Genashtim – Opportunities in times of crisis
Hello Thomas, could you briefly introduce yourself and Genashtim, especially its inclusive business model?
My name is Thomas Ng. I started Genashtim in the Philippines over 12 years ago to provide employment for disabled people. At that time, I was invited to join a board of trustees for an NGO. They trained blind people to use a computer. But while they trained a lot of people, none of them were employed. I tried to find jobs for them but did not succeed. So I set up a company to employ them. Today, we are headquartered in Singapore, and there are about 100 people working for us, out of which about 60 are disabled, 25 are refugees, and others are seniors or LGBTQ. Our inclusion model is that we provide employment for people who want to work, from almost anywhere in the world.
Our business is online learning, and all sorts of online support. Our most famous product is eCornell, Cornell University's e-learning program. We also do our own e-learning modules, and we help companies convert their physical workshops to e-learning. In addition, we do digital support and manage databases for clients. In a way, our business is very fragmented. This is because the purpose of our company is to provide employment for the marginalised. We do that by leveraging technology and the internet so that they can work from where they are. Whatever work can be done by them we will do.
Where are your customers based?
Currently, 50 percent of our revenue is from Singapore. This is because we have business with four government departments there. They do not care about our inclusivity. For example, for the water utility board, we had to tender for a project on equal terms with anybody else. If we were not competitive on quality and price, we would have lost it. We also have customers in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Costa Rica.
Covid-19 has been ongoing for about six months. How did you experience those from a business perspective?
With the way we are organised, Covid-19 really did not affect us at all. Our business is run with everybody working from home. In effect, we received a lot of requests from institutions and companies asking us for advice on how to organise remote work. I have run a number of webinars on that.
The thing I was most concerned about at the time was that, in case any of our customers were to see their business collapse, we could lose the customer. Many companies, I think, are still not sure what is going to happen to them. It is very hard to send people to online training when you do not know who is going to be kept after Covid-19. Luckily, a significant part of our business is with multinational companies and government institutions. So, we did not lose one single client. In fact, our business has grown by at least 50 percent since Covid-19.
You did mention some difficulties caused by the pandemic. Did you adapt to them in any way?
We do not encounter the difficulties ourselves, due to the way we operate. But many companies are trying to operate like us, and I keep telling them there are a few things to be concerned about.
Number one is about remote work. I am trying to explain to people that remote work is more than just Zoom calls and Zoom webinars. Technology is actually the easiest thing. I can hire people who know how to move things online or get people who can learn how to do it. Of medium difficulty is to work out processes to manage remote teams and make sure the people are productive.
The most difficult part is in the culture. When people are working from home, feelings of loneliness and disconnection can arise. So, we do a lot of things which are very different. For instance, we have implemented a tribal system. This year alone we had a chess competition, a talent competition, and various challenges. If you do not have the culture embedded properly, whatever you try to implement with the most fancy technology will fall apart.
Number two is about the move to online learning. Today, 99.9 percent of the e-learning you have is what we call static delivery. It's like Massive Online Open Courses. You watch, you read, and you click. But the e-learning we try to promote is collaborative, in the sense that you are actually joining a class and have an instructor. The instructor will question you and ask you to apply your learnings. This kind of pedagogy is quite unique in the e-learning space today.
I think, today, content is not the valuable thing because content is everywhere. If you go to YouTube and type in Harvard business lectures, you will find 500 lectures from Harvard business school. The important thing is how you deliver the content and make sure that it is absorbed by the learners.
You said that your business was not really affected by Covid-19. But still, what resources did you find useful during that time?
Many governments provide quite a bit of assistance. In Malaysia and Singapore, for example, there are a lot of stimulus programmes. But we do not need them. A lot of the stimulus packages are job seeker and job keeper programmes. We do not need them because everybody is still employed. In fact, we doubled the increment this year for the staff. It looks like we got to sail through Covid-19 without any problems. Our business is even getting stronger.
We benefitted from what we have been doing: Working remotely can be even better than having people sitting in the office. We hire people that nobody wants to hire. Most of them do not have a proper education and have no work experience. But we can survive because we are very cost competitive. We can also afford to deal with a lot of setbacks because of that. We are cost competitive because of the way we operate: I do not pay any rent, for instance.
I think that companies that survive Covid-19 have the opportunity to grow stronger. They can reduce costs and increase productivity. In many cities, people spend more than two hours commuting to work. This is a lot of time that is not productive, so I think there is an opportunity for businesses to rethink their working model.
Do you think that Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on the digital education sector?
Definitely! Everybody is talking about how the whole industry has been turned upside down.
Many years ago, I came across a concept called the Granny Cloud. It is a scheme where retired teachers in England go on Skype to teach kids in the villages in India. I think that is wonderful. You actually have the best teachers in the world teach in the more remote parts of the world. You can level the playing field by doing that. I think every teacher should need to do pro bono work. Apart from teaching rich kids in rich neighbourhoods, they should teach poor kids remotely.
Technology should already have made that happen. Maybe with Covid-19 things are going to start to happen. Right now, people do not think about this because they have bigger problems. But for me, it is still clear that digital technology will make things better in the future. Covid-19 has just accelerated everything.