The Fourth Industrial Revolution - For all or for some?

Personal takeaways from the World Economic Forum on ASEAN

For the most part, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is seen as an exciting pivotal moment in the evolution of work and commerce. It seems like almost every other day, a new technological disruption takes place, and we see reports extolling the benefits of a new advancement. But with progress comes the inevitable need to shift. What happens to those who are left behind? What can large companies and governments do together? How do civil society organisations and social enterprises help to make this shift less jarring for the everyday global citizen?

These were some of the questions raised at this year’s World Economic Forum on ASEAN, held in Ha Noi last September. I had the privilege of representing Halogen Foundation at the Forum, invited as a member of the Global Shapers Community in Singapore, and brought across the youth-centric messaging to the high level delegates present and seeking to learn more.

The Forum does a good job of reporting the happenings, but I’d like to focus on five personal takeaways, and specifically in the context of youth development and building for the future.

1. Technology and its Impact on Jobs

A common theme centered upon what the job market looked like for ASEAN in the midst of its cautiously enthusiastic adoption of technology and disruption. In summary, governments and the youth are optimistic — bullish even — about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on their futures. The survey released by WEF at the session revealed that 51.7% of youth in ASEAN think that technology will increase the number of jobs, and the speeches delivered by heads of state motioned for a closer collaboration within the region in areas such as skills education and free movement of data to embrace the ongoing disruption.

What is really interesting to me is the disparity of optimism among the youth depending on the countries they are from. While the average percentage of youth across ASEAN who think jobs will increase as a result of technology is 51.7%, this is largely due to countries like the Philippines and Indonesia(60.3% and 54.0% respectively). Singapore youth are more pessimistic: Only 31.2% of them think so. This further reinforces how education really moves the needle — both in terms of expectancy for the future as well as preparedness. In Singapore, which has a youth populace that has higher education levels, the hypothesis by WEF researchers is that youth recognise more threats than opportunities. This results in us having two paths ahead, not unlike the ‘glass half full or empty’ mentality: Do we expect to be displaced as an inevitability, or do we work harder towards preparedness? Unfortunately for a country, this cannot be forced, and is an individual mindset shift that must happen among the young.

2. Outperforming Economies

I’m not an economist by any measure, but the nature of market forces and how humans and behaviours affect outcomes in a very real (and sometimes disproportionate) way interests me greatly. This interest was stimulated at a closed breakfast session hosted by McKinsey & Company, where they launched their report on emerging economies and the companies that helped propel them into high-growth. Singapore was one of seven long-term outperformers, achieving a 3.5% annual GDP per capita growth for 50 years. The report identified key government policies that allowed for commerce and large companies to drive rapid growth.

The question for us is: What’s next? Rapid growth is to be expected when you are a young developing country, but once you attain high-income status as a country, you start tapering down to an easier gradient. A separate McKinsey & Company report states that investment growth in Singapore has slowed significantly since 2008, and consumption growth has been sluggish. A heavy conversation piece now centers around income inequality and the social divide it threatens. This is something that the other outperforming economies of ASEAN should also anticipate, seeing as South Korea (like Singapore) is experiencing the effects — or some might say trade-offs — of this growth. Youth should take this as a rallying cry of sorts: The economy will grow, and Gini coefficients will rise. Do we sit and expect for something to be done by the powers that be, or can we — while we increase in affluence ourselves — do something for those that don’t?

3. Diversity in Workplace 4.0

As the workforce evolves, how will diversity be seen and respected in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution? A panel discussion on Workplace 4.0 didn’t have a consensus on best practices, whether on an individual level, corporation level, or government level. There was general agreement over some salient points, more notably the need for inter-sector collaboration, experimentation among the workforce, and a mindset shift on what to expect.

The mindset shift was most crucial to me. In the evolving workforce, we begin to unveil new types of workers: Retirees, triple-job holders, single mums, etc. How do we as business leaders and policymakers support that growing demographic of unconventional worker? Is there equality in treatment and benefit? How does this affect the trade unions and labour movement? The transition stems from all three sectors. In the public sector, enact policies that consider the support that should be given to ease their transition. In the private sector, lead by example and innovate on business models to take advantage of the workplace being disrupted. And in the non-profit sector, keep a keen ear to the ground and sense for those who have slipped through the cracks, ready to help them even the playing field. Regardless of sector, I think young people should also consider their role as the future of their country. Young people considering their careers should be guided by the 80,000 Hours concept, and recognise their immense potential to bridge the gap.

4. The Fight against the Illicit Economy

My first brush with Bitcoin was in October 2013 when I read about the owner of the online black market Silk Road being arrested. What began as intrigue into how the FBI tracked a man whose methods of evasion included using public computers in libraries went into how Silk Road managed to maintain the drug trade without the paper trail, trading exclusively in BTC. I bought 2 BTC then, as a fun experiment and at ~US$300, but eventually spent it on some in-game currency for World of Warcraft at a big steal (I stopped playing WoW a while ago). You can imagine my bewilderment when 1 BTC traded for ~US$18k in December last year.

