Shaun Koh – Syinc

Shaun Koh – Syinc

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.” - Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1846-1912)

Shaun Koh
Social Entrepreneur
Age: 25

The first time I hear of Shaun is during my interview with Bernise , when someone inquires after his absence. “Oh he’s out saving a tree near his house or something”, remarks Bernise, offhandedly, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It is with this memory in mind that I wait for Shaun’s arrival outside a burger joint. As a sunglasses-donning man in a V-neck shirt walks up to me, I must admit I am a little surprised – he does not look one bit like the charismatic hippy of my imagination. But charismatic he is, and as we chat he is exuberant, passionate and confident, very much the kind of person with enough chutzpah and heart to try to save a tree.

Having worked with Bernise since Syinc’s conception, Shaun can be considered as one of the founders of Syinc. Started in 2008, Syinc is a non-profit that seeks to empower our youth by developing their capacity to become effective agents of social change. By enabling young founders and community kickstarters to tackle social and human problems from different angles to create new solutions that shift the status quo, Syinc aims to help build a generation of youth with the both the vision and capability to create the change they would like to see in society.

Over the few short years, the organization has continued to grow in scale, and is steadily expanding its operations. If Bernise is the mind behind everything, then Shaun is the energy – he is tireless, fearless and evidently excited about his work with the organization. He is also remarkably eloquent, brimming with sound bites and interesting anecdotes. At the end of our nearly 2-hour interview, I not only have a clearer idea of the organization, but also of the driving force behind these extremely dedicated people. It’s hard not to be infected by his optimism, and what can I say? Change truly is in the air.

What is Syinc about?

We’re looking for young people with crazy ideas to change the world. What we try to do is make those crazy ideas happen. It really takes three things to make something happen – the first one is something that they all come with already. Some people call it passion, but I think the word conviction is a far better term. Conviction has the additional element of knowing that what you’re doing is right, and needs to be done. This is an element that is not such a big deal in most typical enterprises, but the youth that we get in touch with already have the conviction to want to solve a problem in society. Where it trips up is in the next few things, like skills. Sometimes you may not have had enough time to pick up the academic skills necessary, or just the skills that you gain through work experience to actually get stuff done.

So what we do in Syinc is skills building for people. This ranges from indirect things like talking to people and informal mentorship to running skills-based workshops for people, where we teach them design thinking.  Let’s describe the standard model for innovation – you find your target customer, you interview them and you find out exactly what they want. You do “customer service” and at the end of the day you end up with a bunch of metrics that say “oh our customers want it cheaper, or smaller”. And then the next stage of your production is to create something exactly like what is requested. But the biggest problem with that approach can be summed up in one very simple quote. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. That is the power of design thinking summed up into one very simple quote. Sometimes when you ask people things, they don’t know how to phrase things in a way that really encapsulates what they want. They would say things like “I want a faster horse” rather than “I want an easier way to get to my destination”. So they articulate a problem, but it’s not well phrased.

Then there are problems that are not articulated at all, that people just accept as part of the status quo. Consumers are great – they’re full of insights, but the ultimate problem is that they don’t have the language or experience to articulate what their real needs are. Hence we try to give the youths we train the skills and insight to see and articulate the real problem.

Because one of the biggest challenges when someone tries to do something for social good is that people sometimes go in and try to rescue people. It’s important that people who try and tackle problems do so not out of sympathy. It’s not because I feel sorry for you, but because I can feel your pain. It’s not about “Oh my God, you poor thing, you don’t have enough money to eat, let me get you some money and raise a fund for you”, it’s about totally understanding where the person you’re trying to help is coming from. You understand, for example, that not only does the person need to solve issues of the lack of money, but also get the feeling of being empowered to do so. That in some sense accepting charity really eats away at your soul, and makes you feel like a terrible person.

The social change and technology sector is much bigger abroad. Why did you choose to stay in Singapore?

When I came back to Singapore, I realised that change was in the air here. Singapore is on the precipice of…something. You feel it right? As a society, we’re really changing. This could either go really well, like a new explosion of creativity and wonderment and awesomeness, or it could go…the other way. I mean if you go to New York, San Francisco or Toronto, yeah they’re really fantastic, everyone’s heard all about them – but they’re not changing that much anymore. Why be part of those environments when you can be somewhere else, where change is happening? Something’s going to happen soon, in these couple of years or less. Cultural change is like a wave. It’s a cultural wave we’re all going through, and we’ve got to learn how to not go against it, and surf it. How that wave turns out for you, whether you just crash and or ride that wave through that tunnel of water and all that crazy shit, really depends on how you navigate that. I’d like to think that people like us in Syinc, we at least understand this whole touchy-feely nonsense of culture. (laughs) It’s not just an academic question, it’s something intuitive, emotional and somewhat spiritual and you have to get it. I’m not trying to say that we have the answers to this, but the first step to trying to figure out how to deal with things in a good way is to get that something is happening here. And a lot of companies, very broadly speaking, are really not super comfortable with that yet. This is why I have to be here in Singapore.

How have you grown with your experience in Syinc?

I’ve learnt a lot along the way. The sheer quantity, and the sheer pressure you produce on yourself to do stuff, really forces a person to grow up and learn, whether it’s in skills or working with people. I can give you an example of the change. In school I was never really a leader, and in Singapore there’s this attitude that you’re either born a leader or you’re not. And I really hated that. Leadership is something that takes experience to get, and sometimes you get it early, sometimes it takes more time to develop. So I actively stayed away from leadership roles; I thought I was a terrible leader that couldn’t do anything. It was a big issue for me.

