We Need Mavericks

We Need Mavericks

John Tan, CEO, Doyobi
December 8, 2021
4 min read
A contribution to The Birthday Book 2020

When I was growing up, my parents expected me to become a banker, lawyer or doctor. Get good grades, go to college, become a respectable white collar professional. I did well enough to go to a good university in the UK, tried management consulting for a couple of years, and left that to become an entrepreneur.

Starting my own business is something I knew I was going to do ever since I was a teenager. I remember trying to commercialise a Macbeth board game I made for literature class (no Kickstarter back then), going door to door selling fire extinguishers (my literature teacher bought a couple, probably ’cause she pitied my sorry attempt at selling that silly board game), and buying economics textbooks in Singapore and selling them in London (three dollars to the pound = great arbitrage opportunity). My first real business was a frozen yogurt shop in Holland Village called Frolick (frozen and you lick it, geddit?) I started with a couple of high school friends. Fast forward 12 years and I’m still an entrepreneur, running a curiosity school for children called Saturday Kids and an edtech startup called Doyobi.

Saturday Kids opened as a side project in 2012 when I first started dabbling in tech investing. Meeting tech entrepreneurs all day made me realise how useful it is to know how to code, so I started a coding school for kids ’cause there weren’t any back then. These days, I call Saturday Kids a curiosity school rather than a coding school because the goal isn’t to churn out software engineers. The goal is to inspire every child to become a curious, self-directed learner. Inspiring curiosity is at the heart of everything we do at Saturday Kids.

In addition to coding, we offer Saturday Kids Unplugged, an outdoor camp in Japan where kids learn from nature. We like to think we are making a stand against tuition and parents’ obsession with grades. It scares me parents my generation are telling their kids the same thing my parents told me — study hard, get a good job, life is taken care of. I worry kids in Singapore grow up with a sense of entitlement, thinking that someone owes them a well-paying job just because they did well in school. I worry kids are so busy cramming for tests and exams they haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg and climate change. Most of all, I worry kids from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t get the same opportunities in life and therefore are trapped in that narrative of study hard, go to college (on a scholarship), get a good job. That is why programmes like Code In The Community ¹ exist.

I have nothing against jobs. I just don’t think kids can expect to work the same jobs as their parents. Technology is disrupting so many industries very few people can predict what sort of jobs our kids will have. Singapore’s success is built on a professional class of bankers, lawyers, accountants. Both my parents were in finance. But for Singapore to continue to thrive, we cannot just be providers of professional services. Many of these white collar jobs in finance, law, even medicine will be automated away. The world is facing unprecedented challenges — environmental, social, political. Our generation is not going to solve all of these problems. It is up to our kids and the generation(s) after them to come up with the solutions that will ensure humanity continues to thrive. For Singapore to remain relevant, we need to become a country of entrepreneurs and makers. A nation of people who have the curiosity, enterprise and imagination to take on humanity’s challenges. That is why I started Doyobi, a spin-off from Saturday Kids, to design technology and science courses that emphasise creativity, curiosity and growth mindset. Doyobi’s mission is to help kids become original thinkers and develop a sense of purpose.

President Obama once said “Life isn’t always fair. It distributes opportunities in different ways.” I hope that through programmes like Code In The Community, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are afforded the same opportunities to use their imagination to tackle hard problems like climate change. President Obama also urges us to “rejoice in the opportunity to change the world.” More than anything else, I hope our kids can rejoice in the opportunity to change their world. The world needs more mavericks. Singapore needs more mavericks. We need our kids to think and act like mavericks. Because Singapore matters.

¹ Code In The Community is the largest free coding programme in Singapore for disadvantaged children, managed by Saturday Kids and supported by Google and IMDA.

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