But I digress. The panel at WEF on ASEAN focused on the rise of illegal activity, both enabled by tools such as cryptocurrency, but also disabled by law enforcement’s savvy use of groundbreaking technology. My story above simply notes how it took the rise of a black market on the Dark Web to proliferate the use of cryptocurrency, and the implications the fourth industrial revolution would have today. Thomson Reuters gave a presentation on how they are able to map through connection networks the different links on terrorist financing and money laundering, and financial institutions were cautioned about the tenuous balance between innovation and security. While the discussion was centered mainly upon the financial industry, I couldn’t ignore the concern of how this would permeate into other aspects of security — societal, physical, even moral. (Think: Altered Carbon.)

5. The Role of Community

After the Forum, I realised that the best moments of my time there weren’t during the sessions, but during the conversations I had with some amazing people. And these weren’t all the big names. The World Economic Forum is an equalising platform indeed — government officials, top corporate leaders, business superstars, you name it — and in whatever context you enter with, you are placed on the same level for a discussion that matters to your respective entities. Because of that, there was access to persons who had influence to make big things happen, and naturally there were many deals to be made.

But the real value was in building relationships. The World Economic Forum runs three communities: The Global Shapers Community, the Young Global Leaders, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Selected members of each community were invited to the Forum, and I was fortunate to meet people who were making enormous change in their own fields. These were folks who were young, still in their 20s and 30s, and already inspiring countless others to adopt the audacity and tenacity they had in pursuing impact. This is in line with a common piece of advice I give to youths: Build your network, build relationships, build goodness. Support people doing good work and be a giver. This is absolutely essential in your late teens and early 20s. Reach out to me if you want to find out more about committing and contributing to a community like the Shapers.

As we progress, who are we endangering or leaving behind?

In all the optimism and excitement for the fourth industrial revolution, it’s worth thinking about those who might not be so fortunate to ride the wave, but instead are in danger of being swept away. These include:

  • Our elderly. Already we observe how the shift to cashless payments has created the possibility of them having to rapidly learn how to operate digital money transfers and pay for their meal through their phone. What more in the age of driverless cars and delivery-by-drone?

  • Vulnerable or exploited persons. Touched on very briefly in an earlier point, the nature of exploited persons being further endangered is a real possibility. Only 1% of illicit activity done over digital connections are caught — is there more we can do? Can we benefit more from tech, despite tech being neutral and value-ascribed?

  • Underserved youth. One hypothesis that WEF and Sea Group researchers had in the youth survey commissioned is that youth are more optimistic the lower their income-base, and this could be due simply to the access they might have to emerging frontier technology. But with lagging exposure comes the risk of being left behind or ‘late to the game’. How can we even the playing field so the gap between the privileged and underprivileged; the access-easy and the access-tough, is not widened?

I leave the Forum feeling enriched, both intellectually and emotionally, but stirred for change. It is a commendable effort to bring the youth voice to a platform such as this, but we need more. We need more youth representation, and not youth who act like grown-up businessfolk. We need to raise the youth voice higher, spread the inter-generational work wider, and make advocates out of would-be adversaries.

I spoke to some participants about the 80,000 Hours concept, and this is what I stand by. But you don’t have to make a career change to prove an economist’s view of altruism — that is not for everyone. What you can do is simply to make your own contribution. The world needs more. We can do more. At Halogen Foundation, we are doing more. Join us to uplift a generation.

Thanks to Ivy Tse and Sean Kong for reading drafts of this article and giving their thoughts.

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, Global Shapers, Kairos Society, and +Acumen Impact Circle.)

What is it like to have a private dialogue with President Obama?

Next steps for Southeast Asia after the (star)dust has settled

Wednesday 14 March, 1:06 AM.
I just got home from the airport after an 8-day trip to Israel. It is 1:06 PM in Washington D.C. where the Obama Foundation is based, and I am about to speak to someone from there regarding my participation at the Roundtable Discussion in Singapore less than a week later. Google Hangout rings. Our interview commences.

Monday 19 March, 2:15 PM.
President Obama walks into the room where we, 10 emerging leaders from all around ASEAN, have been chatting about our work and their initial impressions of Singapore. The casual atmosphere is not threatened by the presence of (probably) the most influential man in the world, and you can taste the buzzing excitement in the air as he goes round the table shaking hands as we introduce ourselves.


The Obama Foundation’s mission is to inspire and empower people to change their world, and they do this by equipping young leaders and civic innovators with skills and tools and through their making their programmes accessible to all. President Obama was on a week-long tour of the Asia-Pacific region, and Singapore was his first stop where he was due to give an address to clients and guests of the Bank of Singapore, and had arranged to meet with emerging leaders representing each ASEAN nation in a Roundtable Discussion to hear about the work they are doing and brainstorm about how they and other young leaders in ASEAN can work together to promote sustainable growth.

