By the SMU Social Media Team
Most 12-year-old boys dream about joining a rock band or becoming Singapore’s first astronaut. But at that tender age, Gabriel Tan I-Ren had already planted the seed for creating his very own social enterprise.
The SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business alumnus had gone on a community service trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, when he was just 12. There, he witnessed the effects of extreme poverty for the first time, which raised his awareness of the plights suffered by children and youths in the less fortunate parts of the world.
Over the years, to not let that sense of compassion be dulled by worldly ambitions, Gabriel continued to volunteer to fuel his passion for giving back. Two years ago, while still a student in SMU, he launched Bamboo Builders—an educational social enterprise setup with the lofty ambition of enabling youth with access to quality education, regardless of their economic circumstances.
“To achieve this, we pioneered curriculums that equip and empower young adults in rural communities with the know-how to build sustainable businesses; these businesses, in turn, support the financial needs of rural schools,” explains Gabriel. “Thus, in attending school, youths develop entrepreneurial mindsets and soft skills while earning a small wage.”
Taking the “teach a man to fish” ethos to the next level, Gabriel, who majored in Strategy and Global Asia, recognised that the critical first step to empowerment lies in fixing that paralysing “I cannot” and “I don’t know how” mindsets.
As such, beyond traditional community service projects focusing on the building of schools or book donations, Bamboo Builders delivers curriculums that foster skills such as Design Thinking. In time, the once-self-limiting students in underprivileged communities are cultivated into business leaders through the developing and running of their own projects. These projects eventually became profitable co-operatives that help finance their schools’ overheads, or small businesses that fund educational campaigns for the community.
And besides empowering rural youths, Bamboo Builders also helps to boost the life skills of budding social entrepreneurs in Singapore through the group’s programmes. These programmes welcome even those with little experience in the social impact space, as Bamboo Builders trains them in areas like basic design thinking theory and problem-solving strategies.
Following the initial programme, more experienced participants are then groomed into becoming leaders of their own projects, and finally—if they are so inclined—to be equipped with the skills to run their own social enterprises. In doing so, Gabriel aims to create an exponentially growing network of social entrepreneurs, thereby creating sustainable impact with a multiplier effect that lasts long after a single trip or workshop.
“One of my biggest highlights so far was when we saw seniors in the programme training their juniors in Design Thinking, during a trip in December 2018,” recalls Gabriel.
“It was especially heartwarming for me because I had witnessed their growth over the year, from shy individuals into confident social entrepreneurs. To me, that was a validation of the ripple effect I had hoped to create. Setting up a rural social enterprise isn’t enough; in order to be sustainable, it has to replicate its benefits over and over.”
“I was devastated and felt like giving up.”
Despite his years of experience in community service, starting a social enterprise of his own nevertheless came with its own set of hurdles. He once had an entire team leave the organisation due to time management challenges and changes in their life stages.
He says: “I was devastated and felt like giving up.”
Furthermore, finding the balance between making a profit and achieving social impact is a conundrum for many social enterprises, including Bamboo Builders.
“Different social enterprises run on different models, but I believe in prioritising social impact because that defines our internal culture and focus,” says Gabriel. “I believe more profits will come in once we start creating substantial social impact.”
“Have courage, don’t wait, just do it,”
Overcoming the various challenges of being a startup, compounded by the issues commonly related to running a social enterprise, Gabriel seems to have applied the same “can do” mindset he aims to cultivate in his programme participants, to himself. In fact, he now advises budding social entrepreneurs to kindle their aspirations, and not be overwhelmed by potential obstacles.
“Have courage, don’t wait, just do it,” says Gabriel. “Your mind will always give excuses in the form of insurmountable ‘problems’. However, if we successfully break down large problems into smaller ones, any problem can be overcome.”
And Gabriel indeed lives up to his own advice; Bamboo Builders currently boasts four social enterprises in rural Vietnam and Myanmar, and more than 15 social projects across ASEAN. To date, it has trained more than 350 young adults from seven countries.
He adds: “Our vision is actually unfolding faster than I had imagined. And this is just the beginning.”
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