In the previous article, we talk about how the aging population in Singapore can be a good source of labour pool for start-ups. The following excerpt is an interview with UNFRAMED‘s CEO, Larry Tchiou

Rachel Yeo: Hi Larry, nice meeting you, tell me a little bit more about yourself!

Larry Tchiou: Hello Rachel, thanks for writing about startups and the aging, and your interest in UNFRAMED! I am Larry, 33, after having lived a few lives, I am currently the Founder & CEO of UNFRAMED.  We run training courses and accelerator programmes, and foster a cross-sector community to create greater impact!

R: How many start-up companies have you helped till date?

L: In the past 2 years, we have incubated 21 tech-enabled social impact startups, with 3 cohorts around the causes of persons with disabilities and the aging population. Including our training academy, we have formally supported 49 social impact startup initiatives. Specifically, we last year ran UNAGING, in partnership with DBS Foundation, NYC and IMDA, which graduated 6 startups tackling aging related challenges in Singapore such as dementia, cross-generational engagement, health prevention, caregiver support (read more about UNAGING startups here).

R: From the pool of start-up companies that your company has helped, how many of these companies have older workers and are these companies still as competitive as the rest? (ask for specific company names)

L: Given that at such early stage, most startups only have a handful  of employees – beyond the founders – if any at all, I am afraid that none currently offer full-time employments. However, a few of our startups are creating opportunities for freelancers or part-timers from vulnerable groups such as the seniors or persons with disabilities. Namely, Senior Active , which develops health programs for seniors has been running the Heritage Cooking Class for people to learn how to make local dishes from senior cooks, creating a  source of income for them.

Some other alumni startups, like AbleThrive, one of the winners of the 2016 DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, CaptionCube or BevEat, have been focusing on persons with disabilities, though some of which being more than 55 years old. BevEat, is a social e-wallet system for the F&B sector which generates donations for charities has been working with a mostly to create and maintain restaurant’s e-menus. BevEat is now used throughout campus oat Republic Poly and now expanding to other institutions.

R: What do you think of the idea of helping Singapore’s aging population gain employment by hiring them in start-ups?

L: Involving experienced workers with startups is of course a very attractive idea! But as with all good ideas, the devil is in the details… There are really two types of jobs that need to be looked at separately: “high skilled” and “low skilled” or what are commonly referred as white or blue collar jobs. Both will bring their sets of pros and cons which need to be well managed if the relationship between the startups and the senior employees is to be meaningful. The objective should be to add real value to the startups, business wise, to make it sustainable rather than mostly a marketing or charitable purpose.

R: Do you think that they will be more of an asset to the industry, or would it run the risk of tainting the vibrant, youthful culture of the start-up industry?

L: On the one hand, young startups often lack experience, industry expertise, skills or networks… so these are assets that the right experienced professional can bring to the startups. On the other hand, less-skilled seniors could bring some unique insights to the startups looking to support the silver population such as Jaga-Me, the Uber for home care, or Medarwin, which develops assistive technology cloth drying product.

As for the culture, it will require efforts from both sides, for the seniors to be adaptable and learn how to use productivity tools and what could be new work processes, and for the startups and other younger employees to be more inclusive, patient and empathetic.

R: Would you personally hire an older worker to work in UNFRAMED?

L: We have a couple of employees, interns, and even volunteers, and we also have a network of freelance expert trainers and coaches. Our unique model allows us to keep our staff and operations lean, and train social impact entrepreneurs and startups at a very low cost. So definitely hiring experienced professionals and experts would fit our model.

R: Have you had older workers working for UNFRAMED before? Who? How was it? Did they contribute significantly?

L: Not yet, nope. This will come in due time. But we’re lucky to have (very) experienced advisors.

R: Among the pool of start-ups that your company has helped, do you think most companies will be receptive in hiring an older worker?

L: If it adds value to the startups, I doubt anyone wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, access critical skills and expertise is one of the main challenges any startup has at it matures. In a sense, we are already doing this with the pool of mentors we provide to our startups. Some of them are successful serial entrepreneurs, ex-investment bankers, and nonprofit professionals in their 50s.

R:  How do you think older workers can contribute to Singapore’s start-up industry?

L:  Typically, startups lack industry knowledge, expertise, and skills. Additionally, experience on how to scale organisations from a handful of employees to dozens, international expansion or building deep partnerships with corporates or government, are all things that experienced professional could add value on.

R: What are the setbacks do you think older/corporate workers would face and how can they overcome it?

L: Learn how to do things differently but most importantly being comfortable operating in what can sometimes seem a chaotic environment. Being agile, wear multiple hats, and adapt to fast changes. Fundamentally, the main difference between large organisations  and startups is that the former focus on planning and improving, which takes time, while the latter is about launching and iterating as fast as possible.

R:  From your personal experience, how do you think Singapore’s startup scene has changed and what do you think of the possibility of it being integrative and inclusive to Singapore’s aging population? 

L: Simple: Singapore scene today has just nothing to do with what it was when I first arrived in Singapore from Silicon Valley in 2009. Back then there was not much co-working spaces, no startup events opened to the public, no much role models. When I came back to Singapore in 2012 after my entrepreneurial experiences in China and Europe, things had already dramatically changed.

Today, even if we are still a long way to go before having a string of success stories, especially in the social impact sector, we can be confident that this will happen sooner rather than later. The pioneering work done by both the public and private sectors, including disruptors like JFDI, the HUB or ourselves, have resulted in the emergence of promising startups.

Infrastructure or “hardware” side, the government has laid down so formidable work. At UNFRAMED, we mostly focus on a mindset and culture change or the “software” aspect:  execution, innovation, collaboration, and this is why we have partnered with diverse great organisations such as Singtel or DBS in the corporate sector, government agencies like NYC or IMDA, education and youth-organisation with ESSEC Business School, NTU, *SCAPE or Singapore International Foundation, and the many social sector organisations.

Inclusiveness, especially towards the growing aging population is the next required step that the sector will need to go through. In a tight labour market, for startups to stay competitive, there’s just no choice.

R: How much would you pay to hire a full-time worker? Would there be a difference (in paycheck) for a young worker and an older one? Why would you pay more/less/the same to them? 

L: Same as how I would pay for coffee. I enjoy drinking both kopi-c kosong and good cappuccino and wouldn’t expect to pay the same price. It really depends on what is the job to be done and the value created. But by no means, will be similar to any other workers, with a premium for the right skill, experience, and network.

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