Randall Chong’s social enterprise recorded a net operating loss of $553.27 in the fourth quarter of 2020. The quarter before, it made a net profit of $1,065.96. These figures are readily available on his site; simply click a link to access revenue and operating expenses, which lists everything right down to the cost of monthly software subscriptions.
It may even feel uncomfortable knowing Books Beyond Borders’ financials so intimately if you’re just some stranger on the Internet. But Chong, 29, is convinced that transparency makes or breaks an organisation.
“When we open the hood, we build trust. Not just for our donors, customers and partners, but more importantly, with the people who want to work for us. Being radically open about our financials is our first step in defaulting to this value,” he explains.
An online second-hand bookstore, Books Beyond Borders collects and sells gently used books and commits 100 percent of its net profit to organisations that help students read, learn and lead in rural schools across Nepal. To date, it has rehomed 7,486 preloved books and given $20,251.07 in grants — no small feat given that the millennial, whose team comprises an intern and some volunteers, largely toils away by himself.
Having started as a charity dependent on partners and donors, Books Beyond Borders pivoted to its now self-sustaining business model in early 2020. Chong had read Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’ Banker to the Poor (“a little later than I should”) and had become “obsessed with the idea of generating our own money to fund future projects”.
The desire to change lives took seed in 2017 when, burnt out from working for various tech start-ups, Chong went “in search of meaning” in the Himalayas.
“I spent 13 days walking alone to the foot of Mount Everest. Then I met Madan, a 16-year-old porter, who said, ‘I used to walk three to four hours to go to school, but now I have to work.’ It dawned on me that this is the plight of millions of children and youth beyond our borders that we don’t see. Books Beyond Borders was a platform to tell my story.”
Over the next two years, Chong returned seven times to Nepal to meet with local leaders, mothers, teachers and adolescents. For its first project, Books Beyond Borders partnered with a Nepali Rotaract club to fund and distribute 669 schoolbags.
“No matter who we are, where we live, what we do — we all want the same thing. To be seen, heard and to know that we are making a difference in the world around us. Human dignity is so important,” says Chong of the perspective he’s gained. “Even the poorest farmers and day labourers I’ve met would reject handouts if they could find work. I choose education because it is more than paper and knowledge — it brings about confidence and dignity in others. That’s the best investment we can make in others.”
While Books Beyond Borders may be a bookstore, it does not set aside inventory for its beneficiaries. Instead, it disburses grants, funds classroom projects and each time it helps build a school library, it purchases books from domestic publishers as a means of supporting the local economy.
The dream now, says Chong, is “to bring Books Beyond Borders worldwide, create a global circular economy and generate millions of dollars to invest in solutions tackling rural poverty and illiteracy. We are already on our way, one book at a time!”
Art direction by Catherine Wong; photography by Darren Gabriel Leow; hair & makeup Angel Gwee using Davines & Shu Uemura