DOING GOOD BUSINESS
(credits - published in AlumNUS Apr-Jun 2017, written by Ashutosh Ravikrishnan in chat with Aseem K Thakur (Engineering ‘09) who is spreading the word that technology has the power to make a difference.)
What is Givola Labs and why did you start it?
In 2009, my NUS classmate Pong Yu Ming (Engineering ’09) and I were struck by an article by an article in The New York Times that observed toothpaste was being peddled with far more sophistication than lifesaving work of aid groups. That inspired us to help charitable causes leverage technology to get their message across to more people. That year, we co-created GIVE.Asia, an online platform that made donating easier and more accessible. Since then, it has facilitated over S$15 million in donations to many causes, among them animal welfare groups and children’s societies. More than 250,000 individual donors and 100 corporates use the platform regularly.
Working on GIVE.Asia showed us that technology is vital to social change. Yu Ming and I then decided to expand our services to help more companies embrace technology, which is why we co-founded Givola Labs in 2015. It’s an innovation consultancy that provides digital services and solutions to government agencies, start-ups and Small-to-Medium Enterprises. Products we create include apps, websites and digital platforms.
How does Givola Labs bring about social change?
At Givola Labs, we’re selective about the clients and projects we take on. It’s not about how much money we’re getting, but how much of a social impact the finished product has.
For instance, we created a technical platform for FundedHere. This platform connects investors with Asian start-ups — which can create new jobs and improve the lives of thousands in the region. FundedHere is an example of a digital product with a positive impact and we are excited to work on products like there. But we are quick to turn down clients that are creating products just to make money, like generic content apps.
Some might say that it may not be business-savvy to be so selective with your clients…
I’d argue that having a driven and excited team is more important that taking on every project with a big dollar value. The best way to inspire your team is to choose projects that they believe in, and they are motivated to be a part of.
We definitely considered the business impact of having a smaller pool of clients, but we counter this my making an effort to be well-known in the international non-profit technology scene. I meet potential clients, speak at conferences and attend networking sessions constantly to get the word out about Givola Labs. This pays of as we have developed a good portfolio of clients. Many of our recent projects have come through referrals and positive word-of-mouth.
How do you ensure that the message of doing good business reaches your entire team?
It begins right at the hiring process. At interviews, we ask potential hires about the kind of projects they’ve worked on in the past. Their answers often give us very clear indication of where their interests and concerns lie. Our 20 ‘Givolians’ as we call our staff, are all eager to make a difference. We also involve them in the decision-making process through an internal policy that allows staff to voice concerns about potential client or project. This way, everyone’s heart is in the final project.
What are some of the causes that you care about?
I’m interested in making healthcare more accessible and effective — we’re working on a project to use artificial intelligence to improve cancer diagnosis, which is really exciting. But the challenge in healthcare sector is that best practices may not always be shared among organizations. I hope that we can tap on technology to eventually change this.
How did studying Engineering at NUS prepare your for your current role?
I think it made me a better problem-solver. At its core, engineering is about the concept of cause and effect. Understanding this helps you engineer an effective solution. This applies to start-ups as well, where you’re constantly experimenting to find better solutions.
NUS also widened my perspective and made me realize that we need to consider the broader implications of the technology we create. There’s no denying that technology now shapes society — the question is, will it make the world a more equitable place? At Givola Labs, we hope to make that answer a ‘yes’.
You use technology to bring about social change — do you then consider yourself a ‘change maker’?
I think a changemaker is someone who tries to change things and help people in need, so I definitely am one. But I’m not alone- there are hundreds of thousands of people who do the same every day. I believe there’s a change maker in all of us — we just need to find that smart to start making a difference.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
“Givola” comes from a Hebrew word that means ‘budding’. It is in line with our mission of helping our clients grow. The word ‘Labs’ refers to innovation and learning through experimentation — traits that we hope to insole in our team.
WHO IS HE
Mr Aseem K Thakur, 30, is a familiar face in the international non-profit technology scene. He speaks at conferences and co-authors articles about ways to take the sector forward. GIVE.Asia, the peer-to-peer philanthropy platform that he co-founded, has received several awards such as Start-Up@Singapore Social Enterprise Challenge 2009 and President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Special Mention Award in 2010. His latest venture, Givola Labs has provided digital solutions to major firms like MetLife and UBS. In his free time, the Karate black belt holder also enjoys playing soccer.