Grace Sai: Society's Missing Piece
In its short three-year lifespan, The Hub Singapore has become one of the most recognisable voices for entrepreneurship and youth empowerment in Singapore and the region. On the surface, it is a co-working space to meet like-minded people, an office of your own – but it’s so much more than that. The fledging enterprise is also part-tribe, part-refuge, a support group for ‘crazy people’ who want to follow their passions and dreams, a community that believes in an alternative to traditional notions of success. On aggregate, this collaborative effort results in collective intelligence, which Grace Sai believes has the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. She’s creating a mass movement, which may one day form the backbone of society’s missing piece, the gap which neither private nor public sectors are solving effectively. “The problem with existing systems is that few believe they can solve the problems of many. . . Has this been proven true? No.” she says.
Residents of The Hub, otherwise known as Hubbers, congregate for events such as FuckUp Nights, a series which showcases entrepreneurs speaking about their biggest debacles, mistakes and blowups, so that other people can learn from them. The Hub has already organised more than 450 events since its inception in 2012. Its headquarters has played host to dignitaries from all over the world who’re looking to tap into its ecosystem for ideas and engage in dialogue. Grace was recently on Let’s Think About It: Our future as a Global City, a broadcasted symposium with Minister K. Shanmugam, to address numerous issues on the minds of many Singaporeans.
Housed in a red building (The Hub has since moved to 128 Prinsep Street) in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district just opposite the youth enclaves of Cineleisure and Scape, it represents an outpost, a symbol of soft defiance in the face of prevailing norms and conventions, which are slowly evolving, taking guidance from pioneers like Grace. In the meeting rooms, ex-corporate honchos hold strategy meetings, while upstairs, a young boy, not much older than eight or nine is slumped on a mini-beanbag learning Android development, partaking in one of the most exciting times the world has seen.
YONG HUI YOW: How did The Hub get started?
GRACE SAI: The seeds of The Hub started when I was at a young age. When I was 24, I wanted to start my own business for the first time. At that time, I was a consultant and before that, I was helping out at my sister’s Telco infrastructure financing firm, which I help expand into Indonesia. I told my dad I wanted to start something which solves educational problems for young children, and he told me not to be crazy. We didn’t talk for about six months after that. I remember feeling fearful and lonely; I could not understand why people should be penalised for following their passions.
YONG HUI: It’s different now, I assume?
GRACE: Yes, he’s super proud of me now that I have shown I can make money and also follow my passion. Thereafter, I went to Oxford as a Skoll Scholar, where I studied network theories, how ecosystems are built, and how markets are created. After that, I spent some time in the Bay area studying how companies are birthed.
YONG HUI: How did you fund The Hub at the beginning?
GRACE: With my own savings initially, and a seed round. That was sufficient to get The Hub off the ground. Furthermore, we had revenues coming in from Day 1. I spent the first nine months building up the community. At that time, the ecosystem in Singapore was almost non-existent. It was just ourselves and JFDI who were the two main players who kick-started the local scene. It was great timing, location, and the right formula.
YONG HUI: Are you profitable?
GRACE: Yes, of course. We have been profitable since our first year.
YONG HUI: Why should entrepreneurs not take venture capital funding until they really have to?
GRACE: There are a few reasons. First, you should always get market feedback quickly and see if people are willing to pay for your product. The first option of funding should always be pre-paid revenues from real customers. Second, giving up a part of your company is not an easy decision, so raising money too early is a mistake a lot of first-time entrepreneurs make. When you go to bed with the wrong person, it can be very problematic under two scenarios: when things go very well, or, when things go very badly. Under status quo, it’s hard to say because everything just seems fine. Third, you want to have that urgency, scrappiness and hustle mentality which comes with having little money.
YONG HUI: The Hub runs a series called FuckUp Nights. Why is it important to talk about failure?
GRACE: FuckUp Nights is a global movement, which coincides with The Hub’s mission. We are like a tribe for people who want to find their purpose and meaning in life. Usually, this means embarking on an unprecedented path with many challenges. The Hub wants to normalise the conversations around the mistakes and failures people make. The aim is that other people can learn from them, and more importantly, become grittier, which is the most important thing in being an entrepreneur.
