It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Labour of love putting the poor to work

Nine years ago, a backpacking trip inspired Jamon Mok, 28, to help the poor in developing countries move out of poverty.
Mr Mok, founder and chief executive of Backstreet Academy, says that the venture not only helps to increase incomes, but "it also helps these artisans preserve their craft and pass on their skills".
Mr Mok, founder and chief executive of Backstreet Academy, says that the venture not only helps to increase incomes, but "it also helps these artisans preserve their craft and pass on their skills".ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

28-year-old behind start-up that helps artisans and communities by connecting them with tourists

Jamon Mok scrunches his face into a grimace when asked to describe his childhood.

"Painful," he says.

"I was always bullied because I was very, very fat," he continues.

To make things worse, his English was poor and he had a bad stutter.

"My stutter was worse when I was under stress or whenever I got bullied. No one could understand me," he says.


Mr Mok, founder and chief executive of Backstreet Academy, says that the venture not only helps to increase incomes, but “it also helps these artisans preserve their craft and pass on their skills”. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

One wonders what his taunters would make of him now.

The spluttering butterball is now a strapping 28-year-old, one who articulates his thoughts and ideas cogently in a pleasantly deep voice.

He also exudes a confidence born of his experience in building a social enterprise which helps poor communities in 10 countries and 40 cities, as well as his love for what he does.

Mr Mok is the founder and chief executive of Backstreet Academy, a start-up which curates localised experiences, tours and activities - from knife-making in Luang Prabang to insect cooking in Siem Reap and archery in Yogyakarta - for travellers.

More than just a money-making venture, however, the peer-to-peer platform sets out to help artisans and communities which live below the poverty line of US$1.90 (S$2.70) a day.

"What we do puts us right in the middle of technology, travel and social enterprise, things we are interested in. If everything works out well, Backstreet Academy may become as big as Airbnb," he says, referring to the online marketplace and hospitality service.

Polite and engaging, Mr Mok - who picked his first name because of his love for Spanish ham - is the second of three children of a management consultant and a housewife.

His early years were spent wrestling with weight and self-esteem issues.

"I was totally round, couldn't run and couldn't play sports. And if you couldn't play sports, nobody wanted to play with you," says the former pupil of Tao Nan Primary.

He languished academically too because of his poor command of English.

"I had to go for supplementary classes from Primary 2 onwards," says Mr Mok, who grew up in a Chinese-speaking home. "I didn't dare to go for the things I wanted to or ask for anything."

Things turned around when his uncle, a teacher, took him under his wing in Secondary 3. The coaching, especially in maths and science, was gruelling but he vaulted from the bottom to third position in class.

"It was a huge shot of confidence. I realised I could do well if I wanted to," says the 1.76m-tall man who shed kilos and had a growth spurt when he started playing football.

Around this time, his English started improving when he became a big fan of fantasy fiction and espionage novels by the likes of Terry Brooks and Jeffrey Archer.

He did well in his O levels at Dunman Secondary, and went to Nanyang Junior College where he made it to the football team. In fact, he became so fit that he was in the commando unit during his national service.

His A-level results were solid; he got into the course and university he wanted: business management at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"I felt my biggest problem then was not being able to speak up because of the issues I had before. SMU has the reputation of making its undergraduates speak and be articulate. I felt that I really needed to get out of my comfort zone," he says.


Mr Mok at a wine-making workshop in Laos (above), and tourists attending a Javanese archery workshop in Indonesia arranged by Backstreet Academy. The peer-to-peer platform, which started operations in 2014, curates localised experiences, tours and activities for travellers. PHOTO: JAMON MOK

To prepare for his course, he started reading business books while he was in the army. These included stories about the founding of companies like Google, and the autobiographies of Richard Branson, the British airline maverick; Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur who founded the Grameen Bank; and the late C.K. Prahalad, the influential Indian management guru.

Prahalad's book The Fortune At The Bottom Of The Pyramid made an especially deep impression.

"Essentially, he was saying that the poorest people represent a huge market opportunity and social enterprises can do a lot of good by both making money and making an impact by providing goods and services to them. I saw that as one of the models I could follow," he says.

That plan became firmer when he backpacked through countries including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Nepal and India after national service and before starting university.

For the first time, he came across widespread poverty. He met many people toiling to earn in a month what some young Singaporeans spend on a single lunch.

"I asked myself: How could this be happening? How could people be living this way?" says Mr Mok, who decided he would set up a social enterprise while he was in university.

In his first semester, he started Project Gazaab ("gazaab" means "awesome" in Nepali) as a community service project with a couple of other students in Nepal. The idea was to organise business competitions and award business grants for budding rural entrepreneurs in village schools.

"Our project was based on poverty alleviation, how we as business students could help villagers get out of poverty through social entrepreneurship. We taught them basic business concepts like marketing, accounting and business plans."

Teams with winning ideas were given a grant to launch them.


Mr Mok at a wine-making workshop in Laos, and tourists attending a Javanese archery workshop in Indonesia (above) arranged by Backstreet Academy. The peer-to-peer platform, which started operations in 2014, curates localised experiences, tours and activities for travellers. PHOTO: JAMON MOK

As part of the competition, participants had to take part in the Gazaab Game where they were given 20 Nepalese rupees (30 Singapore cents).

