A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with Dzameer Dzulkifli, the founder of Teach for Malaysia, I asked what normally became of teachers after their contracts ended. He replied that some would go back to corporate life while others would continue in the teaching profession or be involved in the education sector in some capacity.
Amelia Tan is one of those former teachers. With her degree in finance and work experience in investment banking, you’d have thought she’d return to corporate life but her experience in Teach for Malaysia motivated her to start a social enterprise called 100% Project, a crowdfunding platform for teachers to raise funds for their projects.
She speaks to SAVVY about her experience in Teach for Malaysia, how that led to her starting her own education-related initiative and the source of her idealism.
Did you grow up wanting to be a teacher?
I had many ambitions growing up. I wanted to be a singer, a dancer, a doctor, a scientist, and a journalist. It never crossed my mind that I’d eventually become an investment banker. But after four years of that, I left my job to pursue my passion — a job where I could meaningfully contribute to a cause I cared about — education.
How did the 100% project come about?
It started when I was in Teach for Malaysia and I saw many TFM Fellows struggled to raise funds for their school projects. At the time I was working as a fundraiser in TFM and had just completed a successful public fundraising campaign called Red Campaign. One of my colleagues, Andrew, suggested that we build a similar platform for teachers so that they too can raise funds from the public.
What was working at Teach for Malaysia like?
You’re constantly surrounded by smart, talented and passionate people. It’s a killer combination. When you work in a purpose-driven organisation, you can’t help but be infected by it. I was constantly inspired by my colleagues. It was amazing to be around people who cared deeply and wanted to contribute to the same cause. We all had different personalities but we all cared about achieving the same thing. Before joining TFM, I was frustrated and appalled at the state of education in the country. I had a very negative view of our teaching profession. Today, I stand corrected and am fuelled by hope.
Are you an idealist?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an idealist. I believe in the inherent goodness of people. I believe everyone on this earth has a positive role to play and that society must create an environment where people of different backgrounds, personalities and skills can thrive.
Where did that idealism come from?
My parents are kind and generous people. I always see them helping others, always giving and contributing. Watching them be good people was the biggest and most important lesson I learnt from them.
What do your parents think of the 100% project?
My parents initially didn’t really understand what I was doing but they’ve always been supportive of my endeavours ever since I was a child. When 100% Project started getting more recognition and appearing in the media, they were so excited and proud. I’m really lucky to have parents who believe in me enough to let me forge my own path, even though they do not understand my choices at times.
What made you so passionate about education?
I haven’t always been passionate about education. What I’m passionate about is Malaysia. I love this country and I really believe it’s the best place on earth. I love how the Malaysian culture is a fusion of many different cultures. But unfortunately, we still witness a great divide in our people and I believe that it’s due to numerous factors — the biggest one being access to opportunities and information. I believe that the only way to overcome this is for everyone to have access to good quality education. If every child is given a good education and access to opportunities to thrive, our nation will be a force to be reckoned with. This is what I want to contribute to.
Are you surprised that Malaysians have responded positively to funding educational projects?
Not really. I was convinced that 100% Project was viable because of my experience with running Red Campaign for TFM. Malaysians are generally very generous. What we are is skeptical so we’re very careful with where we give our money to. This is why we’ve made sure our vetting process is stringent and we have a Transparency Document that donors can access so that they have all the information about our projects, disbursement of funds etc.
What do funders get in return for supporting a project?
This depends on the project. Some funders would get thank you notes handwritten by students, some would get their names etched on a piece of furniture they donated. All of them would get updated on the progress of the project and the impact they’ve made. But most donors don’t really care if they get anything in return as most of them donate to help these teachers in need.
What’s your favourite funded project of all time?
There are too many! But one of my favourites is Cikgu Nik who teaches in a little primary school in the remote island of Pulau Bum Bum. On his first day of school, he was assigned to an empty classroom. There were no tables, chairs, equipment and not even students. It was completely empty, not a teaching aid in sight. The classroom needed a major facelift so he collaborated with two friends to paint the faded walls of the classroom, giving it a special touch with motivational murals. He was assigned to teach students in Remedial Class but he felt that the term “remedial” carried a negative connotation. He convinced the headmaster to rebrand it as Akademi IQ, a space for his students to learn and to discover themselves. He needed RM8,347 for his project and managed to raise it in two weeks. People from Malaysia and abroad started chipping in to help this teacher in a tiny remote island most people had never heard of. It was such an amazing thing to see.
Was making a leap to become a social entrepreneur a big one for you?
Yes, it was. I have never imagined that this would be a career option. It took a lot of contemplation but I had an idea and a great group of people to help me, so it was a no-brainer in the end.
What’s the best thing about your job?
No matter how tired or overworked I am, all it takes is for one inspiring teacher to get me pumped-up again. I’m privileged that my work involves being privy to the stories of everyday heroes. Their job is so much harder and I always keep that as a reminder. I also have the best team in the world. Everyone is talented, purpose-driven and incredibly passionate about what they do.
What’s the worst thing?
Having to look after everything — there’s so much work that you can’t really catch a break. That’s why it’s important to love what you’re doing. It’s the main thing that sustains you.