Representing Singapore and what we are doing on the front of youth development, I was one of the ten young leaders selected to speak with President Obama. The work that we do at Halogen Foundation is extremely aligned to the Obama Foundation, with our mission being to inspire and influence a generation of young people to lead themselves and others well. We’ve spent the last 15 years making quality leadership and entrepreneurship education programmes accessible to all young people, complementing the excellent academic education that the Singapore government already provides, and we’re looking to take the next step and use our good standing to impact more young people from our shores and beyond.

Monday 19 March, 3:10 PM
We’re almost midway through the discussion, and we’re talking about the ASEAN identity among our youth and how we can engage governments to make systemic change in our home nations. “Don’t lose hope,” President Obama chimes in his familiar narrative as a response to our complaints that old stalwarts sometimes reject new initiatives very early on, “If you look at history and the big things that changed the world, most of them were started by young people. It wasn’t some old guy saying ‘There must be a better way’. It was the youth.” A split-second of silence followed as inspiration — more than just hope — seeded into our hearts.

Youth Activation and Engagement

The conversation centered around two main things on a regional level: Activating young people to spark change around them, and engaging them and others to sustain that change. President Obama’s hope for the future is very heavily angled towards what civic innovators — and many of them young leaders — are doing from the ground-up. While we spoke about how youth can engage governments to make monumental shifts, the audacity of youth to dream of substantial societal and environmental change, and him inspiring us to keep the flame burning and work together as one ASEAN, it was encouraging and very humbling to me that this was a room with one common purpose: Elevating our generation and the generations after us to make that change.

This is what we at Halogen Foundation aim to do, and we’re very excited to ideate and explore three possibilities that arise from this Roundtable.

1. Building Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs in ASEAN

As one of the first Global Training Partners in the region for The Leadership Challenge®, and the exclusive Licensed Partner for Habitudes® and the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship, we have impacted more than 130,000 students and 6,000 educators through proven and rigourous training programmes run in Singapore.

We want to reach out and enable educators from around ASEAN to benefit from these programmes as well, and will explore how we can tap on our experience to build new cross-border programmes for youth residing in our neighbouring countries.

2. Digital Leadership

In this age we have witnessed how technology has enabled us to do wondrous things, such as connect with someone instantly through a computer in your pocket, ask a machine to learn gargantuan chunks of data to make optimal decisions, and allow every person the ability to create content to broadcast their message to the world. With this comes a trade-off, and the Obama Foundation has kickstarted conversations on what it means to be a good digital citizen.

We want to look at how young people exercise their influence digitally, and how we can co-create with them (rather than develop without them) a method to inspire youths to use their influence responsibly and edifyingly. Beyond that, we’re also keen to explore how we can better educate youth to respond well to fake news. It’s about both the creation and consumption of online content.

3. Emulating the Success of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance

The My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative was launched to address opportunity gaps faced by young men of colour in the United States, and has since grown into an independent non-profit organisation known as the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK Alliance). Their belief is that every young person deserves equal opportunity to achieve success, regardless of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

This is the heart of why we have been running our NFTE programme for the past 4 years. We want to explore how we can work with partner organisations to propagate this belief and mission in this part of the world, closing opportunity gaps and improving life outcomes for all young people.

Credit:  Russel Wong  for the Obama Foundation

Credit: Russel Wong for the Obama Foundation

Monday 19 March, 3:40 PM.
The group photograph is done, and President Obama’s shaking hands and saying goodbyes. “Is he really here? Like actually here?” My mind still cannot wrap my head around this. He meets with Ambassador Wagar — great guy, I remember his parties and feel bummed that he’s not based here anymore — and we go back into the room to carry on the conversation with Mr. Ben Rhodes, who’s working on International Affairs with the Foundation. He’s the man who makes things happen; he’s going to be a big part of what elevates this region’s community building work. “I know Ganesh wants to get a drink so we’ll keep this brief.” Mr. Rhodes quips. This is Day 0 in the Halogen journey of impacting youth in ASEAN.

Join us in our Cause

We cannot do this alone. Effective and life-changing youth development is a joint effort, and we are fortunate to have worked with some outstanding partners over our past years. But as we scale our impact and reach more young people, we need to work with more educators, corporate partners, and other youth sector/social sector organisations to support and bring value to our future generations.

Reach out to me if this is exciting to you, whether as an educator, a volunteer, an intern, a donor, or even just a fellow youth based in ASEAN. We’re kindling the little flame that was sparked by our interactions with President Obama and the Obama Foundation, and we can’t wait for you to be a part of this with us.

Thanks to Ivy Tse and Sean Kong for reading the drafts before release. Halogen is hiring! Get in touch with us.

