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Next generation: A flag bearer for social responsibility

Many business owners like to claim they are socially responsible, but according to Sonia Tsao, fifth-generation family member of Singapore-based conglomerate The IMC Group, it is the next generation who should be the flag bearers for this movement.

Sonia, 24, believes social responsibility is already innate in her family business. "I would say we are a values-based company and have a sense of accountability because the business is driven by personal as well as business values," she explains.

"Family businesses can lead by example in aligning business values and family values to ensure the community of employees and customers are both well served. This is the foundation of the IMC philosophy," says Sonia.

And, if the IMC's mission is anything to go by, Sonia is right about her family company's intrinsically socially responsible nature. "To do business is to serve welfare and to create wealth at the same time," it states. This is something taken seriously by all members of her family, but most notably by her father Frederick Tsao, the current CEO.

"My father is a hugely philosophical man and he is very much the heart and mind behind the business. He advocates that businesses need to be grounded in visions and values in order to cultivate a sustainable economy," she explains.

Sonia further believes that social responsibility is part of the very nature of what many family businesses stand for. "In family businesses, the merging of family and business values seems to occur naturally. So even though it is not always articulated, or even realised, I see it happening in many family companies," she says. "Furthermore, as largely private organisations, we have the financial and legal ability to determine our own mandates."

Although some detractors may question whether it is possible to be both profitable and socially responsible, Sonia is unequivocal. "Business was created to serve market needs, and market needs are driven by human needs. Ultimately you're serving people and they're determining what you are creating. It is a didactic relationship," she says. "There has been an increasing misalignment of these direct relationships, but I believe if your goal is to sustain a multi-generational business then participating in the development of your community helps you better serve them and in turn makes you a stronger organisation."

Although family businesses have always had an element of social responsibility, the need to recognise it in business practices has grown in recent years. "I think social responsibility has become more important, not just as a goal for family business next gens but for our generation in general," Sonia implores.

"The discussion of social issues is more pertinent as a result of globalisation as they have become so obvious. And there is no excuse for our generation not to do something about it because technology and communications has given us so many ways to participate in the dialogue," she says.

As a result, Sonia believes next gen members are in a good position to be catalysts for change. "I think we have a platform to speak up for an alternative vision," says Sonia. "And I definitely think within the family business sector that next generation leaders should live up to that expectation."

For Sonia, the FBN's next gen community has been a valuable way for her to understand how she can become more engaged in her family business. "From getting involved in FBN, I am gaining an understanding of family business as a more sustainable model," she says. "I want to expand on this and to help others expand on this notion too.

"I'm also interested in new models of business like social entrepreneurship. As next gens I think it is important we are not afraid to challenge and improve upon traditional models as well as explore new terrain," she says.

Sonia also feels it is important to get a grounding in giving back to the community aside from the family business, especially when next gens are just starting out on their careers as she is. "It gives you perspective and a deep sense of purpose," she says. "I do some work with a social lending platform, Kiva, and have also worked with Habitat for Humanity constructing low-income housing in Quito, Ecuador."

Next gens are uniquely placed to promote corporate social responsibility within their family businesses and, as Sonia points out, the need is greater now than ever before. Raising the awareness of next gens on the importance of these issues should not only help their family businesses now, but also make them better, more responsible leaders in the future. 

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