$20k grant drums up slow learner's passion

(From left) Former top public servant Philip Yeo with Philip Yeo Initiative (PYI) grant recipient Wang Junyong, founder of Mangrove Learning, and PYI steering committee member Aw Kah Peng with Ms Debra Lam, founder of Society Staples, during the Taik
(From left) Former top public servant Philip Yeo with Philip Yeo Initiative (PYI) grant recipient Wang Junyong, founder of Mangrove Learning, and PYI steering committee member Aw Kah Peng with Ms Debra Lam, founder of Society Staples, during the Taiko performance celebrating the fifth anniversary of the initiative yesterday.PHOTO: NUS ENTERPRISE

A self-confessed slow learner, Mr Wang Junyong found little to interest him in school until age 15, when he took up Taiko drumming, a dynamic form of Japanese percussive drumming.

The Normal (Technical) student soon developed discipline and confidence as he took part in one performance after another.

When he completed his Institute of Technical Education studies at age 18, he knew the path ahead for him: to spread his Taiko passion. But for eight years, he could not obtain any entrepreneurship grant to get his Mangrove Learning venture up and running.

His inexperience and difficulty in writing business proposals, as well as others' scepticism towards his unconventional ideas, were insurmountable until 2016, when he received a $20,000 grant from the Philip Yeo Initiative (PYI).

A ground-up movement administered by NUS Enterprise - the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore - it honours Mr Philip Yeo, a former top public servant famed for his audacious mentorship style, and creates a platform for him to develop people and talent.

Last night, in a rousing nod to Mangrove Learning's thriving business, which provides Taiko lessons to seniors, youth at risk and people with special needs, Mr Yeo, 73, took part in a lively three-minute Taiko performance with a dozen others at PYI's fifth-anniversary celebration at the NUS Kent Ridge Guild House.

PYI was started in 2013 by several of Mr Yeo's proteges who wanted to support individuals with projects that would contribute to society.

Mr Wang, now 29, recounting the social stigma attached to students who do not shine academically, said he was inspired initially to persist in his mission when he saw the effect of Taiko on seniors with dementia, during a three-month programme of weekly lessons he held at Aljunied Community Centre.

"Initially, they were reluctant to even pick up the drumsticks, but as the lessons progressed, they transformed from a reserved group into a circle of close-knit, fun-loving drummers," he said.

 
 
 

His uncommon but inspiring story is a recurrent tale among the PYI associates, who proudly live by the "Mad Cow" spirit, which stands for "Make A Difference, Change Our World".

It is a jokey acronym, reflective of the sense of exuberant adventure found as well in Mr Wang's fellow associates, like Ms Debra Lam.

In 2012, the 26-year-old co-founded Deaf Dragons, a dragon boat team for those with physical and intellectual disabilities.

It evolved into Society Staples, a social enterprise to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities (PWDs) - by providing customised training for businesses to make them more inclusive.

"I hope I can help to establish a new gold standard for inclusive activities, and encourage other vendors developing programmes for PWDs to follow suit," said Ms Lam, who got a $40,000 grant.

Other associates at yesterday's dinner include Mr Kenneth Lou, 27, co-founder of Seedly, a personal finance app for millennials. It has raised about $100,000 from East Ventures, DBS Bank and NUS Enterprise.

In five years, the PYI has given a total of $440,000 to 18 people.

The diversity and creativity of PYI associates set it apart from other entrepreneurial programmes here, said Mr Wang. Lamenting the traditional investor focus on projections and hard numbers, he added: "PYI invests more in the people, not the project."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline '$20k grant drums up slow learner's passion'. Print Edition | Subscribe