Sazzad Hossain and Manas Punhani, Co-founders of SDI Academy — Think global, act local

SDI Academy empowers migrant workers with language, vocational and computer skills to improve their economic prospects.

Front, left to right: Sazzad Hossain and Manas Punhani pave the way for a better tomorrow for Singapore’s migrant worker community [Photo Credit: Sazzad Hossain]

Sazzad Hossain and Manas Punhani, both 22, are fired-up co-founders of Social Development Initiative (SDI) Academy. Their personal journeys into Singapore — from Bangladesh and India respectively — give them the force of conviction to pursue justice for migrant worker communities here. Their simple solution of giving English lessons to Bangladeshi construction workers in Singapore to empower them with a voice and tools to make a difference has given them deeper insights into the complex issues migrant workers face — in Singapore, and around the world

“Make-the-world-suck-less” Sazzad

Sazzad speaking at the Small Change Festival 2015, organised by NUS Enterprise

“I migrated to Singapore from Bangladesh when I was 11 years old. I struggled with the language because I was not able to speak English. I had difficulty getting an education,” Sazzad recalled. He is no stranger to the pain and obstacles migrant workers face — nor is he a stranger to them.

Growing up in Lakeside, meeting migrant workers from nearby dormitories had been Sazzad’s everyday reality. From responding to their requests for directions, he eventually began to drop by their dorms to chat. He learnt of their difficulties: how several of them ended up with workplace injuries because they did not understand the safety instructions; and how they were unable to describe their pain to the doctors. Later, Sazzad’s deep “insider knolwedge” of what migrant workers face would prov especially useful, giving him the insights he needed to make a significant contribution.

Sazzad’s personal motto to “make the world suck less” prevented him from standing by and doing nothing. How could he? Drawing from a deep compassion born of his own struggles, and a desire to make an impact on people’s lives, he decided to give English lessons to three of his friends –at a park bench.

Many sleepless nights and 500 hours of labour later, he produced Dr. English, a comprehensive English Guidebook for Migrants to communicate in fluent English. Said the social entrepreneur, “If I had to choose, I would do this all over again.”

Migrant Manas

Manas Punhani [Photo Credit: SDI Academy]

Manas, Sazzad’s partner-in-crime, experienced life as a migrant too. His formative years were spent in different parts of India, and Belgium. The Yale-NUS scholar first learnt about issues Singapore’s migrant workers face in a freshman class, where students met with more than 30 migrant workers, different stakeholders, ministry of manpower, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

This came to him as a shock. “You see a manicured side of Singapore. And suddenly you are exposed to the underbelly. That was, I think, an eye-opening experience. But that was an experience that motivates you to do something to change the status quo.”

Manas was later introduced to Sazzad by a mutual friend, who thought a partnership would bring the cause forward.

“(They) were not used to being spoken to like people…”

SDI Academy’s preview class at Yale-NUS College [Photo Credit: SDI Academy]

Though both Sazzad and Manas are South Asians themselves, the migrant workers still related to them formally at first–addressing them as “sir”, and regarding them as teachers. “(The students) were not used to being spoken to like people,” Manas said. However, with time and trust, this barrier was eliminated, and the workers began to see them as friends.

SDI Academy’s social interactions and English training classes have equipped their students with the language and confidence to express themselves. One of the academy’s students will be speaking at a TEDx talk at NUS in February 2017. “Imagine a migrant worker who could not speak English three years ago, now speaking to an audience of 300 people, that would go a long way in dispelling misconceptions and changing stereotypes,” Manas said.

For Sazzad and Manas, teaching English was a bridge into a migrant worker’s world. Through talking to migrant worker communities, the duo could identify the root causes faced in the workplace, and the barriers to changing society.

However, the complex, multi-faceted nature of migrant worker issues means that no one player can solve them alone.

Win-Win Partnerships

To tackle improve the welfare of migrant workers from different angles, collaborations with government agencies, social enterprises, and stakeholders are essential. SDI Academy partners with the Bangladesh High Commission in Singapore to learn what the community needs in order to craft a win-win solution. “How can we do something beneficial for both parties in terms of adding value to the workers?” they asked themselves.

Together with the Ministry of Manpower’s Workplace Safety and Health Council, SDI Academy ensures that safety messages are clearly communicated. Through their Befrienders’ programmes, SDI Academy promotes mutual understanding between locals and migrant workers over food and activities. Partnerships with other social impact businesses and citizen-driven movements who share similar goals, like Geylang Adventures and Culture Kitchen, are also in the pipeline to create larger-scale impact. Other stakeholders that SDI Academy engages include dormitory workers, employers, and other advocacy groups. Through collaboration, complementary strengths are brought to the table to bring lasting, holistic impact on the migrant worker community.

Design Solutions for the World

Though dealing with migrant worker issues can be complex, it can prove a fertile ground for scale. When Sazzad was on the Ashoka Changemakers’ Xchange, he found resonance in the vision of the Robert Bosch Foundation, which works with Germany’s Syrian refugees.

“We thought, why shouldn’t we collaborate and bring this to the next level?”

Like migrant workers, refugees are residing in a place that is foreign to them. Furthermore, they experience a social barrier. Solutions for migrant workers can be mapped onto other regions, Sazzad said. It’s a transferable skill that can be shared in other parts of the world,” he noted — from Germany, to Canada, and beyond.

SDI Academy Christmas celebration at East Coast Park, in conjunction with Migrant Tales [Photo Credit: Amrakajona Zakir]

Think Global, Act Local

For Sazzad and Manas, Singapore is a good space to test one’s ideas because of the diversity of people groups, and the strong support available for social enterprises.

