Seaon Shin: Social Entrepreneur

Seaon Shin may look like any normal teenager from the outside; bubbly, talkative and full of life. But not every regular teenager is recognised as one of the top eight young social entrepreneurs worldwide. At the age of 19, while most of us are at university with what to wear to the prom or completing an assignment being our biggest dilemmas, Seaon is looking at how she can incubate a community and supportive network of young change-makers in Dubai to contribute solutions to solve the world’s problems. The on8one met with her to talk about her Global Youth Empowering Movement Centre, being taken seriously as a teen and what it’s like to be a CEO.

You started out with an environmental project in school called Ecubed. Tell us something about that and how all this started?

Basically, I started an environmental organisation in 2007. The whole point of that was to get some people together so that we could start a group for a school project. And then we got our own recycling system, we got sponsors, we visited recycling factories and things like that. Slowly it started expanding to other schools around Dubai and Abu Dhabi. However, the program isn’t running in my school any more because once I entered into the international baccalaureat programme, I had to stop that project since it was too much work to handle. I think that played a big part in me starting GYEM, and it made me realise that I wanted to do this kind of work.

So tell us something about GYEM. How does it work and what are you planning to achieve with it?
Ahh, that’s pretty complicated. There are a lot of elements to GYEM actually. There is the GYEM movement, the GYEM program, which involves workshops, and there’s the GYEM centre, which is the actual physical platform for being together. And then there’s the involvement with Dubai Festival City, who are our sponsors, so they have a lot of say in the things we do at the centre. The biggest thing we do is our GYEM workshops which are divided into three parts—Know it, Dig it and Act it. So it’s all about discovering the world, discovering who you are and what’s your purpose in life, as well as knowing what is service and how to serve using your passions to give back to the community.Because at the end of the day, a lot of kids don’t understand how much potential they have and there’s no social structure for the youth in Dubai. In terms of the GYEM centre, we offer four programmes. We have Open Mic night, Open Youth night, where youth from anywhere can come in and display projects that they are doing and gain input from professionals. There’s Movie night where we play interesting documentaries, local movies, etc. And finally, there’s Get Real where we invite an expert to talk about specific issues like the environment or labour camps, and things like that.


“When you’re passionate about something it isn’t work anymore!”


Wow! That’s quite a handful. How have you managed to balance your studies and your career while doing all this? 
I’m on a year’s gap for now but even when I was studying, it was challenging, but I guess that’s the beauty of it. When you’re passionate about something, it isn’t work any more. I’ve wanted to take so many holidays but honestly, when you love something and believe in it, even the smallest bit of work becomes fun. All the lack of sleep, all the crying is all worth it. I’ve noticed a lot of kids keep saying they don’t have time. But how can you have time to play four hours of video games three nights a week but not have time for two hours of volunteer work?

What was it like starting out with the centre?
When we first got the centre, it was a total mess and we had to do everything ourselves to put it together. We got paint sponsored from Anvil Paints and all of us got together and painted it. All the furniture is either old or recycled. We try to keep everything in the centre recycled and we don’t want anything to be shiny and new, like everything else is in Dubai. Right now, we have about 2,000 kids who attend our workshops, which is great. And all this is testament to how much we can make a difference. I have a great team. 


You have been recognised as one of the top eight young social entrepreneurs worldwide. How did you manage to do that at the age of 19? 
(Bursts out laughing) Okay, honestly, I don’t know how that happened. It was a competition run by the Ashoka Foundation, whereby they bring out professionals to strategically plan for the betterment of the future. They’re all about social entrepreneurship and they reached out to kids from all over the world. There were about 500 applicants and they pick out the top eight. I really don’t know how I was picked because this is still a baby movement and I don’t do much. The team does most of it.