YONG HUI: Is ‘failure’ still a big stigma in Singapore?
GRACE: Yes, but it is changing, especially amongst the start-up circles.
YONG HUI: What’s the hardest part of being an entrepreneur?
GRACE: The challenges are never-ending. Entrepreneurs suffer from decision fatigue. Sometimes, I just want to wake up and have a boss tell me what to do: This is all you need to do today, and it’ll be a good day! When you run your own business, you don’t stop thinking about all aspects of it. Your brain is always at work. Simply switching off is something I cannot do, yet.
YONG HUI: What is the easiest part of being an entrepreneur?
GRACE: The easiest part of being an entrepreneur is the feeling you are living life on your own terms, that you have full control over your own fate, and you get to decide on the impact you want to have on others.
The irony about human beings and life is that the distance between the heart and the head is the farthest in the world.
YONG HUI: You’ve spoken about how people closest to you are sometimes the ones holding you back. Why is that?
GRACE: The irony about human beings and life is that the distance between the heart and the head is the farthest in the world. Most people don’t even really know themselves. Why then would other people know you? The only thing you need to know yourself, is courage, but many people don’t have that. This, coupled with societal pressures, and the protective instincts of the people closest to you, may hold you back. They may have the best intentions, but they don’t know what you are meant to do in the world. It can be scary to know yourself. It takes time and effort to convince your closest ecosystem – family, friends, your religious organisation, and community. They want to protect you and not let you do crazy shit. That is why a community such as The Hub can provide that alternative support.
YONG HUI: If your first circle does not want to support you, what should you do?
GRACE: Do it anyway. Take calculated risks. Listen to their opinions, but form your own. Have mentors who have been through it to guide you. Have a like-minded group of people who understands you. At The Hub, everyone is crazy and that becomes the norm. If you’re normal here, people can tell. If you walk into The Hub in a suit, people stare at you.
YONG HUI: Some people think millennials are ‘spoilt’. What’s your take?
GRACE: The current generation in Singapore is more privileged. For most of us, we don’t have to live hand-to-mouth. There is a percentage who struggle, but by and large, we are very lucky. The previous generation has worked very, very hard so we can enjoy ourselves today. The question is: what is the responsibility of the new generation? Maybe it’s not only to grow the economy. Maybe it’s also to improve the world socially and environmentally – capitalism has had a price to pay. This generation also has a greater need for purpose in their lives, starting from a young age. Reports from Forbes and Deloitte say that 75 per cent of millennials would like to work for companies with a greater purpose other than profit maximisation.
YONG HUI: Is it possible to invert Maslow’s hierarchy and self-actualise before meeting other needs?
GRACE: The best is if you have both. It takes a lot of business acumen to align your financial needs and philosophical commitments, but if you are able to find that sweet spot, you can be happy every single day. You’d be aligned personally and professionally. The blurring of what is a job and having passion is very high in the younger generation. You have to do what you believe in.
The problem with existing systems is that few believe they can solve the problems of many.
YONG HUI: What’s wrong with the current power structures?
GRACE: I’d need a whole day to talk about that. In short, the problem with existing systems is that few believe they can solve the problems of many. And the few make people believe that is true. Has this been proven true? No. The private sector has its own vested interests such as profit maximisation. They don’t really care about the greater good. The public sector, which is supposed to care about the greater good is too slow and bureaucratic to really make a change. The traditional NGOs and non-profit sectors, which are supposed to solve these problems are also inefficient, and plagued by bureaucracy. So, whose responsibility is this? Whose view of the world can we really say is dominant in this case? The answer is all of us. All of us good people who want to contribute in our own way. The public and private sectors drive many important aspects of the world, but there’re some parts where both sectors drop the ball.
YONG HUI: What are some of these areas?
GRACE: Climate change, human rights, inaccessibility to basic needs such as water, healthcare, housing, employment, and education. Access to clean water is improving, while others are declining. Social entrepreneurs don’t care about existing systems. They create the realities they want to see the world adopt. We need these kinds of crazy people.
A country will only truly come alive when every citizen takes ownership of a cause.
YONG HUI: Why is there so much inequality in the world?
