By Low Yi Ern and Sim Yi Shien
Yi Ern is a rising junior at Yale-NUS College, and is currently an intern at Skillseed. She is interested in the local social entrepreneurship scene and likes to play sports and bake in her free time.
Yi Shien recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she majored in Anthropology. She is an Apprentice at Skillseed.
As a #throwback post, we spoke to one of the pioneering Course Architects and ex-Skillseed team member, Yee Hui, to find out about her time at Skillseed, and why she decided to stay at her first job for three whole years (gasp - inconceivable!)
How did you decide to work at Skillseed for your first job? What drew you to it?
YEE HUI: It didn’t exactly feel like my first job. After I graduated, I was working part-time for a wedding photographer and part-time for another social enterprise. But they were both part time gigs and they didn’t really add up to a full time job in terms of time and money. I met Huijia through Saught [an ethical jewellery company, now known as Covenant Jewellery] because they were collaborating on the first Design for Good programme.
When I met Huijia she was like, “Oh are you looking for a full time job?” And I was like, yeah! And she asked, “Do you like to travel?” Who doesn’t, right? She said they would have an opening soon and that I could apply. So I decided to. Honestly, it wasn’t so much the mission of Skillseed that drew me to it - it was a good cause, but not something that kept me up at night. It was more that it really sounded like a fun job.
Were there any other considerations that came to mind?
It sounded good, so why not? There were no red flags and I could imagine myself learning on the job, while contributing to the company and finding it interesting (and I was right!) So apart from the fun, it was also the organisation’s leadership and culture. I thought “Are we going to have the same kind of questions about things, do we care about the same things?” I remember asking Huijia at the interview, “Can these short term trips really make a difference?” which I think is what everyone would ask at the interview lah. But the fact that she acknowledged it, was working on it, and had a response – like she thought about it before – that mattered a lot to me.
Did the job meet your expectations in the three years that you were there?
Yeah, definitely. Not necessarily in the sense that I expected every single thing that came my way, because I think I expected at the beginning that Huijia would be really strict and very scary. And I was a bit worried at first, like, was she going to be really fierce, like a schoolteacher, because at the beginning there was only two of us, me and Huijia, for a while. I remember the first orientation that we had. It was really scary because it was very serious, but I’m glad that that expectation [of Huijia being strict] didn’t come true. But everything else was what I expected and a bit beyond; it was more than what I could have imagined.
How would you describe your experience working with Skillseed, in terms of your job scope and the people, or anything else that comes to mind?
I would say it was quite perfect in almost every way. In terms of people, I knew that it was quite ideal. I needed a boss who was not like me. I definitely enjoy the company of people that are similar to me, but they aren’t necessarily the best people to learn from. I think it’s always good to learn from people who work differently from you. In a boss, you definitely want someone who is very organised, very sharp, and who has qualities that you don’t have, yourself. And in terms of friendships and stuff it was definitely quite perfect.
For the job scope as well – especially in the first year or so, I never spent enough time sitting down in the same place at my computer to get bored, because we were traveling a lot. Even when we were not travelling, the assignments felt diverse enough, and very well-rounded, There were a lot of things that I learned on the job that I wouldn’t have normally done in my personal life - like budgeting or planning for stuff - because I’m definitely not a planner or detail-oriented person! I appreciate how useful these things became, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy them at times. These structures really helped me mature.
Do you think Skillseed has changed in terms of its structure or dynamics, since you first joined?
Hmm, interesting. I’m sure it has. Wilson [our Director of Strategy] coming in definitely changed a lot of things: the way we make decisions, view opportunities, all of that, and it changed the tone a bit. Also, when he joined it had already been two plus years since I joined, and I think the team had all definitely matured and mellowed in some ways. I think at least for me and Xin Er [an ex-Course Architect], I think we felt more of a sense of ownership at that time, so the way we perceived situations was also different. I feel like I aged a lot, especially over the first two years, due to the weight of responsibility – which is not a bad thing. It’s quite good actually. Like when we travelled, for instance, we were responsible for so many young people, and everyone who cares for them, and for each other too.
Were there any moments where you felt like you didn’t want to continue, like you wanted to quit and move on to another job?
Oh yeah, definitely! I told Huijia and Wilson during my exit interview that during the first trip that Xin Er and I did, which was Design for Good, and it was with a group of MGS girls in Phnom Penh - it was just the second day of the trip, but we were both so tired. It wasn’t like any particular incident had happened, but it was a trip that we were organising from the ground up, and it was our first time leading the trip on our own. So we laid down and were like “We can’t do this anymore, help!” We were super exhausted, but we had to get up and go downstairs again in just twenty minutes. It wasn’t that we were physically exhausted – it was more feeling all that weight of responsibility when we had never felt it to this extent before, whilst knowing that it had only been a quarter of the journey and there was so much more left. But alas, after twenty minutes, we went back down, got on with the next activity, and kept on going, and the feeling kind of disappeared. But there were points in most trips, where I felt kind of like that – not that I wanted to quit, but just like, “Oh my god, how am I going to make it through the next few days? It’s just so tiring!” What added to it was also being around people all the time, and having to be accountable. But yeah, it does pass lah.
