30 MIN READ
Are Gen Zs misunderstood? This young CEO says yes.
BY DBS, 24 JUL 2023
On this episode of The Next Impact Maker, we speak with Ivy Tse, CEO of Halogen Foundation, who shares about her journey from corporate to social work, and how working with youth gives her purpose.
Listen to the episode now
- “Finding your calling” is a search. One may not be able to recognise what they truly want to do overnight, which is something that a lot of us forget when we are starting our careers, putting undue pressure on ourselves.
- Experimenting with something completely new that brought her closer to creating impact in her career was something Ivy weighed against having a job she was de-energised in for her whole life, and therefore made the switch out of the corporate world.
- Today’s youth are constantly consuming information as digital natives and so might be wired differently. But there are more commonalities between generations than differences. We just have to adapt to different styles of communication.
- Yet, Ivy believes you don’t have to join the social service sector to do good – finding meaning and purpose in your current role and position can happen in any industry.
Daphne: Today on The Next Impact Maker, we speak to a young CEO of a non-profit organisation, who 11 years ago took the leap from her corporate job to join the social service industry. And she has never looked back.
Today Ivy Tse who heads up Halogen Foundation Singapore will give us insights on the social service sector, specifically, working with youths. She will be sharing with us some of the misconceptions people might have about non-profits and what keeps them motivated in what can be seen as a very challenging industry. Welcome in Ivy.
Ivy: Pleasure to be here.
Daphne: Tell us a bit more about the Halogen Foundation, Singapore first.
Ivy: Sure. We are a 20-year-old Institution of Public Character (IPC) charity. We spend our time in the youth development space where we focus on working with young people to unleash their influence. We believe influence is innate and we want young people to steward that well.
What we do is curate leadership, entrepreneurship and mentorship programmes that revolve around building core attributes, their character attributes, their mindset attributes and their skill sets so that they can thrive wherever they are.
It is structured as a charity. We raise funds to bring all these programmes to youth who may not have the access or the resources to get that.
Daphne: Any age group that we're looking at?
Ivy: We work with youth as young as 9 years old, as old as 25. Fun fact, in Singapore youth is defined up till 35, so we have still quite a lot of room to grow.
Daphne: I am still not in there so.
Ivy: Young at heart. That is the additional category.
Daphne: The whole ethos from the foundation would be that youth are the future, that they are worth nurturing, is that it?
Ivy: Yes. The cause about building your future generation is always compelling. Not everyone might be a parent, but you will possibly be a sibling, an uncle or an aunt. And you have seen how young people in this generation rise up to fill the spaces of our community or sector needs. So, it is really being able to equip them. But at the same time, we are also trying to say that you do not have to become an entrepreneur or someone with a positional title.
Where you are, your actions and your words, they speak. And if you can use them well, that is going to make a profound impact on just the people around you and that is sufficient. That is leadership already.
Daphne: How do the kids find you or how do you find them?
Ivy: Well, in Singapore, we are really structured as a society, so a lot of our inroads or access to young people is via institutions. We do work with educational institutions like schools, we do work with social service agencies and organisations that take care of their other needs - their non-academic needs.
Ideally, we would love to work with families as well, but we do not have that much of inroads or structure to that. And last but not least, we work with private sector partners because the social and community involvement is a great domain. So, we piece together, reach out to all these partners, bring them together and have that process of also engaging them in understanding the outcomes that we are really trying to the sort of develop in a young person.
Daphne: I understand you had a corporate job before, Ivy. Then had a bit of a quarter life crisis. Tell us a bit more about that. What is your back story?
Ivy: ‘Quarter life crisis’ is apparently the term that most of my interns and my younger staff educate me on. “Oh, yeah, you went through that back then.” I started out in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. I graduated from a local university with an engineering and a business degree, and I decided that I wanted to go to the private sector to, you know, test my skills. I joined the MNC, the year of my internship program, and picked up the job and got the job offer before I graduated.
Quite honestly, I did not expect that I would get de-energised by the work that I was doing and not so because I do not like the organization and what it is doing. What hit me back then was just a random moment of - I enjoy the fast-paced industry, enjoy managing challenging things at work, but I feel a little bit far from impact. I liken myself to be someone who really wants to see hands on change happening before me.
