The Southeast Asia in my imagination mostly featured ancient temples and pastoral village life. Stepping off the plane in Kuala Lumpur, I was surprised to be greeted by modernity in all its LED flat screen, ride-hailing-app glory. My host Fakhru explained, upon picking me up in a Grab car, that everything from the star-shaped airport terminal to the dizzying array of luxury shopping malls was built in the last few decades of economic dynamism that have characterized Pacific Asia. At YI Advisors, our mission is to help clients engage young adults, particularly around challenges of economic opportunity. On this trip, I set out to answer a question facing Millennials in the US and Asia alike: How does a generation that has only known the relative peace and prosperity of a globally interconnected world cope with the growing tide of ethno-nationalist backlash from those left behind? Malaysia is uniquely suited to explore this question because of its rapid modernization in the midst of struggles with racial and religious identity. By embracing diversity as its source of strength, Malaysia is developing new models for inclusive growth through social enterprise.
Our first stop was the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), the largest accelerator program supporting entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia. Located in Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley, the MaGIC campus boasts the sort of ping-pong table and bean bag chair amenities you would expect to find in any Palo Alto startup combined with the local flair of conference rooms named after Southeast Asian cities. President Obama visited Cyberjaya to launch MaGIC on his first trip to Malaysia in 2014. We met with VPs Johnathan Lee and Hazel Hassan, who noted: “the diversity of ASEAN is our greatest competitive advantage.”
By only serving startups from the region, MaGIC gives its companies an edge in localization and an understanding the unique risks and challenges of each country in ASEAN.
Next, we met with Project TRY (Training Rural Youth), where CEO Raviraj Sawlani shared with us the substitution model he is using to scale his youth education social enterprise. The original project, seeded by a grant from the MaGIC Amplify fund, consisted of a tourism jobs training program for the indigenous people of Mabul island. To sustain the project, Mr. Sawlani founded the Sky International Training Academy in Kuala Lumpur. For every student who pays to attend Sky, another student receives a scholarship to attend the training program at Project TRY. This setup will allow both programs to not only become sustainable but to eventually scale to serve more students in new locations. Around 80% of graduates of the project have been able to find full-time employment. YI Advisors has pursued a similar substitution model, building a for-profit consultancy to fund our non-profit young adult advocacy work.
With YI Advisors’ focus on healthcare policy, I was particularly interested in speaking with Dr. Lutfi Fadil Lokman, who won the United Nation's Young Leader for Sustainable Development award for his social health enterprise, Hospitals Beyond Boundaries (HBB). HBB built a clinic that provides high-quality care to the Chams minority community in Cambodia. The project is self-sustaining for its operational costs through a sliding scale subsidy model, with 40% of patients receiving free or heavily subsidized care. Capital costs for the clinic, such as new equipment, are still donor-financed through creative means, such as a viral WhatsApp crowdfunding campaign that Mr. Lufti championed to recruit donors in the Gulf States.
In a recent post, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg expressed concern that “across the world, there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from the global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.” Malaysians have clearly decided the best way forward is through deeper interconnection, while continuing to grow in a way that includes underserved communities. MaGIC is a project of the Malaysian Ministry of Finance and provides a good example of the critical role governments can play in fostering social entrepreneurship through initiatives like their Blueprint for Social Enterprise and Social Entrepreneur Academy. Home-grown initiatives like Project TRY and HBB are piloting sustainable models to serve indigenous peoples in rural Malaysia and minority communities in Cambodia. Social enterprise is maturing beyond the constraints of Western aid to allow people in newly developed countries to chart their own course. This experience reinforced what we’ve learned at YI Advisors: the best way to advance the economic interests of Millennial communities is to create the tools for young adults to empower themselves.