Janine Teo on EdTech Founder Pathing, Insatiable Curiosity & Gamifying Education From Indonesia To Beyond - E68

· Podcast Episodes,Purpose,Singapore,Women,Indonesia

"No matter where you're born, how you're born, having access to quality education, is the true equalizer, and it really helps the whole world move forward. 

And if you look at the different SDGs, you almost can't solve climate change, if people that you're trying to influence did not understand science... So we see education as a catalyzer to solve all the other problems as well." - Janine Teo

Janine Teo is the CEO of Solve Education!, an education technology not-for-profit with the mission of delivering quality education to everyone, focusing on the bottom of the pyramid demographic.

She is the first Asian to receive the International Intellectual Benefits to Society Award by Mensa International. Janine is also an advisor to ADB’s Digital Technology for Development Unit, and a fellow of the University of Pennsylvania—Global Social Impact House. She believes that education is the key to solving the many challenges we face in the world today. She is an avid speaker on topics like education, EdTech, gender equality, and poverty alleviation.

Janine began her career as a software engineer in Paris and concurrently founded and operated various businesses in Singapore. She eventually joined Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc, and served various postings in Thailand, Maldives, US and Indonesia over eight years. 

Janine obtained her Bachelor in Computer Engineering from Nanyang Technology University. In her free time, she enjoys mentoring, upcycling furniture, cooking and training her newly adopted cat.

This episode was produced by Adriel Yong 

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to BRAVE. Be inspired by the best leaders of Southeast Asia tech. Build the future, learn from our past and stay human in between. I'm Jeremy Au, a VC, founder, and father. Join us for transcripts, analysis and community at www.jeremyau.com.

Hi, everybody. This is Janine, really excited to share her journey, an incredible one in education technology, and she's doing some incredibly important work in across the world. And so, welcome aboard Janine.

Janine Teo: [00:00:43] Thank you for having me.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:45] So, Janine we was chatting a couple of weeks ago, we were doing lohei in my place.

Janine Teo: [00:00:47] That's right.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:47] And it was just nice to catch up and just talk, and I'm so excited to share some of the experiences that you shared over the dinner party with the world, I guess. I mean, I'm sure you've shared it with the world multiple times, but this is another opportunity to share it.

Janine Teo: [00:01:07] Yeah, looking forward. Actually, Jeremy is a new father, and he has this really efficient way of networking, or having a social life, getting all of us to sign up to visit his home. So yeah, thank you for having me at your place.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:21] Yeah. I think I sure have a lot of people who have been inspired and have copied my spreadsheet. Basically, the guys who don't know, the innovative way to Janine’s talking about, I have a spreadsheet and I say, “Okay, the maximum number of dinner guests is eight people.” Obviously, for COVID restrictions in Singapore, but also because it's probably the optimal size for dinner party, right? And I just everybody's…, “Just put your name in, and a dish you're bringing whenever it is.”

Janine Teo: [00:01:43] yeah, exactly. And I think Jeremy and I, we both shared the obsession of how to be efficient. So, that's definitely one great efficiency tip. I think everybody should know.

 Jeremy Au: [00:01:53] Yeah. And it's funny, because I'm booked up all the way to July, actually. And I had to open up the August one. I was just like, “This a nightclub.”

Janine Teo: [00:02:03] I loved it.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:05] The longer the line, the hotter it is for a dinner at Jeremy's.

Obviously, Janine you've had such an interesting journey from Southeast Asia to Europe and back again. So, tell us about Janine, her professional journey from the University till today.

Janine Teo: [00:02:21] so my journey is a little bit bizarre. I fell in love with computer science when I was in junior college, so I did computing then. Eventually, I studied computer engineering as an undergrad.

During my undergrad, I started a few companies, inspired by my father. My father, he's an entrepreneur too and at that point, his company wasn't doing so well. So when I was graduating, my mom said, “No way you're going to be an entrepreneur, you have to go and look for a job.” So, looking for a job I did. My first interview was with this film, that's the biggest competitor of Accenture in France, Steria. And the interviewer asked me, “This job is in France, is that okay for you?” And at that point, I didn't speak French, I have never been to Europe, I have not asked my mom, but I already asked, “When can I sign?” I was 22, so not having a lot of sense of danger or risk whatsoever. But I thought that would be really fun.

I started my journey as a computer engineer in Paris, and did that for a year and a half, fell in love with traveling, because everybody… I mean, who wouldn't? When you are living in Europe when you're 22. So then following that, I pivoted into hospitality, I guess, the most geeky part of hospitality, where we use data to study data to determine top line strategies, this field called revenue management. From France, I moved to Thailand, and did that for a year and a half. I joined the Starwood group, currently Marriott. After a year and a half in Thailand, I was moved to the Maldives, to look after the two top EBIDTA generating hotels, in Asia-Pacific. I was there when I was 26, as complex Director of Revenue.

So, one of the questions actually, that Jeremy put up is, where do I get started in my leadership journey, right? So I had a leadership role in Thailand, but I felt in the Maldives, it was the most challenging, because the year that I got there, there was political turmoil. They just overthrew the dictator of about 30 years, and so there was some beheading down the street from me, the stories I have not told my mom. And there were almost no labor laws in the Maldives, so people were having contracts of three years with no days off and things like that. And it was in a very male dominated place, where the team has hundreds of people, but only 10 women, for example. So that was really fun.

So about a year and a half in the Maldives, then I moved on to support Asia Pacific hotels for a year and a half, and eventually, based out of the headquarters in Connecticut, supporting global hotels. And so then, I got to a point where I started asking myself, “What do I want to do next?” Because I look at my boss's job, I wasn't particularly motivated. And I thought I wanted to be a general manager of hotel, so that was when I have requested to start on that career track. And because I had to pick a hotel to train out of, so I picked to go to Jakarta. So, yeah, and so that's how I ended up in Indonesia.

