SekolahSG Profiles is a series in which we interview young Indonesians in Singapore with interesting jobs they’re passionate about and worked hard to get. Candid and sincere, we tell it like it is: the good and the bad.
Early on as a newly-matriculated Singapore Management University (SMU) student, Angela Sujadi went on an overseas community service trip teaching English in Cambodia. When she got back, the lingering thought was, will they remember anything I taught? So Angela set off on a journey to still do good but in a sustainable manner, and in her freshman year she joined the social enterprise Nusantara Development Initiatives, eventually spearheading Project Light. We talked to her about juggling school with NDI (answer: emails at 3 AM), what to look out for when considering a move into the nonprofit field, and why she’s okay with sacrificing her GPA.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Angela Sujadi. I’m originally from Jakarta, but have been in Singapore for 15 years. I graduated from Singapore Management University with a degree in Economics; my second major was Psychology. After graduation, I have worked full-time for my social enterprise, Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI).
I took up NDI during the first semester of Year 1. Before I started doing Project Light, I was considering a double degree scholarship but I soon realized that NDI is something I wanted to commit to. I wouldn’t have time to juggle it with schoolwork, so I decided not to take it in the end.
What was your role in the first Project Light?
I was the chairman. It was quite a challenging process, because although I was in Year 1, I had to lead people who were a lot older. That was actually quite scary for me initially. You’re a young kid. How do you make older people respect and listen to you?
What did you do to overcome that?
I think in task-oriented terms – what’s the goal and how can I achieve it. As a leader it’s important to have foresight and make sure that your team mates are well informed and prepared for what’s happening next. So I make sure that every actions are thought through well before anything is suggested or decided. It also helps to be open to feedback and constantly improve.
I can’t be more grateful for the support my volunteers gave me. We always look at each other as a family. I never look at myself as a chairman, but a coordinator. It’s everyone’s project, together.
Was it hard for you to juggle school and NDI?
It was very difficult, because it’s only when I finished with schoolwork, at maybe about 12 AM, that I can focus more on NDI. The good thing is that we do things by email, so I’d do that until about 3 to 4 AM in the morning. It was very intensive. We make sure that this is a serious project, and not a “fun” project where we just touch and go. When what you do impacts people’s lives, it’s something serious. We have to carefully think through our ideas, bounce them to experts.
At the same time there’s opportunity cost. When you spend more time doing something else and less on schoolwork, of course your GPA drops. But that’s something that I’m willing to take, because I feel I learned a lot more doing NDI. It’s a lot more meaningful for me.
When you spend more time doing something else and less on schoolwork, of course your GPA drops. But that’s something that I’m willing to take.
You interned at a logistics liner company. What did it feel like, if you compare it to your experience in NDI?
I would think it’s quite different. I did learn quite a lot, but it’s different when you are working on something you are passionate about. You may be jaded by the work, but there’s always that voice in your heart that keeps you going.
Being students from SMU, we’ve always felt a lot of pressure to go into the corporate world. Did you feel that as well?
Initially. I felt quite tired after doing the 10-week internship, and although I do feel physically tired as well while working on NDI until 3 or 4 AM, I want to keep going, because I see the impact and progress. When we first came to the village, the women felt intimidated, and they were always waiting for instructions. But now they are more empowered and took initiatives to suggest improvements to us. I can see the growth of these women, and it keeps me motivated, to know that my work is really touching their lives.
Did you feel that pressure from anyone else around you?
More so from my parents, I suppose. They want me to work in the corporate world, because that’s how I can become financially stable, build up my skills, and ultimately support my family. After that, I can do the things I want to do. At the same time, I also tell them about my interests in social entrepreneurship and doing social work, so that they understand. Their advice is to build a career first and then do social work after.
Was it scary for you when you first graduated and transitioned straight into NDI? What was the scariest part?
I actually find it very exciting, especially when things you do impact the people directly. We’re always asking ourselves, how can we improve the program? How do we make it more scalable? I find it more rewarding. The work is not monotonous, and it just exposes you to so much. For me it’s more exciting than scary, in a sense. (laughs)
So scary is a good thing.
Yes, scary is a good thing. I mean it always challenges you, and it’s only when you step out of your comfort zone that you’ll learn more.
How do you see yourself change in the past year?
I think I’m more confident and my concept of direction is clearer. I don’t know what the future is going to be like, but from NDI, I feel more empowered to contribute to the community. So even if I do transition to a corporate life in the future, I know that I’ll still work on something that creates positive value to the people around me.
