outlets.

As her business grows, Tseng is supplementing her fifth-grade education by taking time out daily for language tutorials in English and Japanese, as well as taking management classes at NCKU.

"I understand, more than anyone, how difficult it is for single mothers to make a living," says Tseng. Over a year ago, she hired an unmarried woman, eight months pregnant, and allocated her the easy task of arranging utensils.

Tseng insists, "Even if you're widowed or divorced, or poor, you're not pitiable – you're your own benefactor."

Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman