The Singapore society has always been obsessed with paper chase, where they place paper qualifications on a pedestal above everything else.
The local education system is notoriously competitive and the traditional route for students is to complete the GCE ‘O’ level exams, move on to junior college, and then obtain a university degree.
Times have changed, however. The society is now more receptive towards polytechnic and ITE education as skills are increasingly valued in today’s workplace.
These three entrepreneurs — among many other ITE graduates — are living proof that you can build a successful future for yourself regardless of your educational background.
Nicholas Ooi, 29, co-founder of Bantu
A self-professed IT geek, Nicholas Ooi said that he always had a keen interest in computers since he was young, which stemmed from long hours of playing computer games. It distracted him from his studies though, eventually placing him in the EM3 stream in primary school.
He went on to join the Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school and after graduation, he enrolled in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) to study Infocomm Technology. It was a field of study that he finally had an interest in, allowing him to learn things such as developing software, building PCs and connecting networking infrastructure.
His ITE lecturer took notice of his burning curiosity and enthusiasm, and encouraged him to participate in hackathons, which later served as a turning point in his life.
Nicholas did well in his studies. He received the Lee Kuan Yew STEP scholarship to pursue a diploma in IT at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and was conferred the Singapore Computer Society IT Youth Award.
In his first year there, he even set up a Web design services company and as it grew, he roped in two other partners on board. The venture earned about $15,000 over five years, but it gradually dissolved as the trio got tied up with other commitments.
After polytechnic, he went on to graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with an honours degree in computing. During his time there, Nicholas and three of his friends jointly won first place at a Santa Cruz hackathon in Silicon Valley, United States.
“Before the hackathon, I saw that there was a need to improve how people could contribute to the society as part of their daily lifestyle in a scalable (and) sustainable business model. (This) aligned my team and I to develop a lifestyle donation platform for retail, social and consumer sectors,” said Nicholas.
This model has been tweaked over several iterations, and eventually pivoted to a platform that uses technology to manage volunteers.
The team invested $10,000 of seed funding to kickstart social enterprise Bantu in 2017, which aims to resolve key pain points of managing volunteers, increasing efficiency and capacity building for the social service sector.
However, the startup journey wasn’t easy at all. Like other businesses, they faced struggles such as the uncertainty of market need, cash flow management, and credibility.
Regardless, Bantu witnessed a growth rate of approximately 20 to 30 per cent from month to month, and achieved nearly six-figure revenue in just two years, according to Nicholas.
His business advice? “I wish to share with entrepreneurs to build a really good foundation of people — it is the people that will shape the vision and align them with yours. With purpose, loyalty and unity, a business will go really far.”
Suhaimie Sukiman, 37, co-owner and director of Dutch Colony Coffee Co.
Suhaimie Sukiman was from the ‘Express’ stream in secondary school, but flunked his GCE ‘O’ levels. He was offered a place in ITE and was “adamant to make it right education-wise”. The Arts student took up a “much sought-after” course in Building Drafting (Architectural), which was also one of the very few courses he was eligible to pursue as he was diagnosed with mild colour-blindness.
While studying, he took up a part-time barista job at Starbucks which made him realise that he wanted to pursue coffee as a career. He worked there for a good eight years — in between, he managed to pursue a diploma at Singapore Polytechnic after scoring an impressive GPA of 3.96, and served his National Service.
After Starbucks, he went on to join a different role in sales and coffee roasting for two other coffee companies. When he served as a Sales Manager for an Australian coffee company, he got acquainted with the husband-and-wife founders of Dutch Colony Coffee Co. since they first established it in 2013.
“I literally watched the brand grow and (it) was one of my key accounts. I developed a friendship with the duo (so) when the offer to come on board as a partner and director of the business came, I decided to leave my cushy job in April 2014 to try my hand at being a coffee entrepreneur,” said Suhaimie.
At the helm, Suhaimie helped to grow the business with the opening of a bigger cafe space and a roastery-cum-coffee academy. At its peak, Dutch Colony owned four outlets and it supplies to over 60 local and international cafes today.
