This article was written by our CEO, Lim Ee Ling and originally appeared on LinkedIn.It all started exactly one year ago, when our curriculum director Gary introduced us to Founders Bootcamp, the world's first venture capital fund investing in teenage entrepreneurs. A couple of Skype calls later, we found ourselves in UCLA, witnessing 12 elite teenage founders pitch their business ideas at Young Founders Summit.
I had pitched on and off stage before, been to Tech In Asia, RISE, Slush and other tech conferences, and judged at start-up pitch competitions at higher learning institutions. And what I saw in LA, was Hope.
Hope in the next generation. Hope that they will be the ones to use whatever privilege they were born with, to come up with innovative solutions which are for the good of humanity and the environment. And hope because there were teens who came from nothing (like this boy from Malawi who had never been on a plane before), who thought they were destined to be nothing, and were able to change their life's path through entrepreneurship.
We knew we had to bring this to Southeast Asia.
May to July:
We sent across an agreement the moment we got back to Singapore and looked forward to getting it signed. Discussions started stalling. Emails were unresponded to. I hit them up on mobile, LinkedIn, Skype, Google Hangouts...no response.
I was in a dilemma. Do I continue reaching out for mentorship and sponsorship? Do I start speaking to schools to promote this to their students? Do we build the YFSSEA site page? Nothing was certain.
My Co-Founder said we should just forget about it. "They probably found a bigger, more established organizer. Let's move on."
I reasoned, "If they'd found a bigger partner, they would have sent us a simple email pulling the plug. Silence is likelier to be because it's not a priority for them and they've just put it on the back burner. We've all done it at some point, delaying responding to an email or message because we don't have time to think about it yet."
Truth is, the other reason was because I simply did not want to fail at this. Not this summit which I believe was going to make a difference.
So, I continued reaching out to schools, sponsors, and mentors to tease interest first without any hard commitment, while emailing Founders Bootcamp weekly to give updates on our progress. We sent 15 emails in 13 weeks, with only 3 holding "We're looking at it." replies.
Finally, the email came in on 7 August with a ready-to-sign agreement.
🚀 Reflection: Fear of failure can be a good thing, if you use it to drive you forward and keep trying, and not let it hold you back from trying anything. Perseverance pays.
We had 6 weeks to get at least 50 sign-ups for YFSSEA.
Our new hire, a former consultant who had spent his career consulting for education companies and had joined us as Head of Business Development was suddenly told he had to cold email schools to promote YFSSEA. And not just the generic email@example.com, but to find the School Heads, Head of Design & Technology, or Head of Entrepreneurship CCA.
I didn't have to guess what he was thinking. If you've moved from a corporate to a start-up before, you know how big the shift is in terms of job scope and mentality. "Is that really necessary? This is going to take ages." he said.
We scoured school websites and LinkedIn and sent 270 cold emails to teachers in the region.
And slowly, we got ourselves invited to conduct roadshows in several schools in Singapore and Jakarta, encouraging students who had never thought of being an entrepreneur to join YFSSEA. Trust me, speaking to an auditorium full of kids is not as simple as it sounds. They don't put on shows. You KNOW when you have lost their interest. I rehearsed before, and tweaked my presentation after every one.
But what was consistent was this - I would ask at every school: "How many of you have come up with business ideas before, and got told by an adult that it's silly and it wouldn't work?"
It broke my heart each time, seeing the sea of hands waving in the air. But it also reaffirmed our reason for wanting to bring YFS to SEA. Kids have amazing ideas, they just need adults to believe in them, nurture and guide them to make it come to life.
By 30 September, we had gotten 120+ applications. PHEW!
🚀 Reflection: To do bigger things and get better results, you almost always have to do something outside your comfort zone. Be resourceful. Be thick-skin. Also, never get too comfortable at pitching. Rehearse and adapt for every audience, every pitch.
We selected 30 teams to advance to the Semi-Finals, and paired each team with a mentor whose experience we felt best matched their business idea. For the next 6 weeks, the focus was on diving deeper into and improving their business plan and pitch.
The aim was to help these kids move from school project, to a well-researched business proposal with a prototype. Like how it works in the real world! On this note, I'm really thankful and grateful to the 22 entrepreneurs and industry experts who spent their precious time mentoring these kids.
I think back with much amusement the questions I received from the teams I mentored. "My team members aren't contributing enough. How do I convince them to work harder?" 😂 #WelcomeToTheWorkingWorld
🚀 Reflection: This was the first time most of the kids had a mentor (who was not their parent or teacher), and many did not know how (the etiquette) to approach a mentor, schedule meetings, and seek advice from them. There's more work needed to be done to make this a meaningful and safe process, but there's real value for kids to get access to adult mentors.
And then it was the weekend of 16 November. It was such a whirlwind of activities that the video above says it better than I can ever put into words.
Of course, there's lots of room for improvement and things we could've done better, and we're thankful to have gotten valuable feedback from students and parents which will help us improve the next YFSSEA.
But I want to end this post with two memories:
- For this one team from ACS Jakarta: The eve before the Semi-Finals, at 10pm, they received feedback from their mentor that their pitch required a revamp. They had 2 options: Stick with their original and get a good night's sleep, or work through the night and prepare a better pitch. The decision was theirs. And they chose the second option. When you empower kids to make decisions, you also give them the chance to be proud of themselves. I know how proud they are for making that decision on their own, because they went back and related the story in front of the entire school and their teacher tells everyone this story😁.
- After that day, the mom of one boy told me this - "I've never seen my son this excited and driven, you guys have given him something to work towards and even though he didn't win, he told me he still wants to continue working on his business idea."
I'd be honest, these stories and comments make my day (for a long time). It's why Smarter Me exists.
I may not have changed the world, but if I can inspire kids to, then we're halfway there.
Post-event: There's been so so many more learnings post event, but that's a story for another day!