As I was going through my journey there, I bumped into our common friend, Jeremy and myself, Peng. Peng asked me two pivotal questions. The first question is, “Why are you working so hard for?” And the second question is, “What is your purpose in life?” And for the people who know Peng, he likes to ask these hard questions. As an Asian kid, and maybe some of you would identify, we work hard, and we are so focused really, to make our parents proud. To almost make them feel like their investment in us paid off in a certain sense. And that's why in my career has been very, very focused in, how do I get to the next step? How do grow? How do I get an advancement?

Now in terms of what's my purpose in life. I thought long and hard, and I realized that most of my career has been well, making rich people most richer, for the lack of a better word. And I thought, “Well, I could do a lot more with my life.” And that's how I ended up starting Solve Education! with Peng, him being so persuasive.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:37] Awesome. One interesting thing that you did, was that you didn't tell your parents that there were beheadings down the street. So I think that's definitely something that you only share with the world now.

Janine Teo: [00:06:41] My parents are not on clubhouse.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:42] All on podcast, I have to make sure to email that to them. And for those who don't know, obviously, your co-founder is Peng, who happens to be the Managing Partner for Monk’s Hill Ventures, which also happens to be my boss, actually. Which is one of the leading Southeast Asia VCs. So it's a really small world, and I'm glad we caught up, actually separately, before we even knew this mutual connection happen.

Janine Teo: [00:07:12] Absolutely.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:13] Yeah. So Janine, tell us more, I guess the part that always boggles my mind is, you've always had such a huge wonder lust, to being in France, to being the Maldives, and everything. What started it?

Janine Teo: [00:07:25] I think what started is this strong sense of curiosity. I have always been a very curious person. So if there's anything that I don't know, I would love to dig up and learn more. And so I find learning and just visiting different countries, not only just as a tourist, but working there. So, that includes the times where I was supporting Asia Pacific hotels, or Global hotels. Those three and a half years, I was living out of my suitcase, I was traveling three weeks out of four, I was traveling over half a million miles a year. And every time I go into a new country, I get to work with the team, and really immerse in the culture, and my colleagues would take me out to their local hangout places, and I'll ask all sorts of questions just to learn more. I think I just have this; I can't really quite control it. I'm just too curious and I enjoy learning a lot.

Jeremy Au: [00:08:25] But wasn't it scary? Say, “I'm going to go to France.” Can you take us… How did you decide that you want to go to France, I guess?

 Janine Teo: [00:08:34] It wasn't scary. I guess I wasn't thinking so much, I was just curious. And so it just, “Let's go.” And I grew up in Singapore, so I don't really have this sense of danger until I started living in other countries. And then I start to get to know, “Hey, certain areas, you might not want to go out late at night.” and that sense of knowing how to protect myself, really grew over a period of time, if that makes sense.

But I think now I have a much better sense of what is okay, what's not, when to do what. I was in Sri Lanka, right before elections, where Tamil Tigers were really active. And when I got into the airport, then I realized, “Oh, there's something strange.” Because there were military with guns everywhere, and you can't even get picked up at the airport. You need to go onto this bus, right outside before you could be picked up. And then as you were driving along, you see militarily folks around.

I guess just going through all those, and including when I was in Thailand, there was airport closure, big protest, about the same size of the protests that we have right now. And all those different experiences really, I feel helped me grow and I enjoy problem solving. I see all this things as the interesting problem to solve, and how do I navigate and remain safe?   

Jeremy Au: [00:10:02] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's interesting, because I think you're reminding me actually, I think one of the benefits of growing up in Singapore for so many folks, is there's such a huge sense of security. There's no fear. And so looking back were like, “Weren't you scared?” And then now in retrospect, you're like, “No, at that time there was nothing...” You didn't know that you could be scared. You can't be scared about things you don't know, right?

Janine Teo: [00:10:25] One of my friends got robbed at gunpoint, not gunpoint, knifepoint early in the RER in Paris. It was such a shock of his life, but we learned.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:35] I think that could be the slogan for founders or just, “You can't be scared of what you don't know.”

Janine Teo: [00:10:43] I think so, I think so. If people knew how crazy entrepreneurship actually is, apart from the glamour and all the stardom around it, maybe a lot less people would be entrepreneurs.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:59] I feel like if I'd known about how much stress and how much pain I would go through or bypass to startups, want to believe that I would choose to do it, maybe. But I definitely wouldn't have jumped in so enthusiastically and so quickly, if that makes sense. 

And I think that's the truth of matter there, right? Which is you talk about your father was a founder, your mom didn't want you to be a founder, because they knew what it meant and what it will cost you right? And then you still chose to do so right? Could you share a little bit more about that?

Janine Teo: [00:11:33] So I grew up seeing my father wake up 6:00 AM every day and finishing his work at 12 midnight. And over the weekend, we would play per se in his office. And I really admire him. I admire his discipline, his grits to build his company. So I don't know what it is. But I feel like I want to be able to decide my destiny and drive my own destiny, rather than being in a part of a much bigger organization. So, perhaps this desire to be in control and to decide my own destiny is a big driver for me. I don't know about you, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: [00:12:14] There's some similarity. My grandfather was… You could call him an entrepreneur today, but he saved up his money from working on the plantation and then put it together to start a small little provision shop. I think he'd be a founder in… I don't know, if today he wouldn't be under the Forbes 30 under 30 for setting up provision shop, I don't think he would be raising VC funding for the fact that he imported a few orange saplings, right? From China to Singapore (Malaya) to get started.