“Our coffee exports have expanded to countries in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Qatar and United Arab Emirates,” he added.
“Business is growing positively and as a whole, we have seen a good 20 to 35 per cent revenue growth year-on-year and most importantly, we are still a profitable company on the accounting paper.”
Looking back on his education journey, Suhaimie said that running a business as an ITE graduate has “more positives than negatives”.
“My background in building drafting has helped a lot when dealing with contractors over shop designs and/or facilities management.”
“Moreover, almost 65 per cent of my employees are from ITE (with at least 15 of them holding supervisory or managerial positions), so it closes the communication gap with them. When other ITE graduates learn of my educational background, they are also encouraged and inspired to achieve greater things.”
He added that being an ITE graduate has ignited a collaboration with Touch Community to run a Barista Interest Group on a quarterly basis, where he helps train and mentor student-baristas from ITE colleges.
After the mentorship, Dutch Colony selects about 20 per cent from every cohort for an internship in their cafe with the opportunity to convert to a full-time role upon graduation — this is simply one of the many efforts he undertakes to give back to the coffee community.
Muhd Shah Indra Jasni, 27, co-founder of Burgs
The emergence of young hawkerpreneurs has changed the food and beverage industry in Singapore. Local burger joint Burgs by Project Warung in particular, has introduced halal gourmet burgers at wallet-friendly prices.
Muhd Shah Indra Jasni, along with his two other co-founders, thought that it would be a novel idea to bring the premium concept to a place familiar to locals: hawker centres.
Indra was only 25 years old when the trio invested a five-figure sum to launch the business in May 2017. They were young and lacked business experience, but had strong faith in their cooking skills.
At the tender age of 17, they had already learnt to cook professionally. For Indra, he graduated in Culinary Arts with restaurant management from the Institute of Paul Bocuse as part of his ITE Technical Diploma Programme.
His first internship stint was at a French-American fusion restaurant, where he first learnt to make a gourmet burger. Then in his last semester, he opted to pursue an internship in Vienne, France to learn more about the French cuisine.
According to Indra, the culinary skills he honed from his first internship has greatly helped in his current burger business. As a whole, both internship experiences helped to prepare him well for the working world and gain industry experience.
After graduation, he moved to Dubai to work at Zango restaurant for about six months. He only returned to Singapore in early 2017 to help take care of his mother who suffered from stroke.
Running Burgs in a hawker centre was something Indra found very hard to adapt to as he was used to working in fine-dining restaurants, which had a bigger kitchen space. Space constraints was just the tip of the iceberg, however.
Managing the F&B operations proved to be a bigger challenge. They even resorted to not drawing any salary for about four to six months because they wanted to grow the company’s cash flow and quickly break even. They finally achieved this goal in a mere five months.
Despite their struggles, Indra said that business was constantly brisk and was “sold out” on their very first day. On average, they used to sell 200 to 250 burgers a day, but it has since doubled to 400 burgers a day.
In a span of 10 months, they opened their second outlet in the east of Singapore. Moving forward, Indra harbours dreams to grow the brand into a local fast food chain.
“Anyone can succeed in business with careful planning and execution,” he said, adding that people power and employee engagement also matters. Citing the wise words of Virgin Group’s founder Richard Branson, he said: “Take care of your staff and they’ll help take care of your business”.
The Right Attitude Begets Success
Life is what you make of it, so you have to decide what it’s going to be through your actions. As long as you possess the right attitude, your skills and academic can be trained to be as good as anyone.
ITE is in fact, one of the best post-secondary institutions in Singapore that offer good education and career advancement opportunities. For one, it offers early exposure to practical skills, which allows students to be better equipped when they enter the working world.
The Government has also pumped in lots of funding into ITE education to foster more learning initiatives. Most recently, Singapore signed a deal with Germany to grant ITE students overseas work attachment opportunities there.
With ITE, you’re simply taking a different education path and your future remains bright.
This article was written in collaboration with the Institute of Technical Education.
Featured Image Credit: Nicholas Ooi / Suhaimie Sukiman / Burgs