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, WEF Global Shapers, Kairos Society, +Acumen Impact Circle, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post also appeared on Medium.)

Why are you not getting that $3.5k salary?

In Feb 2017, MOE published the Graduate Employment Survey results and this was of course quickly picked up by news outlets. For some reason, this report by the Straits Times is seeing some revived sharing (probably due to Facebook’s memory feature) and not everyone is feeling too happy about it.

To be explicitly clear, the published median salary for all university graduates is actually $3,360, but you can trust sensationalism to take the higher threshold of $3,500 reported by SMU graduates (although to be fair, I guess a round figure like that is frankly easier to talk about). It’s also worth noting that the employment rate is 80.2%, leaving 19.8% currently unemployed — and we aren’t even considering the many who leave that first job after ≤1 year and are currently looking. Given this rate, you have at least (conservatively speaking) 40.1% of employed graduates taking below the median salary as published by the GES.

So you get 40.1% of your employed graduate workforce feeling quite bummed that they aren’t getting the median salary, and the unemployed 19.8% of graduates seeking that figure or higher, despite knowing that doctors/lawyers/accountants/government scholars sit on the same spectrum and effectively bump the median up by a few notches.

Are you in the 40.1% of employed graduates?

Don’t be bummed. You’re (likely — hopefully) on the right track. Read on.

Are you in the 19.8%, and still seeking that elusive ‘El Dorado’?

If you’re still not on your first job, spoiler alert: Your $3.5k starting salary will not come by itself. Here's why.

Higher Education is a Commodity of Diminishing Returns

In 1980, university graduates made up 2.7% of residents in Singapore. Having a degree in the 80s was a tremendous advantage, basically assuring that you get a position most rewarding or desired. In the last census taking education statistics (2016), the number went up to 29.1%. That’s almost one-third of the population, which cuts your advantage by almost 11x. And it’s only going to diminish further: In a bid to stand out, people just go for higher education, degree after degree. Where a diploma would suffice in the 90s to help one get a good job, a Master’s degree takes its place today as the de facto base-level education advantage. At some point in the near future (or we may have well arrived already), Master’s degrees would become commonplace and only PhD researchers stand an education advantage. Cheap degrees and mills have saturated the ‘educated’ workforce, effectively removing all forms of higher standing.

Because degrees are so easy to get now, Singapore has become a region favourite to pursue higher education. Students from all over come to study for a degree at some of the best institutions in Asia, or if they fail to enrol, pursue distance-learning and get a degree conferred by an institution from the other side of the world. These students are smart, hardworking, driven, hungry for success, and they are ready to work for less. If your degree is the same as theirs, but they cost less and maybe even work harder, this makes a bad situation even worse.

On top of all that, having a degree does not assure your future employer that you are a quality hire. The reason that degrees still hold some form of clout in the hiring process is simply that hirers and managers use your education as a heuristic for screening. For example: If you possess a degree conferred by Harvard University, it matters (comparatively) very little whether you have learnt anything at Harvard when you consider the shorthand conclusion of “if you are good enough to pass selection at Harvard, you are good enough for me.” Does that mean you’re a solid employee? Not automatically. Are more companies being aware of this heuristic and consciously trying to circumvent this? Absolutely.

Not All is Lost

As a fresh (or future, or recently fresh) graduate, what then can you do? Are we (and by we I mean people like you and me who fall nicely into the middle of the bell curve; we ‘mainstreamers’) doomed to live a life of striving and mediocrity?

The good news: No, because fortunately we live in a world where cars can be tracked in space and you can contact almost anyone directly with a few clicks. This breaks down barriers and opens opportunities previously only available to the higher echelons of society and their children. The bad(?) news: It needs an extra bit of hard work.

1. Start Small

Don’t just look at the starting salary. It’s okay to start small. My first formal paycheck was for $1,200. Once your foot is in the door, you have plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder or do well enough to hop onto another ladder. I’d even go so far as to say to get an internship/apprenticeship at a company you think you will grow in. The value of the learning is worth far greater than the difference in starting salaries.

If you look at almost every success story of the hotshot achievers today you see the same ‘humble beginnings’ story: Jeff Bezos flipped patties in McDonald’s, Warren Buffett delivered newspapers, Evan Spiegel interned for Red Bull in marketing, Travis Kalanick sold knives door-to-door while Mark Cuban sold garbage bags (also door-to-door), the list goes on. It’s not about the pay, or the glamour, or even the specific daily grind. It’s about the learning. Which brings me to point 2.

2. Growth + Purpose > Image

Your number 1 priority upon graduation should always be growth. The problem with most graduates is that image becomes the thing they subconsciously weigh heaviest. They seek titles, offices with a free-flow pantry, a namecard from a big tech company, etc. This is short-term gratification at its most damaging. Seek growth in every interaction, and as you grow and speak to more people with an open mind, use every input you make to find your purpose. Embark on adventurous projects. Try your hand out at volunteering. Ignore that Instagram feed — it doesn’t feed you.

