Daring to venture out and make a difference

Onelyst's Mr Abbas (above) at a Youth Corps Singapore event. His business came about because he was exploring ideas for a start-up that could make a difference, and he knew something could be done to improve access to financial information for low-in
Onelyst's Mr Abbas (above) at a Youth Corps Singapore event. His business came about because he was exploring ideas for a start-up that could make a difference, and he knew something could be done to improve access to financial information for low-income households. PHOTO: YOUTH CORPS SINGAPORE
Onelyst's Mr Abbas (above) at a Youth Corps Singapore event. His business came about because he was exploring ideas for a start-up that could make a difference, and he knew something could be done to improve access to financial information for low-in
Ninja Van's Mr Lai (above) says what drives him as an innovative entrepreneur is the urge to explore new horizons.PHOTO: NINJA VAN

Twenty-four Singaporeans have been invited to Forbes' inaugural 30 Under 30 Asia summit this week, to share their experience as Asia's leading young innovators and entrepreneurs. The Straits Times speaks to two of them to find out what sets them apart in the millennial generation.

MOHAMED ABBAS, 25

Growing up in a low-income family, Onelyst co-founder Mohamed Abbas knows how difficult it can get for some people to make ends meet.

"My father has made roti-prata for 18 years, at places including hawker stalls and the canteen of Outram Secondary School where I studied and would sometimes go help out during recess time.

"Fortunately, my family did not have too much financial trouble, but around us, stories of hardship among neighbours and friends were very common."

So when Mr Abbas and his friends - Hizam Ismail and Prakash Raja - were exploring ideas for a start-up that could make a difference, he knew something can be done to improve access to financial information for low-income households in Singapore.

Founded in March last year, Onelyst is an online platform that compares the loan rates offered by licensed money lenders.

In a country well-known for its highly-developed banking system, there are still around 170 licensed money lenders, and last year, they offered about $686 million of loans, according to Ministry of Law data.

Onelyst has so far helped about 10,000 users, in a sign of genuine need despite the sometimes negative public perception of borrowing from money lenders, Mr Abbas said.

"In Singapore, there is still a section of the society excluded from mainstream financial services. People with low income and thin credit history are unlikely to get a bank loan. For the banks, it's also not cost effective to extend these small loans.

"When sudden or unfortunate events happen - a funeral, for example - they have nowhere but moneylenders to turn to. These troubled people usually don't have the time and state of mind to compare and get the best rates, even though they desperately need to save those cents and dollars. We want to help them make these informed financial decisions.''

Onelyst partners only licensed money lenders, who are now required to check a borrower's creditworthiness using data from the Moneylenders Credit Bureau established in March this year.

The fast-growing platform - which has broken even with its start-up cost in less than a year - is now eyeing Malaysia and Indonesia for expansion. It also plans to include comparisons of business loans.

"Another thing we want to work on is to use big-data analysis to build our users' credit profile. If we can prove that a person's default risk is low, by looking at non-traditional data points, we hope we can use it and convince the banks to lend to these people," Mr Abbas said.

LAI CHANG WEN, 28

For Mr Lai Chang Wen, co-founder and chief executive of logistics firm Ninja Van, what drives him as an innovative entrepreneur is the urge to explore new horizons.

The company, which operates a last-mile delivery service for online merchants in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, is part of a fast-growing online shopping ecosystem in South-east Asia, where digital consumers number around 150 million people currently.

It now delivers 15,000 parcels a day for around 3,000 partner merchants, including big names such as Lazada, Groupon and Qoo10.

Despite these huge numbers, the satisfaction Mr Lai gains does not come from only the money. The former investment banker has traded a high-paying job for entrepreneurship - first setting up the menswear brand Marcella in 2010 before launching Ninja Van in 2014 - so he can experience life to the fullest.

"What I have been doing is all about venturing into the unknown. I was still young, I didn't yet have to worry about feeding a wife and kids, so it was easy for me to risk it all and go for something I want."

And that he did, sometimes having just two- to three-digit amounts left on his bank account balance.

"I really wanted to build up my experience, to live a life where I know I won't have any regrets even if I end up broke."

So far, so good. Ninja Van is now firmly on its growth track, and Mr Lai - together with co-founders Shaun Chong and Tan Boxian - are planning to expand to the Philippines and Thailand this year to create full regional coverage.

The business is scalable, thanks to an in-house algorithmic-driven system that integrates the end-to-end operations of logistics services, from warehousing to vehicle dispatch.

The result is an efficient delivery service that can cater to a large number of online merchants at the same time.

"My focus now is to make sure Ninja Van grow to the fullest of its potential. But whatever happens, the experience I learn from this journey will be useful in what I do next."

That is also the attitude that Mr Lai hopes his fellow Singaporean entrepreneurs will have.

"Entrepreneurship is not just about making money. We often hear only the success stories, but many young entrepreneurs go in... without knowing that you can easily lose your pants. Chances are you will earn less than a normal job.

"But it is from that process, when you persist and learn from the experience, that you emerge with the experience, skills and character that ready you for the new challenges in life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2016, with the headline 'Daring to venture out and make a difference'. Print Edition | Subscribe