Imagine this: Your eyeglasses have the wrong prescription, and you’ve spent your life navigating the world in a constant state of disorientation, plagued by dizziness. To make matters worse, you lack the financial means to have your eyes examined, and the only pair of glasses you own is held together by tape.
This was a scenario that Yvonne Siow, Asean head of the Onesight EssilorLuxottica Foundation, the philanthropic arm of European eyewear maker EssilorLuxottica, recently encountered with a malnourished child during a mission trip to the slums in the Philippines.
“He was probably about 10 years old, but he looked like five,” she recalls. He approached Yvonne and her team with a pair of spectacles that was broken into three pieces and haphazardly taped together because he couldn’t afford to get them fixed. “The lenses were so thick that he looked like a goldfish swimming in a fishbowl,” recounts Yvonne.
He confided that he experienced relentless dizziness. It was that moment when a dedicated volunteer sensed something was wrong with the boy’s prescription. An eye examination was quickly conducted, which confirmed their suspicions – his vision prescription was completely wrong.
“We immediately processed a pair of spectacles with the right prescription to be made for him. The very next day, when he received his new spectacles, we also gifted him a storybook. His reaction was nothing short of magical. He lit up with joy as he looked at the pictures and began to read. The teacher was so surprised that he knew how to read,” recounts Yvonne. “She actually told us that she thought the kid was dumb. Can you imagine? He was labelled dumb because his vision was impaired, yet, in reality, he is an exceptionally intelligent and highly capable young individual.”
It was a striking revelation, says Yvonne. And this transformative power of philanthropy, as she aptly describes it, is the driving force behind her unwavering commitment to her work.
How it all began
At the age of 50, Yvonne boasts a decade-long tenure in philanthropy. Her altruistic spirit has always been present from a young age. “I’ve always enjoyed giving back since I was young,” she shares, reflecting on her formative years when she actively participated in volunteer groups, visited old folks’ homes, and provided companionship to those in hospices during their final days.
Her foray into the corporate landscape initially led her down the paths of business development and marketing. It was during her tenure in regional marketing at ophthalmic optics company Essilor in 2011, predating its merger with Italian eyewear conglomerate Luxottica Group, that her colleague approached her and asked if she’d like to take on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in addition to her existing workload.
“They wanted to do charity work, but they didn’t have the budget for an additional headcount,” Yvonne recalls. Driven by an intrinsic desire to give back, she accepted the offer, even if it meant working without financial compensation. Her rationale was simple: She believed that executing philanthropic work within a well-resourced corporate environment could be a more effective way of driving positive change in the world, rather than simply donating money.
“That’s when we established the Essilor Vision Foundation,” says Yvonne. The foundation was committed to eliminating poor vision and its lifelong consequences, and to providing underprivileged people the opportunity to live a better life through better sight. “Although I was a one-person team, we had numerous volunteers and ample support. Witnessing the impact of our work was truly rewarding.”
She double-hatted her marketing and philanthropy roles for three years. In 2014, as a sign that her work in philanthropy was gaining traction in the company, her supervisor presented her with a choice: continue her role in marketing and business development, or focus full-time on philanthropy.
For Yvonne, the choice was an easy one to make. “I thought about it and decided that purpose mattered more to me at that stage of my life, rather than promotions or salary,” she explains. Her boss cautioned her about the limited prospects for career advancement in philanthropy. “He was right. Career progression has indeed been stagnant for the past 10 years,” she admits with a good-natured laugh.
Yet, there is not a hint of regret in her voice. “While I’ve had opportunities and offers to return to marketing or business development within prominent corporations, I’ve remained dedicated to philanthropy because it genuinely makes me happy,” she shares.
In 2022, as Essilor and Luxottica sealed their merger, Yvonne helped to establish the Onesight EssilorLuxottica Foundation, an expansion of the Essilor Vision Foundation. In her role as the Asean Head, Yvonne Siow oversees the philanthropic arm in Asean countries. The overarching mission of the foundation is to eliminate poor vision within a single generation by ensuring that people have access to proper vision care.
Yvonne’s team collaborates with marginalised communities and government stakeholders in over 100 countries, providing affordable eyeglasses to those who can’t afford them, free of charge. She emphasises the significance of fostering awareness about the importance of vision care, and making eyeglasses accessible and affordable. For the Onesight EssilorLuxottica Foundation, achieving this goal will become a catalyst for people to lead better lives.
Another motivator behind Yvonne’s philanthropic efforts is her two daughters, who are now 18 and 16. “I’ve seen that many kids these days grow up entitled: They take things for granted, and there’s an instant gratification culture. They lack empathy and compassion. I didn’t want my children to grow up that way and, as a single mother, I was even more aware of this. So in a way, I’m doing this for my children as well.”
Yvonne and her ex-partner separated 16 years ago. As a single mother, balancing the demands of her many roles and responsibilities while ensuring quality time with her daughters has been a challenge. She’s thankful that her parents have been providing essential support and guidance, instilling values of independence and good judgement in her children from a young age.