What are some of the things that you learnt at Skillseed?
The importance of structure and being organised. As I said, it’s very antithetical to my personality but [working at Skillseed] made me realise the merit and virtue of it, especially when you’re responsible for people other than yourself. I think with your own life, it’s fine to do whatever you want, but when there are other people involved it’s quite important to be organized. And structure is really important for an organisation internally – it’s a pain in the butt but it really makes things easier. And in a way, it’s selfish if you’re not organised, when you think about the people who are coming into the company after you.
Something else I learnt was care: how to show care, what care looks like, and the way we treat each other at work is emblematic of that as well. I can imagine a lot of workplaces where, if you’re sick and you’re like, “Yo, everyone, I’m sick,” in your company group chat, and people will just be like, oh chao keng [pretending to be ill to avoid work], so fake. Sometimes, when I’m sick and I’ll tell my parents, “I’m not going into work today because I’m sick”, and my mum will say, “You better not take so many sick days otherwise they’re going to fire you.” But that doesn’t make sense. Like why would you want to work for a company that distrusts you so much? The reason you don’t go to work when you’re sick– it’s not just to give yourself space to recover, but also to make sure your colleagues won’t get sick too. Because you can always work from home till you feel better. I feel that at Skillseed, there’s a very genuine kind of care that is shown, it’s not like a fake, “Oh, she’s probably chao keng.” It’s quite real and there’s a lot of trust, which I think is very precious. It has also taught me to see other people in that way as well. I see the way my brother talks about his colleagues when they don’t show up for work, and it’s very transactional, but that’s not really the case with Skillseed.
Part of showing care is also caring for students, teachers, parents, and understanding why - if they’re not so easy to work with - why that is, and how to do what you can to reassure them. For example, if someone is sick, or you get the sense that someone is not feeling super comfortable and included, how can you let them know that someone cares, even though all of their loved ones are not around? That kind of thing. And similarly, for teachers, just making friends with them and showing them that you see them as humans too and you want to learn more about them. Just making them feel comfortable and loved in some way, especially when you are somewhere in a foreign place without the usual people who love you around – I think it can be quite a painful experience, so I try to make that a bit easier. It is about showing them that you care, not just feeling for them and thinking “Oh they must be like this”, but also doing something about it. At least for me, with my family and friends sometimes, I often don’t show it. It’s like, “Oh, I feel so bad for you” inside but I don’t do anything to reach out. So, I’ve learned a lot about reaching out, taking action, and moving from the internal to the external.
How did you decide to leave Skillseed?
It was something I have been thinking about for a while. When people find out that I’m there, they are always like “Why, I thought it was a perfect job,” and actually it really was. Of course, there were parts that weren’t so fun, like writing proposals is not the most fun. Proofreading stuff, that’s like the worst. Formatting documents, yucks. But that’s part of any job. But it was really just, I was scared of getting too comfortable and I didn’t want to get to a point where I didn’t really enjoy it as much, anymore. Like, I would want to stop before that point if I could. I got the sense sometimes, when I took a step back and found myself thinking “Oh, how come I’m not as excited about this project anymore?” and then I would realise “Huh, maybe it’s because I’ve done the same program three times.” In a way, it’s good to do the same thing a lot of times because you get a sense of mastery, you get better at something. But I was still a bit worried that this lower level of enthusiasm would be passed on to participants, and to the rest of the team, especially because Skillseed is such a small environment. I didn’t think it would be a good thing to pass on, and it’s not the nicest thing to feel too. So that was one of the things that made me realise that maybe I should think about moving on, so someone else could take on the role and be more excited about it.
One of my biggest phobias in life is being stagnant. I wasn’t stagnant by any means at Skillseed, I just didn’t want to be scared to leave at some point. Like, “Oh, I’m too comfortable to leave, what will I do, what if people outside are not as nice.” I didn’t want to be in that kind of situation. I wanted to be there because I really wanted to be there. And three years felt like a decent amount of time to have stayed. I think it would open up new doors in a way; if one of us leaves, someone else can come in.. I feel like when there are so few people in the office, that injection really makes a big difference, and it could be in a good or bad way lah, but usually it’s in a good way!
Do you think your experience at Skillseed has defined what you are looking for in the future?
Yeah definitely, I think it set the bar really high, which I’m sure Huijia will be happy to hear, haha. In terms of leadership and how an organisation is led, I think it’s really crucial and plays a big part in the culture. Especially after talking to different friends, it’s quite eye-opening to see what a difference that can make to your happiness. That is something I look at a little more closely now, as compared to 3 years ago, where I would have been like, “oh fun job!” without really thinking about the human factors more deeply. My friend was telling me about a few instances where some of their colleagues told on each other, and they got into a little bit of trouble for that. One of them used to be a very chatty colleague, but now that someone complained about her to the management, she’s clammed up a lot. So she asked me, “How would you respond, would you also clam up if this happened to you at Skillseed?” I don’t think this would ever happen...or that Huijia or Wilson would appreciate it if we tattled on each other. They would be like “why can’t you tell the person yourself? Why do you need me to do it for you?” so that’s quite interesting. And it really makes a big difference.