Mark Manson writes a lot about this particular topic, and he has many articles to prove his point. His most popular one has been made into a book, and although really vulgar, gets the message across effectively (note: I don’t mean to say the f-bomb = effective). It’s very aptly named The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**** — if you need some solid convincing why your concern with likes and such are actually ruining you.

3. Anticipate Skills Needed In The Future

What you know and studied in school will become obsolete in 10 years. Probably even sooner. This is why you need to up-skill or re-skill while anticipating what the future will look like. The fact that schools have largely remained the same for the past few decades is a tell-tale sign that education does not anticipate, nor can it catch up with, the future. Keep asking yourself the deep questions. For example: “If everyone says robots will take over the workforce, then what is it that robots cannot do or find extremely hard to do, and can I gain skills in that?”

When I was in between jobs, I was very concerned about what the future would hold for the work and skills I was developing given that my career experience primarily was in Learning & Development and VC. I honestly believe the landscape of Learning & Development can be very quickly disrupted by AI (the industry is a laggard behind education, so look at the trends of education disruption to anticipate what happens to L&D), and there is literally very little stopping a VC from making investment decisions based on ~90% input from an AI crunching data and basing only ~10% on empirical assessments. The conclusion I came to was that robots are still too far away from being excellent managers, relationship builders, and people motivators, so I set my sights on developing those skills. What are your future-proof skills?

4. Find Your Network

Probably the most valuable thing you can do with your time is to network. No, not the frivolous kind, but the kind that makes you feel enriched and better than before. Look for a group of like-minded people you can bounce thoughts and ideas off of. I once got into a conversation with someone on an interesting topic: Can you engineer serendipity? My hypothesis is that you can. You start off, like everyone else, increasing the funnel and attending as many events as you can. After you tire of the meaningless ones and become more savvy in choosing good events, you end up with a curated selection of events (which likely also curate their attendees). It is at this selection that you find those you would call “my people”.

In the course of my career I’ve been to tons of events and networks and communities and conferences, and have developed my own heuristic to choosing what I would attend and what I would avoid. I cannot stress this enough: You don’t network to amass contacts and acquaintances. You network to build real relationships. Much of where I am now I owe to the people who helped me, and these people I’ve met at networks (more specifically one network, Sandbox). Start somewhere, chart your funnel, and just take that leap.

5. Start A Startup

This was previously very unconventional advice, but today you find that everyone is advocating for young people to go start a startup. I’m all for it. You can google this and find a million reasons why you should start a startup so I won’t go into too much detail, but I’ll share one thing I distinctly remember talking about from when I was working at Entrepreneur First.

One problem with getting people to start is that most of these ‘smartest people in the world’ are already in research labs, or working giant salary jobs, or are snapped up by other cutting-edge exciting startups. I use a quick question to convince potential founders: What have you got to lose? If your startup succeeds, you’ve not only gained a wonderful job that you love, you’ve made a product/service that the world loves. If your startup fails, you’ve gained from the experience of starting and shutting, and this learning is more valuable in the corporate world than any learning you could’ve done in campus. If you have no urgency to get a job quickly for stability reasons (and I figure that if you are in the 19.8%, this is probably you), then start a startup.

Locus of Control

Charles Duhigg wrote recently about the relation between motivation and having a high internal locus of control. This is the innate understanding that you are in control of many things that happen in your life, and that your eventual outcome is in your own hands and not those of any other. I think this applies to everyone, but probably shows itself more apparent and urgent in fresh/recent/future graduates than any others. It’s all too easy to push the blame on external factors and call it a day. Even from the three reasons I highlighted for the diminishing value of higher education, two of them are external factors. But we need to activate in our brains the habit of second-order thinking, and that is to look beyond the immediate surface-level items and analyse the consequences and next steps beyond the first-order. Ask yourself: “What is the most immediate next step that I can take control of, that would directly influence my outcomes?”

Bonus: Seek People who want you to Succeed

Closely related to point 4 above, but I just thought I needed to go a bit deeper on this: It’s not just about exchanging namecards and following up with emails; it’s about building genuine relationships and finding people who are committed to see you succeed. There is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’, and anyone who says they are or who cannot think of who has helped them get to where they are is someone you should be extremely careful dealing with. I was blessed to have people in my life who were committed to help me succeed, and I attribute everything I have gained and learnt to their generosity and willingness to teach and share. Like Kingmakers, these people have made moves and connections to elevate me to where I am today, with no selfish or self-focused intent. It is my hope that you find your Kingmakers, and once you do, make sure it’s a two-way street of reciprocity and mutual respect.

If this piece speaks to you, or if you are in a position where you want to start small, start up, or start finding your kingmakers, feel free to reach out to me. (P.S. When you do, please say it’s because you read my piece so I don’t think you’re one of the randoms.)

