Zhihan Lee
Ashoka Fellow since 2017   |   Philippines

Zhihan Lee

Zhihan Lee is addressing gaps in the Philippine education system that hinder youth from low-income backgrounds to access meaningful careers in the fast-changing future of work. He is redefining…
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This description of Zhihan Lee's work was prepared when Zhihan Lee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


Zhihan Lee is addressing gaps in the Philippine education system that hinder youth from low-income backgrounds to access meaningful careers in the fast-changing future of work. He is redefining higher education and technical-vocational education through a comprehensive program that combines student financing, skills training, job-matching, and strategic social support.

The New Idea

Traditionally, society has seen higher education as a prerequisite to becoming a skilled and successful individual. In the Philippines, this mindset has excluded out-of-school, rural youth from the capacity to develop the skills needed to pursue stable careers in the formal economy. Furthermore, it is evident that a diploma no longer guarantees employment, with resource-poor Filipino families striving to invest in a college education, yet their children still unable to find jobs upon graduation. Through BagoSphere, Zhihan aims to redefine how young people are preparing for their future by creating a program that provides out-of-school youth with skills to withstand a volatile job market, ultimately empowering them to carve their own paths to success.

BagoSphere is equipping rural youth with in-demand professional skills through a competency-based curriculum that connects students directly with future employers. Within their program, students learn skills that are relevant across industries -- from resiliency and communication skills to digital skills and financial literacy. After graduation, BagoSphere places the student with one of their partner employers and provides dedicated support in continuing to explore job and career opportunities. With these skills, youth who traditionally do not have access to higher education are able to acquire high-demand positions in emerging industries, such as call center and BPO (business process outsourcing) companies.

Recognizing the absence of student loan options in the Philippines, BagoSphere established partnerships with microfinance organizations to implement a ‘study now, pay later’ financing plan. Their students are only required to pay for the costs of their training on a monthly basis once they have reached full employment. This financing program empowers students to gain ownership over their education and future careers. BagoSphere’s job placement is currently at 90%. In terms of retention rates, 85% of graduates placed with company partners remain employed 3 months after graduation - a majority of them leaving placements in pursuit of higher level positions, even in different industries.

Zhihan is dedicated to transforming the prevalent approaches to education and profession. By challenging the centrality and inaccessibility of higher education, BagoSphere is able to equip rural youth with the adaptable skills, and most importantly, the confidence, to find secure and meaningful careers.

The Problem

Higher education can be a powerful equalizing force that provides young people with the skills and opportunities necessary to find jobs that not only provide socio-economic mobility but also the ability to contribute meaningfully to society. However, for many young people in the Philippines – particularly those coming from rural and low-income backgrounds – this education-to-employment journey is riddled with roadblocks. In 2012 it was reported that, 70% of high school graduates do not go on to higher education. An updated report indicates 83.7% of those who do go to college eventually drop out.

On the one hand, university and college education is out of reach for most low-income youth. Tuition fees are high and the pressure to support their families means that they cannot afford to spend four years in school and out of the workforce. A typical college education in a state university could cost around Php220,000 for a four-year degree. This is a disproportionately large investment when compared to the average starting salary of Php 9,000 per month and the absence of appropriate student loan facilities. Even if they are able to find the resources to cover their college education, the education-employment mismatch is apparent with a considerable percentage of the unemployed population being college-educated youth. In the Philippines, 1 in 5 jobless youth are college graduates and 1 in 3 are college students. It is ironic to find huge joblessness in the youth, when in the Philippines, it was found that nearly 25 percent of entry-level jobs in 2016 were left unfilled because of the lack of qualified talent.

On the other hand, most of the vocational or technical courses offered by the government or private institutions can improve by having a “employer-needs” mindset, and develop their own capabilities to adjust to the fast-changing workforce without over-relying on government bodies like TESDA to provide the policies and impetus to be adapt their programs.. . Each year, these vocational and diploma programs produce over 1.5 million graduates with most of the government jobs skills training programs being covered by scholarships. Some training centers are incentivized to take on as many students as they can since they receive vouchers or subsidies from the government for each student that they train. Unfortunately, the centers’ performance are (also universities) are often not held accountable to whether or not the students actually get jobs after graduating from the training or college education.

Moreover, youth unemployment is deeply exacerbated by the acceleration of change happening in the workplace. Instead of learning to work, the future of work is learning. And this requires both educators and employers to wear each other’s hats in order for humans to keep learning, reinventing themselves and stay in the game.

The Strategy

Zhihan identified a critical gap in the higher education system that makes it particularly difficult for low-income and rural youth to access good career opportunities. Between university education and vocational or technical schooling, the options are either too expensive, do not provide the appropriate level of training, or do not connect directly with employers. He realized that he needed to provide an option which was affordable, adaptable, and led directly to employment in the quickest time possible.

