When it comes to looking dapper for formal events, the accessory of choice for most men in Singapore would be a tie.
But Evergreen Secondary School student Arif Hamzah feels their repertoire of fashion accessories can be expanded. Enter Bow T. - a bow tie retail business thought up by Arif during an entrepreneurship programme in school last year.
The 16-year-old got the chance to market his plans for Bow T. to some 500 investors and young entrepreneurs last month at an event in New York City that showcases business ideas of young people.
The Halogen Foundation, a charity that administers the entrepreneurship programme in Singapore, had flown Arif to the United States to represent the Republic at the event.
Bow T. would sell affordable bow ties made from recycled material, like excess fabric sourced from tailors in Singapore, Arif told visitors at his booth.
Bow T. also has a social mission: promoting positive body image, he added. To achieve it, workshops and assembly talks would be conducted in schools and community clubs to raise awareness of the importance of being confident.
Arif's idea was warmly received.
Investment strategist Austin Liggett, who heard Arif's presentation during the event, said: "He got it dead-on with the fact that the product was eco-friendly and, on top of that, that it was a socially conscious company."
Arif sold three of the six bow ties he made with the help of his mother for US$13 (S$18) each.
Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng sported one of Arif's bow ties at a separate event in Singapore a week later, when he lauded the fashion-conscious teenager's entrepreneurial spirit.
Bow T. was an idea Arif developed while going through the year-long Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) programme at his school. He had always been interested in fashion, curious about how some people could pull off unique styles, like wearing a hoodie and a cap together.
But, as a student with a limited budget, it was difficult to experiment with new clothes and styles, said the teen, the youngest of three children. Often, he had to defer to his parents' choice of clothing, he said.
So when the students of Evergreen were asked to think of a business idea as part of NFTE, Arif seized the opportunity to address a challenge he faced as a fashion-conscious teen with a limited budget.
He had seen men wearing bow ties on fashion websites and social media platforms like Pinterest.
But not many people in Singapore wear them, he said. Moreover, bow ties are expensive - usually priced above $25 apiece.
That was how Bow T came about: It would sell affordable bow ties in funky prints for teens like Arif.
It was a good idea, said Arif's mentor, Mr Wong U-Yun, 42, a management consultant at consultancy Solidiance Asia Pacific.
"But without considering real numbers, finances and real-life operational issues, he was simply building a dream," said Mr Wong, whose work involves starting up and growing businesses, as well as helping to turn around ailing companies.
Halogen paired students who had won earlier rounds of the entrepreneurship challenge with corporate volunteers to guide the students to bring their dreams to life.
Last year, Arif learnt more about what he needed to make Bow T a viable business by following the NFTE curriculum and with help from Mr Wong.
There were the fun parts, like getting to choose a set of formal clothes from sponsor G2000 for his presentations. But "the finance part was super hard", he said.
With Mr Wong's help, he worked on the business details.
How much would be the monthly rent of a shop in a Housing Board estate? "To reduce cost, my business would be online," Arif said.
How much salary would he pay himself in the initial stages of the business? ($1,000.) Which age group is the business targeting? (Teenagers aged above 13.) With these in mind, how should each bow tie be priced so that it is affordable for them? (Since material can be sourced from seamstresses and tailors for free, $19.)
Apart from learning more about what it takes to start a business, Arif said the programme has also helped him with the softer skills.
"The programme helped me to improve my presentation skills and better communicate my ideas," said Arif, who aspires to be a lawyer.
Mr Wong agrees.
He said: "When I first started to mentor him, he was very reserved and introverted, and spoke up only when I prompted him repeatedly. But in the short time that I mentored him, he grew in confidence, became more outspoken and was able to express his opinions clearly."
The programme is developed by US-based non-profit NFTE, whose mission is to motivate young people from lower-income homes to do well at school by making what they learn in the classrooms relevant to the working world.
Since it was founded in New York in 1987, NFTE has worked with more than 700,000 young people from low-income communities in programmes across the US and around the world.
In 2014, it was brought to Singapore by the Halogen Foundation, a charity that focuses on youth leadership and developing entrepreneurship. Halogen holds the programme for free in school classes in which more than 60 per cent of the cohort is on financial assistance or are from challenging family backgrounds.
A dozen institutions - such as Westwood Secondary and Grace Haven Children's Home - have plans to include the NFTE programme in their curricula.
It is a sharp rise from the one school - Evergreen Secondary - that conducted the programme as part of its curriculum in 2014, when NFTE was first brought in. In 2015, eight institutions were on board.
Halogen chief executive Ivy Tse, reflecting on the target audience, said: "Because of circumstances at home, these young people often suffer from lower self-confidence. They may not always be very quiet and are sometimes very rowdy. But you can tell from what they say - for example, when presented with a problem, the first thing they say is, 'Cannot one, lah!' "
The programme, she says, wants to help students build inner resilience and empower them, so that they are more prepared to overcome challenges in life.
It seems to have worked so far. Survey questions answered by the students before and after the programme show improved confidence levels. Students also seem to better recognise the importance of doing well in subjects, as they have seen their relevance.
The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) contributed to the NFTE programme and worked with Halogen on giving local context to the survey questions to measure the programme's effectiveness in Singapore. NCSS deputy chief executive Tina Hung said programmes like NFTE use entrepreneurship as a teaching tool to help build confidence and resilience in young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"This includes prompting them to think about the future and ways to overcome challenges.
"It also helps them build self-esteem and foster a greater sense of self-efficacy by providing young people an innovative and unique platform to gain leadership skills and exposure," Ms Hung said.
This article was first published on Apr 17, 2017.
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