Farhan Firdaus, 35, is a partner at MEET Ventures and is head of venture building at an ASEAN-focused agriculture investment firm. In addition, he is the co-founder and chief mentor of EPIC Entrepreneurs Network. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has mentored about 500 startup founders in the ASEAN and Oceania region.
If that wasn’t enough, he is also a Technopreneurship Scholar at the Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre (NTC) at NTU, sits on the Advisory Board of the Singapore Polytechnic School of Business, and he still finds time to volunteer. With all this on his plate, we can’t help but wonder what keeps him going.
Hi Farhan! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Here’s our first question: can you tell us, what do you do for work?
I’m in the tech and startup space. I help early-stage startups develop strong business ideas and educate them on entrepreneurship. I’m occasionally an angel investor, providing similar businesses with capital and other resources.
My job and volunteer work leverage these skills, but how I differentiate is as long as I’m not on the clock, it’s not part of my job. That’s how I managed to draw the line between my work and passion, which is giving back to the community.
When did you start volunteering?
I started volunteering in 2004. Charity begins at home; and I discovered that many young people do not see the point of volunteering locally because they feel that no one needs help. I also used to share that mindset because it was only in 2010 that I started doing local volunteer work and back then, a lot of my volunteering was very non-skill-based.
Why did your volunteering work change?
Now that I am expiring as a “youth”, my focus before turning 40 is to see what I can do to mobilise more young adults to volunteer and organise more events again.
What’s the most challenging thing about volunteering or getting people to volunteer?
Even for someone like me, an advocate of volunteerism, it was very difficult for me to juggle my work and give back to my community. Time is the main hurdle.
Many find it strange to set aside time during their working hours or lunchtime to volunteer. People are tired after work. When they have free time, they would rather spend it on family or friends. Volunteering is not a common past time or inculcated habit among Singaporeans. So when you ask them, “Hey, let’s volunteer!” and tell them they have to wash vegetables or something, it’s not very appetising.
The trick is to volunteer where your passion lies.
If you love pets, visit your neighbourhood animal shelter. Walk dogs. Wash kennels. If you love cooking, help out at a soup kitchen. Start with smaller commitments. Manage your time and expectations.
So we’ve spoken about your volunteer work. But do you remember your first brush with being a mentor?
On top of Voluntarius, I also volunteered with organisations like the [Yayasan] Mendaki, helping to uplift the Malay/Muslim community’s educational performance.
As part of my work with Mendaki, I handled Malay/Muslim youths at risk from an underprivileged backgrounds. From 2010 to 2012, I mentored seven mentees. My job was to make sure they stay in and finish school, and my role was to be there for them as an academic and life coach.
I could empathise with the youths because I also went through a difficult period when I was young. But it was a very strange type of poverty. We had our executive apartment and a car we could not pay for; we were a middle-class family with a negative income at the end of the month.
One of my mentees also lived in Woodlands, like me. But my Woodlands and his Woodlands were different. My Woodlands was very safe, near the MRT, you have the maisonettes and executive apartments; his Woodlands had three-room, smaller flats where shady strangers roam about at night.
But things turned out okay in the end. One of my mentees became a national team goalkeeper, and another took on a management role with a small sports shop.
What are the values you need if you want to be a mentor?
Kindness, empathy, open-mindedness, patience. You don’t talk to them with a top-down mindset. You’re a friend, you’re a brother. You need to be intuitive about who you mentor and what they require. You have to give them space and show them different perspectives and opportunities, not just in a business sense.
Why did you particularly choose to mentor youths?
I want to mentor youths because I saw, firsthand, an inherent need for guidance, and I thought I could be that friendly, brother figure for them.
When younger people approach me, they are usually lost, don’t have experience or lack connections. Sometimes, all they need is someone to believe in them.
As mentors, what is obvious to us may not be as clear to our mentees. The reason why we, as mentors, know which steps to take is that we have gone through the situation they have gone through. So we just have to highlight the action to them, and they will know which way to go.
Mentoring should be the last thing to do if you’re unsure about volunteering. It requires experience, patience and emotional labour.
But if I were told I had five months to live, I think I would smile because I know that I have lived life purposefully. I have helped people and put a smile on their faces.
What is your goal for youth mentorship in the next few years?
I want to inspire more young people to give back. That continues to be my mission. Currently, I’m involved in M3 under the People’s Association and am part of the steering committee, trying to organise mentoring programmes for young mentors. These young mentors are in university, and they are mentoring at risk secondary school students.
People want to be mentored but don’t know where to go. Some platforms available are:
- Advisory (to help young Singaporeans to make informed career and further education choices)
- ABYA Industry Mentor (to guide student consultants through their business projects)
- Singapore Youth Action Challenge
- ADP list (for young designers only)
Why is it so important to inspire young people to mentor other young people?
People want to find mentors, but the mentors may not be available because it takes a lot of time and commitment to mentor someone. Ultimately, this mentoring thing is hinged on volunteerism among young people. If you don’t have young working adults willing to give back, you won’t have mentors.
When we talk about mentoring, I don’t think we are ready in Singapore because there is a misguided sense that, “If I were to teach you, you will take my job, you will be ahead of me”.
But for me, when I teach, I learn. Every time I have new students, I learn from them. One of my mentees taught me how to play pool.
The best thing that can happen to me is seeing my mentees do well. I cannot help everyone in the world, but I do my best to help those I can.