But the truth is, if he didn't make that decision to build a business on his own, I don't think he wouldn't have been able to make enough money to send my father for an education, a University education. And then the truth is, my father's University education and his career allowed me to benefit so much and have great privilege to have a world class education in that sense, but also build companies in the same way.

And I think those stories about that, it's crazy, because it's like my grandfather, my father, and I have all been founders at some point of time. And is both inspiring, but then also, in looking back, I now have a baby daughter and I have high hopes for her. But I'm wondering to myself, “Is this curse going to continue? Of like four generations of people trying to build stuff?”

 Janine Teo: [00:13:30] the provision shop of your grandfather might not in today's term, not significant to be in Forbes, but during that time when Singapore was in the very beginning, I'm sure the difficulty of building their business at that point is also very, very difficult. I mean, funny fact is that my grandfather is also an entrepreneur. So I don't know whether it's a curse or not.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:56] Were there any funny stories you heard? I mean, obviously, that's a good story, you grew up in the office on the weekends and stuff like that. Any interesting stories about that time, watching your dad work? What you took away from it, or maybe also, now we're looking at, is how did you look at him as a child about what he was doing? And now that you're older, and pretty much pretty getting close to his age when you were a kid. Could you compare and contrast how you felt as a kid about what he was doing, versus now today, you have a chance to reflect on your memories of what he was doing? 

Janine Teo: [00:14:30] So I have not really said this before, and I'm not sure how you guys are going to look at my father after this. So over the weekends, like Sunday, my sister and I will almost make a... So my father's company is doing ERP software. My sister and I would be per se playing, and my father is so brilliant he sold it to us as playing, playing in his office by cleaning out and vacuuming his office and clearing the bins. 

And to us, it feels fun, and we are so happy to help out and after which we get to have ice cream. But I guess maybe some people look at it as child labor, but we definitely enjoyed that experience. And I remembered when my father's company took off, he wanted to make sure that… And I think somebody mentioned to my dad that I could be spoiled, so he made me do brochures, handing out brochures, doing his road shows and things like that as well. Just to teach me about the value of money.

Jeremy Au: [00:15:35] Yeah, that's amazing. I think you made me laugh and cry. I never had to do that specifically, I was like, “That's a good trick maybe for my daughter.” Soon in five to 10 years I can get her to help me clean the office.

 Janine Teo: [00:15:54] Although after when I was doing computing, when I was 17-18… So I knew how to code. So I did some prototypes for my father's clients. So that was fun.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:06] You know, that’s actually a funny story, because this is actually what happened to me. So, as a teenager, I guess, one of the things that I did in retrospect was, I was like he needed a company logo and so I made one for him on Photoshop, because I was the geeky one on the computer. I mean he had bought me a computer, but obviously I took to it, and then I was doing Photoshop, I was doing a lot of website coding and design. So I made his logo, and he actually turned out… Was funny because eventually the company went on and then they got designer to professionalize my logo. He would look at my logo, [inaudible] wow, this is a guy really working on Photoshop basic.

Janine Teo: [00:16:45] Please show us eventually.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:49] One day, I guess. And then they made it much nicer looking, clear enough font and all these other stuff. Anyway, so yeah. So lots of fun stories where… Wow, I guess that makes sense. Maybe one day I'll teach my when I do VR or something, my kid is going to help me create a VR logo or something in the future.

Janine Teo: [00:17:08] My grandfather was a Chinese physician. So he had his own clinic and his own practice, with his herbs and all those things. So one of my first projects that I did, a bigger scale one, was to help him computerize his database. I did that for my A levels project work.

Jeremy Au: [00:17:29] Wow, that's amazing. That sounds like another one hour where I could go into that one experience. But I guess is that where you picked up your joy for… I mean, it's interesting, because you went in as an engineer and then eventually became a founder and in the hospitality world, so walk me through how did you stream into engineering? And obviously, as a female engineer as well.

Janine Teo: [00:17:55] I think really, my dad played a very big part in influencing me.  So he's the… I don't know, how familiar is the audience with Asian families. So my dad is the oldest son, and obviously, he's expected to have boys. However, he got me and my sister, both girls. So in the end, he brought us up, almost gender neutral, almost like boys. So we grew up, I had zero Barbie dolls, zero girly things, and just fell in love with building things, creating things, making things on our own, and that eventually evolved into a passion for computing, 

Jeremy Au: [00:18:29] What was your first computer, or your first touch? Do you remember anything about it?

Janine Teo: [00:18:35] I think it's the windows 3 one, that there is this DOS version, and the one was the very big floppy disk.

Jeremy Au: [00:18:44] Windows that's actually much earlier than me actually by one or two generations, actually. Wow, what were you doing? Were you just playing around with it? Or sitting next to you and showing how it worked?

Janine Teo: [00:18:54] Yeah, I was playing around with it and once, I remember, my first encounter with coding was that my dad was… I was learning prime numbers in school, I can't remember how old I was, and my dad challenged me to list down all the prime numbers from one to a hundred or something. So, I was busy trying to work it out and then he wrote something on the computer and ran it and got all the prime numbers. I was so upset. So, I really wanted to know how he could do something so quickly, because I felt I could do it quickly, but he was much faster than me. So that was my first memory.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:31] No, I love it. I think it's so amazing when a father inspires a kid around something that he loves, in this case coding. And it's interesting how it ripples on. Tell me more, so you became an engineer, and you started doing… And when did you decide to deepen it? Because you started coding, when did you decide to deepen it and say, “Okay, I want to study this.”

