In this edition of Groundup Features: we caught up with PVPA 2018’s Kampung Spirit winner, Emily from Blessings in a Bag. Hear from Emily as she reflects on the highlights and challenges in her journey as a groundup founder, and how Blessings in a Bag adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blessings in a Bag is a non-profit initiative which provides vital necessities to individuals in need and journey alongside under-served children and youth through their curated alternative learning programme, Beyond Awesome. The programme started with 6 children in 2015 and many are still with them, bringing their siblings and helping other youth to grow in confidence, compassion, and kindness. Today, more than 100 children have taken part in the programme and over 80 volunteers help to run these weekly sessions to help them make friends, have adventures, and enjoy play, without adult worries.
Blessings in a Bag’s mission: We are a safe and trusted community space where children from Singapore’s most vulnerable areas can be themselves, learn life skills and grow into confident, compassionate and kind young people.
Blessings in a Bag’s vision: We believe every child has a right to opportunities, loving support and space to build their dreams. We believe in a future where young Singaporeans can shine their brightest, regardless of their background or circumstances.
1. Hi Emily, please tell us more about yourself!
Hello! I’m Emily. When I was a teenager some 13 years ago, I founded Blessings in a Bag. During that time, I was also working part-time as a Radio DJ, hosting with 987FM and Power98. I was in the media world for about eight years and I also had experiences as a bootcamp instructor leading fitness classes and being a Nike Ambassador. However, social impact and creating meaningful community is something that still resonates deeply with me and who I am.
I’m currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area after moving here in the middle of last year. I’m known as the 'Dream Doula’ and I'm a visionary community leader and world changer. I guide big-hearted world-changers and visionaries to start where they are, own their superpowers and change the world.
I have taken my experiences (being raised in Australia, Indonesia and Singapore) and wisdom and turned it into a life of service. The call on my heart is to help other people birth their dreams to the world - whether it's a ground-up, an idea or an area of their heart-centred business they could use some support with. In so doing, the world is transformed from the inside out -- one person and one dream at a time.
You can learn more at www.emilyteng.com
2. Thanks for sharing about yourself! While prepping for this chat, we found out that Blessings in a Bag was initially meant to be a one-time Christmas project. What inspired you to continue the initiative?
Being 20, I was young, naïve and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know much about social impact, social enterprises or what it looked like to launch a social initiative at that time. What kept me going was that there was still a need and that there were people who wanted to continue giving. So, I told myself – as much as possible, if I could keep it going then I would, and it eventually grew bigger than myself and now it’s a formal organisation!
3. That is awesome to hear! Was there a specific high point in your journey of founding Blessings in a Bag?
One highlight is really getting a sense of that “Kampung Spirit” and being on the ground. People are rallying around a vision, a cause and a mission that resonates no matter where they come from. They’re all here to lend a helping hand and can connect with each other, share resources and ideas. I really like the early days when people would come with an idea and we would experiment and try to see if it works. It’s what it is – from the “ground up” and people taking that initiative.
4. You mentioned starting Blessings in a Bag at a young age. Was age ever a factor which caused you to be overlooked or not taken seriously?
People would look at me like it was a phase or just something that I was going through. That I’ll eventually grow out of it and pursue something more traditional, like a corporate 9 – 5 job.
I think the pros of being young and starting something when you are young, is that you are quite the idealist. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you have this fearlessness in you. I don’t think I would have started Blessings in a Bag at the age I’m at now because I would have seen everything and have this sense of limitation. I think with youthfulness, it comes with a mindset of “I’m just going to do it and see what happens,” and “I still have those years to kind of play around with it.” Now, I’m older and there’s more of a responsibility to make good decisions.
There are pros and cons to starting things when you are young, but I think the pros far outweigh the cons at this point. If you know what your North Star is, if you know what your deeper ‘why’ is or if you know what’s burning within you, then why not? I think the earlier the better! You just iterate and there’s no such thing as failure, it’s just really growth.
5. What were some of the other challenges you faced as a groundup founder?
One challenge I had was the feeling of having to shoulder everything on my own and I find it’s rather common, as I speak to many community leaders. I struggled with it for a very long time, feeling like I needed to do it on my own and not ask for help. But I find that there is so much beauty that comes from slowing down, not being afraid or ashamed to ask for help and surrounding yourself with a good network of mentors and community leaders.
Another challenge would be the “Hustle Culture”. When you’re building a community, or you’re starting something, it’s this culture of “Let’s just do it 24/7.” Eat, breathe, and sleep work, and not give time and space to ourselves. I struggled so much with burnout and my personal relationships, and I think it’s a very unhealthy way of leading and living our lives.
Early on, I just kept going and I never stopped to celebrate the wins or progress I was making. Even now, in the earlier part of 2020, I was so unhappy and discontent with everything that I had achieved. It’s my 13th year of building community, being in the social impact space and as a community leader but I was still in tears, while speaking with a mentor of mine. They told me, “You’ve done this for 13 years. There are so many wins and progress you’ve made and so many lives you’ve changed that you might not even know,” and yet there I was giving myself a really hard time and listening to my inner critic.
