At July’s Athena Executive Club, Saleemah Ismail, talked candidly about her experience setting up an NGO in Singapore and how she has had to learn to adapt her leadership style throughout this journey.
aidha is the micro-business school dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty for domestic workers through financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Aidha provides unique and innovative financial training programs to foreign domestic workers in Singapore. In addition to financial literacy, Aidha provides computer literacy, business management and entrepreneurship skills. At Aidha, domestic workers can find healthy friendships, a safe and a positive environment and an opportunity to learn! Students at Aidha are involved in lively discussions, group exercises and get many opportunities to practice what they learn in class. They never forget to make learning fun!
In 2007, Aidha had just 23 students but a $16,000 seed funding from National Committee for UNIFEM enabled them to do more to help more people. More than 2000 students have now taken their courses and over 200 volunteers mentor domestic workers and give their time at evenings and weekends. Saleemah is Immediate Past President of National Committee for UNIFEM (now known as UN Women) and worked with them for over 10 years.
Saleemah’s leadership journey and her ‘turning point’
Saleemah held corporate positions for many years but when, in 2003, she felt completely burnt out and wanted to try something different, a newspaper advert caught her attention – little did she know then that the advert would set her on a path which would change the rest of her life! The advert was for translators to go to Batam. At the time, no one really knew what ‘UNIFEM’ was (most assumed it was a feminine product!).
After arriving in Batam, Saleemah realised she couldn’t do what was needed of her as a translator – she couldn’t be objective and simply pass information on without feeling anything. She wanted to do more to help and was shocked and upset at what she witnessed in those first few days; young girls self harming, child prostitutes, violence and a lack of hope in these children that their life could be any different from what it was.
On the short ferry trip back to Singapore, Saleemah knew she had started a different life journey; one that she had to continue. She knew she had to raise awareness of the exploitation of young girls taking place so close to Singapore. At that time she had no idea how to even start going about making things happen, but she knew she had to try.
The early days
Together with two others who quickly came on board after hearing what Saleemah had experienced. Soon the three friends were able to convince the National Committee for UNIFEM to lead the initiative to address Sex Trafficking by raising awareness and tackling the demand for it. They went about contacting government ministries locally and overseas to start making the necessary legal changes. They contacted governments and influential people from UK and Australia and asked them to come to Singapore (at their own expense) to help the Singapore government understand more about sex laws and how to keep young girls safe. Almost everyone they contacted agreed to help them – from church groups, NGOs and government representatives.
What Saleemah learnt by doing this was that not everyone agrees with each other, even if the end goal is the same for everyone. Every organisation had their own interests and ways of doing things which didn’t always match the values of the other groups.
With persistence and lots of passion, Saleemah and the National Committee team gathered together over 150 people from 14 countries around the world to look at practical ways of solving the local child sex situation. Luckily for them, stories in the press were reported just days before their conference which highlighted their plight; a Singaporean man caught in Indonesia, both having sex with minors. This brought to the forefront the exact issues they was trying to raise.
Within 18 months of the first meeting of Saleemah and her two friends, the Government announced that they will legislate the Child Sex Tourism. This law came into effect in 2007 – making it illegal for any Singaporean man involved in any sexual act with minors anywhere in the world to be brought to justice in Singapore. This was a landmark moment for Saleemah and the team. But the story doesn’t end there.
Obstacles along the way
Not satisfied with this first ‘win’, Saleemah continued her efforts to help others in numerous ways. She learnt that even when you have a business which, at its heart, helps others, there are still many hurdles to jump over along the way.
Buy to Save is an initiative set up to raise funds by bringing together high-end, pre-loved fashion and people wanting to buy designer goods at reasonable prices. This has attracted attention from local celebrities who are happy to donate their unwanted clothes for good causes. Although one particular situation led to Saleemah standing up to a prominent person to defend her staff and resulted in donated clothes from this person being taken back. At the time, it was a big loss but Saleemah knew that to run any business well, you must look after your team.
Situations like this can also lead to unexpected wins too…
A chance meeting in a shared cab journey with a Club21 employee led to Club21’s customers being invited to donate their unwanted clothes to the cause – this has revolutionised the way they can raise funds!
The birth of aidha
Saleemah co-founded aidha to bring about financial education for migrant workers in Singapore and at the same time worked with UN Women (formely UNIFEM) to bring Singapore issues to the world stage.
Looking back at the early organisation of their global event to make big changes to the law, Saleemah knows it was a mess! They had no idea what they were doing, or the best way to go about making changes. But, along the way they brought together a skilled team who all have their own attributes and can give something different.
- Saleemah believes that you always need people in your team who can see the glass half empty, as well as half full. Together they foresee issues and overcome them
- Anything you do should always be for love – balanced with pragmatism!
- Don’t be intimated by others. If you are strong in your vision and focus, no one should knock you off course
- Identify the weaknesses in anything you do, but always focus more on the strengths
- Find people who are different to you and who can complement each other
- Don’t take anything personally – it’s rarely ever about you as a person
- It’s not always a bad thing to lose everything and start all over again – it allows for a fresh approach and creativity
- The bigger picture and goal is always more important than taking immediate credit for
Veronica Gamez, aidha’s Executove Director also visited a recent Cappuccino Connections and shared her fascinating story. See the full post here.
Check out the photos from this event on our Facebook page.
If you would like to attend the Athena Executive Club, please contact us for more information!
Saleemah is committed to working on social issues, particularly women’s education and building capacity within social enterprise for women. Besides being a board member and co-founder of Aidha, she is Co-Chair of the Anti-Trafficking Project. One of her roles is to raise awareness of the problem of trafficking in women and children and to address the demand side of sex trafficking in Singapore.
Connect with Saleemah online.