Janine Teo: [00:19:53] I took computing as a subject, when I was in junior college, so that was 16. And my love for it grew, because, well, first I love mathematics and it seems to be something quite similar to algebra and calculus. And I guess second thing, is that I was good at it. So I managed to top my school for computing, and eventually also represented my school for national Olympiad informatics competitions. So, I think if you're good at something, and then you feel in a zone when you're doing it, you just feel cool to it, naturally.

At that point, I'm quite old, so that point, there were only two girls in my class. So that was really fun to beat the boys, to be honest. So it's quite superficial at that point.

Jeremy Au: [00:20:48] I totally get it. Reminds me of my school, eventually converted to have both genders, before it was an all-boys school. And so what I heard from my folks, I think our previous guest, Ricky Willianto, you can hear him on the jeremyau.com podcast soon, but he was saying all the ladies got totally spoiled by the whole class, and then… Fast forward like for myself, I was in the military unit. I was like our unit actually, was out of the whole school, my section was the only person being trained by a female military commander, and the whole school, she was the only one in the whole base.

I think there was other two other female recruits in a separate division. But I think there was a really interesting dynamic, where it feels like the gender ratio was totally out of whack. Man, so everybody would be how jealous if you're “Oh, wow you're being led by a girl.” And it was funny because I think there's a few moments where there's a lot of really macho stuff, in retrospect, totally ridiculous. And so she would just play along with this macho stuff in the military, but you always have that twinkle in   

Janine Teo: [00:21:56] Tell us one macho stuff.

Jeremy Au: [00:21:58] I can't remember. We had to, in the military, I think it's something about discipline. So people were running, the guys would shout things like “You got to toughen up.” and “Time to clean.” Very macho stuff about obeying the orders and cleaning and stuff.

And then she was walking around, and you could tell that she was just very amused by the very exaggerated language. And so our unit was “Okay, let's just do it.” Well, it didn't have to be motivated by things Pacific Rim Independence Day speech about how cleaning saves lives, saves the country, we save our women and family members. You know, this is totally overblown macho side, and then there was this very, “Yeah, we're just doing it anyway.” You could tell that she was amused by the whole process anyway.

Janine Teo: [00:22:45] Yeah, we need you guys to feel like a man to clean, is that what it is?

Jeremy Au: [00:22:50] Yeah, exactly. You need to be a man to clean something that is a super, don't kill us. We're just back and I was glad to see her point that out with her eyes, yeah.

Janine Teo: [00:23:01] That's the reason why Mr. Clean is Mr. Clean just so that the men will clean.

Jeremy Au: [00:23:07] That's a good point. I saw a bottle of facial cleanser in the States, I think it was at Whole Foods and it was facial wash, but it was in the shape of a whiskey flask. It looks exactly a whiskey flask, but it was face wash. And I was like, “Whoa, do you really have to make it so manly for men to use facial wash?” 

Janine Teo: [00:23:26] That is so smart because a lot of the men that I know just use one product from head to toe, right?

Jeremy Au: [00:23:34] Yeah, exactly. So, it's just feels really manly. Another part of me was like, “Oh, this would be a fun thing to buy and try.” Because it was all whiskey it works, it'll be a fun gift in my head, I can try it then if I like it, I can give as a gift. So, it works.

Anyway, Janine back to you. So obviously, you went off and you went to France and you became an engineer there. And then after that, that became part of your global journey, across the Maldives, and the States and Jakarta, what was it like working and having a first job in France?

Janine Teo: [00:24:11] I have to say, my Singaporean education, and I think it's also similar in other Asian countries from my experience, is that we're not really taught to speak up, or how to manage conflicts, or even how to disagree with people, or just speak my own mind. So when I first arrived in France, as an engineer trained in Singapore, I didn't know how to speak up for myself. My colleagues were all talking over me et cetera, so it was definitely really challenging. And on top of that, I had the language barrier.

So, I have to admit that it was really tough at the start, I was really drilling myself every night to learn the language, so that I could be up to speed as fast as possible. And on the other side, I needed to be able to handle the communication side, and just getting over myself, and speaking out. This is something that at the beginning of my career, I definitely found challenging, yeah.

On top of that, there are small things, sitting on the toilet and my feet not being able to touch the ground, things like that. Those are small things.

Jeremy Au: [00:25:25] Wow. That's a detail I never thought about.

Janine Teo: [00:25:30] Too much information.

Jeremy Au: [00:25:32] That's actually a fun fact. I never knew that. That's a good point. How was your French? Did you know French going in or did you learn on the ground? Or-

Janine Teo: [00:25:42] so I learned it in the ground. So yeah, that's a bit suicidal but I'm so glad I'm fluent right now.

But you know what? Communication has been a very big issue for engineers, and I don't know how many engineers are there in this audience. And I remember in school, we had this one module that's engineer effective communications for engineers, just because engineers are so bad at it. We prefer to look at our computers than speak. And I remember my first class, we had to go around introducing ourselves, and there is this classmate of mine, who just wrote his name down in a paper and pointed to it. Yeah, so that's how bad it is.

Jeremy Au: [00:26:22] Wow, that's really interesting. So along the way, during this time, while you're being a software engineer in France, you were also doing some entrepreneurial activity on the side as well, right? So how does that work?

Janine Teo: [00:26:37] It is motivated by me wanting to travel as much, and see as much of Europe as possible, so it was tough. Because in school, I started few things, and one thing that got carried on was this Vending Machine Company. So when I took up the job in France, I continued to manage it. But as computer engineers, we build up a system where we manage the inventory, where we could also figure out how do we do some dynamic pricing as well, depending on demand.

