After almost a decade working in the world of technology start-ups in Texas and Silicon Valley since 1998, Singaporean Kevin Teo questioned whether the rapid, boom-bust cycles of the industry were right for him.
He saw an outlet for his frustrations in 2004 when he co-founded the non-profit organisation SEALNet (Southeast Asian Service Leadership Network) with a group of Stanford University students from South-east Asia. It sought to empower young people to tackle social development issues in the region.
His work as a SEALNet mentor led him to ditch Silicon Valley in 2006 and seek a more meaningful career in social enterprise. He says: “Mentoring changed my life. As a software engineer, I was attuned to thinking in systems. I had the start-up experience and was driven by my community service experience with SEALNet. Social entrepreneurship was the sum of all this.”
In 2010, Teo partnered the Singapore International Foundation to launch a first-of-its-kind programme for Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE). The aim was to foster a network of youth interested in social entrepreneurship. He has also been a judge in the YSE competition segment since 2013, listening patiently to eager participants pitch their business ideas.
Among those passionate young people was Ye Xi, who met Teo during the 2010 YSE programme and kept in touch. When Ye was job-hunting, he reached out to Teo, who encouraged him to work at the funders’ network, Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN). Teo had joined AVPN in 2011 as the chief operating officer. He later became managing director of its Knowledge Centre in 2014, helping companies and corporate foundations be more effective in their philanthropy.
Ye, now an AVPN membership manager, says: “Kevin is definitely a mentor. He introduced the concept of social entrepreneurship to me. He has an extensive network and a deep understanding of the region’s social entrepreneurship landscape.”
Teo’s young mentees have gone on to create their own impactful connections. Among them is Sugoon Fucharoen, from Thailand, whom Teo has mentored since 2008. Says Fucharoen, a SEALNet project mentor: “Kevin’s unwavering support gave me the confidence to start a South-east Asia-wide leadership summit and keep it going. His ‘can-do’ attitude gave me the courage to dream big and take my ideas beyond what I’d thought I could do.”
As Teo himself puts it: “Mentoring youth is a self-sustaining, if not regenerative, activity. Everyone should do it – not just to tell them what to do, but to listen closely to them and find ways to enable their ambitions.”
Besides encouraging young people’s social entrepreneurship ideas, Teo continues to fulfil his passion for social entrepreneurship. His own journey has included a role at the prestigious Schwab Foundation of Social Entrepreneurship and a social enterprise called Anisya that he started with his wife, Grace, which allows foreign domestic workers to bypass burdensome agent fees.
Of the bigger picture, he says: “YSE is one piece of the long-term puzzle in building cross-cultural ties and connecting Singaporeans to a broader ecosystem. Social entrepreneurs straddle both private and public sectors in their work and, given their entrepreneurial nature, will likely be in leadership positions in the future. This increases the value of these cross-cultural bonds.”