"They had to grow it within 24 hours as though their family depended on it. They'd complain but in almost all instances, they would not lose the money. Some grew it by three or four rupees but there was one guy Harkaman who came back with 220 rupees."

He did it, Mr Mok says, by making several trips up the mountains to buy tomatoes and lemons and selling them in his village where the fruits commanded higher prices.

"He told us: 'If you had given me two more days, I would have given you one thousand rupees.'"

Harkaman went on to win a business grant of $500. He used it to set up a mushroom farm which he eventually grew to five. In fact, the 20-something became so successful that he now operates a cooperative, and is helping people in his community.

Mr Mok says: "Before the competition, he didn't know what he wanted in life. He just dreamt of being a migrant labourer, but suddenly, he was given the opportunity and the exposure, and he discovered skills he never knew he had. It's very inspiring."

Project Gazaab turned Mr Mok into a mini celebrity; he was invited to speak about it at a TEDxYouth event in Singapore in 2011.

It grew bigger and other teams have since taken it to different villages in countries like India, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Spurred by its success, Mr Mok raised $15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to launch Gazaab Social Ventures in 2011.

AIMING HIGH

What we do puts us right in the middle of technology, travel and social enterprise, things we are interested in. If everything works out well, Backstreet Academy may become as big as Airbnb.

MR JAMON MOK, who is exploring new markets such as Africa and Myanmar.

"We were hoping to turn it into a more sustainable business. We wanted to invest in promising entrepreneurs and use their returns to invest in others," he says.

Through a competition in Kathmandu, they invested amounts - ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 - in four businesses including a candle- making outfit and a knitting firm.

"All of them made money and are still running except one, a pest control company. The people we helped were successful but the fund was not sustainable. We needed a bigger quantum of money to make it work."

This, he explains, has to do with a fund's complex structure, and how money can be taken out of only management fees and profits. Without at least a few million dollars, a fund would not be sustainable.

So he applied for grants and knocked on the doors of investors, judges and other contacts he met during business competitions, hoping to raise $5 million to start a self-sustainable fund.

They managed to raise only $150,000. The amount, however, was put to good use after things took an interesting turn.

One day, he and Mr Anil Gurung, one of his two co-founders, visited a master mask maker in Kathmandu to find out how they could help him scale up his business.

"We asked a lot of questions about his skills and he offered to teach us on the spot. So we sat down with him for the next five hours and learnt how he did the masks. At the end of the session, we paid him a small sum of money as a token of our appreciation and he was really thankful," he says.

Mr Mok says the session was not only a magical and authentic experience for Mr Gurung and him, but also did wonders for the mask maker's confidence.

When the mask maker asked the duo if they could get him more students, the idea for Backstreet Academy took root.

"We hit on the idea of focusing on tourism, and creating a whole ecosystem of tourism entrepreneurs and getting people to learn from them. Besides increasing their income, it also helps these artisans preserve their craft and pass on their skills."

Mr Mok and his team spent several months identifying suitable tourism entrepreneurs, training them, building a platform and marketing it to travellers.

Backstreet Academy started operations in 2014 when Mr Mok was in his final year. Besides the $150,000 raised, he and his co-founders invested $10,000 into the company.

The mask maker Kedar Dhanuki was one of the early beneficiaries.

"We taught him how to host tourists, helped him invest a bit in his environment to make it more pleasant for his students and also set up a translator system. Every time there is a booking, a translator would be alerted and once it is confirmed, he or she would go and pick up the tourists, take them to the shop and be the interpreter," says Mr Mok, adding that takings are split between the different parties.

What is unique about Backstreet Academy, Mr Mok says, is its use of technology which enables artisans who do not speak English and who do not have smartphones to handle bookings.

"We bring the tourists and the translators to them," he says.

Mr Dhanuki's life, Mr Mok adds, has improved tremendously.

"Before, he felt like some production worker. But now, people see him as a master. He is also able to increase his income by two or three times just by teaching a few classes a week," he says.

Positive reviews by travellers on blogs and sites such as Trip Advisor gave Backstreet Academy a fillip, and it soon expanded to other countries including Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.

"Today, we offer 1,200 experiences - from stone carving to dumpling making - with more than 700 artisans and entrepreneurs all over the world. In Cambodia, our biggest market, we have more than 100 artisans," says the entrepreneur, who is already exploring new markets such as Africa and Myanmar.

Although it has a lean team of about 10 staff, Backstreet Academy has already started making a profit, and it now makes about $500,000 a year.

Mr Mok, whose girlfriend works in networking service LinkedIn, is aware that many of his peers draw a bigger pay cheque than he does but it does not bother him.

"We can see our value. If we continue like this, we would outpace them in a few years and we would still own a business," says Mr Mok, who owns more than 40 per cent of the company.

"Besides, I've never quite liked the idea of a daily sludge working for others. It's more fulfilling when you have a business which adds value to and makes a difference in the lives of others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Labour of love putting the poor to work'. Print Edition | Subscribe