How This Social Entrepreneur's Own Struggles Led Him To Start An Edtech Business Helping Migrant Workers
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
Singapore’s foreign workforce comprises over 1.2 million people. This includes work-permit holders such as domestic helpers and individuals hired in the construction sector. Many face language and cultural barriers when they first arrive in the country, which may lead them to face issues ranging from not being able to understand the basic safety regulations of their workplace to enduring feelings of social isolation.
For Sazzad Hossain, who left Bangladesh to move to Singapore with his family at 11 years old, these issues hit close to home. It was his personal experience as a foreigner in a new country that led him to start his social enterprise, SDI Academy, eight years later.
When Sazzad arrived in Singapore, he knew very little English. He struggled to keep up with his peers after enrolling in a local primary school and was placed in a class that was two grades below. But he picked up the language quickly and later even began to teach it to migrant workers living in his neighbourhood, with whom he’d make friends.
Through word-of-mouth, his student base grew and he launched SDI Academy, which has since trained over 8,500 migrant workers skills in English communication, financial and IT literacy, and entrepreneurship. Last year, the social enterprise launched its mobile app to facilitate virtual learning and provide other features, such as diarying and speech recognition.
On the side, Sazzad has also been running pilot tests for his second startup, DoorMart. The food subscription and delivery service platform has distributed 5,000 meals since it started in late 2019 and may in time be integrated into SDI Academy’s app.
Sazzad, who is an Obama Foundation Leader and an Ashoka Fellow, shares more on his work and hopes for the future.
The migrant worker community has a huge potential for transformation. The multiplier impact we can achieve by empowering this community and their future generations motivates me to continue doing this work. Some of our beneficiaries have achieved incredible successes and are paying it forward by establishing their own social organisations.
I started teaching English to migrant workers after hearing their struggles. When I made friends with some of them living around my estate, they told me they couldn’t understand the safety instructions given to them at work because they were in English. So, I taught them the language because their lives were at stake.
I started out teaching these migrant workers on the weekends on a park bench. I was using whatever materials I used to use in primary school and was very specific about teaching them based on where their problems were, which they loved, and started telling all their friends. When I launched SDI Academy in 2013, I had 134 students in my first class.
After booking the venue for my first class, I remember not being able to afford to book it for a second session. The space cost something like SG$320 for two hours, but I recall only having around SG$587 in my bank account at the time. In the end, the workers chipped in and that’s how I decided to be a social enterprise. I realised my business had to be sustainable and this was the only way.
We customise our courses at SDI Academy to meet the specific needs of our community. Beyond training, we also provide community-building support and activities, and are exploring opportunities to help their family and children as well.
See also: The Founder Of The Philippines' Fastest-Growing Social Media App On How To Conquer Adversity
People still don’t realise how big Singapore's migrant workforce is. They may not be in prominent or top professions, but they make up a big part of the consumer market and we have to take care of them
— Sazzad Hossain
We use the Bollywood film Pad Man as a reference for our entrepreneurship course. I first watched it on a work flight to Australia. It shows the whole process of starting a business, from product development to customer review, but with the Bollywood humour and fun which our community would be able to understand. So the film’s now an essential part of our course.
For DoorMart, our goal is to distribute 50,000 meals per day in the next two years. Right now, we’re working with multiple kitchens to produce the meals on our monthly subscription plan, but we’re raising funds to set up our own central kitchen.
There’s something we can all learn from migrant workers. The fact that they left home to work in another country and send back almost everything that they earn shows us the kind of love they have for their family. It reminds us of the filial piety that social scientists say tends to become a less important cultural value as a society progresses.
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