Grace Sai; CEO & Co-founder of The Hub Singapore

Co-Working Spaces and the Future of Work - In Conversation with Grace Sai

Published 18th August 2016
HQ Asia Staff
Published 18th August 2016

Grace Sai is the CEO and Co-founder of The Hub Singapore – the country’s pioneering co-working entrepreneurial community that has in the past four years established itself as the go-to place for entrepreneurs and their collaborators. The Hub goes beyond providing traditional co-working space, and grows entrepreneurs by providing seed funding, capacity building, community, business growth support and an international network to it’s community of 220+ startups. HQ Asia had the opportunity to speak to Grace about the future of work, and the potential influences of co-working on workplace design.

HQ Asia: How does social entrepreneurship help to address social issues in Asia?

Although 650 million people live in ASEAN, a big part is sitting in poverty and has not joined the middle income class. Asia needs businesses designed to address societal needs and organisations that serve to solve problems for marginalised social causes like the environment.

Therefore, entrepreneurs have a responsibility to solve for these social problems and not just create the next iPhone app. Not to discount those technological business ventures, but aspiring entrepreneurs in the region should note that a business for society is important. We need problem solvers to look for disruptive, original, fast-track implementation ideas.

The best entrepreneurs are collaborators — they work with government, corporate and private sector, media, research companies and universities to advance their mission. Social entrepreneurs are fueled by a mission, and we need more of that.

HQA: What do you think is the common thread that exists within innovative companies and startups?

First, a belief that they can make an impact in the world. They are filled with passion and energy. In Asia, we tend to follow a secure path of certainty. At The Hub, people often comment that they feel an energy of courage when they step into the community. Some of them remarked that upon returning to their workplace or to their family, they continued to feel that energy and courage.

Another common thread is a focus on defining life and success on their own terms. They have this attitude that they can change the world.

The third commonality is being forward-thinking, which does not only exist within startups. Often, leaders from larger companies have this mindset too. For example, we have lots of CXOs who co-work out of our space sometimes. Most Fridays, the APAC CEO of Ben & Jerry’s or Uber can be spotted working out of The Hub.

HQA: Where do you see innovation heading in Asia?

It is a broad question. If we structure into levels of ownership, we see the effect of innovation on three main levels.

First, the bottom-up approach where the whole culture of entrepreneurship is by the individuals. In this day and age and with the internet, the cost of innovation is almost negligible. Asia has also become the most exciting emerging consumer market in the world. As demand is followed by more push for the supply, we will have the resources to support new innovation.

Secondly on a top-down level, government plays an essential role in Asia especially in terms of infrastructure – the role of cities has changed because they are closer to ground and have the power to change the scale of innovation. There will be a race towards a smart city. In this case, Singapore is already at a forefront by being a smart nation. Cities like Amsterdam, and some Scandinavian cities are more progressive. They are highly egalitarian, with flat and fair power dynamics that prevails in almost every aspect of a city – gender equality, education, society. Specifically, in Asia, Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul are also working towards being smart cities that will support innovation.

The third level would be the intermediaries between top down and bottom up – private sectors and companies. As their headquarters are commonly established in Hong Kong or Singapore, they help to absorb and distribute innovation from startups. In comparison to startups, these companies may not be able to innovate as quickly, but they could work together with startups to distribute these ideas or collaborate with them as a client. This trend is new, but it is definitely a growing trend.

HQA: Why will co-working spaces become more prevalent?

We’ve already seen that co-working is becoming mainstream. More and more companies recognise the importance of collaborating– community, the working culture and the working community.

So the good co-working operatives are definitely showing us a way of re-organising our work, re-organising society and even re-designing our communities.

Also the majority of the economy, 75%, is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises, so there is a disconnect between the majority of enterprises and the kind of workplace that most office buildings offer today.  Large companies can afford to rent out large spaces in the central business districts, but co-working spaces have afforded small and medium-sized enterprises the opportunity to work centrally.

Co-working operatives is also about having control versus having access. If you look at the models like Airbnb and Uber, they do not own assets, but they have access. Corporates are shifting from having the need to own assets towards a sharing economy, where they get access to collaborating with others. Prior to that, companies must see that there are more brains outside of the company than within. The minute companies fail to recognise that there are more brains outside the company than within, they are already falling behind.

HQA: How do you handle uncertainty or how do you make business decisions?

I think it depends case by case and whether we have the luxury of time in making that decision or not. If I had time in making a difficult decision, the process definitely includes discussing with mentors or a board to explore different options to be taken into consideration before making the final decision. That is the research, mathematically linear way. Of course, reality does not give us that luxury all the time.

When I am pressed for business decisions, I would definitely prioritise our corporate vision and mission – whether that decision jeopardises or further generates the mission. Our mission is like the “invisible leader”. We are just facilitating our platforms in accordance to the mission. There are also decisions that affect others like the team or the community, and for these cases they will also partake in the decision making process.

HQA: If you could give three pieces of advice to a budding entrepreneur, what would you tell them?

1. You are the five people around you. Choose them wisely. Decide who those people are, and don’t leave it to fate or the force of nature. In order to find the right people, you have to be exposed to a lot of people. You have to understand yourself, your weaknesses and learn from these people to help fill these gaps because you cannot be perfect.

2. There are two groups of people in the world. They are people who adapt to the world, and the other group changes it. If you think you have what it takes to change the world, go for it. If you cannot stop thinking about achieving a certain goal, do not stop looking for ways to make a change. In the process, you have to recognise your strengths and weaknesses but do play by your strengths. Don’t waste time trying to fix your weaknesses because that is when the team supports you. You will truly create value when you play by your strengths and ensure that you create value and impact out of those endeavours. Be confident of what you can do, be humble about what you cannot and find support in your shortcomings.

3. Avoid the naysayers. There are tons of them and most of them do it out of a protective nature, not to thrash your dreams. At the end of the day, you know best about your decisions, and it is only through your confidence that you can convince others. Find your tribe – and that is why co-working communities of like-minded individuals are great as your support network.

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