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, WEF Global Shapers, Kairos Society, +Acumen Impact Circle, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post also appeared on LinkedIn and Medium.)

How We Build A World-Class Youth Team

Being a youth development charity, the work that Halogen Foundation does with schools continuously puts us in daily contact with excellent young people - and many a time this work is done by excellent young people themselves.

I’m talking about our interns. Youths who are still studying in (or awaiting entry into) tertiary institutes and who decide to spend 3-6 months with us on our Halogen Internship Programme. They come from all walks of life, united by a common passion: Impacting the lives of young people, inspiring them to lead themselves and others well.

Interns have historically been seen as a commodity in the HR world, to be used for low-level operational tasks and easing the load during high-peak work seasons. Over recent years, with the explosion of glamourous tech startups and the rise of ‘résumé badge-collecting’, interns have taken on a different angle. They look for one of two things: The potential of a startup going huge and therefore having bragging rights as one of their early ‘employees’, or the brand name of a multi-national company to add to their real-world ‘Pokédex’.

This presents our first conundrum: How do we get interns who are fully committed and engaged in the work that is done, rather than focus on a self-serving intention?

Internships themselves are a peculiar arrangement. Most companies limit the number of internships they take per year as there is usually much more invested than the approved allowance. It is difficult to justify hiring an intern above the obvious lower-tier of financial expense and an extra headcount to defray the weight of heavily operational tasks. There is of course the other benefit that many established companies are maximising on - building their talent pipeline to have first dibs on the top talent that graduate and enter the workforce. But even so, the risk of having these talented individuals leave within a year of joining is extremely high, with a recent study citing 30% of fresh graduates leaving within a year - and 37% of employers recording that most graduates do not stay for more than two years.

This presents the second part of the conundrum: How then do we ensure the loyalty of young workers, beginning at the internship level?

While we don’t dare to claim we know all the right answers, it is safe to say that Halogen Foundation has enjoyed above-average engagement and loyalty traction. Our recent employee engagement numbers from a study done with Aon Hewitt are at 84%, with 30% of our 20-strong staff being converted from an earlier internship, and 45% of them celebrating more than two years with the organisation in January 2018. As a new entrant into this wonderful organisation, it is easy to see why - it starts with our interns and how we give them the unspoken permission to display excellence, and that trickles upwards to the staff who manage them, the managers who lead teams, and the top brass being fully aware of the mantle placed upon them to grow people before growing the organisation.

There are five key actions I’ve distilled in how we build a world-class youth team, and these are things we do actively and consciously. If you have a youth team, or are planning on building a workforce of Millennials and Generation Zs (let’s face it: all of you are) then this is for you.

1. Trust First, Judge Never.

In the ‘Millennials and Gen Z’ study, it’s been found that young people more than any other generation still living have the highest level of intrinsic motivation for work they believe in. When we ask an intern to lead an ice-breaker on their first day, it doesn’t just jolt them out of the comfort zone well into the growth zone. It also sends a message: That we entrust in your hands something that may well make or break the initial customer experience - because your development is our priority, and we are committed to that.

As managers learn to let go and be the first to trust, that trust is reciprocated very quickly. Not least because judgement never comes their way, regardless of whether the first task was a booming success or a complete failure. Our interns know after that instance that they are in a safe space to experiment, take risks, and release a little bit more of their genius into the world.

2. Human First, Partner Second.

The benefit of having a young staff composition is that when interns come in, they immediately feel at home. The culture we’ve built allows for youthful vibrance and expression. But this can be achieved even without beanbags and foosball tables (we don’t have any of those things by the way). The key thing we focus on when anyone new joins us is that we see them first as humans - people who have made the conscious decision to join a charity to make an impact on young lives.

What does this mean? It means that we recognise and appreciate them as partners in the work we do, rather than as employees. Sure, management is a job we perform to lead people to outcomes, but management is a tool not a title. Titles have never got anything done sustainably, but relationships have ensured the longevity of work for generations. Allow for non-work speak openly, and engage the personal sides of your people’s lives. When you see what makes them who they are, you’ll learn what to do to help them become who they can be. And for interns, this is such a differentiating factor.

3. “I Only Win If You Win.”

A big part of streamlining an organisation’s operations involves its targets and performance measures. As we scale up in our work and impact, we want to be able to measure how we as a charity make a tangible change in the lives we interact with, and closely aligned to that are the measures of the team.

Adopting Google’s methods of measurement - more notably the OKR system - has been key in allowing us to do that. What we really like with the OKR system is that each person’s quarterly objectives are directly linked to their manager’s own objectives. This means that if someone fails, they don’t bear the brunt of the failure alone, and it becomes the manager’s job to help her team succeed. What this does is create a significant shift in the way we perceive and reward performance. No longer are persons measured by the excellent work they do themselves, but by the collective excellence displayed by everyone - including interns. When people at every level internalise this, it sets the stage for greater (more exciting) exploits like business innovation.