Is there any difference between the youth in Dubai and in the other places that you’ve been to?
Honestly, people say that the youth in Dubai is so materialistic. But if you go to the States, you find a lot of it there too. I just think it’s more condensed here because Dubai is such a small city. But I really think a lot of kids are looking for something in terms of anything. Not just about life but also like a positive environment, somewhere where they can find a purpose away from malls and stuff. A lot of kids are ready to accept the fact that they are so powerful and have so much potential to build the future. A lot of them feel like they don’t have a voice or platform because no one would take them seriously. 


What are your future plans?
We are trying to duplicate the GYEM workshops all over the world eventually. We’ll start by offering the workshop to all the schools here. We are also thinking of one-week camps too where kids can stay over for one week, and are also hoping to link the GYEM programme with the IB programme so that students can do it as part of their curriculum. But like I said, we’re taking one step at a time.

We are still trying to tap into getting more UAE nationals, and are working on that. My mum works for Zayed University, which is full of Emirati women, so she has a great relationship with many young nationals and knows a lot of people. So I think that plays a big part for the centre as well. We are looking at tying up with Emirati programs, with the government and with local schools as well.

You are originally Korean-American. What brought you to Dubai? 
Oh, my mum’s job! We lived in a tiny town in the States with 10,000 people and 33 churches, and so everyone knew each other there, which was kinda crazy. So they wanted to move out and had planned to go back to Korea. But thank god we ended up here because I was born and raised in the States and don’t speak Korean at all. I would never be able to hold up in high school and would have to start from kindergarten all over again.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
There are so many different types of difficulties. One of the biggest would be my age. When people first meet me, they don’t think I’m 19. But when they find out that I’m 19, carrying around a polka-dot laptop case and going for corporate meetings, they are like, “are you serious?” It was very difficult for us to prove to Dubai Festival City that we were serious, but now that’s changed a lot already. On the other hand, even something like living in Dubai is a challenge because a lot of people are materialistic and it’s hard not to get caught up in that.

When you were growing up, and while other kids your age wanted to become astronauts and movie stars and Formula 1 race drivers, what did you want to be?
I definitely wanted to become a singer—who doesn’t? (laughs) Then I wanted to be a lawyer, but when I found out how much paperwork was involved I immediately changed my mind. I had no idea what I wanted to study. I guess that’s another reason why I started GYEM. I think I’m going to study social entrepreneurship and learn how to set up GYEM as a business so it’s self-sustaining and we don’t always have to rely on sponsorship. 

For all those who want to be a part of GYEM, how do they go about it?
There are three different ways. You can be a volunteer for events, which is for a few hours a day. There’s also voluntary work for the centre, where you come in once or twice a week and we schedule you to work under the supervision of someone from the team. The third way is to directly join the GYEM team. We’re always looking for photographers, writers and people with different skill sets to work for us.


Any advice you would like to give the youth around the region? 
I know this is so clichéed, but believe in the capacity you have as youth and as a builder of the future generation. Because we are the future, and if we don’t start taking responsibility, our world is going to be pretty messed up.

What is a typical day like for a 19-year old, top-eight young social entrepreneurs worldwide? Extraordinary I’m sure? 
Okay, I wake up at 6 o’clock and drop my dad to work. Then I come back and drop my sister off at school. My day starts pretty early since I work from home. Then I get to the GYEM centre and work there until about 7pm; I see my family for a bit and then probably work some more and sleep around 12 or 1 am. That was my schedule for a long time and it really wore me down and made me ill. Then for a bit I was waking up at 10 am and loved it! But it’s pretty hectic because I’m usually working all the time.

So how do you balance work, family and leisure time? Is there a balance?
That’s a good question! I think there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. Family is one of the most important things and when I took a gap year, all my friends went to university so I felt all alone. But now it’s super-hectic and I barely go out any more. Any free time I get, I try to see my family even if its little things like having dinner at home instead of outside.


What do you like to do for fun on your days off?
Hmm…I either spend it with my family or go to the beach, try to exercise a bit, read a book or got to the movies… I don’t kmow! (Laughs)

Do you go to the malls?
Haha…well sometimes, but not too much since we work just beside Dubai Festival City, so we’re all pretty much sick of malls!

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Running GYEM from somewhere around the world!

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