AIDHA – EMPOWERING WOMEN THROUGH EDUCATION
AIDHA (a Sanskrit word meaning ?that to which we aspire') is an award-winning, Singapore-registered charity set up in July 2006. It provides financial literacy, leadership and entrepreneurship programs to foreign domestic workers and low-income women in Singapore. This impressive organisation offers its students the opportunity to acquire the skills and confidence to build a better future.
Interview with Marie-Laure Caille, Business and Finance Consultant, Adjunct Faculty Member at ESSEC Business School and volunteer at Aidha.
- Version française : ici -
www.lepetitjournal.com/singapour - Tell us a bit about your background?
Marie-Laure Caille - I have been living in Asia for a very long time and here in Singapore for over 15 years. In Indonesia, I first worked for the United Nations before I joined the management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group. In Singapore, I continued working as a consultant for a few years. About 8 years ago, I decided to focus on learning and development. I have been associated with ESSEC, where I have been teaching finance and consulting, for many years.
I started volunteering for Aidha in 2008. Firstly, as a ?mentor' I taught classes and conducted workshops. Currently, I am working with a team of 15 people on a review of the curriculum. The content of the courses is regularly adjusted and improved to keep them relevant. However, this year Aidha decided to revamp the whole curriculum, from reconsidering the pedagogical approach to reorganizing the structure of the modules and the content of the courses. Starting this September, I will take up my role as a mentor for the two courses I am currently developing. I look forward to being in the classroom again.
What initially motivated you to become a mentor at Aidha and continues to motivate you to volunteer today?
- The twin focuses of Aidha's work - the empowerment and education of women - deeply resonate with me. I feel strongly about these two causes and have supported both in different capacities.
In Indonesia I was already involved in supporting women as the Co-President of the Forum for Executive Women (FEW). Also, I love teaching and all issues related to pedagogy, so in Singapore, when I heard about Aidha, I was immediately drawn to it and quickly became involved as a volunteer. Being of service and having a positive, concrete impact on the lives of the helpers who study at Aidha motivates me.
Aidha's students have made an immense sacrifice on a personal and familial level by leaving their home countries for many years. The organisation gives them the tools and support so that they can use this to prepare for a better future when they return home.
Also, the students' strong positive energy, enthusiasm for learning, and gratitude towards Aidha and its mentors keep me motivated. As a mentor, one receives more from the students than one gives to them.
AIDHA - Students
Could you explain how the courses are developed?
- There has always been a strong link between Aidha and academia. This characteristic goes back to the creation of the organisation, which was set up under the sponsorship of the Singapore Committee for UNIFEM (now UN Women). One of its co-founders, Dr Sarah Mavrinac, who conceived the first courses, was then Professor at INSEAD.
Course content is provided to the mentors in different formats (for example as slides or presentations) along with detailed notes, relevant examples to illustrate the content, etc. There is a very rigorous academic process and a specific programme that all mentors have to follow. Of course, each mentor brings his or her own approach, personality and experience to the classroom. However, there is consistency in terms of the concepts and materials that are taught to different groups. Providing this detailed material to be shared with the students can also be very reassuring for mentors when they first join Aidha ? as they may have a solid work background but little experience in a classroom.
What is the pedagogical approach used at Aidha and what courses are taught?
- Aidha takes a holistic approach to learning. This is probably the organisation's most distinctive characteristic. The courses cover different, yet complementary, fields for our students: finance, leadership, IT, entrepreneurship and business management. The courses are divided into modules of different levels. There is a clear progression from one module to the next, with prerequisites to join the most advanced courses.
As a first step, the students acquire solid knowledge on how to budget and save money. The course on leadership, which is also one of the pillars of Aidha's curriculum, helps them gain confidence and develop their ability to express and assert themselves, in particular towards their families.
Students can also learn how to use some of the latest IT tools that can help them manage their day-to-day lives, communicate more easily with their distant friends and family members, and to become more independent.
