How encounters with homeless people plying their wares to pedestrians inspired a banker to help build them brighter futures

When Visaluck Utisayapongsa (Lee) volunteered to visit the homeless every week along the streets of Bangkok old town, she would share food boxes and engage in supportive conversations with many prostitutes, ranging from teenagers to 60-year-olds. Most of them were infected with HIV. They had migrated from rural villages and Karen tribes in northern and western Thailand.

Lacking adequate education and guidance to solicit a job that earned them at least a subsistence wage led them down the slippery slope to becoming prostitutes who, even after having been diagnosed with HIV, worked through the night to financially support their parents or children in their hometowns. 

Through these eye-opening conversation, Lee was motivated to utilise her business knowledge from working in one of the largest international banks to create a social impact for people in her community. More specifically, she set out to provide education grants that would give access to promising careers. 

That is how Lee became interested in social enterprises whereby impactful and long-lasting social changes could be enabled by sustainable business models.

She later joined Yunus Thailand, Thailand’s leading incubator and accelerator of social businesses and entrepreneurs through mentorship and consultancy supports, chaired by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. 

Lee’s project was to develop a business plan for Mae Sot Hospitality and Catering Training Center (HCTC), with the aim of being self-financed from donations. 

HCTC recruits students from among Karen minorities in isolated villages along the Thailand-Myanmar border aged 18-23. The students are provided world-class hospitality training and subsequent job integration at 4-5 star restaurants and hotels in Thailand. 

Located in the same premises is The Passport Restaurant and a hotel that provide the venues for the students’ on-the-job training.

 “The place is full of hope and clear purpose to create opportunities for underprivileged kids to rise out of destitution,” says Lee.

“The challenge was to make HCTC a self-sustainable enterprise to support increasing numbers of students in the long-term. So Yunus Center and HCTC formed a partnership to collaborate and work toward this goal.” 

“We drew up several action plans for expansion of The Passport Restaurant and the hotel to create alternative sources of income besides private donations.”

“Among the new initiatives is the introduction of gourmet products such as sweet breads, baguettes, and lemon tarts, all baked by HCTC’s former trainees. The Passport received lots of orders within a month or so from the start.” 

“Other expansion plans are in the pipeline. Now we are expanding our training centre beyond hospitality training to encompass entrepreneurship education that equips the learners with lifelong business knowledge and skillsets to establish their own ventures in limitless settings.”

Not stopping with her work at Yunus Center, Lee also co-founded The Pocket of Sunshine ( with her friend since first grade, Pawitra Chamnanrot, or Mimi. 

 “Mimi and I travelled together extensively throughout northern and southern parts of Thailand. Along the way, we met many local merchants in markets who told us their personal stories. They revealed to us how the difficulty they had in earning a living. The Pocket of Sunshine grew from our mutual aspiration to help local vendors tackle poverty by utilising our knowledge and skills to enhance their livelihoods.” 

Walking toward Nanglinchee market in Bangkok reveals an eye-catching yellow street food cart on the left emblazoned with ‘Yao Som Tam’ (Thai-style papaya salad). The cart and menu in Thai and English was created by The Pocket of Sunshine to attract passers-by and drive sales to the stall. “Lacking time and budget, I never thought of putting up a stall sign,” reveals the owner, Miss Yao. “I wake up at 2am every day to buy ingredients at Klong Toey market and start selling food at 9am. I am so lucky to have met Lee and Mimi. Now the stall attracts lots more customers, including foreigners, who rarely ordered anything from me before.”

 “Our goal is always to improve the livelihoods of vendors in our community,” adds Lee. “They suffered greatly just to earn enough to get by. So we started a pilot project in a market near my home. First we surveyed street food vendors to understand their business situation and select stalls that most needed our help.”

“Going forward, we aim to firm up a sustainable social enterprise model that provides the necessary funding to scale up The Pocket of Sunshine. That way we can increase the number of beneficiaries who can enjoy enhanced living conditions.”

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to find out more about life from the homeless. Their stories  have opened up my world in a way that has resulted in positive change for disadvantaged people in my community. Learning about social problems first-hand from local people inspires me to continue to strive to make a difference.”

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