4. Autonomy Leads To Ownership.

In the book ‘Drive’ written by Daniel Pink, he talks about how motivation works in high-performance teams. One of the key takeaways I had from that book was the need for autonomy to be shared across the whole organisation, and how autonomy can change the way people view their responsibilities.

Unlike the conventional internship, interns who work at Halogen Foundation have a great deal of autonomy in their day-to-day workflow. They also set their own OKRs with their managers, and get to decide how they want to spend their time moving towards the team’s goals and numbers. What we found was that when people are in control of their own work and their own processes, there are only two possible outcomes: [1] They do really high-quality work that you can see much effort in, or [2] they cannot perform due to a gap in competence (but not a gap in effort and commitment). In the first outcome, the benefit is clear. In the second outcome however, while you face a short-term speed bump in team performance, the benefit is even larger - because now as the intern’s manager, you can see clearer their development roadmap and help them close the competence gap very quickly. Autonomy gives control away, and this control gives them permission to take ownership.

5. Build Competence For Their Next Step.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” Interviewers ask this popular question to assess a variety of attributes: Future-orientedness, loyalty, growth trajectory, etc. We ask this question for one main reason: We want to help the candidate, if selected, to get to that 5-year vision. Most people see their time with Halogen Foundation as a stepping stone - it becomes our job as leaders of the organisation to make this the best stepping stone ever.

It’s hard for most leaders to accept that their company is a stepping stone. It posits that the organisation did not provide an experience worth staying for. But this is not the case. What we’ve found and learnt is that by actively building their competence, their attachment; the association to the organisation’s human brand value, increases tremendously. The contrarian idea is that as you see your organisation as a stepping stone for young people, the more they see it as a place they want to stay associated to and give back to. One of our earliest interns, despite spending merely 6 months with us, left with a connection that lasts to this day, tangibly manifesting in a charity fundraiser she held for us of her own volition. Building competence in your people increases their self-confidence, and allows them to tackle larger challenges. And if you’re using internships as a tool to build your talent pipeline, this becomes one of the most important things you can do for the youths who walk through your doors.

Again, I don’t think we’ve cracked the code yet. Over the past 14 years of Halogen Foundation’s existence, we’ve seen three different classes of youths pass through: The late Gen Ys, the Millennials, and now the advent of Gen Zs. How we deal with young people has to evolve, and we are now working with what research calls the ‘most impact-driven generation’. It’s important to recognise our unique and privileged positions as leaders, and use this to help the next generation become exemplary citizens and leaders themselves.

If you're a manager, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what it takes to build a world-class team of Millennials and Gen Zs. Reach out to me - let's chat.

If you're between 18-25 yourself, or you know someone who is a Millennial/Gen Z youth looking for an interesting place to learn and grow, join us as an intern - I can personally promise the best culture to not just impact young lives, but to be impacted and developed yourself.

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development charity focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Tim is also an Ambassador for Sandbox Singapore hub, a member at Kairos Society ASEAN, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post first appeared on Halogen 360.)

I changed my career path after 10 years in L&D - and this is what I learnt

(Everything represented and opined here is personal and is not vetted, endorsed or advocated by Entrepreneur First. This post is about my departure from EF and what I have learnt.)


In September 2016, I left a stable job to join one of the fastest growing companies in Europe - Entrepreneur First. It was a big leap of faith to change my career path, but I knew I had to take it when the opportunity arose. The role was to be a Programme Manager, handling the core programme that is responsible for transforming computer scientists and academic researchers into world-class CEOs and CTOs. The hypothesis is bold: They can help the most brilliant technical talent become deep tech entrepreneurs through a strict 6-month process of ideation, team building and product development, with constant guidance from exited tech entrepreneurs (who are Venture Partners with EF).

The result? A portfolio of more than 90 companies worth over US$500m, with three exits amounting to ~$270m in just five years of existing. This is the field EF plays in, and this is why EF wins. If you want to start a startup, but have no idea what you want to do and/or have no co-founder, EF is your best bet to build a billion-dollar company.

So back to last September, when I was offered the job, I couldn’t say no. And yet after a whirlwind 8 months, I find myself leaving EF.


Your Career Progress Must Be Linear

Co-founder of EF, Alice Bentinck, wrote a fantastic post that we share with our cohort of entrepreneurs titled 'How to Pivot Properly - Linear Ideation'. In a nutshell, it speaks of how one can pivot an idea positively and not destroy the value one has built up over time. (It’s a 4-minute read, I highly recommend you read it if you’re in a stage of ideating right now.) I think a person’s career has to work the same way.