So, I would say that it is important to first hire the right person, because we are managing it remotely. So the person in Singapore needs to be somebody that we trust, and then second thing, is to have systems in place, to make sure that everything runs well. I guess it's not very sexy thing is just pretty fundamental things that maybe some companies don't focus on.

Jeremy Au: [00:27:38] I think what's interesting is that you started it while you were still in University, I believe, and then you're running this vending machine, and you continue running it while you are in France. So, here you are, Singaporean lady, who's learned computer engineering, you start up a vending machine in Singapore, then you take on, a computer engineering role in France without knowing any French, and you're still running this Vending Machine Company in Singapore?

What was that like, doing that dual function of being both an employee, as a computer engineer in France, in a new country with a new language, as well as running a company?

Janine Teo: [00:28:16] I have no idea. I have no idea how I did it. But yeah, is always hindsight. So hindsight just have to be really disciplined in managing your time. And I remember when we first started that business, we were still in school, and we went to the estate office and asked, “Is it okay, if we placed the machine re?” Because the existing machine did not bend what we wanted.

So the office officer looked at us like an uncle, uncle. So he said, “Okay, sure try it.” And that company grew to over 30 machines across Singapore. And then we had contracts with Maple tree capital, and et cetera. So, yeah, we even had a machines in Parliament House as well, we serve the MPs. So it was a very fun journey, and it grew. And we have done it in such a way, that it can run on its own. However, of course, we still need a very trustworthy person on the ground. But eventually, we sold it and yeah it's just a interesting adventure I would say.

Jeremy Au: [00:29:23] Yeah. That's a great first adventure to have. And so, I think then this is where the interesting part comes in, right? So you've been a computer engineer, you love coding and then you're like, “I want to join Starwood, or Marriott.” Right? So why did you shift in terms of industry, from engineering, for example, or tech to the Marriott hospitality?

Janine Teo: [00:29:47] So well, when I did the switch, my mum again, kick out a big fuss. She thought, “Are you giving up your engineering role to carry suitcases?” I think unknown to many people at the back end of hospitality, apart from the people who check you in and do reservations and stuff, but there are people who do data modeling, and forecasting and statistics on consumer behaviors, price elasticity concept reactions et cetera, et cetera. And I didn't know about that field until I researched into hospitality.

I guess, part of my life motto is also to have fun, and I had so, so much fun traveling, that I just felt myself drawn to hospitality, and of course, I was also quite young. And when I researched into hospitality, I couldn't see myself... I'm a big introvert, so I couldn't see myself interacting with guests, but so then, what else can I do? So then I researched and found this field of revenue management.

So what I did was, I did a few courses on it, and really networked to find somebody who would support me into the organization, and I was really lucky to find my first mentor, Paul. I still remember him because he was leading the Indochina region. And at that point, it was not conventional to hire anybody else have industry to go in. And he took the risk of me, and placed me directly at a manager role position. So I feel really grateful to be given that opportunity, so I was really working over and above what was needed of me, and quickly over a year, I topped the region and that's how I got placed in the Maldives. 

Jeremy Au: [00:31:37] Wow. That's amazing. This guy sounds an amazing person. Do you have any good stories about how he mentored you or give you feedback?

 Janine Teo: [00:31:43] That's a good one. I think above everything, he really took the time and effort to spend time with me. I was really young, and everybody else are at least 10 or 15 years above my age, so to get my point across was hard. For those of you who don't know, revenue management the field we look at data, then we suggest what strategy we should take. Then you have to go convince their general manager the director of sales and marketing, the director of F&B, et cetera, on adopting your strategy.

The biggest pushback usually comes from the sales and marketing side, and you probably have experienced this maybe in your company. You want to sell at this rate, and you think that this rate to this segment, you already done the homework and so on, and you think this is the right rate to sell, then your sales and marketing person might say “Oh, that's too high, I can't sell it or blah, blah, blah.” All the reasons and excuses that their target should be lower as sales people do. They are very vocal and outspoken and very eloquent where I was still honing my skills, I would say, fresh out of being an engineer.

Paul really spent time in helping me gain confidence in myself and supporting the price points that I put out and things like that. I guess my self-confidence really built out slowly across over time during that period.

Jeremy Au: [00:33:15] You spend right? Tell us more about it. You did so many different roles. You were revenue manager, then you became the Maldives, then you're doing the global stack, I know you were working in the Indonesian market. Walk us through, were you like, “I like this, I want to keep going.” or was it, “I’m learning a lot here, I want to keep going.” What was the drive to stay eight years? Because that feels like a long time for many folks?

Janine Teo: [00:33:38] Yeah, it does feel like a long time. However, it didn't feel so long because I was one and a half years in Thailand. To be precise, one years and three months, so it's learning a lot of things about the whole industry and striving to be the best version.

Then after which, going to the Maldives, I felt I was living a total different thing because the business model… Firstly the rates are 10 times usual hotel rates, the clientele, how they book, the price elasticity, et cetera were so different. This so interesting too, if you think about from a startup perspective, it's moving from one company to a total different company. Because the market segment was different, the buying pattern was different, the demand was different, how do you growth hack was different. Moving from there, to looking after Asia Pacific, then Global, is every week, I get to work with a completely different market, with completely different kinds of nuances.

You have all the way in Kuwait, where they're cartels, and government were dictating their rates all the way, to Macau where you have 4000 room, where the booking window was within a week. At the start of the week, you almost have zero occupancy and everybody booked last minute, versus Seychelles or Maldives, where people book six to eight months out. There's many things to learn and so many different kinds of markets culture. Even when I was working in India, it was at that point where no matter what rates you tell the reservation agents to sell, they would still quote a rate that's three times higher, then bargain with the booker. It was just really interesting for me, so it really didn't feel so long. I would have probably been bored if I didn't have a role change every year and a half or so.

