Helping kids find their potential

SINGAPORE - Children in Singapore are known to be overburdened with tuition and other activities outside their school hours.

But amid the academic support and physical activities on offer, Ms Sally Forrest and Mr Vikas Malkani noticed a decade ago there were no classes teaching children life skills such as how to be confident, face their fears, be a leader or communicate with those around them.

The duo, who call themselves "life partners", set about filling that gap, holding classes for children aged six to 16 using story-telling, role-playing and team games that they had come up with themselves.

It began when Ms Forrest left her corporate job and travelled around Asia. As a senior manager at British chemist Boots, she had been based in Thai capital Bangkok for about four years and had fallen in love with the region.

At the end of her stint in Bangkok she was called back to Britain to help the firm restructure, but she quit soon after.

She said: "I always felt that I wanted to base something in Singapore because when I was working in Thailand and moving around the area, I knew that for any really successful business you need to base yourself somewhere very stable, transparent and easy to do business in.

"So I based myself in Singapore and went on a journey to understand more about life and that took me to India, where I met Vikas."

That was in 2003 and Mr Malkani was running SoulKids by himself in India, having developed the programme. The two struck up a friendship and decided to move the firm to Singapore, where they set up base the same year and have taught thousands of children since.

Their classes have been so effective that some of the parents of former students are now franchisees of the business. There are now six other SoulKids centres worldwide aside from the original one set up by the pair.

However, all of this growth has been rather accidental, Ms Forrest said. "The parents saw the difference in their children and wanted to bring their other children on or tell their friends, so demand started to grow.

"And a lot of parents started to say to us, you've made such a difference in the lives of our children - would you teach us how to do it?"

SoulKids started a mentor training course for adults about four years ago, teaching them how to be someone who can inspire and teach children.

The classes were held in Singapore but these mentors came from over 30 different countries, Ms Forrest noted.

"Then what started to happen was that some of these mentors left Singapore and said to us, we really want to take this programme to our own countries. So that's why we started to think about franchising."

But the duo did not immediately jump at this chance.

Mr Malkani said: "Frankly speaking, we were stumped. Someone was saying, give me the rights to take this to Bangkok. How do we do that?"

So they signed up for the Certified Franchise Executive programme offered by the Franchising and Licensing Association of Singapore, and after two years received their certificates.

"And then we were ready because now we knew the A to Z of licensing and franchising, we could offer the best possible quality and service to our licensees," Mr Malkani said.

SoulKids now has franchisees in London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, San Francisco and Singapore, with more in the pipeline.

Ms Forrest and Mr Malkani hope that in the next two and a half years, there will be eight SoulKids centres in Singapore, up from two today.

They also hope to open centres in China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam, and are seeking partners in these places.

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