"Entrepreneurship" is the most advanced course. It covers all the tools necessary to set up a small business: the business plan, the financials (including how to manage cash flow), risk management, marketing, negotiation with suppliers, client relationship management, etc.
All the courses are tailored to the students' needs and are very pragmatic. This is why a typical course alternates concepts, discussions, examples and activities. The goal is to provide tools that the students will be able to use to prepare and build a better future.
Compared to your other experiences, how is teaching classes to domestic helpers different?
- Aidha students have different levels of formal education. In one group, some students might have left school relatively young, while others might have finished high school. Some students might even have completed one or two years of university. As a mentor, it can be a challenge to manage such diversity. At the same time, the diversity of their educational backgrounds provides a lot of different perspectives and richness to discussions.
Even if all the students have not benefited from a solid formal education, they are typically very resourceful and pragmatic. Mentors can also relate the material to the students' life experiences. This is why we use a lot of concrete examples to illustrate and explain concepts and show students how they can use them to improve their lives. I also think that it is critical to create a safe space where the students feel at ease, and to provide each of them the opportunity to speak up and share their perspectives. As I explained earlier, these students are extremely enthusiastic and eager to learn. As a mentor, it is really very rewarding to teach Aidha students because of the strong personal involvement between the students and the mentors. It can be a beautiful human experience.
Thinking about it? many of these elements also apply to other teaching environments. The approach I take is not that different from the one I use with students in tertiary education.
Are most of Aidha students motivated to join by the prospect of setting up their own business?
- Actually, that is not the case. The students do not all enrol with the objective of setting up their own businesses, although eventually around 40% of our alumni actually do become entrepreneurs. The students have different motivations for taking classes at Aidha. Indeed some do want to start a business, others want to learn how to manage their money, develop computer skills; and others are looking for a sense of community, because Aidha offers them the opportunity to socialise and make new friends.
Many helpers who came to Singapore to earn money and save for the future end up staying many years, sometimes more than 10 years, without having any savings when they return home. This is why the part of the curriculum that teaches them how to manage their money and prepare a budget is very important. It not only helps them in their current day-to-day lives, but it will also help them in the future, to save more or invest better.
Aidha's impact data shows that students increase their monthly savings by 40% after the first 9-month course, Module 1, and by almost 70% after Module 2. Also 80% make investments in productive assets such as land and livestock.
We also have to consider that it might be difficult for some students to first join Aidha. To some, it might be intimidating to go back to a classroom, an environment that they may have left a long time ago. It is an important and brave first step. Even for these students who tend to be shy when they join Aidha, as the programme unfolds they gradually open up and communicate more. They typically acquire new skills and quickly become more confident.
What types of businesses do they set up?
- For many of them, the goal is to open a mini-mart or a restaurant, to have a farm, become a seamstress, to invest in a piece of land or a house. Some have opened a small business, alone or with some family members, while others have started more sophisticated companies. One alumna, for example, recently launched an online business in Sri Lanka. Another opened a water-refilling station in her village in the Philippines.
How can one become a mentor at Aidha?
- To ensure a minimum level of experience and consistency, the mentors of the «Finance and Technology» (module 1) and «Entrepreneurship and Business Management» (module 2) programmes must have a professional background. Every month, Aidha offers an information session for individuals who might be interested in joining the organization. During this session, participants have the opportunity to interact with currently active mentors and alumni.
Individuals who decide to join as mentors are then trained not only on the content of the courses but, most importantly, on Aidha's unique pedagogy. Each new mentor is then shadowed by an experienced buddy mentor for the first few classes. The buddy mentor's role is to support and advise the new mentors. Being a mentor is a very fulfilling and gratifying experience and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who might be interested - come and join one of the information sessions!
In addition, Aidha provides many other opportunities to volunteer, for example on specific projects. In that way, individuals with different competencies, interests and availability can find a way to volunteer for Aidha.
Interview conducted by Cécile Brosolo, www.lepetitjournal.com/singapour, on Thursday 25 May 2017