Jeremy Au: [00:35:45] That's a really interesting insight, where it does feel like eight years, but actually felt very exciting to you for each rotation that you did across the different markets, and projects, and locations that you were actually at. Question then is, isn't obvious you jumped from engineering then, to the revenue management side in hospitality, then you make one more shift in 2015. You finally leave the Marriott Starwood home family, and you decide to build Solve Education. What happened here?

Janine Teo: [00:36:18] It's definitely not a push factor because I had an organization that supported my growth, and always give me anything I wanted. I had very supportive mentors in Starwood, but this more of the desire to do more with my life.

Hanging out with Peng, make me realize so many things has changed in the tech space since I left. Also, there are a lot of interesting problems that has been solved at scale, and we're wondering can we use some of those to solve the challenges that humanity are facing?

This is going to sound very engineering or very logical, but if you look at all the SDGs that the UN has, most of them you need to solve mindset change which is very difficult. You need to move what we call atoms, you need to move physical products. For example, if you want to end hunger, you need to make sure that you set up a logistic network to solve it, et cetera. There are only one that can be solved by moving bytes, it's really education. Therefore we felt “Hey, this might be an SDG that we can contribute best to.” That's how we ended up starting Solve Education! together.

Jeremy Au: [00:37:44] But take us to the room, if there was a room. Were you on sabbatical already? Or were you still an employee when the concept of Solve Education! came about?

Janine Teo: [00:37:57] I would say I'm still an employee when the concept of Solve Education! came about. In fact, Peng has thought about it for a while already, because I think he was to speak at an African Innovation Forum. The topic particularly was, can Africa skip over the industrialization phase and go direct to the knowledge economy?

The discussion went towards in order to create knowledge, you need education. That's where the people in the room got stuck because education is still a big challenge in Africa. The advice that was given at that point was, in order to solve this within our lifetime; we need to try to solve this without touching schools, without touching teachers and without touching governments. Because once you have more and more on people that you need to convince or change the mindset, then it will stretch out not to say it's impossible, just that it will stretch out the time frame.

That's how he first got started and he started to think about it. How Peng and I became good friends was that, at 9:00 PM, who are still in the office working and have not had dinner? It will be me and him, that's how we started to hang out and talk a lot more about these things. And my office at that point, or the area that I was hanging out, is pleasant in nature. It's perhaps one of the most expensive malls in Jakarta and right next to it is a slum area.

In parts of Indonesia, you have almost every lady with Hermès bag, every kid has two nannies, et cetera. But right across the street you have street kids selling sweets and cigarettes and things like that on the street. That was a very stark difference, and definitely impacted us both.

We started thinking about that but to be honest, I left first to explore what's happening in the tech space. The last day I was at hospitality, the next day I think 7:00 AM I was already at Peng’s lobby and I was shadowing him for a while. It took being exposed to tech space before I jumped with my two feet into Solve Education!

Jeremy Au: [00:40:15] That's amazing. And for those who don't know what Solve Education! is could you share a little bit about what your approach is, how you intend to make it different?

Janine Teo: [00:40:25] The main problem that we are trying to solve with this is, and the statistics are very much pre COVID because we still don't know the final numbers after COVID. But pre COVID, there are 263 million children and youth who do not go to school. For this demographic these children and youth, they will not be able to go to school no matter how many schools we build, or how many teachers we train. Because of economic reasons, they're already starting to work, cultural reasons, some of them are really young mothers and so on, or geographic reasons, et cetera, or political reasons. “How do we bring the schools to them?” Was the question that we asked ourselves.

We saw a very interesting trend, where mobile phones becoming more and more affordable. In fact, at that point Android phones were dropping 20% year on year. So the penetration to the bottom of the pyramid was increasing at an exponential rate, then we also say, “Hey, can we teach through mobile devices?” Well, through mobile devices, we are just solving one part of the problem, which is access, but there's actually a bigger part of the problem, which is effectiveness. Today's education may not be as effective, relevant or engaging. That's why even if we take the education that we have today and just put it to the bottom of pyramid, and if at the end of the day people can't get a job or don't learn anything, then that will not change a single thing for them.

In fact according to OECD, 16% of our youth globally are not in employment, education or training. This really speaks to… This is not only in developing countries, but also in more developed countries like France, Netherlands, et cetera. With that therefore, we asked ourselves then, “What do we teach?”

So, we focus on the fundamentals of teaching people how to learn, and then building blocks of how to learn. There's the soft skills component, and there's the hard skills component. Soft skills being to learn literacy in English, and math, because with those two blocks, you can learn anything that you want for other skills like science, computing, et cetera, but those are the building blocks.

But the soft skills actually is a bigger part of it, so how do we train people to have the confidence, to have the grit to be able to learn on their own. So that's a very interesting problem to solve, and we are solving that through tech. We are testing different customer facing platforms, we have a game app, which supports people to learn offline as well, because you download it, you don't need internet and so on.

And we use game components and mechanics to motivate people to learn more and more. We know that tech has a very low completion rate or engagement rate, and I think this is a well-known statistics. So, we are definitely testing other extrinsic motivation factors to influence and ignite the passion for learning.

So, we have that game, but we also have a chat feature that fits the youth demographic more, because they have low end phones, they have maybe access to spotty internet but they don't have a lot of space in their phone, or their phones very low specs. And, we have to consider the digital literacy component side of things also, so that worked out fairly well for the youth demographic.

Jeremy Au: [00:44:05] Yeah, it's definitely interesting, because you've also not only been able to build that out across Indonesia, but also Nigeria as well. So it's an interesting market traction that you managed to prove out.

