Lee Zhihan, Co-founder of BagoSphere — Think Different

BagoSphere co-founder Lee Zhihan loves creating things. Structures, music, business, and above all — hope.

Zhihan speaking at an international conference by the Elea Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland [Photo Credit: Lee Zhihan]

BagoSphere co-founder Lee Zhihan, 30, has a capacity for wonder. As a student in the National University of Singapore’s Engineering Science programme, he reflected, “I see as much beauty discovering the creation of scientific knowledge — as in creating music.” The engineer chose his course because of his love to create things: with lego blocks, music, and now, good business.

Behind BagoSphere

Left to right: Zhihan with co-founders Ivan Lau and Ellywn Tan [Photo Credit: Lee Zhihan]

Philippines-based social enterprise BagoSphere provides digital and soft skill job preparation training to the country’s rural and urban talents. As the name suggests, it began in Bago City in 2011, thanks to co-founders Ellwyn Tan and Ivan Lau’s (both 31) connections to the local government of Bago City.

The idealistic founders’ passion to impart skills to curb youth unemployment rates in the Philippines found a good match in the community’s determination to learn and earn to support their families. BagoSphere’s 8 week training course helped Rona, who previously was a domestic helper in Singapore, become “something more than a maid”, and to provide snacks and toys her children wanted through her new job at a major call centre. For fast food and supermarket crew member John Mark, BagoSphere was a ticket to a better job as a Quality Assurance Specialist. He has worked in this role for four years. Evidently, the company has managed to create enduring, sustainable change.

Build to last

However, things were not always this way.

In 2009, Zhihan, then a leader of a Youth Expedition Project volunteering in Laos, spearheaded a fundraising project to raise tens of thousands of dollars to construct a community library with his team from Singapore to serve hundreds of children. Thousands of books were flown in. The community was excited when it launched. The volunteers went home ecstatic and fulfilled from their efforts. When he returned a few months later as a backpacker, Zhihan was shocked to find that the much-celebrated library was unused, due to a change in management. This was a turning point for the engineer, whose passion is solving problems. There was a lot more to be learnt in the fight against injustice. There had to be a better way.

Starting out in the Start-up world

This led Zhihan to take his first dip into the start-up ocean. His inclination towards charity, philanthropy and doing good led him to be suspicious towards business for pure capitalist objectives at first. “Entrepreneurship was something that was alien to me,” he said. “Then it was in preparing for interviews [for the NUS Overseas Colleges programme] that I went into it.”

Over the course of a year of working in a med-tech start-up while taking classes in entrepreneurship, Zhihan saw the potential of a start-up to make lasting change — and he was hooked. With a friend, he organised a gathering of social entrepreneurs while on the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme in Sweden. But that was not enough to satisfy his curiosity. Upon his return, he signed up for NOC India to “get his hands dirty”.

Zhihan’s global experiences gave him the lenses to spot and exploit the bountiful opportunities in Southeast Asia. The nature-lover, who admits to preferring nature to air-conditioning, chose to “go outside and embrace all these changes happening in Singapore’s backyard”, with entrepreneurship as his vehicle. Funding from the NUS Innovation and Entrepreneurship practicum grant in 2011 helped him take a step in the right direction while he was still a student, and ongoing mentorship from the Social Venture Lab @ NUS helped to further facilitate his entrepreneurial journey.

The BagoSphere story: Imagine a brighter future. Video © BagoSphere

The Compassionate Businessman

Zhihan chose to be an entrepreneur because it gave him more control over how he could maximise his learning and growth — and perhaps, offer an alternative to the “pure capitalist” enterprises he was averse to. Ever curious, his ponderings about the human condition propel him forward, and even informing his leadership strategy in BagoSphere. To the entrepreneur, relationships matter. He adopts aspects of relational Filipino culture in his management style in practical ways, for example, by hosting gratitude circles to facilitate mindfulness in the midst of the social enterprise’s busy day-to-day operations. His investment in employees pays off, as they too begin to take pride in the company and own its mission.

The energy of BagoSphere’s local employees speak for itself. One employee was so committed to the mission, and the company, that she polished the pitch for hours on end, making it her own — “even better than mine,” Zhihan noted. The close connections that the all-Singaporean team was able to establish with their Filipino counterparts is remarkable, testament to the power of how an international community can link arms to build a brighter future.

BagoSphere team [Photo Credit: Lee Zhihan]

“Above all, life, happiness, contentment, depends on the quality of our interactions, our human inter-relations,” Zhihan observes. His own success, too, is also the product of a chain reaction of quality interactions, and good investment of time and resources. Till today, Zhihan cites his conversation with NOC director prof Teo Chee Leong and NOC Stockholm’s prof Anders Hult as a catalyst to his pursuit of his dream. In addition, a passionate, like-minded, diverse international community that Zhihan found through the Sandbox Network also ignited his vision through their own ambitions to “circumvent the world”.

A search for meaning

A search for meaning is what fuels Zhihan’s trailblazing journeys. Growing up, his desire to do something meaningful with his life clashed with conventional expectations. Despite “wonderfully comfortable” circumstances in Singapore, a feeling of unfulfillment haunted him, even as a child, he told entrepreneursship.org. This was what propelled him to find answers, through travel, volunteering, and making friends. As a social entrepreneur, he has been able to blend these three pursuits.

Through quality interactions, partnership, relentless optimism, and curiosity, people like Zhihan move the world forward, one courageous action at a time.

A Bagosphere class in session[Photo Credit: Lee Zhihan]

Get Involved

Keen to intern with BagoSphere? Currently, they are seeking a Marketing & Communications intern to run online marketing campaigns of the following (1) Fundraising from current and potential donors (2) Recruiting for students (3) Forging partnerships with employer partners. (Minimum time commitment: 3 months.) Go to http://www.bagosphere.com/jobs/ for more information.

To learn more about BagoSphere…

Visit them online:

Website / Facebook

Email: zhihan@bagosphere.com (Singapore) or admin@bagosphere.com (HQ, the Philippines)


Ready to develop your social enterprise idea?

If you are seeking support for your social enterprise idea, NUS Enterprise has a host of events and funding opportunities to equip you on your journey.

One such programme is the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia — take part and stand a chance to grow your innovative, scalable solution with sustainable impact.

Another programme is the NUS Enterprise Start-Up Runway, which supports start-ups at any point of your entrepreneurial journey.

More information on the Social Venture Lab @ NUS is available at our website.