An Interview with Zhihan Lee, Co-founder of BagoSphere
Impact Quarterly (IQ) recently interviewed Zhihan Lee to know more about the story of the Social Entrepreneur behind BagoSphere, the award-winning vocational training Social Enterprise that provides affordable and effective training programs specifically catered to rural, low-income youth. Read on as Zhihan shares what brought him to start BagoSphere with his co-founders, Ivan Lau and Ellwyn Tan, and what his experience in starting a pilot program and raising capital has taught him.
The Social Entrepreneur
IQ: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of the questions which our readers may have towards your business, your brand and Your Journey as an Entrepreneur. What got you started to build a Social Enterprise in the Philippines?
Zhihan (Z): I started BagoSphere because I had a first-rate founding team. I had a team who shared a distinct sense of empathy for young people who have given up hope of finding a job and lived in very tough conditions. We just couldn’t accept the fact that despite all the marvels of technology, there are still fellow human beings who don’t have electricity at home. The most important thing is that we wanted to take action to correct some or all of it.
In 2007-2008, my co-founders Ellwyn and Ivan led volunteer projects in the Philippines, while I led projects in Laos. Involvement with these projects gave us an opportunity to experience rural poverty first hand. My experience in Laos poked at the reasons why current solutions to poverty such as education and charitable aid have either failed, are too slow to effect real change, or are simply unsustainable.
The idea for BagoSphere was conceived when Ivan, Ellwyn and I met up for the first time in 2010. I had then recently returned from an amazing study trip in rural India with a Social Enterprise that trained uneducated Indian youths and employed them to do basic Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) work. Ivan and Ellwyn had strong ties with the city government of Bago City, a small city in central Philippines, through past community service projects. We started working together to solve rural poverty and have never stopped since.
IQ: Was there any inspiration or anyone who inspired you to pursue your dream to become a Social Entrepreneur today?
Z: The inspiration to be a Social Entrepreneur came from life itself. I have always found life to be a great teacher, especially during difficult times. When I was growing up, life taught me the value of purpose and gratitude. When I combined the two, I found the path of Social Entrepreneurship most fulfilling.
The Social Enterprise
IQ: Having successfully finished your pilot last year, what learning can you share with other aspiring Social Entrepreneurs in evaluating what a successful Social Enterprise is?
Z: I think a successful Social Enterprise is one that discovers and successfully executes a business model that ensures that all stakeholders benefit. This is a huge challenge, especially for a start-up that is struggling to survive. When we started BagoSphere, there were many hypotheses and assumptions to validate. Besides the business model, one of our biggest assumptions was “helping rural youths get employment in the call centers gets them out of poverty”. The link seemed logical – that once rural youths get jobs, they will earn money and improve their lives. We were wrong. It took us a while, a few months to realize that we made a mistake. We realized that many call center agents do not have the habit of saving money despite having a lucrative pay check. So our hypothesis was wrong, and we needed to have an immediate course of action to correct this. It meant that we cannot just train youths in English and IT skills, place them in a call centers, and expect them to know how to pull themselves out of poverty. We adjusted our training program and included a strong emphasis on financial literacy. It would have been a disaster if we were not self-aware of our effectiveness in pursuing our social objective – solving rural poverty.
Today, BagoSphere is privileged to work alongside Shujog to make sure that we are effectively pursuing and achieving our social objectives. We do this by having a framework to measure our progress towards the objectives. Shujog’s team of experienced researchers have been working closely with BagoSphere to create an “Impact Framework”. We are now prepared to collect specific data according to the framework and analyse the collected data. With a system to measure whether we are achieving our social mission, we reduce the probability of being blind sighted by the assumptions we make. We make sure that we are delivering value to all our stakeholders.
Hence, I would suggest to Social Entrepreneurs to consider impact measurement very early on in the development of the business. I would want to be 100% sure that my business model and product/service are truly helping people – just like what it is in the business plan. So go test the assumptions and measure the impact.
Capital Raising Experience
IQ: You managed to get your first round of funding over-subscribed, that too in such a short time frame. From your experience, what advise can you give to other Social Entrepreneurs on how to attract investors and raise capital?
Z: I learned that people invest in people. The question is how to get people to invest in you. The main difficulty we found during our first capital raise is getting that grand plan and the passion inside our heads, out of our heads. It was a tremendous asset to have mentors who have raised capital before, or who are investors themselves who have seen hundreds of pitch decks. We roped in an experienced mentor who gave us individual pitching sessions and we just had a lot of practice. The next step is to get the word out. I didn’t leave any stone unturned – every possible name card was put into a database. After every networking event, I would diligently send out emails to people I have met. Every LinkedIn profile in my contact list was scrutinized (to see if they have any possible connections to potential investors). Last but not the least, we had an incredible experience working with IIX who bought in legal and financial advice, and that was what I believe accelerated the entire fund raising process. So my advice would be to polish the pitch, get experienced mentors and leave no stone unturned.
IQ: Given a chance, would you have considered doing anything differently in your journey during the past year?
Z: Hindsight is always 50-50, so there are many decisions that were made incorrectly and hence many things that could have been done differently. But I would prefer to move forward, with the understanding that challenges and mistakes are part of the journey. On that note, I will just leave a quote as my last remark to readers. This one that is attributed to zen: “The obstacle is the path.”