Meet CLEO Hot Shot 2018: Ida Thien

IDA THIEN, 25, Co-Founder, Closing The Gap

Wool coat, Uniqlo; dress, Ida’s own.

NGO Closing The Gap is a small team of individuals who are pushing boundaries to help children who do not have the right opportunities. Co-founder, Ida Thien focuses on reaching out to young students who have the potential to further their studies but unfortunately lack the opportunity, knowledge, skills and resources for it. How does she push herself? By reminding herself: “Every time you think you’ve done enough, do a little more.”

Tell us a little bit about what you do. Briefly tell us your journey to – and within – Closing The Gap? Why did you decide to found a NGO with a specific educational focus?

I am a co-founder of Closing The Gap, a programme that aims to help disadvantaged students access quality higher education. We recruit high-potential, deserving students, typically from low income communities, and equip them with the necessary knowledge, skills and resources needed to succeed. We do this via workshops, camps and a series of bespoke opportunities tailored for each student’s needs. Each student also gets personal mentor to guide and support them throughout. Currently, we have 59 Scholars we are supporting across the Klang Valley.

There are 4 of us in the core team: Brian Geh, Cheah Kok Hin, Connie Foong and I. We met through Teach For Malaysia, in which my co-founders are Alumni of the leadership programme, whereas I served as a staff member who supported Teach For Malaysia Alumni’s work. Our journey began in 2016 when we had the humbling opportunity of working with Brian’s ex-student in order to help him enter university. It struck us how the odds were stacked so high against against his chances of accessing tertiary education despite his brilliance. Higher education was his ticket to improving his family’s trajectory. It was unfair and infuriating, but what was more infuriating was the reality that there were many more students just like him out there. The only question next for us was how do we change this?

At the moment, Connie and I are the main full-timers of the team, but the other 2 have given such tremendous support even though they are also juggling full-time jobs.

What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered, and are perhaps still encountering, while setting up and running Closing The Gap?

Definitely capacity. We are a small full-time 2-women team, which means managing everything from programme, operations, fundraising and communication/marketing work.  And prior to me joining full-time, Connie was effectively running the operations alone. It can get a bit crazy and the work has definitely doubled since we welcomed our 2nd cohort of students this year. But we have also learned to tap into our network of professionals and mentors for support. At the beginning, we also faced a lot of challenges around logistics (in our 1st year, our furthest student came from Sekinchan!) and student commitment. Hence in our second year, we decided to concentrate our efforts in clusters of schools while also inculcating independence and work values in our students. We have since seen a marked improvement in student commitment to the programme.

Another challenge that we are still tackling is around our programme strategy itself. When we first started CTG, we were inspired by and borrowed heavily from Futures, a similar access programme run by Teach First in the UK. However, as time progressed, it began to dawn on us how much more complex the post-SPM pathway is here compared to the UK context. For one, the post-SPM pathway branches out into a mind boggling array of  pre-university options, many of which are virtually unheard of by the students we work with. And because each path opens up different university options, this has knockoff effects on both the duration and support structure of the CTG programme. In the UK, Futures works primarily with A-levels students. Secondly, our students going into university are contingent on them receiving scholarships and living allowances. For example, one of our students turned down a scholarship she was accepted into because the scholarship did not cover living expenses she could not afford to pay. This is why the CTG programme has a large focus on securing scholarships and seeking out funding opportunities for our Scholars as well.

How does Closing The Gap sustain itself?

Currently, Closing The Gap relies on grants and external donors to fund our programme. I cannot stress how fortunate we have been in this regard. We have received funding from OSK Foundation (who sponsors our 2nd Cohort of Scholars), ECM Libra, CIMB Islamic, and also received tremendous in-kind support from Teach For Malaysia and Sunway. On top of that, we are also incredibly grateful to our private funder who enabled us to kickstart CTG back in 2017 and really develop CTG to what it is today. We are actively seeking out new partnerships with corporations and institutions interested to be part of this journey with us, either in supporting our upcoming cohorts or in securing scholarship pathways for our Scholars. So do reach out to us at [email protected] We’d love to speak to you!

The recent result of GE14 is also signal of a New Malaysia. With this new government, what are some of the changes you hope to see within the NGO sphere?

As many Malaysians take to social media in these early days to express their hopes, I would caution against unrealistic expectations. It took us 60+ years to get to this turning point, and the work from here will only be an uphill climb. I am still watching the development closely as the new government finds its footing. So with that said, I come with tempered hopes that there will be more partnerships and collaboration between NGOs and government institutions. I also hope to see a culture of more open discourse and advocacy on pertinent issues which allows NGOs and civil society members to speak up without fearing repercussion. NGOs are more than volunteer organisations. They have the capacity to galvanise communities, grow leaders and change policies. To that end, I hope to see more young people pursue careers in the social sector as well.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing our education system? And how can we push for progress in this area?