Janine Teo: [00:44:18] That's right, that's right. So yeah, Nigeria is still very interesting market. So their population size is quite similar to Indonesia, and Nigeria has two sides of it. There's the North Nigerians and the South Nigerians. The South are… I guess they're economically small vibrant, and many young Nigerians actually are fairly well educated, but sadly because of politics and so on, the youth unemployment rate is very, very high.

And then on the North is a different problem because of terrorist acts and so on, and attacks in schools, et cetera. So out of school, children and youth numbers are very, very high on and off. Yeah, looking at Nigeria as a whole country is maybe misleading.  

Jeremy Au: [00:45:11] You're a Southeast Asian, but you've not only built a career across Europe, but across the frontier markets in VR technology approach, which is a relatively… I'll say it's a rare combination, I'll say, full stop, for anybody. And you did that with your own experience in your own two feet.

I'm so curious about one thing here though, when you look at that, obviously, education it's a big problem to solve. Well, Fortnight is also doing games, I don't think it's… Well its education on the sense as an adjacent outcome, I guess. Minecraft does teach as well through math and basic material civilization teaches it through history. So I guess to some extent, they're almost similar, but adjacent why education? Which I get, why games? Second. And why non-profit? Three.

Janine Teo: [00:46:06] Wow, that's a lot of questions. I will first maybe answer why non-profits. On top of Solve Education! I'm also part of digital for development committee and Asian Development Bank, whose focus is to alleviate poverty. 

So why non-profit? Because this question is asked really often. So, most people understand government as conservative, myself included, so when I was trying to build and when Peng and myself was starting out, we were trying to not engage too much with governments. However, now I see it from the back end, from being part of Asian Development Bank, government actually need to be conservative because they are acting for the people.

So every decision that they make actually do impact millions, so it's natural for them to be conservative, and they should be very careful about spending public resources and the impact of their decisions. Now, that's on one hand, government's conservative.

On the other hand, SDGs are problems that have never been solved before. So when things have never been solved before, the solution is likely to be things that have never been done before. So if you look at one side, the government needing to only do try and tested stuff, conservative, and then this side trying to solve problems that has never been solved before, well, somebody has to take the risk.

So the person that could take the risk I guess, with bigger risk appetite would be startups or NGOs. Then the question is, “Well, why not the for-profit? Why NGO?” So nine out of 10 startups fail, focus really needs to be on surviving then thriving, focusing on profits. So we all know here that focus is key to be successful, and so if we were to be a for-profit, we needed to focus on profits, but then we might lose sight about our mission and impact. So hence we decide, right at the start to set it up as an NGO, so that we don't need to be put in a place where we needed to choose between focusing on profit, or on the impact. So we are very clear in organization impacts first. So yeah, that's why we ended up as an NGO.

I get this question a lot of time because we work on AI, we work in NLP for education. And those are very attractive on for-profit components. That's the first question. And then I think the second question, why education?

So I think that no matter where you're born, how you're born, having access to quality education, or effective education, or what they refer to as equitable education is the true equalizer, and it really helps the whole world move forward. And if you look at the different SDGs, not only just the education part, you almost can't solve climate change, if people that you're trying to influence did not understand science. You can't solve nutrition without people understanding what food is about, et cetera. You can't solve the colorization et cetera, without solving education first. So we see education as a catalyzer to solve all the other problems as well, if that makes sense.

Jeremy Au: [00:49:36] Amazing, I think the reason why a lot of people ask about a non-profit side as well, is because your co-founder is Peng, who's one of the top VCs, is obviously Asian. So here's this guy investing in education startups, of millions of dollars across the region. And he's a successful founder match in Silicon Valley, I think is what total revenues all the companies he has help found is over a billion dollars annually, and then he's co-founding a non-profit view, so I think people have that natural scratching head moment overview.

Janine Teo: [00:50:11] Absolutely, but he is a super focused person. So I think that's really, really why Solve is set up as a non-profit. And there's not a superficial non-profit social enterprise, because I know that there are many investors out there, where on paper, they focus on impact, but every month, they expect the PNL, the financial returns, et cetera, and they asked very little about the impact. But we just had a board meeting yesterday, we drilled on impact numbers.

So how many people are learning, what are the learning outcomes, et cetera? So, yeah, I think the focus is quite important to solve such a big problem, and the problems that we're solving are fairly big, so it has never been solved before. We can't solve this with just timing or working with volunteers, we really need to attract top talents to solve these problems together.

Jeremy Au: [00:51:06] Yeah, I'm pushing you so hard, because I've been a social enterprise founder myself. And now I'm in technology, I've been at technology founder, and now in venture capital. So I feel I'm doing the same rounds as you.

Janine Teo: [00:51:20] Yes. I just wish more talents were coming to this sector because we really need top talents. The problems that we are solving are truly complex. Sadly, the society still don't place value on work that contributes to the society, for example, teachers not being well paid, and we've seen this in many of our markets. We know of a very brilliant physics teacher in Indonesia, who had to leave teaching to sell street food on the streets, because his pay wasn't enough to survive. So many times people expect us to work for free.

Jeremy Au: [00:52:03] Yeah, I think that is one frustrating part, every time I was working, and I was like, “Wow, wow, wow, hold up.”

Janine Teo: [00:52:08] And my team are regular people, who have families who depend on them. But yet they chose to work on this mission, so yeah. We really hope to change this mindset of NGO, and we want to be an example of an NGO that could have exponential impact on humanity.

Jeremy Au: [00:52:26] Yeah, I think I remember doing this bit of analysis where we were testing… And I can't remember exactly how, this insight came into our brain. But basically we boil down analysis was that, we were trying to figure out for this catering business whether it should be labeled as a for-profit catering business, whether it should be called a non-profit, or whether it should be called a social enterprise in terms of how obvious the branding was.