GRACE: Because people are greedier than they need to be, to be happy. Resources can be more equally distributed. A country will only truly come alive when every citizen takes ownership of a cause.
YONG HUI: Is the way we do business evolving?
GRACE: The existing stubborn capitalistic system isn’t changing. Should it change? Definitely. Amongst start-ups and entrepreneurs, it is changing. There’s a lot more collaboration and trust, as well as the desire to use their skills for maximum impact. We encourage people at The Hub to not just create the next restaurant booking app, but to solve a problem that’s really worth solving. Communities like ours are a source of creative energy.
YONG HUI: How did you get to be involved with Let’s Think About It: Our future as a Global City?
GRACE: They contacted me because what we do is fairly public, and our opinions are fairly loud. I have had a number of discourses with the government regarding how we cannot have an irrational fear towards foreigners. Maybe that word has spread over the years, and we have become the voice for diversity.
The perception of scarcity makes people feel like they have to compete, that there are trade-offs, but that’s not true.
YONG HUI: In general, are Singaporeans xenophobic?
GRACE: To some extent, yes. The perception of scarcity makes people feel like they have to compete, that there are trade-offs, but that’s not true. What I ascribe to is the growth model: what can we do to make sure everyone has more, rather than simply looking at the fixed present. That’s why entrepreneurship is so interesting. It is a channel for growth.
YONG HUI: What is your advice for Singaporeans who are xenophobic?
GRACE: Travel more, and when you do, don’t just hang out with Singaporeans. Get to know other people, cultures, and languages, so that you can understand others – understanding dissipates fear.
YONG HUI: You were originally from Ipoh, Malaysia. What are the main differences between growing up in Malaysia and Singapore?
GRACE: It’s more relaxed and communal in Malaysia. People are warmer, and care for each other more. People have more downtime, which means they laugh, joke and bond more.
YONG HUI: Is that something you find lacking in Singapore?
GRACE: Yes. Singaporeans are very task-oriented. When I’m in Singapore, I have nine meetings back-to-back. When I leave the country, no matter where I’m at, things slow down a bit.
YONG HUI: Why did you come to Singapore?
GRACE: ASEAN scholarship. Singapore was fun. University was less fun; in fact, very boring, and easy. I decided in my first year I was going to hack life. I wanted to make all the mistakes I can so that when I graduate, I would have learned a few things about life. I travelled, met a lot of people, fell in love, got heart-broken, and tried out many different sports and experiences.
YONG HUI: How was growing up in a big family like?
GRACE: Both my parents were educators, but they never pushed us academically. Back in Malaysia, we have a big compound, and each of us had a room of our own. My siblings and I would sometimes compete by turning our home into a theme park and selling tickets to neighbours and friends. The kid who sells the most tickets wins. I’d always take the bathroom and flood the bathroom until it becomes a big pool that people can play in. This way, I managed to charge a premium for my pool! We did crazy things like that.
YONG HUI: You use The Crayon Test to test potential co-founders. Why?
GRACE: Because you cannot lie when you draw. It’s like the song from Savage Garden: animals and children tell the truth, they never lie! Even with a lot of alcohol, the truth may not come out. A lot of facilitators and executive coaches use this method for visioning purposes. They’d get team members from big companies and small companies alike to do their own versions. So for me, you could try and draw your vision five or ten years down the road. The further the time horizon, the more obvious the misalignment. What is success for you? It really depends on context.
YONG HUI: What would you draw for The Hub’s vision?
GRACE: I’d draw a globe, with light bulbs in each city all connected to each other. Together, this results in collective intelligence. Only then can you solve the world’s problems. The solutions to problems are out there somewhere; you just have to find them. Our vision is to redefine success, by prototyping the future. We aim to do this in Singapore first, and later, in the region, and the world. We want leaders of countries and companies to view this as the birth of a new kind of society. We have had many mayors, ministers and CEOs visit the hub. We deliberate and exchange views on many topics.
YONG HUI: What are The Hub’s plans for this year?
GRACE: We want to be the go-to place for all start-ups and individuals, as well as have nation-wide awareness. If you want to pursue a passion, hobby, idea or venture, you can come to The Hub.