05/28/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Finding Space to Do Good in Business

As a self-made entrepreneur, I am often asked, "How did you do it?" My answer has been the same every time: I re-mortgaged my house, took over a huge debt and plunged into it. It is remarkable that 12 years after I ventured into the aviation business, my answer still baffles many people who assume that in Malaysia, as in many parts of Asia, you can only go far if you are well connected and have deep pockets to draw on.

When my colleagues and I mooted the idea of setting up AirAsia Foundation, we came to the conclusion that the best way we can give back to society in our home region, Southeast Asia, is not just by giving money but by changing mindsets. We decided to support budding social enterprises, especially those established by young people who are dedicated to empowering the poor and underprivileged with their skills and creativity.

In the short time that the Foundation has been active, we have already linked up with some very promising projects. In our selection, we prioritize two criteria -- the innovativeness of the project in finding a solution to the issue at hand, and the project's ability to tap on AirAsia's strengths to further its objectives.

One of our first collaborations is with a Borneo-based organization called Friends for Village Development (Tonibung) that provides rural communities with affordable access to clean, renewable energy. We were approached by Tonibung to help set up a revolving fund that enables indigenous communities to purchase micro-hydro turbines. There are still hundreds of indigenous villages that too remote to access electricity supply from the national power grid but development funds to finance these projects have been progressively drying up.

Access to electricity is not something that many of us living in urban centres think about and it is only when AirAsia Foundation connected with Tonibung's work that I am reminded how much we take for granted. To the poor rural communities, it makes all the difference because clean, renewable energy enables villagers to cut their dependence on polluting fossil fuels and extend their productive hours by at least three hours daily. The villagers also spend 90 percent less on fuel and consequently more on food and health care to improve their quality of life.

We are also supporting Tonibung on a scheme to tap on the expertise of the hundreds of skilled AirAsia engineers to help improve turbine efficiency and reduce assembly costs. This project is very close to my heart because it applies the use of simple technologies to resolve a key question of how to provide a basic need to improve the lives of remote and marginalized communities.

Another project I am proud for the Foundation to be associated with is Rags2Riches from the Philippines. This company was started in 2007 by a group of enterprising young Filipinos to create job opportunities for the urban poor living in a giant garbage dump site in Manila. The mothers who live in this area used to scavenge for scrap material to be woven into floor rugs that they sold on street corners. Rags2Riches began harnessing their skills to produce very fashionable bags.

To date, Rags2Riches has trained over 800 artisans, not only in weaving and sewing skills but also in life skills. Rags2Riches came to us not for direct financial support, but they saw the potential of tapping into AirAsia's vast market reach for their own expansion so that more artisans can be employed. And so, AirAsia Foundation is partnering with Rags2Riches to create a range of travel bags which will be sold exclusively onboard AirAsia flights. Other than its impact on Rags2Riches, this project also makes it possible for us to address the issue of the sustainability of the Foundation's funding pool as part of the proceeds will be used to start-up other similar projects.

The collaborations on these projects are very exciting to me personally as it puts a new perspective on the debate over whether Asians have the creativity to find solutions to challenges in their own societies. As someone who has found success in this beautiful region, it makes me all the more resolved to supporting more of these enterprises.

In time, we have come to realise that AirAsia's role is no longer just to be a business that makes profit. Our story has inspired so many people that we find ourselves facing a larger responsibility and through the Foundation, we hope to catalyse change and nurture young talent in their quest to make a positive impact in society.