Meet Amra Naidoo, Head of Partnerships at the UN Women Singapore Committee, Team Lead of the Project Inspire global youth social entrepreneurship challenge, and Ambassador of Impact Journalism Day by Sparknews. Amra has recently been appointed as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. She frequently speaks on the topic of combining social and business at events and conferences and has been featured as one of Harpers Bazaar’s 2014 ‘Women Who Inspire Others’.
Amra, how would you describe yourself in three words?
Amra: Passionate, problem-solver, connector.
Please finish the following sentence: „When I get up in the morning, I…“
Amra: I’m a night-owl so you’ll usually find me up working on things until the early hours of the morning.. So in the morning, I’ll usually roll over and try to get back to sleep – until I drag myself to the gym. (Yep, I’m not a morning person).
You are Head of Partnerships & Media Relations at the UN Women Singapore Committee – can you tell us in a few words what exactly your work consists of?
Amra: I lead external relations and develop strategic partnerships, as well as guide the communications and partnerships strategies. That means I’m usually out of the office meeting with different organisations and interesting people, or representing UN Women Singapore Committee at various events and conferences. In the office day-to-day, I manage the execution and operations of programs that we develop under the partnerships and communications strategies. Examples of some of these programs are UNited We Hack (a hackathon for social good); Project Aspire (a social entrepreneurship competition, tailored to Singaporean students aged 15-18); and, the campaign strategy for HeForShe in Singapore to localise and drive momentum for the global campaign launched by Emma Watson.
One big project you lead to success is „Project Inspire“. The project’s claim is: 5 Minutes to change the world! Sounds promising. What is this project about?
Amra: Project Inspire is a global social entrepreneurship challenge launched by UN Women Singapore Committee and MasterCard in 2011. We look for entrepreneurs who are solving big problems, and are working to empower women and girls economically. Project Inspire gives young social entrepreneurs (aged 18-35) a five-minute platform to pitch their projects to us. The top 10 projects are flown to Singapore for a week of intense mentoring and guidance from industry leaders, designed to accelerate their projects and impact. On the last day, all the finalists pitch to a panel of judges, with the winner taking home US$25,000 to fund their project. This year, we’re looking for ideas that improve safety and security for women or girls. This can be through education, financial inclusion, transport, design, hardware, technology, or through prevention such as increasing access to health, sanitation and hygiene, engaging men and boys or designing safe cities. The options are endless!
How did you turn this initiative into a success?
Amra: I joined as the lead of the Project Inspire team after its second successful year. Now in it’s sixth year, we have seen the competition change and grow to meet the needs of social entrepreneurs globally. A more robust boot-camp program and the introduction of the mentor program that we introduced in 2013 has allowed finalists to gain skills and knowledge to sustain their inspired ideas. The launch of a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 enabled the top 20 semi-finalists to use the Project Inspire platform to raise additional funding directly for their program before they even landed in Singapore. All of these initiatives were implemented to stay true to the founding goal of the competition: give youth a platform and arm them with the tools to create change. I think that is something that I am most proud of. Each year we see so many brilliant ideas from entrepreneurs around the world and of course, we just can’t support them all. But over the years, these are some of the things that we’ve been implementing to create more opportunity for each entrepreneur and the work that they’re doing. As a result, we’ve also developed an active alumni community of 50 social entrepreneurs who continue to spread the knowledge they gained and work on various projects around the world creating change. We’ve welcomed new partners to the competition who join us in championing women’s empowerment and social entrepreneurship. All this means that since 2011, Project Inspire has impacted over 17,000 women and girls, through US$195,000 in funding for 16 social entrepreneurs and their projects. Our active online community of almost 80,000 supporters from all around the world goes to show that what we are working on is important and relevant.
Your partner in Project Inspire is MasterCard. How did you win such a global corporation as a partner in this social initiative?
Amra: MasterCard is a long-time supporter of women’s and girl’s rights, and has a strong focus on creating economic opportunities and enabling financial inclusion. As a result, there has been a natural alignment and strong ongoing partnership formed between MasterCard and UN Women Singapore Committee. Project Inspire was co-founded 6 years ago by UN Women Singapore Committee’s President, Trina Liang-Lin and Georgette Tan, Group Head, Communications, Asia Pacific, MasterCard.
When reading your profile it says that you are „passionate about social entrepreneurship and social innovation for sustainable and impactful development“. Is this passion also the motor behind all your endeavors?
Amra: Yes! I love seeing how problem-solvers around the world are leveraging commercial principles and sustainable business models to drive social impact. The main reason for this passion is that the non-profit model has proven to be unsustainable and ineffective in solving a lot of social issues. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that there is a place for non-profits in dealing with some issues that it’s not appropriate for a business to be solving. But one of the main reasons that I believe in social enterprises is that by being sustainable, you can afford to attract and retain high quality talent. You can’t solve complex problems around the world without the best minds. This is something which has been exclusively for for-profit business and relatively unattainable for non-profits. Giving out aid and handouts has also proven ineffective. It is more sustainable and impactful to empower a community to solve their own problems by providing economic opportunities that lift them out poverty or technology that enables better education or access to finance. Social enterprises solve both these issues in ways that we have not seen before so it’s an exciting time to see where this leads the world!
