Three locals who recently participated in programmes under the US State Department’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) have recounted their experience, with two participants having come out as winners and a third taking on a mentorship role.
The YSEALI is US President Barack Obama’s signature programme launched in 2013 to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.
Through a variety of programmes and engagements, including US educational and cultural exchanges, regional exchanges, and seed funding, YSEALI seeks to build the leadership capabilities of youth in the region, strengthen ties between the United States and Southeast Asia, and nurture an Asean community.
YSEALI focuses on critical topics identified by youth in the region: civic engagement, environment and natural resources management, and entrepreneurship and economic development.
One of the recent three Bruneian participants, Suriatizah binti Abdul Rani, was part of the winning group of the YSEALI Startup Weekend, which took place on August 4-6 in Kuala Lumpur.
The YSEALI Startup Weekend is an initiative that brings together groups of young entrepreneurs from 10 Asean countries to ideate, create and develop products and solutions that have the potential to grow and impact the Asean community. A total of 110 shortlisted participants were invited to the event.
Suriatizah, 22, is the lead designer for her team, Apollo, where she has teammates from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. Apollo was named the winner of the Startup Weekend for their idea of a revolutionary phone flip case that can wirelessly charge their phones using harvested solar and kinetic energy. All her design skills are self-taught.
She described the opportunity presented to her by the US Embassy to take part in the programme as being “Out of this world”.
Suriatizah and her team will soon be participating in a trip to Seattle in the US to meet entrepreneurs, business and technology incubators and key companies. More information on her team’s winning project can be found at wwvv.apolloph.org.
Apollo’s next step is to generate investment into their product via crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, she shared. “So, in the US we’re trying to build more credibility for our products. We want to market the product globally.”
“We’re not just validating our ideas anymore. It’s there. We’re ready to manufacture and launch this as a real thing. We’re actually targeting December as the perfect month for us to launch.”
“It’s a new technology, but we’re more than willing to try it. We have a prototype ready, and it works.”
Adding on, she said, “I would say it’s important to have that hunger to do something really big. Stay as hungry as you can when it comes to learning.”
“Make full use of the resources that you can find, because they are out there. They’re not just from school, but also from your experiences. Get as much experience as you can and be good at what you do.”
Aimi Norhiza binti Ramlee was another Bruneian involved in the Startup Weekend, though her role was one of a mentor. She recounted that, this time around, the Startup Weekend actually took place over the weekdays of Tuesday-Thursday to accommodate a very special guest: US Secretary of State John Kerry, who happened to be in Kuala Lumpur at the time for the Asean Ministerial Meeting.
“He was kind enough to meet with the entire Startup Weekend group privately on the second day, and he was genuinely interested in what everyone was doing, especially the ideas everyone had, and had a really close discussion with us about what our roles in the youth are, especially in Asean,” she said. “That was an amazing opportunity for everyone there to hear from a very, very important man.”
“He identified our optimism, energy and that there was no cynicism in the room whatsoever, and that was something he thought was special to Asean. All the youth there didn’t have the same jaded view of the world as those in other regions.”
She shared that she and the other mentors were allocated two to three teams each. She happened to be allocated to Apollo, Suriatizah’s team.
“We helped them on pitching, refining their business model, the design of their product and really pushing them to get customer validity, getting them out there to talk to people. Mentors also judged the first round of pitches,” she recounted.
She and her partner, Mark Harbison, have a venture called Tech in Brunei, a website that works to build stronger bridges between Brunei’s technology sector and the world ( www.techinbrunei.com).
“I think the most valuable thing anyone in Brunei can do is step outside of Brunei, meet people outside of the country and then know that being Bruneian gives you so many advantages.”
“We are from a small country, but it means you are aware of how much bigger other countries are compared to a lot of people from bigger countries who aren’t aware of what’s beyond their borders,” she continued. “So take full advantage of that opportunity, and that point of view and know that, just because you’re from a small country doesn’t mean you can’t do big things.”
In addition to the Startup Weekend, she also recently attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya in July, where President Barack Obama spoke on the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Awangku Mohd Dinie Hafizuddin bin Pengiran Azman participated in the YSEALI Generation EARTH Study Tour in the United States from July 25-August 15, after having been part of the winning group in the tour’s associated workshop in Cambodia on April 22-25.
Dinie, 19, is a nautical engineering student at the Brunei Maritime Academy, and in the Log This project his role is that of lead designer. His teammates include youths from Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos.
His team’s winning project, “Log This”, a social networking app that allows users to report instances of illegal logging, restoration activities as well as to help generate statistics. Currently they are at a stage where they are looking for investors to help fund the development of their app, he shared.
The three-week trip to the US his team won proved to be of great value, he said, saying that they were able to learn much from the many NGOs and entrepreneurs they met there. Using the Log This app to attain more information on restoration activities and generate statistics were ideas that grew from this trip, Dinie said.
Sharing some lessons he learned, he said, “Take chances and look out for every opportunity you can in Brunei. Step outside of your comfort zone and think outside the box. Also, do what you love to do. Take risks and don’t listen to people who discourage_ you. Believe in your ideas.”
In addition, Edward Findlay, Second Secretary and Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy shared a few words, saying, “We are very happy to be helping more and more Bruneians participate in this youth initiative and a variety of programmes that promote entrepreneurship, app development, economic development, social entrepreneurship, environmental protection and things like that throughout the Asean region.”
“This is a particularly interesting group because they are not just participants we selected at the embassy, but they are going to talk about how thorough their own initiative they came out as the winners chosen among all the Asean competitors for additional programmes that we didn’t necessarily select them for.”
“So it’s really impressive; I’m very impressed with what they did. That they won these honours completely on their own speaks very well for Brunei,” he added.