Empowering youths to create change: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 1)

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“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” The late French-German polymath, Albert Schweitzer, could not have phrase it better. As youths in Singapore grow more affluent in wealth and knowledge, we have finally started to open our eyes up to the less fortunate back home and in the region.

In recent years, the local startup scene has seen a steady raise in social entrepreneurship. raiSE (The Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise), counts over 300 social startups among its members and among them is Bamboo Builders. An educational social enterprise, it seeks to empower confident leaders to become social entrepreneurs to create ripples of change throughout ASEAN.

Helping youths
The Bamboo Builder’s team at Chu Van An High School in Hanoi, Vietnam

To achieve this, Bamboo Builders formulates curriculums that equip and empower urban youths on entrepreneurial skills such as design thinking and problem solving. Upon completion of the training curriculum, participants would embark on trips to communities within the region to teach students these concepts and help build community projects and businesses that support their financial needs, while still furthering their education.

To date, students from rural Vietnam and Myanmar under the Bamboo Builders programme have embarked on 4 unique projects, ranging from an online platform to educate farmers on efficient agricultural practises, to a honey sticks business, where rural families can sustainably purchase honey in small sticks instead of conventional large jars.

Today, in the first of a 2-part interview series, I had the great privilege to have a virtual chat with Gabriel, Founder of Bamboo Builders.

Tun Yong (TY): Thanks for taking time out for the chat Gabriel. What drew you into social entrepreneurship and starting Bamboo Builders? Was it a natural calling or an event that sparked it?

Gabriel (G): Well, my story will probably sound different from others. For Bamboo Builders, we started out with a social mission and viewed entrepreneurship as a means of making it sustainable.

It began when I was 13 and on a food distribution programme in a rural mountainous region in Chiang Rai. There was this little girl, about 5-6 years old, that came with her little brother on a cloth bundle on her back. She was using a dirty Styrofoam, probably picked up from the floor on the way here, as a plate to collect the rice being distributed.

Luckily, we had paper plates, so we gave her that to use instead. After collecting the rice, she put her brother down and fed him first. I was instantly touched by her love and care for her younger brother.

What happened next was unforgettable. While feeding her brother, a grain of rice dropped onto the sand. She just looked at it and picked it up and ate it. That was where we got our social mission from.

Over the next few years, we ventured overseas to speak to rural villagers such as farmers, teachers and parents to learn more about the problem of hunger and poverty. Out of the many issues brought up, I felt the one thing I could do about was education.

In the rural areas, parents would rather have their children go to work rather than school as they needed income to put food on the table. I realised that doesn’t solve the problem as it keeps them in this cycle of poverty due to the lack of education.

Therefore, Bamboo Builders partners with schools by getting students to come to school to learn through business concepts. For example, learning math through accounting. For their final year project, they would create a business that provides a salary while in school and to support education in their villages too as there is a lack of government funding support and resources.

In essence, we teach them business skills as a means of achieving sustainability for them.

Beyond financing their schools, these Burmese students under the Bamboo Builders programme volunteered to help the less fortunate by donating their nutritious honey sticks to malnourished children in Hto Le Wah Orphanage School.

Tun Yong (TY): Given Bamboo Builder’s focus on social entrepreneurship, what do you think of the local scene today?

Gabriel (G): There is not a lot of knowledge on how to start a social enterprise and many incubators tend to approach social entrepreneurship from a business angle.

While such an approach makes sense as we need to be financially sustainable to run the enterprise, we believe it should be done the other way around. Social first, then business.

Ultimately, a social enterprise exists for its social mission. Therefore, the social mission should always come first before focusing on the business side. Therefore, our packages are not just for pure profit purposes. We focus on our overarching social mission of cultivating social entrepreneurs in Singapore.

Tun Yong (TY): What was one key challenge you faced when you were initially building Bamboo Builders?

Gabriel (G): Having faith in your idea when sharing it with experienced industry stakeholders. You will tend to give more weight to their opinions given their expertise and may start to doubt your plan.

 However, it might not the best advice as although it worked for them in the past given their context and experience, it may not for you. This is especially so when you are breaking new grounds and innovating as you cannot rely on past experiences.

That is not to say that these advices are not useful, but you should learn how to filter them. Only take in those that are aligned with your mission and company’s values and have faith in your idea, do not constantly waver from it.

Tun Yong (TY): Having experienced it yourself, what is some key traits you feel entrepreneurs should have?

Gabriel (G): Grit. I recently came across the definition and really loved it. It explained grit as the force of personality – how strong it is to force situations and mould it into what you want it to be.

There are going to be a lot of challenges faced in the journey. You need to convince and change the mindsets of many. It is very easy to give up. So you need to persevere and push forward with your plan and idea till the end by being gritty.

Another key trait is communication skills. You need to be able to communicate what you envision. Sometimes, you will have an idea but do not know how to effectively communicate it across in the intended manner.

For early founders, the most common question would be, “what does your startup do?”. While it would take a while to properly package and define the answer, it is crucial that you do.

Subsequently, it is communicating your mission and values to suit your target audience. For example, you would prefer to focus on financials and business models for investors rather than your customers.

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

Check out the second part of the interview series with here, as Gabriel shares how he juggled both studies and starting a social startup and the pivots he had to make during the pandemic.

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 “Empowering youths to create change: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Creating Ripples of Change in ASEAN: A chat with Bamboo Builders’ Gabriel Tan (Part 2) - EDGE - Youth Entrepreneurship Singapore

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