With all these different projects going on: Do you have a recipe on how to manage your time efficiently?
Amra: I’m a list person so always have many lists of things that I need to get done. But with only so many hours in the day sometimes it can get a bit frustrating when you’re coming to the end of the day, you’re on a tight deadline for something and you haven’t crossed off everything on your list. The reality is that generally your lists of ‘things to do’ are longer than the amount of hours that you have in the day. I still have and use these lists, but now I highlight the 3 most important things that I need to get done and make sure that I cross off those 3 things by the end of the day.
How important is your network for your work and how do you actually network? Do you have any tips for our community?
Amra: My network is extremely important for my work. My job is to connect people in different industries for social good so it’s vital that I have a strong network and that I keep up to date with things that people in my network are doing. I used to spend a lot of time going to networking events but I’ve realised that my time is better spent developing meaningful relationships with people. Instead of going to a networking event and receiving 50 business cards from people that I speak to for about 30 seconds each, I take the time in reaching out to people directly and having a coffee or drink together. You’ll usually find that people are generally very willing to meet new people, especially if you have mutually aligned interests. It’s all a matter of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and asking yourself, if I was this person, why would I take time out of my busy schedule and want to meet with me?’. If you can answer that question, then you’re on the right track! Once I have a connection with someone, I’ll make sure to keep up to date with what’s happening in their life, with their business or what’s happening at work for them. Is there something that they’re looking for that I can help with? Always give whenever you can. If I can help with something, I will offer. You never know when you might need a favour one day too. Social media platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter have been great in enabling me to do this better. Actually, a lot of the people that I initially engage through work, end up becoming friends of mine!
Being an inspiration for other women – who inspires you personally?
Amra: I am constantly being inspired by people around me and people that are doing amazing things in the world. I am currently inspired by Andre Bauma, a park ranger at Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park. He’s been taking care of endangered orphaned mountain gorillas at Virunga, for the past nine years, and he says he loves them as if they were his own children. In the work that I do, I am always exposed to the dark side of humanity and sometimes this can be really discouraging when you consider the future of our world and what we are leaving behind for generations to come. But, Bauma is my inspiration because there’s something that he says in the award winning documentary, Virunga that has really stuck, and resonated with me. Bauma says that, “you must justify why you are on this Earth”. Coming from someone, who through war and against all odds, stays at the Park and looks after the gorillas because it’s the right thing to do, is extremely powerful. If you haven’t seen the documentary or heard about Virunga Park yet, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s extremely humbling and powerful.
Looking at your Twitter Profile it says you’re a feminist. If you could send a message to women in the world, what would you tell them?
Amra: Honestly, it sounds cliché, but I would tell women to own their achievements and capabilities. I see a lot of very capable and strong women who shy away from opportunities or understate their achievements or skills. I’m guilty of this myself and I’m still learning. But, I have to keep reminding myself that the only person that I’m holding back is myself. My fiancé is constantly asking me, ‘What have you got to lose? What’s the worst that’s going to happen if you fail? Think of your worst case scenario’. If you’re reading this right now, because of your access to education, you are more privileged than the 774 million adults – 64% of whom are women – that according to UNESCO are illiterate globally. So chances are for you, your worst case scenario is actually not that bad compared to millions of people around the world. Surround yourself with people that enable you and support you, and just go for it!
What do you do to refuel?
Amra: As much as possible, I try to tune out and disconnect. Being able to access my email or be contactable is great because it means that you can work from anywhere. But it also can become draining because you’re always ‘on’, whether you realise it or not. Most evenings when I get home from work, I turn my phone on to flight mode and don’t check it until the next morning. Combined with an awesome sleep-time playlist that I found on Spotify, that I play in the background when I’m getting ready for bed, I’ve been having the deepest sleeps and waking up feeling more refreshed. I’ve also been exercising more regularly which makes me feel stronger and is time that I allocate just for myself. By taking time for myself and disconnecting everyday, I am more productive during the hours that I am connected or online. It forces me to get everything that I need to get done in a certain time-frame everyday, so that I can have more meaningful and engaged time off to spend by myself, with my friends, family or fiancé.
Amra, thank you so much for taking time and speaking with us!
Find out more about Project Inspire, the alumni, and the 2016 competition.
On her blog Amra writes about her interests. She’ll also be launching a podcast soon called The Doing Good Podcast, which is a 101 guide on how to do good, explores different social and environmental issues and features interviews with various social innovators who are working to solve big problems.