Since 2005, I’ve been working in the Learning & Development space. Coming in as an entry-level facilitator, I learnt fast and grew quickly to leading full-scale education programmes, as short as 3 hours to as long as 2 weeks. After founding my company, we maintained the focus on L&D, trying our hand out at social enterprise and edu-tech as well. My involvement with a local established L&D company also revolved around programme management, entrepreneurship training and design thinking. One wonders how I found myself in the VC space - but my answer to that is that I pivoted my career.

I’ll go a bit further to say that pivots can be both positive and negative. They are positive if they utilise the learning and value you’ve gathered over time, but the change - if too drastic - can have negative consequences. I took with me the learning from managing programmes at an education level, and at a shorter timeframe, into this role. But the nature of the core programme run at EF is an intense mix of operational diligence and startup consulting, and every person in the team has to be able to juggle them well. Managing the transition did not pan out as smoothly as I’d hoped, and this had substantial repercussions down the road. As Michael D. Watkins says in his book The First 90 Days: “The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.”

I seize every opportunity I can to learn and grow, and on reflection I take with me some invaluable notes from this experience.

1. Make Sure Your Skills Match, But Don’t Rely On Past Successes

One of the reasons why I’m leaving is that over time, it became clear that what I am really good at isn’t what the core programme needs at its current stage. I excel in consulting, helping to condense ideas and messages into easy-to-understand terms, and all this is based off my experience as a trainer. But managing timelines over a longer period was something I picked up recently, and had to grow very rapidly in order to perform at the level required. The tricky part was how I thought I could use the time management skills I picked up from my programme management before, buy boy was I wrong.

In changing your career, you want to bring experience with you, but not let it be the definitive way of doing something. I think this is especially the case when you’ve been in one industry your entire career, or one job role, and took the scary step of venturing into an unknown space. The best way to manoeuvre around this is to apply your past skills on a broad level, but let your experienced colleagues show you the way they do it. Ideally, a perfect balance is struck between your own experience, your colleagues’ know-how, and what the job requires.


2. Management: Downward and Upward

I learnt a lot about management from my direct manager at EF, and how he was able to traverse the different levels of the organisation from the highest ranked officer to the interns. This is the most valuable skill to take from any experience, and at EF this holds truest. My previous experience in management has been confined to transient teams of high-performing operations and teaching staff, along with interns who are assigned big projects with autonomy, and this was greatly tested as I transitioned into managing a full-time team.

Transitioning into a manager’s role is never a walk in the park, no matter how long you’ve been managing or leading. Multiple stakeholders hold different impressions of your entrance, and something I saw the importance of first-hand was the power of one-to-ones. A one-to-one is a private conversation between yourself and your direct report, where your report highlights what he/she wants to according to what he/she is concerned about. It’s a chance for you to do an informal check on how they are doing; how they are feeling. And in the same way, you have a one-to-one with your manager as well. Ben Horowitz highlights this in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, and I take with me the paramount significance of having these conversations.


3. Adapting to the Team Culture - Fast

The company culture is where the unspoken rules are; where the subtle impressions lie; and where you can either feel right at home or stick out like a sore thumb. EF has a truly remarkable and pleasant culture where every team member is treated like family. You spend Monday mornings talking about how the weekend has gone, there are channels on Slack that discuss serious topics and also channels that talk about chocolates and goats, and every week there is a global check-in call. Call it a startup culture, call it a non-Singaporean thing, call it what you will - I had the best time there.

How well someone new fits in and feels at home is testament to the wonderful culture a company can create, but it takes two hands to clap: The new person has to be able to adapt. And not just adapt, but to adapt fast. People form impressions very quickly, and those impressions tend to stick (read Daniel Kahneman’s timeless book Thinking, Fast And Slow), and you want to let those impressions be rapport-building instead of effort-draining. Three pointers worth noting:

  1. Try to ask questions and discover (uncover?) more on the culture before your first day.
  2. Use the lingo and abbreviations that the company has.
  3. Spend as much informal time with the team as possible - EF has a lovely thing called Team Lunch, and I think this plays a big part in integrating people quickly.

Your Trajectory of Growth

Growth is such an important metric, not just for startups but for individuals. But sometimes the growth isn’t enough. Startups don’t hit the numbers they need to hit to in order catch up with the market; Individuals don’t hit the level they need to hit in order to catch up with the business. Something worth asking yourself, and your manager, is what kind of growth trajectory you need to succeed, and how this can be tangibly observed.

I don’t venture to think that I know enough about making transitions and career changes to be an expert, but I consider this such a valuable learning experience that I cannot help but think someone out there would benefit from knowing this. I am currently looking for my next challenge, and am looking to further my growth in Project/Programme Management, Consulting, or even to find a great opportunity to do some of that in the Learning & Development space again. Let me know if you know of anything like that out there.

Finally, best wishes to EF - I cannot be more grateful for the time I spent there. For people looking for a new challenge, they are currently hiring for some senior roles; and to future founders out there, the application to be build a deep tech startup from scratch is closing soon. Get in touch with them through the links above.