Jamon Mok, Founder of Backstreet Academy — Changing Minds Through Travel

Jamon Mok is the adventurous founder of Backstreet Academy. Since its inception in 2014, Backstreet Academy has emerged as the 2015 DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia semi-finalist and has won the Web-in-Travel awards for Best Inspiration and People’s Choice. It currently offers over 1,200 unique travel experiences in over 10 countries and 40 cities in Asia.

Jamon eating a Tarantula in Cambodia

“Get exposed to social issues, be in the thick of it, understand the nuances, and feel for the people you want to help before even trying to come up with an idea,” advised two-time social entrepreneur Jamon Mok, 28.

Early beginnings

Jamon, who started his first social enterprise while still a student at Singapore Management University (SMU), followed in his father’s footsteps to become an entrepreneur. “I saw how we could really create services and products that help make peoples’ lives better and be very creative in how we do things instead of just following instructions in school or in workplaces,” he said. His desire to start-up was reinforced through reading biographies of Richard Branson and Muhammad Yunus, as well as the founding stories of great companies such as Google and Lonely Planet, before entering university.

Two start-ups changing the world

Jamon’s first company, Gazaab Social Ventures, invested in microentrepreneurs through a rural business plan competition. “It was groundbreaking,” he explained, “People in developing countries, especially rural environments, have no access to such events, knowledge or exposure.” Through the competition, participants had their eyes open to many new concepts they could apply to exponentially increase their business’ revenue.

For the first time, many youths were able to experiment with activities that showed them their own potential and built their confidence. Several even “completely changed their life trajectory, after a whole life of thinking they were just going to be migrant workers,” Jamon shared.

The seed of Backstreet Academy, his second social enterprise, was planted while Jamon was in Nepal working on Gazaab Social Ventures. He recalls, “It all began when my partner and I were chatting with a traditional wooden mask carver working in an alley beside our office in Nepal. I ended up getting an impromptu carving lesson right there in the alley. That’s when we thought to ourselves, ‘This is how we would want to travel, every single time,” he told SIF Magazine.

“People are fundamentally similar in wanting better lives for themselves and their family,” reflected Jamon, a Singaporean, on his work at the bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP). “A lot of myths about poverty and BOP communities are perpetuated by people from outside,” he remarked. His greatest learning was in understanding how BOP communities work, as well as how to engage them and the surrounding ecosystem.

Highlights of the social entrepreneur’s journey with Backstreet were moments where he was able to make a significant difference in the lives of communities and their customers. His greatest moment? “When the hosts who we help really appreciate what we have done and treat us like family when we visit them,” he said. “The increase in their quality of life and living environment makes us feel that we have at least made a difference.” Backstreet’s activities — ranging from catching fish with local fishermen in the Mekong River to insect cooking classes — have been an important source of income for numerous people in the region.

Jamon with a handmade crossbow in Laos

“The second thing is how we have been able to turn locals’ ‘disadvantages’ into ‘advantages’ with our platform,” Jamon noted. American Elliot Rosenberg, who had attended Backstreet’s Hmong wooden crossbow-making course in Luang Prabang, Laos, was most satisifed to see how it was the seemingly unfavourable circumstances of the craftsman who imparted the skill — his seniority, and being from a minority ethnic group — that he could use to his benefit. “I had a fantastic experience because of Chaisong’s age and minority background, not in spite of those characteristics which we typically deem disadvantages,” recalled Elliot. Such paradigm shifts are exactly what Jamon and his team hope to facilitate.

Jamon’s second greatest point of satisfaction is being able to alter the paradigms of Backstreet’s customers through their experiences. Singaporean journalist Tan Pei Lin had been pleased to make her own mask in the intimate setting of a master carver’s home in Nepal. For adventurous British blogger Arianwen Morris, the genuine relationships she had forged topped off her experience of craftmaking, and tasting local food, including chicken’s heart and undercooked goat. “By the end of the day, I felt like I was out at dinner with two new friends rather than on an organised tour by myself with guides,” she wrote on tripadvisor.com.sg.

Jamon is certainly in the business of changing mindsets. To aspiring social entrepreneurs, he similarly advises them to look beyond the myths, to the people they truly want to serve. “Too many preconceptions exist in our society today and we don’t truly understand the group we want to help without the necessary exposure and empathy.

“Once you have that personal motivation and desire to champion a cause for someone you deeply feel for, most other things would fall into place,” he said.

One Tourist Trap You’ll Love [Credit: Our Better World]

Notes to young entrepreneurs (especially Singaporeans who seek to venture abroad):

  1. Learn. Do some research about who’s operating in the country you would like your start-up to be based in.
  2. Get there. Interact with as many people from these countries as possible.
  3. Make friends. Live in the country you want to operate in to truly understand the local situation, and build friendships locally.

“Going overseas is not as hard as most people think,” Jamon said. “Contacts in a foreign place can be made easily and you don’t exactly need some contacts to begin an overseas operation. (depending on what you do of course, but mostly it can be done on the job).”

How you can help Backstreet Academy…

  1. Go. Organise school/club trips to experience classes at Backstreet Academy for yourself.
  2. Share. Write or make videos about your Backstreet experience, and stories of the artisans you meet. Share them on social media.

For more information…

Follow Backstreet Academy’s digital footprint trail…

Website / Facebook / Twitter

To contact them,

Email: info@backstreetacademy.com


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 Backstreet Academy emerged as a semi-finalist in 2015. 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.