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Conscious Business Leadership: Alexandra Amouyel, Executive Director at SOLVE

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(This is one in a series of articles and interviews about conscious business leadership, which is about leaders creating and promoting workplaces of understanding, honesty, and compassion, for the betterment of their employees, their community, their organization and world.)

How do you use crowdsourcing to solve world problems? MIT has found a way.

Here, I speak to Alex Amouyel, Executive Director of SOLVE during the Em Tech Conference held in Singapore recently.

5 Oct. 2015, Cambridge, MA - MIT Solve conference at MIT.Photo by Dominick Reuter



What is SOLVE? How is it different from other crowdsourcing platforms or non-profits in this same space? 

Solve is several things: First, it is a community of private, public, non-profit, and academic leaders working together to solve world challenges.

It’s also a marketplace connecting and encouraging innovators to submit their solutions to our platform, where they have the chance to be selected by our judges.

Then, those innovators are connected with our community of business leaders, foundations, governments and academics, who have resources to help to make their solutions a reality. Our mission is to solve specific, actionable challenges– and at the moment we have four of these in the following pillar areas: refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases, and inclusive innovation.

For our first round of challenges, we had 386 solutions submitted from 57 countries, including Singapore and other Asian countries. 43 of those were invited as finalists to Solve at the United Nations on March 7th, our live pitch event where our selected finalists pitch their solution in 3 minutes tell us why we should select them to become Solvers that the Solve community will then support and nurture.

We are redesigning the online platform, but it is currently solvecolab.mit.edu. This is where people can submit their solutions to the particular challenges we launch each year.

This seems to be, obviously, a very large skills collaborative project. What have you seen so far to be an indicator of success?

This is the first round of challenges, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see quantifiably demonstrated impacts. However, the partnerships we’ve already built are evidence of our early successes. We already have multiple sectors and multiple actors collaborating to solve very difficult global challenges, and we’re excited to see the results.

A key ingredient to success is open innovation– and that’s what we are doing at Solve. Nationally and across the world, we are currently not utilizing the talent and skills of people everywhere to solve global challenges. At Solve, we can use the good ideas of people in communities across the world and connect them with the resources they need to fully realize solutions to global challenges. We want to uncover and solve some of these challenges faster. There are already a lot of technologies that can positively impact particular communities, but many of those technologies are not affordable, deployable to the right targets, or distributed well.

At Solve, we are finding a way to take a great idea that is in, say, Singapore– or a great idea in Kenya– and deploy that elsewhere in the world. That can have a tangible, positive impact.

One of the best examples being used now is M-Pesa, a mobile money platform that was pioneered in Kenya. 75% of adults use M-Pesa – it is the main means of communication. The idea behind M-Pesa was to take two technologies that are currently in existence–fixed line telephones and bank accounts–but which are not currently available to the right people. Solve’s model is similar: While some of the solutions we are working with might be new technology, often they involve technology that already exists but isn’t scaled, resourced, or deployed to the right people in the right way.

How does SOLVE plan to be not so “agenda-ed”? When you start being like the United Nations or a government, there are sometimes political business agendas. How have you managed to be not so agenda-ed thus far, so that everyone has an equal voice in the receiving of funds or support?

Being an initiative of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology really helps. It’s a very well-respected, cutting edge research academic institution, which is not seen as having a political agenda. It’s a non-profit and its mission is to advance knowledge and its applications. MIT has a huge convening power of expertise that we utilize to ensure we select Solve solutions from a pool of diverse judges. At the moment, we have 10 judges per challenge who are a mix of MIT faculty and other academic industry leaders from different businesses and NGO leaders, and beyond.

Do you intentionally go to look for innovations in the field?

It’s a challenge. In the area of development, we have 57 countries represented, but we know that’s not enough. We would like to get all 196 countries represented. For the Refugee Education challenge, we like to source solutions from refugees themselves, or from teachers in refugee camps. That way we encourage people from around the world to really submit solutions from different nationalities, social and academic classes, and genders.

If a person in your Solve campaign is successful, what does that look like?  What could be the difference to me, to them, or to the world?

We initially ran a pilot project where we selected four people as Solvers. On example is Katie Zani. Originally an American, she currently lives in Bulgaria and volunteers in a Bulgarian refugee camp. She is not a certified teacher, but she wants to build a platform that connects volunteer teachers in refugee camps to qualified teachers in the US, or Singapore, or anywhere in the world. What’s nice about her model is that the technology is not that complicated.

Refugee camps face barriers, such internet connectivity and access. The teaching volunteers usually need ideas for lesson plans for particular subjects and topics, which qualified teachers already have. In Bulgaria, there are a lot of refugees, and what Katie needs is funding. But what is more important, and what she is hoping to get, is a technology company or consultancy to build a prototype platform for her, free of charge. That’s where Solve jumps in. We have introduced her to a number of engineers who have agreed to help distribute the platform. We have also connected her to teacher associations in the US.