So, it was a little random hypothesis. I could really stay in the sector for a long time and work my way up. But... what if? And I guess that little question was nagging a lot to the effect that I really struggled and decided, okay, you know what? I'm just going to try to look for something different. And I was honestly searching for a smaller private sector office. So, I was thinking about a social enterprise instead. And I accidentally stumbled upon a connection - the founder of Halogen Foundation back then and the cause just really compelled me to give it a shot.
And in all honesty, I thought, I will just try and then move on. But I've been there for 11 years and have not looked back yet.
Daphne: I mean, you are very young yourself, so I kind of put you in the same category as the youths that you are reaching out to.
Ivy: I just crossed the mark.
Daphne: That thing that you just said - you were looking for impact, you were looking for something that I guess feeds your soul, if I use a really cliche term. Even back then, you knew this was a very conscious kind of search.
Ivy: I think when people hear the story, people say, oh, that's really inspiring, but in all honesty, back then, 11 years ago, I felt kind of more lost and just a bit desperate to try something different, to figure out whether that would make me feel a bit more anchored in what I do.
I do acknowledge that back then there was a little sense of idealism as well, and it was my first job and I haven't really explored the different sectors and pathways - the element of, “okay, let's try to do something hands on, let's try to make a change or try something different.”
One of the fundamental mindsets that I had was that I enjoy working. I want to be doing good work with the work of my hands.
And if I'm going to spend 40, 50, or even 60 years working in a career, what's five or six years of experimentation?
It is kind of okay. It is not that bad. It is not that I will be that far behind. It is a pretty good investment to figure out what I really want to do or enjoy doing in the long term. So that I think that was the impetus. There was a bit of a push factor of, okay, let's do something of meaning. But in all honesty, I don't think I would have been precise about saying, this is the kind of work that energises me and gets me up to go to work every day.
Daphne: But that search and that conscious decision to move away from what you know is not fulfilling you. Do you find that also reflected in the youth that are at Halogen?
Ivy: I don't think we have a special DNA in the youth that we serve and the youth that we get to journey with. In terms of our interns and our staff they are probably indicative of their generation. I think there's always that innate search let's do something of meaning and impact.
In fact, and it doesn't even get restricted to young people. I have conversations with working adults in the private sector, and one of the things that they're always curious about is, is it worth me making a career switch into the social service sector to do good? Because
I want to do things that are meaningful and I kind of feel that's going to be part of that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - we always seek meaning and purpose in what we do, that self-actualisation domain in that permit. And so, It is probably something relatable for everyone.
For a young person, I think with the narratives that they consume, they kind of pressure themselves a little bit when they start moving into their adulting world - that finding my first job, it has to be something that I have a calling for and what they - I guess sometimes forget, and in my case too, I kind of neglected that -
Calling is a search. It is not something that you wake up one day and you already know this is the life path for me.
And I think that probably explains why that quarter life crisis or that struggle, which is symbolic of just searching.
It is not a straightforward thing, but it is a source that sometimes drains a lot of young people because they hold themselves to the bar of, "I better know what I'm doing" and quite honestly that was the narrative that I had for myself. Like, oh gosh, you mean this is not the job that I really wanted? In the private sector, really? But I've been working on it for the last couple of years. So, is there something wrong with me that I don't have my clarity and path? So, I kind of see that as part and parcel now that I have the benefit of hindsight. Looking back at the struggle, I think It is quite normal.
Daphne: What do you want people to know about the youth today then? You mentioned that the search for meaning - It is the narrative is usually we think there's only a certain generation that's always on the lookout for better, on the lookout for more meaning. But actually, it does cut across. There might be more urgency for the generations who are a little bit more aware. But what do you want people to know about them - from what you have been doing for the past 11 years?
Ivy: I guess one of the frequently asked questions that I get when I talk to someone about younger people or millennials, Gen Zs, whatever, I am not particularly fond of those labels, but it gives a good language to try to just understand behaviours or preferences.
One of the myths is that they give up easily. Like, there's so much idealism in what they want to do, but do they put in the hard work and roll up their sleeves and dig deep in the impact work that they say they want to make? And I feel young people really do.
A lot of the times I find that they get misunderstood about this. It is just that they process things a little bit differently sometimes because in Singapore environment, it could be a little bit more sheltered. It could be that we have had a lot of opportunities to do all these things like personality tests, volunteering back in school, and we assume that with the exposure and information, they know how to process it.