But in 2010, Syinc organized a conference called Syinconnect, and that was a tipping point for me in terms of how I recognized my own leadership skill. I was in charge of experiential design, but as the preparation progressed things were just not being done. Important decisions regarding logistical stuff were not being made, and I realised that I couldn’t just focus on my artsy fartsy designer-y nonsense anymore. So I decided to step in and pick up the slack. In a way these were training wheels because officially I wasn’t in charge of the work, and it felt more like I was just helping to do some extra parts that they weren’t getting done. Which was really good for me. (laughs) The whole thing culminated in me being the central nervous system of the event on the day itself. As things got more and more stressful the manager just couldn’t take the stress, and that’s when I saw myself step up for the first time, and I discovered I could do this whole leader thing!

Do you have anything or anyone that inspires you personally?

The obvious one would be Steve Jobs. He had a very keen sense for what is right. He was very particular, in a way that some people might even say is pedantic. But what set him apart from other people is that he realized a very simple yet successful concept – build a great product that people really care about. The funny thing about wisdom is that so many people know the right thing to do, but only he, out of all the tech CEOs, had the sheer tenacity and grit to try and make that happen. To not compromise. He had a very uncompromising vision. You might say it’s just an expensive toy, but they genuinely see themselves as pushing the boundaries of what us as human beings can do. They’re genuine and authentic about what they do, and that’s so, so rare in this world. People like to say they’re just really good at selling products, but that’s just not it. The greatest salespeople of all are not sales people. They are evangelists. They are the believers. They believe that what they’re doing is right. That’s where conviction comes in. Conviction, passion, and that twinkle in the eye that is infectious. And it makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you feel like you’ve made an impact on the world.

Although I must say I would like to be a better version of Steve Jobs. That’s what I struggle with daily – when I see things that are not being done as well as they can be…well let’s just say if I was Steve Jobs I would just shoot the person down directly. But I want to find a better way of doing that. I want to possess that same tenacity and uncompromising vision to make stuff, and I admit I am super particular. I’m very good at shooting stuff down. (laughs)  But when it comes to working with people, I can’t do that and I don’t want to do that because I want to be a nice person! Maybe I’ll never discover what it means to be nice, maybe the key to success is to be very blunt and straightforward, but something in my soul tells me that that’s not the way I want to go.

Don’t tell Bern this (sorry Shaun! Haha), but my other inspiration is Bern. She’s extremely inspirational to me because she has…so many issues. She has so, so many issues. (laughs) I get damn frustrated talking to her sometimes. But she has the ability to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without actually training for it. That says a lot about the person right? SO not fit but you can still climb it. She’s got tremendous drive to get things done. She’s the kind of person that would never walk during the 2.4 km NAPFA test. Sometimes that’s not entirely good thing – you also need to know that you’re pushing in the right direction and be smart about the way you apply your energy. But the sheer tenacity and the will to take on hits with amazing grit is what she has, more than anyone else I know. I’m such a slacker, and I’m so lazy, so that to me is really inspirational. I hope I didn’t sound too saccharine, I really mean it in an honest kind of way.

Do you have any advice for our readers?

Say “eff you” to the fear of failure. Say “eff you” to the people who say you’re a failure. T

o me, a failure can be a badge of honour. You are more accurate in figuring out what you did wrong when you fail. And moreover, failing gives you a sense of humility, and it really forces you to grow up. This fear of failure stops a lot of people from going to do the thing they really want to do. Most young people don’t have dreams yet, but there are certain things you connect to. Indulge your curiosity, expect and be ok with failure, expect that people are going to call you out for failure.

If you expect the shittiest things to happen to you, you become a bit more impervious to them. (laughs) So go out and explore the world. Go out and see how you can make a difference in the world. It doesn’t matter even if you don’t have a passion yet. If you don’t, go out and explore! Go do.

The next thing is to surround yourself with people whom you want to be like. It’s because you take on aspects of who those people are. Surround yourself with these people – whether it’s through friendships or simply just putting yourself in those situations. Hang out with people who are your kind of people.

A lot of people are also waiting for opportunities to come their way. Sometimes opportunities have to be made. Sometimes you have to create your own serendipity. Make your own luck. Go out actively and seek opportunities, or put yourself in places where you know stuff is going to happen. So make your own luck, make friends.

Many times, failure and changing the world means not fulfilling certain responsibilities, like providing for your family and achieving economic goals. How do you rationalize this as part of your life journey?

I’ll be honest – I don’t know whether I have a good answer for you. It’s partly because I have a lot of idols within the tech entrepreneurship sphere rather than the social entrepreneurship sphere that really shapes the way I do things and the way I see myself. When you’re young, you will have the greatest freedom to go out and make these mistakes and do these things. Your opportunity cost to take risks with your life is a lot lower right now than later on. When you look at it this way, it makes it a lot easier for you to do all this crazy stuff while you’re young. But obviously you have to balance the crazy stuff, because at the end of the day, one of the most valuable things you can invest in is your education. Or rather, the most valuable thing you can invest in is yourself. Because what education provides in addition to that cert is the way it teaches you to think, and the skills you acquire as a person. You can strip everything else away – money can be earned, but the skills you have and who you are as a person is invaluable and no one can ever take that away from you. As long as you’re doing something that is forcing you to grow and you’re developing skills that you consider to be marketable in the future, it’s fine. And when I say expect failure, I don’t mean just brace to fail. It’s about back-up planning. How you are going to react when things fail, and how you are going to move on to different things. That’s how I balance that pragmatism.


– Profiled by Natalee Ho