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More than 450 volunteers help out at SWITCH

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Eighteen-year-old Charlotte Lim, a second-year business studies student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, aims to be an entrepreneur, after being inspired by her volunteer experience at the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) in 2017.

“I saw a robot at one of the exhibits. He can talk and interact with people. I was amazed. I wouldn’t have been able to see it if I hadn’t volunteered for SWITCH,” said Charlotte. She found the experience invaluable, opening her eyes to the new technologies that can change the world.

This spurred her on and she has signed up again as a volunteer this year. She is among over 450 volunteers who helped out at SWITCH 2018, which is co-organised by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Enterprise Singapore. Held from Sept 17 to 19 at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, the volunteers were assigned different roles to make sure that the events run smoothly.

Sinapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, meets with volunteers at SWITCH 2018

Volunteerism is not new here. Youths and adults have volunteered to help out at soup kitchens for the disadvantaged, raising funds for religious organisations or as guides for the blind. Volunteering for tech events, however, is just kicking off. If the response for SWITCH is an indication, this is the start of a new movement.

More students signed up to be a volunteer at SWITCH this year as compared to previous years. Four hundred and fifty students, mainly from polytechnics, signed up for the event within two weeks of the start of registration. In the first year of SWITCH in 2016, there were only 60, going up to almost 100 in 2017. This year, NRF collaborated with Pollinate – a joint incubator of innovation and entrepreneurship for all our polytechnics and their Alumni – to further increase the number to more than 450. Edge, the young wing for the Action Community of Entrepreneurs, also lent its support.

Students have been assigned different roles so that they know what to do, said Patrice Choong of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is the coordinator for Pollinate. Some go behind the stage to direct speakers and guests for their stage appearances and keynote speeches, some are timekeepers to ensure that the shows run smoothly and according to schedule, while others do what millennials do best – contribute photos and content to the official SWITCH social media accounts.

Charlotte is part of the creative team tasked with publicising SWITCH events on Instagram and other social media sites. Other volunteers have been assigned as production and backstage assistants to set up and dismantle stages and move props, or as ushers to show guests to the right venues. Some are helpers at the registration desks who will have to manage an expected 11,000 attendees this year. Yet others will get a chance to receive and usher speakers and VIP guests to their events and attend to their queries.

Volunteerism is a way entrepreneurs, investors and others in the startup community “pay back” to the development of the ecosystem. This is a way for members of the startup community to say “thank you” for the pro bono help they had received when they were starting their businesses. The NRF would like to see more of this happening here and sees volunteerism as a move towards that concept.

“We hope the student volunteers will get inspired, and join the tech industry. When they grow up and become entrepreneurs, corporate executives or investors themselves, they may come back to contribute. We hope to create that spark in them,” said Dr Pauline Tay, NRF’s senior deputy director for Innovation and Enterprise/Strategy.

Jayren Teo of Edge explained that volunteerism is more than just doing good for the community. Edge is one of the organisations that helped to reach out to potential volunteers for SWITCH.

He said volunteerism is good for aspiring entrepreneurs because it lets people “do what they love by starting or joining something they believe in”. By being involved and learning to work with other people from various background, they pick up new skills and learn teamwork, he added.

“For aspiring entrepreneurs, volunteerism is the ability to observe and experience the problems first hand, look at the root problem and help to do new things more effectively”.

Highlighting his own experience, he explained that through volunteerism he was inspired and encouraged by the many people he met. As a young student, he designed t-shirts for his classmates. Later as a polytechnic student he organised a youth entrepreneurship competition which later became part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week.

“It was these friends, teachers, customers, ex-bosses, mentors, corporate executives, some of whom I would not have met if not for my voluntary work, who advised and supported my startup efforts. Therefore, it is only right I give back to the startup community,” he said.

Harry Chia of Republic Polytechnic is a newbie volunteer at SWITCH. He and his nine friends are excited about SWITCH and the new things they can learn. “Maybe I’ll be an entrepreneur; it’s very appealing to me. I’ll surely be looking forward to meeting some entrepreneurs and learning from them.”

To find out more about SWITCH and the events go to

Grace Chng is a veteran tech writer and author.

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