We are matchmakers. We would love to be connected to more NGOs who are helping in refugee camps and introduce Katie to these people. So we are working on being connectors, accelerators, and brokers.

The goal outcome for us is that the education platform gets implemented, that volunteer teachers get better resources, and that refugee children have better learning outcomes and quality education. We ratify a partnership and people like Katie can say “Great, I have tools to make this happen.” Then she works to implement her solution and we get to help tell the world about her success.

Where does funding come from for Solvers? From MIT or from partners?

We are a broker, so money doesn’t flow directly through us. There will be funding for partnerships but we can also help with other types of resources that are not just financial– such as mentorship, business acumen, organizational introductions, office space, lab space, equipment, and so on.

This year has been the most intense year for our involvement in terms of selection,  brokering, a pitch competition, partnerships, and codifying partnerships.

Do you encourage entrepreneurs of big organizations to also apply?

Anybody can submit a solution. There is no restriction about who can apply, so it could very well be a big company. But it could also be a sixteen-year-old or, as I mentioned before, a refugee. We do not have restrictions as part of our open innovation platform. We’re trying to build a marketplace to connect innovators with people and organizations who are willing to provide resources. Our members might be corporations, foundations, or multilateral organizations. So we do see that a corporation’s role is probably more on the scale side than on the innovative side, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.

Do you see clear traits of which types of companies are willing to innovate as well as do social good?

The people who seem to be most interested are those who see social good not as a sort of philanthropy, but as part of their actual business model. It is about solving a problem, and solving social impact issues and customer needs, so that mentality and approach are crucial.

There’s a lot of opportunity for companies looking for new customers within segments of the population who might not have access to financing and therefore don’t have access to mobile phones or other essential services. Giving them access could unlock billions or trillions in the market.

Last question, who is a Solver? What is MIT looking for?

Anybody. Anyone can truly apply to be a Solver, but you are judged on the quality of your solution.

Your solution should be complete and you should be willing to be the one driving it or implementing it. It should be well composed and put together, and the research needs to stack up.

Solvers will be people who believe that partnerships are important for their solution’s success. We don’t give you a check for X amount of money. We give you the contacts, but in the end, it’s partnerships that will really get your solution off the ground. It also depends on how much money you’re getting, but a theoretical five or ten thousand dollars probably doesn’t get you that far in the end. It helps, I’m sure, but what’s more important is meeting the people who can help you deploy a solution, even if there’s no money involved.

Anything Else?

Right now technology is advancing human progress, but it also causes a number of negative disruptions. Whole industries and entire job categories are disappearing as a result of automation. But historically, although technologies have created new industries and jobs, it’s taken time, in terms of geography lag, time lag and skills lag.

On one hand, we want to limit the negative disruptions caused by technology, and on the other hand, we want to accelerate all the brilliant things and the opportunity it creates. We want to put technology in the hands of the lowest income, remote and vulnerable people, to improve their lives.

At Solve, we believe that humanity’s challenges can, and will be solved– through the collective intelligence and innovation of the entire planet, not just a few.


 

Callum Connects

Sun Ho, Founder of LittleLives Inc

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Sun Ho has an edtech business, LittleLives. She’s helping turn complex school operations into simple and enjoyable processes.

What’s your story?
I’m just a small town girl who won’t stop believing.
Someone recently told me that the curious little 10-year-old girl in me is still shining through with excitement for the world today. Although, now, instead of being curious about how things work, I am interested in how we can solve real world problems. Today, I get to learn and build everyday on our dream to turn complex school operations into simple and enjoyable processes.

What excites you most about your industry?
Have you been to a preschool lately? In our day-to-day, we get to hear the wonderful laughter of children. We see the innocent smiles of our little ones, who learn as they play. We meet the tirelessly loving educators, leaders and parents who give their best. These are the people we serve everyday at LittleLives. It excites us greatly to be in an industry that meaningfully impacts the future of our world. When we see a new feature we have implemented in our system helping to shave off minutes or hours of administrative work for schools (and put a smile on many faces), it is deeply satisfying.

What’s your connection to Asia?
LittleLives started in Singapore. We have since expanded to multiple cities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and China. Everywhere we go, we gain unique insights about different cultures. One thing that remains unchanged around the world is the passion to improve education. This includes the desire to refine school processes too. I absolutely love the people I work with, in schools and in my own team overseas. They have taught me so much about their cultures and countries.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It is so hard to choose one. We love Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Beijing and pretty much every city we have visited. Setting up in multiple Asian cities has really become faster and more transparent than ever before. What a time to be alive and working on a startup, and even more so for a young woman in Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be true to yourself.