But at the end of the day, as they are moving from school to work, they are just like you and I back then, when we were looking at how do we transit or understand some of the values that we want to hold in the workplace, what's the role of a vocation or a job in the grander scheme of our lives?
And I think what I've always been very encouraged by is when you sit down and have an honest conversation about it, show the young people that you are here to actually journey with them and process with them what they are thinking. I find that they've always risen up beautifully to show that they have the potential and they're ready to dig deep and make sacrifices for the causes and things that they really say they want to support.
Daphne: We don't think about how much this generation that's growing up is so hyper aware because there's so much information available to them, not just through the tests, like you mentioned, but social media as well. It is a different world.
Ivy: And they consume everything from their gadget. And I guess in many ways when we acquire the information now, we're not digital natives, but just acquiring all the additional information, but they grow up with that. You can kind of say that the way they think and the way that their brains are wired could be a little bit different from ours.
But I believe the innate motivations for every single person is the same - we want to be able to, after we settle our basic needs, be able to contribute to impact someone else's life positively, however big or small, that sphere or that ambition would be.
Daphne: You mentioned not liking those labels: ‘Millennials’, ‘Gen Zs’. Tell us why.
Ivy: I think sometimes it puts people in pigeonholes. It is probably similar to even doing things like a personality test. Everything is good language, but how do you use language? Because when you build language, sometimes there's a tendency to use that language to label things based on observable behaviour. But that may not be indicative of the intrinsic motivation a person has.
And I kind of see that It is maybe a useful frame just to understand behaviour. And if you unpack it a little bit more, looking beyond the labels and looking at what's common, I'm still on the very positive and optimistic side, I see that there are a lot more commonalities than differences. It is just that we have to adapt to different styles of communicating, different styles of understanding and processing information because we're all raised in different generations or different time frames where we collect, amass and process information in very different ways.
Daphne: Talking about unpacking things, I know you don't spend a lot of time with the youth now because as CEO you have so many other responsibilities. But when you do get that opportunity, what do you learn from them, whether It is frivolous or not?
Ivy: I love being in a youth-centric place, so I do get to interact with a lot of young people in the form of my staff team, my interns, and also the youths who volunteer with us - we do engage a lot of young people who step forward and say, like, I would love to be acquiring some skills on leadership that I can also pay forward to younger people.
And I think the energy is really contagious. The zest, the optimism that they have, things like It is not difficult to sit down when someone asks what you are passionate about and you just see their eyes light up. And many times, I think It is very humbling because sometimes when we're working through the grind, you kind of lose a little bit of that spark as well. And that is kind of a reminder for me that this is the best of youth, their energy, their zest, their passion.
"And in many ways our role is to help them channel that. Often very inspired by their desire to give back and make meaningful change. And sometimes it can be a little intimidating when the teams start to introduce the newest language and lingo that they use on the ground. Like, honestly, I don't understand, but I assure you It is not a barrier because I think when they understand that you will have the heart for them, the external stuff about, “Do you understand my youth lingo?” It is just the external facade. I think deep down, they really just want to assess whether you are the person that is interested and invested in them.
Daphne: I can imagine those kind of conversations that you would have with your staff, with the volunteers. What would you say to somebody who is looking for purpose no matter the age? How would you go about advising that?
Ivy: I usually frame it more as a journey or an experience that I've gone through rather than advice, because I think I really struggled a lot internally when I was deciding whether it would be a good move to move into the sector. And that's it, after moving into the sector because It is so challenging, there are less resources that I would have access to in the charity sector versus the private sector. So, there were a lot of adjustments.
My usual comment to people that want to pursue this passion and purpose, especially as a full-time vocation, is use the time that you have, so be it, you are a student, and you have a bit more flexibility. I know there's loads on academic side, but you do have a lot of time flexibility and if you are working you also have a lot of access to CSR and volunteering programs and your networks. But really find out more information beyond pursuing the idea of doing good. Talk to someone to understand the ins and outs of the role. The good and the bad and the ugly.
Because every sector has its own idiosyncrasies and I find that more often than not, people are drawn to the good part of it. And I think we're human. Doing good alone doesn't just solve all the issues. In fact, you need more than that intrinsic motivation. You still need to deal with the pragmatics. You still need to build skills in order to actually make a substantive change to the causes or the issues that you feel passionate about. So, find out more information.
Just be hungry. Absorb a lot of information, not just what you want to hear.
