Budding social enterprise on sustainable development, co-founded by NUS undergraduate and alumnus
Conversations | Nicole Foo, Managing Editor (Administration)
Most students will not fathom establishing and running a start-up for a social cause, deterred by the heavy commitments involved.
This was not the case for final year undergraduate Sai Surya, who took up this challenge two years ago while in university. Surya’s desire to empower youths for sustainability-related issues had trumped the discouragements from potential obstacles that could arise in any start-up journey.
The NUS student is now a proud co-founder of Young Sustainable Impact Southeast Asia (YSI SEA), a fledgling social enterprise that gathers young people from across the region and supports the creation of their own impact start-ups through the YSI SEA Innovation Programme. Surya’s partner Irsyad Ramthan was also an undergraduate at NUS when the duo decided to embark on the start-up project.
The idea for this start-up first came from YSI Global, a similar enterprise based in Oslo, Norway. As the name suggests, YSI SEA helms a more regional focus and the programme and community development strategies are tailored to regional problems.
Under guidance of YSI SEA and its Principal Partner Temasek Foundation, a philanthropic organisation championing liveability and sustainability solutions, youth on board the Innovation Programme strive to act upon sustainability issues by generating solutions and business plans that are geared towards ameliorating them. The social enterprise then enables the teams to go beyond raising awareness, providing them with “necessary frameworks, mentorship, community and resources” to help execute their plans.
Inspiring Hope Through Action
When The Convergence asked about the motivations behind his start-up and the programmes developed, Surya shares that he “believe[s] there is a strong need to channel resources and efforts into bringing people together and developing solutions that address some of our most pressing sustainability issues”.
Surya recognises that there is an abundance of funding and resources for entrepreneurs, but they have not been channelled sufficiently into start-ups with positive social and environmental goals. Many of his peers were also found to be passionate about addressing sustainability matters but were unsure of how to act upon their ideas beyond individual efforts.
YSI SEA was thus borne from the hopes of satisfying this lack of avenues in tackling sustainability-related issues.
However, not all had been smooth sailing for the start-up. Surya admits that “establishing legitimacy was a huge hurdle” as the team had to distinguish themselves from a university affiliated student organisation and build trust with organisations and individuals in the start-up ecosystem.
With stakeholders, Surya found himself having to constantly justify the start-up’s achievable impacts and business model during its nascent stages. He notes that at present, there has been greater traction in companies directing resources to sustainability-driven goals, but Singapore remains new to such directions.
Despite the initial obstacles, YSI SEA’s legitimacy and advisor network grew from the support of experienced industry players over time.
Especially pivotal was the securement of Mr Chow Yen-Lu from Wholetree Foundation and Over The Rainbow as Executive Mentor, who opened doors for more stakeholders to be involved in the start-up’s operations. Temasek Foundation had similarly contributed to YSI SEA’s growth by creating opportunities and establishing a youth ecosystem for the organisation.
The success of the enterprise can now be seen from its 1265 applications for the 2019 Innovation Programme, public showcases and engagements with about 2400 regional youth through workshops and panel sessions.
Knowledge Gaps and Fostering Sustainability Innovation
Despite burgeoning efforts in the sustainability sphere, Surya acknowledges that there is still much to be done for sustainability-related education and innovation.
“Sustainability is a very broad topic that means different things to different people, with a myriad of social, environmental and governance-based issues … putting in time and effort to think about sustainability is necessary but insufficient, and we have to be smart about the way we emphasise it in Singapore and the region,” he said.
A major problem with regards to fostering sustainability innovation is “analysis paralysis”, in which the ubiquity of disconnected information coupled with recognition that there is no single ‘correct answer’ to sustainability solutions stifles individual and collective efforts.
To overcome this, Surya believes that a prerequisite is knowledge. This may take the form of a craft (skills-based) or a deep understanding of issues (both micro and macro). In YSI SEA, his team is committed to filling knowledge gaps in “focused and actionable” ways on what sustainability entails, such as looking into topics on food, energy and the circular economy.
YSI SEA had also held a showcase at Marina Bay Sands earlier this year to bolster the public’s knowledge on sustainability matters, titled “Sustainability: Hype or Hope?”, which was graced by Minister Masagos Zulkifli as Guest-of-Honour.
The showcase was also an event for the Innovation Programme finalists to display their group idea to panellists and the public as well as receive investments if it was deemed most viable. Moreover, the finalists had undergone a Demo Day prior to the showcase to pitch their ideas to investors and companies in a more private setting.
Though Surya and his team had hoped to see familiar faces supporting the event, they ensured that it was not catered solely for those already passionate about sustainability. Booths were set up to introduce the public to existing sustainability efforts and speakers from a range of enterprise backgrounds shared their experiences in an accessible manner. Meanwhile, the event theme was intended to probe discussions amongst people with differing opinions.
The event’s success was evident from its 500-odd attendees, but the most striking indicator of its results was when a member of the public in his early teens approached the YSI SEA team for a chance to pitch his impact start-up idea.
“We gave him an opportunity to pitch in the smaller ballroom. It was a memorable moment because our intention was to inspire action and to see a kid so passionate to take action was also inspiring for my team and the audience.” Surya recounts.
Surya believes that it is crucial that more young people get engaged in sustainability innovation, to “pool together a collective consciousness and understanding that we all need to play our part in driving systemic changes”. Only then “will the likelihood of sustainability [become] a reality”.
The Future of Sustainability
Surya hopes that his management of YSI SEA has contributed positively to the development of the enterprise in the past 2 years. More importantly, that the organisation’s strategic path is well-charted such that it inspires confidence, open-mindedness and creativity.
As YSI SEA enters another year of operations, the start-up will be gearing towards strengthening its ability as a platform in nurturing regional youths to leap into innovation and take active steps on sustainability issues.
Part of this involves streamlining its operations and maintaining a “youthful and energetic culture” in the team. It is also looking to collaborate more with other players in the scene to drive effective change.
Though the number of people who understand and care about sustainability issues is growing rapidly, Surya believes that more aggressive targets still need to be chased to accelerate the pace of sustainable development in the region. He strongly encourages youths to join his team in making a change, as volunteers or participants of its workshops and Innovation Programme 2020.
For those interested in delving deeper in sustainability innovation, Surya advises to always empathise, learn and understand the issues from multiple perspectives. This includes reasons for why certain implementations are being done differently or insufficiently. Surya further recommends channelling any frustrations or ‘eco-anxieties’ creatively to take constructive and collaborative action.
As he half-jokingly adds that “times might be gloomy”, forming a community of supportive and like-minded individuals could make the process of striving for a more sustainability-sensitive future more enjoyable. It could also enable such efforts to reach a greater scale while continuing to be relatable and open to the views of those outside the community.
With more resources being poured into solving these complexities across the region, perhaps the best way forward is to make incremental differences, together.
About the interviewee: Surya has a vision for a world with more sustainable and inclusive practices. He founded YSI SEA in 2017 with Singapore as its hub, to accelerate the pace of sustainable development in the region. Working closely with passionate Singaporean youth and Southeast Asian volunteers, he manages the strategic direction of the social enterprise and believes that sustainable entrepreneurship is the way forward.