And the interesting part was that if you called it a non-profit or social enterprise, it was interesting where two things happen, the first was, people expected the quality to be worse than a corporate catering side, so they expected to pay less, because they felt the quality is going to be lower as a result.

But on a converse on that, they also felt guilty about thinking like that, and so they wanted to pay more, because it was going to a good cause. And so those two impulses, I think is a huge part of the branding. I think around calling yourself a non-profit or social enterprise, that I see recurs for restaurants run by immigrants for job training purposes, I think that's an old one. I think there's lots of different aspects where choosing the label yourself as a non-profit social enterprise does have consequences on the brand and consumer uptake.

Janine Teo: [00:53:41] Yeah, absolutely, because the most common NGOs out there are… There are different levels of problems, and there are different approaches. So there are the ones that are solving more direct impact things like, “I distribute a food.” or “I hire immigrants.” And things like that.

Then you have NGOs working at more systemic level, “How could I change something that would impact millions?” So I guess there are different aspects and people are more in tune or familiar with the ones that are depending on volunteers, giving free tuition and things like that.

So I think there's also this difference, but we definitely want to be one of them to get the word out there, to have people be more comfortable or more familiar with NGOs that are trying to solve systemic issues.

Jeremy Au: [00:54:33] Well, wrapping up here, and there's this last question before I open up for readers and listeners to ask any questions, they may have a view for those listening this whole thing. I guess my last question I have for you is, if you could go back 10 years in time, where would you be at that point of time? Tell us who you were 10 years ago, and what advice would you give them?

Janine Teo: [00:54:54] Well, 10 years ago I would be living out of my suitcase, to a different continent or different country every week. You're saying what advice I would give myself?

Jeremy Au: [00:55:09] Yeah, classic time travel machine you hop out.

Janine Teo: [00:55:13] It sounds a bit crazy, but I felt those times really contributed to me as a person, and that's how I learned so much about the different countries and different cultures. So I really wouldn't change too much of what I was doing. However, what I would tell myself is to get started with Solve Education! a lot earlier. Yeah, I definitely want to do that earlier and skip over the total GM part of my career. 

Jeremy Au: [00:55:44] That's very frank advice there.

Janine Teo: [00:55:48] I don't know what I was doing.

Jeremy Au: [00:55:51] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Janine, this opened up, if anybody wants to raise their hands, feel free to raise your hands, and feel free to ask Janine some questions.

Suyin: [00:56:00] Hi Janine.

Janine Teo: [00:56:02] Hi! Suyin is one of my favorites.

Suyin: [00:56:06] So it was a really inspiring talk, and I was really… It was really amazing talk. So thank you very much for sharing your story. So we will catch up later, but I had one concern. So, I believe that your organization and your work have been impacted by COVID-19. So I just wonder how it impacts to your organization and your work or your perspective, and will you do it differently in the world that facing the aftermath of COVID-19?

Janine Teo: [00:56:42] Yeah, thank you, Suyin for this question. I think that there are positive impacts, as well as negative impact by COVID. Our per se, the negative impact to start off, is that many of our beneficiaries when we were starting to bring them on board and roll out beginning of 2020. So eventually, they start to be more worried about… Being worried about COVID is one thing, but actually most of them are worried about the lockdowns because many are belonging to low income families, who mainly fall into the daily wage workers segment. So our beneficiaries became more worried about dying of hunger, than dying of COVID. Not to sound too morbid.

So when you're so worried about putting food on the table, honestly, education becomes secondary. So it was hard to get people to focus on education, which rightfully so, we had actually a case where a mom died of hunger in one of our communities.

So what we did from there, was that we took that and we combined our learning with food. So what we did was to run this campaign called game for charity, where the people who can afford to donate, donate, and then there are… So the more well to do families donate, and then the middle class, the ones who can learn, they learn. And for every 100 stars that you learn from our platform, we will send a food package based on the donation to a needy family.

So it became a very exciting and fun community building campaign and program, which eventually got adopted by their East Java government, and following that, right now we're partnering with the Indonesian federal government. So there is definitely negatives, but because my team are so close to the people on the ground, so we tip it, we are agile, and we always ask ourselves, what can we do for the community?

Suyin: [00:58:54] Amazing, you're always a source of inspiration, Janine. Thank you very much.

Thank you. So I'm looking forward to see your continuous effort, and let's catch up later. Thank you.

Janine Teo: [00:59:07] Thank you. Thank you,Suyin , and hope you are fine.

Jeremy Au: [00:59:10] Awesome. Well, Janine has been an absolute pleasure to have you. I just want to say, I was just blown away by your journey as a kid, to becoming a female engineer to dropping yourself into France without knowing the language as an engineer, to working all across the world, hospitality, while running a couple of businesses along the side. And then eventually tackling one of the most important problems of our time, which is education and frontier markets. And doing this, not just from a non-profit perspective, but also doing this from a technology first perspective, which is so difficult, so hard, and so worth doing, honestly.

Janine Teo: [00:59:52] Yeah. So I guess thank you so much for having me, and I look forward to connecting with anybody who is passionate about solving world problems, particularly education, but any other world problems, please drop me a note. I think you can easily find me in LinkedIn, Facebook, et cetera. And I hope that this helps and in your entrepreneurial journey that you find your circle of support, that you have peers around supporting you and good mentors as well, those you will definitely need. Yeah, and all the best.

Jeremy Au: [01:00:26] All right, thank you so much.

Janine Teo: [01:00:27] Thank you.

Jeremy Au: [01:00:29] Bye.

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