Although most of her weekends are dedicated to volunteering and charitable activities, Yvonne always has her two daughters by her side. Her mother frequently participates in these endeavours too, and even the family dog has joined in. Yvonne actively involves her daughters in these activities, turning them into educational and bonding experiences. They have also accompanied her on international mission trips, giving them exposure to diverse cities and cultures.
“Every time they are around volunteers, they light up. Sometimes, it might slip my mind that we’re together at a charity event as there’s often a lot going on. But when I look up, they’re there with the volunteers, helping them out and, in turn, my volunteers always take care of them. It’s like having a huge extended family,” she shares.
An innovative approach to giving
Yvonne believes that if philanthropy is successfully integrated with technology, it will pave the way for new possibilities. “Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning more about how technology can serve philanthropy,” she says.
This is crucial to move beyond the perpetual “give me money” narrative that philanthropy has. A fundamental challenge in philanthropy is the issue of trust, says Yvonne. Donors often feel uncertain about where their donated funds end up, leading to a sense of mistrust. However, she believes that technology, especially blockchain, can bridge this gap, for it allows people to closely track their donations and actively engage with the causes they support.
This is one of the reasons why Yvonne holds a keen interest in blockchain technology. In 2023, she joined the Blockchain Association Singapore (BAS) as Chair of the Blockchain For Good committee, which operates as a CSR initiative. In her role, she delves deeply into the potential applications of blockchain technology to enhance efficiency and transparency in the realm of philanthropy and social impact.
Her aim is to foster a tech-driven community to contribute to positive change in the world. “We’re always looking at new ways to tell the story using tech. [When it comes to spreading the message on philanthropy], the key is capturing people’s attention, then getting them to actively engage and listen. And that’s what we need because we’re now living in a world where we all probably have the attention span of a goldfish.”
This is also why Yvonne initiated the social movement Playpan. Co-founded with her close friend Gary Hong, founder of Ten Square Car Vending Machine, this initiative has brought about a transformative change to the iconic Peace Centre building at Sophia Road.
The opportunity to create Playpan arose with the collective sale of Peace Centre in 2021. Before its closure, the new owners sought to maximise its utility. And so the 400,000 sq ft retail space within Peace Centre was transformed into a vibrant hub for creative collaborations, an interactive community playground of sorts focused on driving positive change and societal impact.
This transformation started in October 2023, and will end in February 2024. It features a wide array of immersive workshops and enriching experiences, including various special events and festivities. The calendar includes activities such as thrifting, fundraising, mural art, digital art, animation, music, AI, blockchain, Web3, and more.
As Yvonne explains, Playpan is a social movement with a flexible concept. It accommodates diverse needs for those seeking to “do good”, but lacking a suitable space. “It’s not a rigid, fixed-in-place thing. It’s influenced by the thought leaders who come to the space. For example, if someone is passionate about youth empowerment and wants a space where they are able to create a podcast [but might be unable to do so at home], we can designate a green room for them to do so. Or, someone else might want to set up a booth for thrifting. It’s all about infinite possibilities. We see ourselves as placemakers for good.”
She adds: “To us, it’s about cultivating a culture of giving. If you consider yourself a Playpan person, it means you embody a spirit of giving and paying it forward. It’s a lifestyle movement that we aim to nurture, hoping it takes on a life of its own.
To us, it’s about cultivating a culture of giving. It’s a lifestyle movement that we aim to nurture, hoping it takes on a life of its own.Yvonne Siow
“With more people joining in, such as The Social Kitchen team and Box Green, and even the blockchain association offering free memberships to tertiary students, this endeavour is gaining momentum. We’ve also opened the space to artists seeking a creative outlet. In fact, our space was listed as one of the satellite places during the Singapore Arts Festival.”
When Peace Centre eventually shutters, Yvonne envisions a transformation for Playpan, transcending the physical realm and expanding into the digital metaverse and, eventually, a hybrid phygital space. She says: “Peace Centre was a gift from the universe for all of us to come together for a better tomorrow. We believe Playpan will manifest itself in another exciting dimension through collective contribution.”
A sense of purpose
If you ask Yvonne what her decade of experience and unwavering dedication to philanthropy means to her, she’ll tell you that it’s a real calling.
She shares: “You have to love what you do, because it demands relentless effort and long hours. The rewards aren’t measured in monetary gain or social status. It’s more akin to the calling of a nurse or teacher – what you get is a sense of purpose. There’s a common misconception that philanthropy is reserved for those who are immensely wealthy. In reality, it’s about giving back, influencing for the better, and utilising one’s influence for good.”
PHOTOGRPAHY Athirah Annisa
ART DIRECTION & STYLING Styling Adeline Eng
HAIR & MAKEUP Eunice Wong, using Chanel Beauty & Lucido-L