As a woman and as the founder of a tech startup, I have heard the many ways in which people express their surprise that I do not fit into – for lack of a better word – the norm. I am my own mix of feminine and geeky. I have a computer science background that I am passionate about and, at the same time, I love fun aesthetics and product development. Technology is an industry in which venture capitalists traditionally favour white, male founders as the stats show a concentration of success in this small demographic. Despite this, I have found that the people around me will respect me for being me because I let my personality and passion take the stage.

Who inspires you?
Beth Fredericks, the Executive Director at Wheelock College. She is a wonderful educator, leader and orator. At 67, she is as active as any young teacher and as wise as the oldest, most experienced professor. She has inspired so many early childhood educators with her stories, her teaching and above all, her warmth and delightful personality. She has contributed so much to the early childhood field here in Asia, and all over the world, over the span of her illustrious career. Her charm and kind heart makes her one of the most sought-after collaborators in our industry today. Yet, she remains humble, approachable and personable. Her enthusiasm for education and children, coupled with her infectious humour, are what I aspire to.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
What continues to blow me away every time I witness it, is incredible potential that can be unlocked when a great team comes together. When you put together bright, experienced, communicative and open-minded people in a team, miracles can happen.

Creative ideas that were recently put forth in a small ad-hoc project team are now being turned into a new product that LittleLives will soon offer. When we first began discussions, we had no idea where they would take us; the only thing we knew definitively was that we wanted to help educators gain better access to resources to help them in their everyday classroom. It all fell into place when our team started brainstorming ideas that were based on the problems we knew were present in early childhood education.

Now, we have the trial version of a new module, LittleAcademy, and I am in awe of how all of this came together. I would like to quote Margaret Mead here, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
To be honest, I would not change a thing. We made so many mistakes when we started this journey, but the lessons we learnt from our failures are what make us stronger today.

On a related note, there is this beautiful quote from Batman Begins:
Thomas Wayne asked, “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

How do you unwind?
It is important for us to allow our body, mind and soul to unwind and recharge. Badminton is my go-to exercise. I play twice weekly to keep fit and nimble. Recently I have picked up Yoga Nidra with an excellent instructor who has opened my eyes to all the good that meditation does for our minds.

Beyond this, I find that spending time with my loved ones, friends and teammates helps me feel grounded and loved.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I travelled to China twice last year and truly fell in love with the country. It provides such a rich variety of experiences, from culture and art, to commerce and tech. I was in a constant state of amazement. It is a fast advancing nation that I really enjoy my time in, both learning and relaxing with the people I meet.

Everyone in business should read this book:
High Output Management by Andrew Grove, late CEO and Chairman of Intel. This is a book written in the 90s, but its ideas are still very much applicable to businesses today.

Andy lays out what you need to do to successfully manage your business in simple and concise terms. This does not mean that it is easy to grow as successfully as Intel did, but the book shows us that the path to greatness is apparent. What I personally love about this book is that it presents its ideas both logically and emotionally without judgement.

On the issue of an underperforming teammate, Andy offers a very simple explanation:
“When a person is not doing his job, there can only be two reasons for it. The person either can’t do it or won’t do it; he is either not capable or not motivated.”

And as a manager, all you can do is to train and motivate.

This is an excellent review of the book by Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz: https://a16z.com/2015/11/13/high-output-management/
I highly recommend this book to all entrepreneurs.

Shameless plug for your business:
LittleLives is a leading preschool edtech company with a strong presence in over 700 schools in Singapore, 20 in Vietnam, 130 in China and 100 in Malaysia. LittleLives develops and provides applications that allow preschools to record children’s administrative records digitally, from attendance-taking to portfolio management. In addition to reducing the hassle of physical filing and documentation, the LittleLives system allows parents to keep track of the progress of their children’s learning at school through LittleLives parents’ app.

As an edtech company, LittleLives does more than facilitate day-to-day school operations. In 2017, LittleLives hosted the first ever International Pre-school Conference in Kuala Lumpur, which was attended by educators representing 1200 preschools in the region. LittleLives has helped over 215,000 children, 430,000 parents and 23,000 teachers bring schools into the 21st century and we are hoping to continue empowering many more around the world.

Reach out to us if you are involved in education or entrepreneurship. We’re always happy to chat!

How can people connect with you?
Just drop me an email at [email protected].

Twitter handle?
With so much to say, 140 characters is not enough. Hence, it is best to follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/littlelivesbigdreams), Instagram (littlelives_inc), YouTube (youtube.com/user/hosunSG), and check out our LittleLives Blog (blog.littlelives.com) to get to know us better!

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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