Which is, “Oh, yeah, you know, that's great impact work, that's a great story. Yeah, I would like to be doing that.” If you just make a move based on those draws, I think you would really struggle and suffer. And I definitely don't advocate for that because It is a career decision after all. And It is not easy to make it, because when you do good as a full-time vocation, you also have to be pragmatically balancing other things like your family, your home and your other commitments It is just like any other career decision.
Daphne: Speaking of which, I mean, what do you think people get wrong about the social service sector.
Ivy: Back then, 11 years ago, I think I grappled a lot with people really asking the question of, you mean this is a full-time job? Are you paid? It is kind of really funny, but I'm really glad that I don't get these kinds of questions in the recent years, which I think indicates also that people are more well informed. They understand that this is a proper professional career track.
Yes, we don't get remunerated as well as some industries do, but you do get to be in the front line of work that's meaningful. If that's something that is wired more for your aptitude, like you are more idealistic, you are more willing to roll up your sleeves and more hands on. Yeah, I think this is a really good career fit. We don't have bigger hearts than any other human being.
I kind of think my respect for the social service sector and the charity folks is really that you are willing to make sacrifices and accept certain trade-offs that come with taking a full-time role within these sectors, that's all. Every career has their own pros and cons, so I honestly don't think we have bigger hearts, but we are able to balance those trade-offs and make those sacrifices that we feel are quite justified. I'm happy to earn less for the kind of excitement that I get to face on a daily basis when I hear about stories, when I watch the team grow.
Daphne: That sounds like you've got a bigger heart already. I'm also curious why shy away from that image? What do you think is detrimental when people hold on to that?
Ivy: I think fundamentally is because there's a very binary view to like, you know, if I want to do good, I better be in a charity sector or social service sector. Guilty. When I first thought about it, It is like go big or go home, you know? But as I immersed into the sector and I realised that in many of the causes that we're trying to advocate for and beyond youth and even looking at environmental, sustainability, you know, you really need effort from multiple folds.
In our domain, when we talk about working with a young person and since youth is defined all the way up to 35, it represents the next generation of leadership, entrepreneurs, educators and policymakers. We do have roles within our current sectors already. Giving back and doing good means you probably want to invest in young people within your organisation.
You want to be a good manager, a good leader, a good role model. You want to be someone who can inspire other people to make positive change within the private sector even. And I think the danger of seeing it as if I want to be meaningful work happen, I better join a (public) sector then who's going to take care of the private sector too? Because we want good people there. We want people who can leverage resources, who can think innovatively, who can cross apply some of their private sector skills to make an impact for the causes that they believe in. I don't like that tendency to put, again, certain labels because of that. I see the potential of doing good just lying within every sphere of what you do.
Daphne: Yeah, I like that. You need good people everywhere. DBS's employee volunteer movement, People of Purpose, we work closely with Halogen for the mentoring programs. Those look at personal growth, development. What role do those kinds of collaborations play in Halogen's vision for the communities?
Ivy: When we look at helping a young person steward the influence that they have, we are focused as an organisation to develop strong attributes in character, mindset and soft skills. And the way we see it is really that these are foundational, these are your hygiene factors, that you have someone who is clear of what they stand for, has values and is able to act upon it.
It is not just a textbook thing. Like, “Oh, I know integrity is important”, but they experience it when they are placed in a position of leadership, and they have to make decisions that are integral and similarly for mindsets and soft skills. And so, in sharing or imparting or building some of these foundational attributes, I think we also have a belief that some of these are caught through stories or through modelling, It is not always instructional thing like sit you down and then go through 3 hours of growth mindset content, you would then develop a growth mindset.
The community then plays a very important part and that's where the role of corporations like DBS, come in and step forward. Our job at Halogen could be to create, to design the program infrastructure so that these conversations can be meaningful. But the sector leaders or the sector partners or volunteers like the staff who come forward as mentors, who come forward as coaches, essentially by sharing their wisdom, their perspective and also their stories and journeys, it goes a long way that theory can't cover.
Here I am as an adult who has gone through also a certain story where my value of integrity was challenged. This is what I did to overcome it. This is what I learned from that. It creates a lot of inspiration, but also a lot of awareness for a young person who would then go “oh yeah, this is not really just something I study in theory, I see that happening.”