If you look at the nonprofit career path, so to speak, do you ever think that money is an issue? Was that ever a constraint?
I think money is an issue, definitely. If you’re a young undergraduate considering either for-profit or nonprofit, I would think that it’s best to have sufficient financial sustainability. So make sure that you can live your life comfortably before stepping on a social entrepreneurship or nonprofit role. You have to first take care of yourself before you can think about taking care of other people.
So how did you manage to navigate that when you joined NDI fulltime?
Fortunately we were able to get corporate sponsorship, so I managed to pay myself at a basic level to sustain my daily living, while the rest of the funds go to the project. Of course you must make this very clear to the corporate sponsor.
NDI essentially is a “startup” nonprofit. If you’re someone who’s looking to enter the nonprofit field with a startup, what are the things they should look out for? What would you advise them in terms of choosing which NGOs to pick?
First they have to start exploring their interests. Is it women empowerment? The environment? Basically, find your cause. If you don’t like your cause, you won’t last.
Secondly, know your role. The thing about big organizations is that you tend to play a smaller role, while in a startup like NDI, you can play many different roles. Since I was the only full-timer, I had to do a lot of things, but that’s where I learn more. So it depends on the person, and which area does he/she want to grow in.
Yes, scary is a good thing. It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone that you’ll learn more.
What would be some of the key indicators for somebody who is looking to go into this, but who already knows their cause, who has already volunteered? What are some of the good indicators of a healthy organization to join, where they would be able to develop?
First, know the team leader. You want to know that you both have similar visions, approach, and that you will fit with the working culture. I’d look for someone with passion towards the cause; someone with perseverance, who commits; and someone nurturing as well, who would empower you to take on roles and tasks. I think in the nonprofit sector, it’s only when someone is empowered that he/she will be able to feel a sense of belonging to the cause.
Second, see how much has the organization been innovating. Have they been progressing? How have they evolved to meet their objectives? Is their business model sound and sustainable? See how an organization adapts to challenges and copes through change.
The important third point is: do they measure their objectives? In the past, people always think that as long as you do good, you don’t need to measure it, but now we’re looking more into measuring social impact. One of the many indicators is Social Return on Investment (SROI), which essentially means that for every dollar a company gives you, how much social returns in dollars and cents do you get? I think good organizations always make it a point to measure their social impact, whether quantitatively or qualitatively. Ultimately, whatever you do is accountable for. You can’t say you do good without looking at the measurable impact.
Different organizations have different indicators. For NDI they include things like number of women trained and number of solar lamps sold. How much economic savings do they get from substituting kerosene with solar lamps? How much productivity have the women gained, now that they can work and study at night? There’s a lot of ways to calculate impact, but you would want to know that as an organization, they try to measure it in some way.
Say for example, you didn’t do NDI at all. Instead, you did what everyone else did: be in the corporate world. How different would you be if you took the other route? Or would you still be the same?
I think I would be different. I wouldn’t have known that I have so much passion about social enterprise. I think going through NDI makes me feel more empowered; knowing that I can contribute towards a cause that I believe in and make a difference. If I went through corporate life, there are many ways I can do good⎯look after my colleagues, donate, or take part in Flag Days⎯but I wouldn’t have known that I can do so much more.
Was NDI a part of your 80-hour community service requirements in SMU?
Actually I fulfilled them before NDI. I went to Cambodia on a mission trip with SMU Fides, the school’s Catholic group. I taught English, but I thought, will they still remember what I taught them after I leave? When I came back, I didn’t feel satisfied. Those steps helped me see what I exactly want: something more sustainable rather than just one-off. I also thought, I’ve been to Cambodia and China to do community service, but why not Indonesia? It’s so near, and it’s my home country.
So in some ways your process from being curious, to understanding what it really is like, to actually volunteering and being the Angela that you are now, is actually a very long process. It’s not something you had just decided overnight.
Yeah, definitely. It actually started during my time in junior college (JC). In addition to a trip to China, mostly teaching English, I was also studying development economics, which helped me know more about what’s happening in the developing world. But it was only after that Cambodia trip that I decided to do NDI.
What’s next for Angela?
The future is very unpredictable, but I know ultimately I hope to contribute to social issues, the environment or corporate social responsibility. Working in NGOs will help me directly achieve that, while working in corporations will help me develop skills to reach my ultimate goal.