This is why I believe it’s important for people to take time to pause, rest and find the joy every day and why I provide that support for other community leaders.
6. Thank you for sharing your challenges with us! We think this really highlights how important taking care of our mental health is! Do you have any tips on how to manage time + energy between running a groundup and taking care of oneself?
At the beginning, I felt like I had to do it by myself and look a certain way for leadership, so I felt isolated. Especially as a woman-in-leadership, I struggle with feeling imposter syndrome more than my male counterparts. I always felt like I needed to do better, work harder and not show my vulnerabilities. But I think self-acceptance and undergoing transformation from the inside-out (mindset, mental health, self-care, etc) has been a gamechanger for me– it’s something I talk about all the time with my friends now.
I have an amazing counsellor who is based in Singapore, whom I refer all my community leader friends to, if they need support! Having a safe space to talk to somebody is so profound and underestimated. People question what talking for an hour with somebody can do for us but really, it’s a safe space where you can just unload, be who you are and not worry about judgement. You unpack something with somebody who has the ability to support you with that journey.
7. You shared earlier that you’re currently based in San Francisco! Could you share a little on what it’s been like, leading Blessings in a Bag remotely?
It has been a both/and season. Hard and inspiring. Sad and joyful. My mental well-being suffered this year from the impact COVID-19 had on my neighbourhood, what I saw on the news, and when thinking of Blessings in a Bag and the communities it serves back in Singapore. I am responsible for what’s happening in Singapore, but I am also not physically present within the community and from the ground. It gets very taxing with the time zones, as my working hours range from 7pm till about 11pm (Sans Francisco time) and sometimes even later! I experiment and iterate what’s the best way to do my work and what’s the frequency of communication, asking questions like: How can we continue to build psychological safety within the team when people are remote? How can we still deliver the programming with the outcomes we have in mind? How can the work we do evolve in 2021?
There are always many questions ruminating in my mind as I am 100% remote. From topics like time, building trust, teamwork, communication and managing internal conflicts within teams. When everybody went remote, people were not seeing each other as frequently and so there were a lot of assumptions being made as well as uncertainty. But we need to remember that everyone is also navigating the same things. Other non-profits and businesses are having similar challenges, if not more. I’m seeing so many non-profits close their doors and amazing traditional businesses shutter. So, I try not to look through the lens of this being a “me” thing or a “Blessings in a Bag” thing, but that it’s impacting everyone on a global scale.
8. After hearing you share about the challenges of leading remotely, we’re curious to find out how being away from the environment and Singapore, affected the decisions that you make?
I need to constantly rely on the team and lean on my relationships and networks within the social sector. I have friends who share resources and WhatsApp links. I also watch the news closely to keep updated with what’s happening within a Singapore context. There’s just no way to make the decisions all on my own and that’s why I lean on the team and a team of mentors, who are supporting us through the decision-making process. One thing I’ve learned during this COVID-19 period is to explore creating a decision-making matrix for the future, so that people know how to make decisions based on what’s happening.
9. And how did Blessings in a Bag adapt its programmes during this COVID-19 pandemic?
We were probably one of the first non-profits in Singapore to close our door, ahead of Circuit Breaker. We’ve been closed since February or March and we only re-opened for in-person programming in October. SafeEntry is a must, especially since we work with children and youth. We have had to make some adaptations like forming smaller groups and increasing the frequency of sessions.
Just before and during Circuit Breaker, we launched a weekly online programming called “Beyond Awesome Neighbourhood” and our kids connected with us every week through that programme.
We’ve been journeying with our families through WhatsApp even before the pandemic, so WhatsApp has been a saviour for us! We’ve been delivering supplies and any resources or support that they need; we’ll try our best to share it. We also recently partnered with Amazon for the Amazon x Retail for Good Wishlist, which is supported by NVPC and we’re really excited for that!
As for the team, I’ve been doing bi-weekly check-ins and team huddles, making sure that people have a safe space to anonymously share how they’re doing both emotionally and mentally, to request for support and to ask any questions they have.
10. Thank you so much for sharing with us, and we celebrate with you as Blessings in a Bag transitions back into in-person programming. Here’s our last question for today! How do you hope Blessings in a Bag builds a City of Good?
Wow that’s a big question!
It’s a question that I have been sitting with for the last year, actually. I hope that we will build a City of Good together with the community that we journey alongside. I think for a really long time, it’s always been a “Giver” versus “Receiver” mindset and can be challenging when there are very traditional views towards what giving should look like. We always look for the “neediest” person, the most urgent needs, the most urgent causes, or cases that draw the most sympathy.
Ultimately, I hope that Blessings in a Bag can be part of changing that narrative. There is so much strength in the community that we journey alongside, and I really want to find ways where we can hear the voices from young people and communities that we serve. They have so much resourcefulness, so many ideas and strengths that they can offer. Oftentimes, we underestimate and downplay what they could do to help build a City of Good because we label them as “low-income” or as residents of rental housing.
I definitely want to build a more equitable table, where everyone is invited to the table with their solutions and to build a City of Good together
11. BONUS cheeky question: Are you a coffee or tea person!
Tea, because I can’t drink coffee, so that’s an easy one!