Our education system and its challenges are a complex problem that is difficult to be boil down to a single factor. But if we could get just one thing right, I hope the new government focusses on strengthening a positive and critical culture from Putrajaya to the classrooms. Reward positive behaviours and rebuild trust at all levels of the system, so that our teachers teach and our students learn.

For all of us, I urge that we start listening to our teachers and educators before jumping to conclusion on what is deficient in the system. How do we get our best talent to join the education sector, either in non-profit or government? How do we incentivise our best teachers while deploying talents to where they are most needed? How do we reduce administrative burdens of teachers while giving them the necessary tools they need to teach? Are our schools equipped to prepare students of all background for what is to come after post-SPM? What does success look like in our system and would we be prepared to work towards that together? We can only answer these when we first listen.

Who are the NGOs in the same space or in general whom you consider role models or benchmarks? Why?

I would be remiss not to mention Teach For Malaysia, without which I would not have met my co-founders and Closing The Gap would not have come to existence. My time with Teach For Malaysia was incredibly formative in helping me shape my values and career goals. Being in the team that worked closely with Alumni of Teach For Malaysia’s Fellowship programme also meant that I got to work with and learn from passionate and bright individuals. TFM has managed to put together a community of like-minded Leaders (be it Fellows, Alumni or Staff members) pursuing fairer education and opportunities at all levels of society. And I have no doubt that these individuals will go on to toil the hard work required to make Malaysia a better and fairer place.

If you could take away one thing from your business before walking away from it, what would it be? Why?

My team!! Is that a cop-out? But in all seriousness, beyond the sense of purpose needed to sustain CTG, I find that it is the people in it that makes the work worthwhile. That is perhaps a takeaway I will walk away from CTG with (though I don’t plan on doing that anytime soon!). Our team, scholars (cheeky as they may be!), volunteer mentors and supporters have been such a joy to work and grow with. When we talk about non-profit work, it is common to view the relationship as a purely giving one, but we underestimate how much we stand to gain from it as well.

What is the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year? Why?

Having the right mindset matters a lot when we talk about student outcomes, particularly for students in challenging backgrounds. In CTG, we constantly grapple with the challenge of inculcating a growth mindset in our Scholars. Make no mistake, the structural, social and economic barriers working against their chances of accessing tertiary education are great and must be addressed. However, if our Scholars do not fundamentally believe that they can achieve success, everything else becomes moot. Our mistake in the first year was not spending enough time unpacking our Scholars’ mental blocks as early as we could. This resulted in several of our Scholars passing on various opportunities due to fear and their personal mental barriers. As we enter into our 2nd cohort in CTG, the team is determined to make mindset shift a key priority in our programmatic objectives.

You can also read more about the effects of mindset on student outcomes here.

How do you answer the question of whether women lead differently than men?

I think its inevitable that we do have differences in leadership styles between women and men, not least due to the differences in behaviour, upbringing and social expectations. But what is clear is that we need to encourage more of the earlier. This goes beyond a call for gender diversity In upper management, but for leadership variety. Our definition of leadership has gone through quite a lot of changes over the years, as we begin to embrace more inspiring and empathetic leaders who practice participative decision making over directive and corrective authority. And there are a wealth of studies to support the idea that having more female leadership allow this model of leadership to flourish more readily.

I am actually really optimistic about the new world –  we live in an era of unprecedented empowerment for women, particularly young women. More and more, we are seeing brilliant women celebrated for their work, standing up for their agency and fighting for a better place for our girls. However, I’m clear-eyed about the work that still needs to be done. One does not dismantle internalised sexism and systematic oppression in a day or even a decade. And the ugly will always rear its head. The next generation of women will continue to face these challenges, but with more tools and platforms at their fingertips to have their voices heard.

– On what Ida thinks the biggest challenge for future generation of women.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? Why?

I should consider myself lucky then having started out my career in the social sector, because female leadership is abound in my field. So firstly, I think we are stepping in the right direction and that the barriers for career women and women leaders are slowly disintegrating. But there are broader societal barriers at play that slow down our progress- eg, social pressures on gender roles and behaviour in Malaysia are still areas of much needed work, particularly beyond the urban bubble. Unless and until we are prepared to fully acknowledge our bias, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the necessary reforms to fix it.

What does “pushing the envelope” mean to you? Why?

I used to have a sticky note behind my phone that says: “Every time you think you’ve done enough, do a little more.” I suppose that sums up what it means for me to push the envelope: Do I push it a little further every time I think I’ve done enough? And am I just a little bit more uncomfortable each time I do? And that is how I know I’m growing.


Special thanks to Alila Bangsar for venue assistance during the whole production.
Official sponsors: Wet n Wild Malaysia and Sasa Malaysia.