The variety of people in Singapore allows aspiring entrepreneurs to gain key customer insights. “We are able to see how different groups of people react, and respond, to certain solutions,” Sazzad observed. “Understanding that helps us respond to different solutions around the world.”

SDI Academy at the Pitching for Change competition 2014, concluding an eight-month long Young Social Entrepreneurs’ programme organised by the Singapore International Foundation

Support from the ecosystem — foundations, corporates, ecosystem builders and media, including the Singapore International Foundation, the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) Foundation, and RaiSE (the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise) — enabled SDI Academy to move “from zero to the first level”. Companies that prioritise social impact, such as the Far East Construction company and multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn are key resources that can be tapped on.

“The lessons we’ve learnt in Singapore can be applied to Germany, or wherever, because of the kind of support that we’ve had.”

Get Started, See the Need

Daring to address migrant worker issues is an act of courage, because of the multiple layers involved. Where systemic change is needed, one may not even know where to begin. However, that should not stop you from taking the first step.

Identifying the need and wanting to deliver impact helps the founders to overcome fear. Overcoming the inertia to take action is the hard part for a lot of people, noted Sazzad, but once you “(get) started and (see) the need,” you will make progress. After the first step, they do not proceed haphazardly, but systematically, “with a lot of learning along the way, and modelling after different people who have done it successfully.”

Furthermore, the legacy of positive role models, including other young people such as Mark Zuckerberg, propels the founders forward. It also helps them to counter prevailing attitudes towards failure in the immediate environment. “Asian societies have a mindset about how our parents, peers view failure,” said Manas. In order to succeed, one must adopt a different mentality, for example: I have failed at a startup, and that is a badge of honour. “If you haven’t failed, you will not succeed,” Manas added. Trailblazing young social innovators, such as Sazzad and Manas, too, become positive role models for those around them.

Sazzad sharing his story as a “book” in Human Library Singapore [Photo Credit: Human Library Singapore]

If you have adopted a new mindset, carry the boldness to articulate your dream of a better future. Have the boldness to speak your vision, Sazzad advised. “Once you let the words out, you will meet people who share the same passion,” he said. Furthermore, once you take the leap, you may find others who are on your side. “Although many people think they are alone, once you step out, you may find other likeminded people as passionate as you are,” he said.

Do not worry if you do not know where you are when you begin, both founders agreed. “It’s about iteration — when you do it the first time, you are not sure. But when you do it again, it gets better,” said Sazzad.

Stamina for Daily Sacrifices

Being an entrepreneur is no easy road, on a personal and professional level. However, both Sazzad and Manas keep their hands on the wheel and tackle the obstacles head on.

“It’s a combination of passion and hard work,” Manas said. “There’s no replacement for burning the midnight oil, working late.” Ultimately, you have to cheer yourself on. “You are your biggest fan,” he added. It helps to have competent, supportive team members as well. Balancing expectations, sharing responsibilities, and having each other’s back, are ingredients that make a team succeed. Failure is not to be feared, but to be embraced as part of the process. “It’s okay to fail — it’s what to do after the failure,” Manas said. “Do you lock yourself in a room and watch Netflix, or do you go on?”

The ambitious duo aims to take SDI Academy’s 1000-strong trainees to 30, 000 — be it through in-person classes or virtual ones. “At 1000, you’re just getting the ball rolling,” said Manas. To really “move the needle”, you need scale. Once you get that kind of scale, you get the attention that can create impact. “If you can get employers to see that there are tangible benefits to training migrant workers — improving productivity, English, and so on, that could lead to positive statutory change,” he said.

Notes to aspiring social entrepreneurs…

Through collaboration, we can build a better future. SDI Academy preview class at Yale-NUS [Photo Credit: SDI Academy]

1. Focus on the big picture, and look ahead

“It’s about priorities, and getting the big picture in the long run,” Sazzad said. The National Service man managed to juggle SDI Academy though his army days by dropping out of a prestigious officer course so he could stay focused on the business. “Being an officer is a big honour in the short period of time, but it’s about getting the priorities right,” he noted. At the same time, most operations have been done over the weekends, such as teaching, giving him the flexibility to do both.

“Look at the big picture, look at what’s ahead,” said Sazzad. “It’s okay to make those short-term sacrifices for the big picture.”

2. Start early

He advised millennials to start early. “Starting early is a competitive advantage for anyone,” he noted. “Even at this age, you fail for some reason, your experience will have given you something.”

3. Listen with empathy and understand

It is necessary to “get inside the heads” of people you are talking to. Talking to an employer is different from talking to a government body or regulator, Sazzad said. “It’s about providing them with the answer that will add value to them,” he recommended. “Understand that different stakeholders have different priorities, and know how to talk to them.”

4. Have a learning mindset

“We can learn anything,” Sazzad said. “Wherever there is a shortcoming, we can always find out from various sources.” It is important to gain a learning mindset, Sazzad said. That mindset of learning anything, and figuring out a way, even if you do not know what is next. Manas agreed, “Either you will be successful, or you will make ‘rookie mistakes’, but through that process, you learn a lot.”

5. Turn every problem into an opportunity

Reflecting on his own journey, Sazzad said, “What I try to do with my story is to say, hey, we can turn our problem into an opportunity. We can go into an adventure, to figure out a way to solve the problem in a sustainable manner.”

To help with SDI Academy…

1. Fill in SDI Academy’s volunteer form.

2. Join a SDI Academy Befrienders’ programme. There are no limits on age, or experience.

3. Intern with SDI Academy to understand how to impact migrant workers at a larger scale.

Follow them online…

Website / Facebook


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 (where SDI Academy emerged as a raiSE [Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise] grant awardee in 2015, receiving SGD$50,000) — 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.