Ten visionaries, one future – Grace Sai


About a month ago, the CUAsia event on Bali was a big success. As S2M was one of the partners of the event, we took the opportunity to interview some real inspiring keynote speakers. Today in our series ‘Ten visionaries, one future’, you will find the interview I did with the Grace Sai.

Grace is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Hub Singapore, Singapore’s largest co-working community of entrepreneurs, creatives and techies. She is regarded as the node of entrepreneurship ecosystem in Asia and speaks widely on that topic. Interested in ecosystem building and policy development for startups and social enterprises, she has been invited by the Prime Minister’s Offices in Singapore and Malaysia, Angela Merkel, Mayor Park, amongst others; to share her inputs. She also sits on the Advisory Board for Ben & Jerry’s Singapore, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD and a TEDx Singapore speaker. She was also the founder of Books for Hope, a social enterprise in children’s education in Indonesia. Grace has been nominated as a Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum (2013), 40 Under 40 by Prestige Singapore (2014) and is a UN Women Entrepreneurship Day Ambassador. She now resides in Singapore and has an MBA from University of Oxford, where she graduated with Distinction and was a Skoll Scholar (funded by Jeff Skoll, the co-founder of eBay).

What does the term ‘coworking’ mean to you specifically?

I think co-working is a mindset. It’s not even a skill set. It’s a mindset of a level of collaboration that has never happened before in the now capitalistic society. I do believe that co-working has existed in societies in the past, when people really helped each other to survive almost. I love the Dutch concept of ‘gezellig’; that to me is co-working! It’s a sense a belonging, it’s about community. It’s about belonging to a tribe that understands you and shares the same values, giving you a very profound dope of courage to pursue your own ideals for the world. I fundamentally believe that the big guys out there do not have the solutions for a better world. I think leaders in the past were more noble, more altruistic, than the leaders today. And so the problem with the world is now that everyone is used to the big guys having the solutions, but that’s not true. They have the power, but that doesn’t mean they have the right intentions. I think the power is with the many, so how do you organize the many into environments where they are productive and courageous enough to pursue the solutions? Perhaps that is how society should be organized.

How would you describe the development of co-working in Asia?

Growth is happening. We were probably the 3rd co-working space in Singapore four years ago, now there are 60. I think it is a growing pie, so there is no real competition between operators yet, but one can expect the market to be more segmented, discerning and sophisticated.

How does this development relate to the rest of the world?

I can’t say the same about NYC and London; those cities are more saturated and there are dominant players already. Here in Asia there is no dominant player yet. Each co-working space stands for something different. For The Hub Singapore, we are about community and collaboration. The emerging market of 650 million in population in Southeast Asia also provides an exciting opportunity for the way we are restructuring work and society. There’s lots of opportunities to make an impact in a developing part of the world!

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the co-working movement worldwide?

The biggest challenge is that the people who start co-working spaces are nice people, not business people. Idealistic, passionate people, who want to serve other people. And if you do that without business acumen and a cashflow projection, than you are bound to get tired of just giving and not seeing the feedback or reward of your work . And you also run the risk of closing down because of the bigger peers coming in and offering better spaces and cheaper prices as well. Globally, only 30% of the coworking spaces are profitable. A lot of us here who are giving classes at CUAsia have done a lot of these mistakes and have come out alive to share those battle scars. Also, if you love building community, starting a co-working space is not the only to way to build community. There are many other ways that are less expensive and less risky. Like Seats2meet! It is a way of building community without having real estate risks!

What is the importance for people of being part of bigger collective?

Because there is an inherent need for humans to connect. To belong to this thing called humanity. Especially for people that want to create change and come up with innovative and disruptive ideas. I really believe that. Like Margaret Mead, the famous philosopher, said: “Never doubt that a small of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” For movements, whether it is female emancipation or anti-slavery or the LGBT rights movement, it all started first with a small group of passionate people who were pioneers. And I believe that what we are doing is really aggregating a group of pioneers, who are restructuring the definition of success. the structures of business society, technology. So this whole idea of  business for society, technology for society, spaces for society is the kind of the people we are serving and attracting. And because it’s pioneering work it is lonely and so to take away the loneliness you need to know you are not alone. Because the movement is exploding. So it’s psychologically relaxing and encouraging to know you are part of a bigger goal. And you know, the best people and leaders I know dedicate their lives to a bigger goal.

If you had to pick one favorite place to work in this world, where would it be and why?

Amsterdam! I think The Netherlands have a truly egalitarian society, where there is real gender and power balance. It has a flat power structure. I appreciate that a lot. I think it is a very enlightened form of society. I think the concept of ‘gezellig’ is amazing. I have never seen a national culture that is so consistent as I have seen in The Netherlands. And Amsterdam is beautiful with the houses by the canals. It’s a very liberal and free thinking society. So yes, Amsterdam!

Want to learn more on Grace? Please check