It is the day before SMU Vivace and the school is rife with anticipation. But Ted Choo, the go-to person for corporate marketing at SMU, is a picture of calm. The avid volunteer is pensive as he shares with us his entrepreneurship experiences from the corporate world to community service.

“After four startups, I didn’t get the personal growth that I wanted after the fourth time. So, I decided to chuck everything aside and went off the grid for a good one and a half to two years. During that time, there was a lot of self-reflection and self-discovery on what I was going to do next.”

Ted at the Sunrich Farm in Chiang Mai

Ted at his Sunrich Farm in Chiang Mai

Looking beyond yourself

In 2012, Ted decided that there was more to life than just journeying through it. He wanted to make a difference. As the visionary leader Mahatma Gandhi said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

As Ted explored the various ways to contribute to humanity, the concept of giving back became clearer to him.

“There is so much that we can do and give. Although what we deem as giving may be very small and very little, it may mean a lot to someone else.”

Volunteer work started early for Ted, who tried to develop the culture of community service in all of his companies. This exposure gave him a good sense of the type of volunteer work that he would later immerse himself in.

The many ways to give back

Consistent volunteering with Habitat for Humanity over the years eventually led Ted to join their board of directors in 2016. A heart for people with autism also spurred him to raise funds for the building of St. Andrew’s Autism Centre, which sees children with autism through adulthood.

During his time away from civilisation, Ted wanted to venture beyond helping people.

“I wanted to do something that I would not have done in Singapore and in Asia and really go out of my comfort zone. This time, volunteer work was with animal conservation. I worked with lions. It was so awesome yet humbling.”

Ted found his way to a lion’s reserve in Africa. There, he walked lions in the mornings, skinned giraffes for lion feed in the afternoons, and spent the rest of his time looking after his majestic pets and learning about ways to conserve our natural resources and its beauty.

A regular day at the lion's reserve

A regular day for Ted at the lion’s reserve

A few years ago, Ted worked on a social enterprise that would have helped a community in Chiang Mai to become self-sustainable. Unbeknownst to him, his landlord was also a drug lord, who demanded more than his share of the pie when he saw the effectiveness of Ted’s farming technologies. The project was eventually shut down to minimise any risk to the local community.

8-9 weeks-old corn shoots at the Sunrich farm in Chiang Mai

Corn shoots at 8-9 weeks-old, at Ted’s farm in Chiang Mai

Contributing back to society has also seen Ted take on yet another unexpected challenge: marathon running. “I took it upon myself to raise funds, and the awareness of causes, through running. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten off my butt.”

At his first marathon in 2011, Ted raised a whopping $14,000. These days, Ted tries as much as possible to run for causes that somehow fall through the cracks.

Seeing poverty up close

Ted will be participating again in the upcoming Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2017. This time, it is to raise funds for a project that is close to his heart. Half-jokingly, he refers to himself as a “one-man NGO”.

The project centres around a village in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that needs resources to build a school extension and find a cleaner water source.

The Dream Village school, made from wood and zinc

The Dream Village school in Cambodia, made from wood and zinc

“I wanted something that gets to the soul. Something where you can really connect with the beneficiary itself, instead of being removed from the mechanism of volunteerism… The kids in this village really need help. They kind of fall between the cracks and in third world countries, you really don’t know where the money will go. Even if you give it to the government, you see very little of it actually getting to the intended audience.”

The children of Dream Village

The children of Dream Village

Ted spent months becoming acquainted with the village people and understanding their situation. The aim of the school extension is to keep the kids away from street vices such as gangs and drugs, and impart life skills that will give them a leg up the socio-economic ladder.

For these kids, their life stories are written for them if they don’t escape the poverty cycle. Because tourism and hospitality are growing in Siem Reap, life skills and even learning another language could move them up and out of working the farms.

“For this, it’s really about raising the money so that I can go there and buy building materials… Once I’m able to raise the money, I can work on the finer details. If I can’t, then I just keep on working to raise the money. I’m halfway there, now. Hopefully, running the marathon will help.”

The classroom setting of Dream Village

The classroom setting of Dream Village

Do what you can

Setting up an organic farm, caring for lions and supporting a village might seem like lofty volunteerism goals, but Ted highlights that it is not what you do that matters most, but rather, it is about your sincerity in offering help.

“I may not know how to paint, but then again, these people are not expecting the standard of a professional painter,” he describes of volunteering at Habitat for Humanity in Singapore, which focuses on maintaining and cleaning homes.

Once there is commitment and a heart for the cause, the rest is easy to learn. Choose to volunteer in ways that you are able to contribute and add value.

“If you want to volunteer, you need to have a good heart and commitment… You can always say that you don’t have time and that one day, you’ll do it. But when that one day comes, do you really want to do it? You may have other priorities then. So, it’s really about having the heart to do it. Don’t ask for anything in return. The journey itself is the reward and the fulfilment comes from the happiness and smiles from those that you help.”