Youths Are The Future

Lessons from Startup Roots Singapore

A week ago, Qin En — founder and director of The HUB Internship Program — wrote an engaging piece describing his discouragement over the future Singapore’s startup scene, based on his experience of running the program.

I actually do agree with his over-arching themes. Singapore’s youth could be better infused with a culture of building stuff. University initiatives should double down on the skills that truly matter to startups. And internship programs should be meaningful to both the company, and the intern.

But I disagree with his conclusion that Singapore’s youths inhibit the growth of the local startup ecosystem. Startups require a certain breed of people, who are certainly in the minority. You just have to be able to spot their potential, and guide them.

I was once cynical as well. So a few years ago I took matters into my own hands and created Startup Roots Singapore. We sourced for great talent among students and convinced them spend a summer interning at a startup. In return, we made sure they were paid market rates and had the chance to work at interesting startups. We also organized an amazing speaker series just for them.

As we expected, it was far more challenging finding the right students than getting companies onboard.Our evenings and weekends were spent meeting students, hacker groups, and even school faculties. Some places turned out more helpful than others, and soon, we had a steady stream of candidates coming in.

We made it a point to be extremely selective from the beginning. We handled the entire interview loop, and all our startups had to do was interview for fit.

Having actually cut our teeth at startups, we knew exactly what to look for in our students. Side projects trumped any form of grades or laundry lists of CCAs didn’t matter to us. Instead, we looked at candidates based on three areas.
1. Do they have the relevant technical abilities and fluid intelligence?
2. What are their true motivations for joining a startup?
3. Would we hire them for our own startups?
This worked out extremely well for us. Over a hundred resumes came through our system. We called in ten students for interviews and ultimately picked just six — five engineers and one marketer. And our startups loved them.

Startup Roots became a hit in the local community. But what really blew me away only happened two years later. It turns out that all our students have either ended up working with startups, or started one themselves. I once told Zhuang, one of my co-founders, that as long as we channelled just one student into the startup ecosystem, I would consider Startup Roots a success. We did so, six times over.

Startup Roots renewed my belief that Singapore does have the right talent for startups among the youth. And with the right kind of support, there is the potential to develop much more.

Startups are all about execution, and cultivating them is no different. We have to start by seeding the right attitude towards startups in our students. There are dozens of schemes already in place to promote “entrepreneurship”, which mostly end up sounding good on just paper. The focus has to be on goals that span years, and not quarterly KPIs.

On hindsight, Startup Roots worked because we internalized that. We didn’t have any vested interests or anyone to answer to. We could focus on quality, select the students and companies on our on terms, and most importantly, do what we felt was right. I came to a realization that to run an effective startup intern program,

  1. You need a team of startup veterans, who know exactly what startups need.
  2. You need to be a neutral force in the startup scene, unburdened by KPIs.
  3. You need to essentially operate on altruism. The only “reward” we knew we could get out of Startup Roots was the satisfaction that we nudged the ecosystem in the right direction. An intern program will never generate enough revenue to make anyone’s time worth it.

And that is why — despite many requests — it is hard to scalably build a team to continually run Startup Roots. I would love to be proven wrong.

So I was encouraged to see that Qin En take up the challenge of running a startup internship program. Rarely do you see a college-bound student — yet alone an Economic Development Board scholar — so passionate about the local startup ecosystem. I applaud him for speaking his mind, and I hope he furthers his drive throughout college and his job.

Qin En is a great example as to why youths have been and always will be the future of Singapore’s startup ecosystem. Let’s encourage them to do so.

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