Creating Ripples of Change in ASEAN: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 2)

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In case you are new to Bamboo Builders and Gabriel or missed our first interview here, here’s a brief introduction of what they do. 

Bamboo Builders is a distinctive social enterprise that builds social entrepreneurs. They achieve their mission through partnering with urban and rural schools throughout Southeast Asia to build confident, future-ready leaders of character who are community-grounded, yet relevant for the ASEAN region.

Many young people want to create change but do not know where or how to begin. Bamboo Builders’ threefold experiential program exposes them to Southeast Asia’s most pressing needs, trains them in critical skills, then empower them to become social entrepreneurs in their own right.

In addition to directing operations at Bamboo Builders, he is also the Program Manager at Samsui Supplies & Services, a social enterprise under the Soup Restaurant Group. 

Friends of Agripreneurs is an Agri-Tech start-up by Burmese students of the Bamboo Builders programme. Supported by USAID and Visa, it seeks to train rural farmers in productive farming methods and then linking them to urban markets. 

Tun Yong (TY): Having been one yourself, what is some advice you can share for student entrepreneurs?

Gabriel (G): Don’t look down on yourself just because you are young. Especially when you talk to others who are more experienced. There isn’t a need to be in awe of them. They’re human too.

As a Founder, you must behave like one. You must believe in your product and mission. Communicate professionally and be confident about what you are setting out to do. Talk to them as equals. I wished I had believed more in myself back then.

Building on the importance of self-belief, establishing good networks is very important too. It should be deliberate and in the direction you want to take.

For example, in the early stage, I built networks with countless entrepreneurs that were not necessarily in my industry. Usually, when you go for networking events, you will meet a wide variety of people from different industries and hear about all the ideas they have. 

Only later on, I realised it was better to be focused on networking and focus on those within your specific industry. For me, it was the education and soft skills training industry.

Afterwards, I found the conversations to be richer and the relationships more long-term. You also build the support network by understanding each other’s challenges and helping fellow founders.

A support network is crucial. Most of the times you are all alone and nobody outside the community understands your problems. It is good for your mental sanity too. By hearing other industry practices, it also helps you improve your product. For example, if I wanted to know how to design a curriculum for schools, I can get the inputs and advice from different people that had experienced creating such a product before.

Tun Yong (TY): Focusing back to Bamboo Builders, how has it been affected by the pandemic and were there pivots made?

Gabriel (G): Before the pandemic struck, we were offering face-to-face programmes for schools. However, after Covid struck, we had to pivot and bring our programmes online. One of them was a session with students from Nanyang Polytechnic. We were quite anxious for it as it was the first time trialling the new online programme with a client.

In the end, it went well so it was a great learning experience. We had to pivot and rethink our delivery methods so we added online offerings to our current physical ones to provide additional value to the customer.

I initially thought Covid had hurt our business, but on hindsight, it was a good thing. It forces you to be agile and rethink your business and tune it to the situation.

QT Store is a Vietnamese e-commerce fashion start-up by students of Bamboo Builders. Supported by VNPT and Honda, their sales proceeds go to funding annual anti-bullying and traffic safety events at school. 

Tun Yong (TY): Seeing that you have a full-time job with a social enterprise, how do you juggle both roles as a hybrid entrepreneur and what is some advice for career professionals considering starting their business?

Gabriel (G): Embrace the hustle life. My current job is at Samsui Supplies & Services. My main role entails equipping the special needs community with vocational training to teach them relevant skills in the F&B industry to eventually place them in employment. There is true meaning to what it sets out to do so I really enjoy the role.

My after-work schedule consists of 2-4 back-to-back video calls every night. So, it is truly about putting in the hard work. A great team is essential too.

Thankfully, I have a great team supporting me. We had a strict selection process to ensure everyone that joins the organisation sincerely believes in our mission to make education accessible to the impoverished, and that’s what touches me the most.

For those who are just starting, it might be a problem in the initial phase as there would be a lot of hard and dirty work to build up a company. Ultimately, it still boils down to hard work and having a great team to support you.

Tun Yong (TY): Wrapping up this chat, do you have any last advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those still in university and unsure of what career path to take? 

Gabriel (G): My first advice would be to start now. Starting young means lesser liabilities, compared to starting later. For example, now you do not need to support a family and can afford to have a lack of stability. 

My second advice came out from a bus ride home after an internship. I saw people coming out of their offices with a zombie face. Everybody had the same expression! The next day, they are heading back to the office with the same face.

So, I thought to myself, would you want to be like them? How do you want to live your life? Would you want to be like these workers with such an apathetic face or would you rather spend time working on something meaningful?

Though there are tough days in the startup world, it would be much better if you are working on something you are invested in. In the corporate world, while you can find something interesting to work on, at the end of the day, it is not yours. You cannot call it your own. 

For example, in my role with Samsui, though I still have quite a say in the operations, I am ultimately still an employee. I am still accountable to my boss.

At Bamboo Builders, I am the one leading the team towards our vision, which is to improve people’s lives. For me, that is quite meaningful and is how I want to live my life. To not be a zombie!

Interested in Bamboo Builders and keen to join their programme or contribute? Check them out here!

This interview is part of our “Founders X EDGE” series where we seek to hear the insights of youth entrepreneurs to demystify the scene and empower youths to turn their ideas into reality. Do reach out to us if you are interested in being featured alongside other great, young minds!

1 thought on “Creating Ripples of Change in ASEAN: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 2)”

  1. Pingback: Empowering youths to create change: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 1) - EDGE - Youth Entrepreneurship Singapore

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