And that act of solidarity too, because many of our mentors are very comfortable to be vulnerable, to share their personal journeys and when they've gone through hard knocks or more detoured pathways in their careers - it is actually very encouraging for a young person to recognise and realise that, “yeah, It is really not a answer the question, figure out a formula and then you'll get to where you want to go”. Life is going to be a bit more meandering, but that's also the joy where the core of you gets tested and you grow.
Daphne: We know of very senior members of DBS who are part of the programme – Managing Directors, as well. Is there a minimum formula in terms of dedication that has to go in? I know our programmes last quite long with you guys before the mentorship takes effect.
Ivy: We try to curate a range. We do have an entrepreneurship program where we invite volunteers who can commit for just a one time, 2 to 3 hours, and then you sit down with the students to help them develop some aspect of their business plan. The idea is to help them iterate and let them practice their communication skills. The interaction is very fruitful because for them, they may formulate an idea and an adult spends time sitting down listening to their ideas and highlighting the things that they thought were innovative, but also challenging them to go a few steps further in fleshing out their ideas.
There are some longer run commitment programs like mentorship, because you ideally want to invest time in building a relationship between a mentor and a mentee. We designed different forms of that so that ideally different working adults from different walks can still find something that can meet their schedule. But there is no minimum requirement. Like, you know, I need to have a certain title in my corporate office in order to give.
In fact, going back to the point about why is it so important to highlight that social impact can be made anywhere - you don't even need to sign up for Halogen's programme. Think about a younger person in your organisation that can benefit from your stories or journeying alongside them when they go through tough ruts at work.
Essentially, that's what our mentorship programme is trying to curate. Can we bring up conversations that will allow a working adult to share some of these detours or some of these lessons that they've made? Anyone with a story and anyone with a past, we would really encourage people to step forward. And for the volunteers and the mentors, It is also a journey of discovering how do I story tell? How do I actually look back and think about all these milestones? And if there is meaning out of it, you can synthesize and pay forward to the next generation.
Daphne: For yourself, looking back on the past 11 years, eight as CEO, what are some of your proudest moments?
Ivy: It would revolve around people and very much the team. In my capacity as the chief executive, I see my role as the chief steward to allow my team space or avail resources for them to grow and for them to do the work that they do best with young people. If I can serve them and help them build their skills, help them maintain it, manage their energy, I think they will go on and flourish.
The most significant moments or the most precious ones are when I see them personally overcome an obstacle because the road of our careers are also not straightforward. They're meandering. We learn a lot of other soft skills, like how to manage stakeholders, how to deal with disappointment. Sometimes It is not always a bed of roses when we go out to impact a young person. Sometimes we do hear stories that can be a bit discouraging, but how do we pick ourselves up and find new ways to kind of think of how to expand our volunteer pool? How do we build more capability within the volunteers? Every story of the staff's growth journey. It just always heartens me and reminds me like, this is what I'm here to do and serve the season.
Daphne: Wow. Serving this season. Speaking of seasons, so you mentioned a whole slew of things that you are basically nurturing in your role. Next generation of leaders, next generation of thinkers, next generation of doers, people who are really going to basically shape the way society becomes in the future. Do you have faith?
Ivy: Yeah. While the road to that is often challenging because things just keep moving, I think in Singapore and in the environment changing landscape, there is a bit of that pressure to keep up. Things just keep evolving, just like any other organization is going through that. But I am overall optimistic and hopeful because I have not actually met any partner whom we've set down and we have the conversation about the future generation and investing in young people where their eyes don't light up and they would say, “I want to be a part of this”. I have not met someone who tells me, “Why are you doing this? I don't get it. This is not worthy.”
I believe in the innate human nature that this is what we want to do as a collective. And the momentum in the sector, from a CSR, from a social impact front has been great. So I think we will get that done. But the thing that's interesting about social impact is that we always have this joke that, “our work would never be totally finished because we always would keep evolving.” I'm hopeful that we can always navigate the challenges that come ahead. But I'm also cognisant that the challenges continually evolve. So It is not about getting the job done full stop such that there are no more social challenges to tackle. I have a lot of faith.
Daphne: I think that's a good way to end this conversation. Thank you very much for your time. I have been speaking to Ivy Tse, who heads up Halogen Foundation Singapore, which is empowering youth to make a positive difference in our community. I'm Daphne Lim, signing off for The Next Impact Maker.
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