One key question that BagoSphere set to address is the one around affordability and financing. If there are abundant job opportunities available in the industry and the government training programs are being given for free, why then are so many students still dropping out or are unable to get hired after graduating from their training? BagoSphere’s insight is that it is about ownership. The dependence on scholarships and government aid creates a “donor-beneficiary” mentality where students are receiving the training as a dole-out and therefore have less ownership over their performance and progress. Alternatively, if students are convinced to “invest in themselves” and share in the financial risk of the program, they are more motivated to make the most of the education that they receive so that it translates into sustainable employment. This is the mindset shift that BagoSphere hopes to bring about.

BagoSphere collaborated with microfinance partners like Kiva and the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF) to create an innovative student financing program. If a student applies for financial aid, the microfinance partner provides the loan, 10 percent of which goes into a Loan Guarantee Fund. Only when the student is employed, does he or she start paying back the loan through monthly payments over eight months with interest of 1.5% per month.
This financing model also allows BagoSphere to create a program that can be sustainable and scalable without sole dependency on government subsidies or philanthropy.

The next aspect that BagoSphere addresses is the relevance and effectiveness of the training curriculum. The BagoSphere approach is to go direct to employers and taking on a non-traditional role as both a school and a recruiter. Hence, BagoSphere developed the unique ability to sense, to translate employers’ needs and to deconstruct their ever-changing needs into learning experiences. Unlike the existing near-hire training programs that act more like “finishing schools” for call center agents, BagoSphere offers a more comprehensive curriculum that is tailored for the community it seeks to empower. With the average age of 22, the typical BagoSphere student is a female high school graduate, a mother of at least one child, and has had no formal work experience. Her best chance for employment will be working for below minimum wage in the informal sector such as salon, shop, or canteen assistants. In order to leapfrog these students towards better employment opportunities, BagoSphere provides high quality English proficiency-training for basic speakers, basic digital skills, mindsets, behavioral skills, as well as family planning in the context of their future employment.

The typical accredited courses offered by the government or other private call center schools only have a duration of two to four weeks – not enough time to make significant progress towards the employers’ hiring standards. BagoSphere has found 6-8 weeks to be the ideal training period for the out-of-school rural youth.

Zhihan and his team also learned early on that some of the biggest challenges that the students faced were not just in acquiring skills or landing a job. Many times, the social pressures at home, including lack of support from their parents or abuse from their husbands, can make students feel that they are not capable of such an ambitious career goal. BagoSphere trainers take an active role in counselling students through these personal challenges, teaching them resilience and building up their self-esteem.

A key experience that helps reinforce this lesson is the mid-course placement exam. Half-way through the program, the students are invited to take real placement exams with BagoSphere’s employer partners. The trainers accompany their students and are able to listen in on the employer interviews. If a student passes, then he or she is given the option to already start working. If they fail, the trainers are able to help them process the rejection and learn how to use the experience as a motivator to work harder. BagoSphere also created a Graduate Support team which provides a structured process for the job search process and career support for the growing alumni community.

By building partnerships with companies in high-growth industries like business process outsourcing, BagoSphere is able to link its students to immediate employment opportunities. However, the skills that the students learn in the program can also be used across different sectors – giving them the increased professional mobility.

98% of students who join BagoSphere complete the full training program. As of January 2018,, Zhihan’s program has graduated over 1,054 students, with 9 out of 10 getting hired within 3 months of graduation.

By creating a highly effective and scalable model, Zhihan hopes to unlock the transformative power of technical- vocational education and remove the stigmas attached to this form of higher education as being substandard or only for the poor. By partnering with community colleges and local governments, he is exploring the feasibility of gradually empowering community colleges to take over the implementation of the program through a licensing model and expanding the content to cover other high-potential industries like tourism and hospitality.

The Person

Zhihan’s first lessons about the importance of education and livelihood came from his parents and his experience growing up in Singapore. Not having enough money to pursue college, both Zhihan’s father and mother were forced to start working right after graduation from high school. His mother found a job as a typist and his father started as a bus mechanic who eventually worked his way up to become a sales engineer. Through their hard work, they were able to give Zhihan the opportunity to have a good quality education and pursue a college degree.

Zhihan struggled with the rigid and competitive nature of the Singaporean education system. His parents were atypical in that they did not pressure him to conform to the system. Instead, they encouraged him to explore and pursue his personal interests. Upon reaching university, Zhihan chose to take a chance and pursue a new multidisciplinary course called Engineering Science where he specialized in nanotechnology. He thrived in this space as the course nurtured a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation at the intersection between science and engineering fields.

Despite excelling in his academics, Zhihan felt that there was something still missing from his learning experience. He pursued international youth volunteer expeditions that were available through his university. This program gave him the chance to co-lead immersive social projects in rural Thailand and Laos and to learn from the success and failures of those efforts at a very young age. Like the intersection between science and engineering, Zhihan was excited when he was introduced the prospect of combining philanthropy and business to solve pressing social ills like poverty. During his last volunteer experience with a social enterprise in India, Zhihan saw the transformative power of the digital economy and how this could be a path to a better life even for those in extreme poverty. This insight resonated with the lessons he learned from his parents and led him to explore what transformative higher education could look like and how this could be a key part of the journey out of poverty.

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