“Be kind. Be one of a kind.”
This is the three-generation Soh family philosophy.
It starts with 77-year-old grandma Ng Swee Hiah, who hosts dinners and conducts cooking classes at One Kind House, a place where the Soh family has recreated the kampung for the 21st century.
Over the years, the family has opened its doors for people to enjoy the home, encouraging the exchange of ideas and keeping traditions alive.
The family philosophy is spearheaded by dad Calvin and mum Arlette, who actively challenge young chefs, artists, inventors, innovators, do-gooders to define how kindness should continue in a 21st century setting.
It is also a place where teenage siblings Dylan, 17, and Ava Soh, 13, inspired by the sense of community, incubated their ideas for their own passion projects in urban farming and jewellery design.
Making cities fertile
Dylan, who is enrolled in Etela Tapiolan lukio, an international high school in Finland, has taken the path less travelled in his academic career.
In a TEDxSingapore talk he gave at 12, he said, “In school I’m always taught to follow the model answers, but just because something has never been done before, it doesn’t mean you can’t be the first to do it.”
Applying that philosophy to his project, Dylan aims to make cities greener through One Kind Block, a LEGO-like hydroponic system he started prototyping three years ago.
“Almost 60% of the world live in cities and nearly 100% of apartments are not designed for urban farming. So the solution is to create a simple, modular hydroponic system that can work around existing homes and architecture,” Dylan tells the Pride.
“I believe One Kind Block can help us to be more sustainable and in control of our own food supply.”
Research also shows that urban farming helps reduce depression and stifle the effects of dementia in elderly.
Dylan had launched his project on Kickstarter in May to raise funds to realise this dream, but did not manage to hit his funding goal. Nevertheless, he says he is not giving up and is taking it as a learning experience. From feedback he received, Dylan plans to relaunch a more complete One Kind Block ecosystem in a month or two.
“I’ve always been taught failure is part of the journey to success, and you must get up more times than you fall. So while this isn’t the outcome we wanted, we are still very encouraged by it,” he wrote on Facebook.
Mature beyond her years, 13-year-old Ava Soh is no less passionate in her cause to empower women.
Outside school, the Saint Joseph’s Institution International School International Baccalaureate (IB) programme student started her own jewellery collection under the name Daughters of the Revolution. Her Cinta Diri series, which means “love yourself” in Malay, reminds women to love and appreciate themselves. Part of the funds from the project will go towards local charity Daughters of Tomorrow.
Ava sourced and created the four jewellery designs, made in solid 925 silver and plated in 18k yellow gold, herself.
Just like her brother, Ava has learnt to use social media, under their parents’ supervision, to market her products.
Parents Calvin and Arlette tell The Pride: “We are involved from a guidance point of view. To be fair, we are also learning from them. A lot of things about social media are new to us.”
Ava says that her interactions with the community in One Kind House helped her to learn things she would have never learnt in school. It especially helped build her confidence in talking to people.
“Whenever my grandmother had a cooking class, there would always be people coming upstairs. I also had to pitch my idea to focus groups to get to know my audience. I wanted to find out what women like, how can I better my project.” Ava says.
“Over time, I got rid of that fear (of talking to people). If you are passionate about something, you just have to push yourself and do it.”
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Unconventional pathways to success
The siblings told The Pride that they are the only ones among their friends doing Kickstarter projects, although they have received support and advice from them.
“I ask my friends for their opinions. I need their feedback too,” Ava says.
Arlette tells The Pride: “We encourage them to do what they can in school, try to pass, do your best. We want them to find their passion, something they love to do.”
Calvin adds: “Our job as parents is to help our kids find themselves. If you know who you are, to us that is success.”
He continues: “As Covid-19 has shown, old business assumptions are being challenged. Technology marches on at an exponential rate. Jobs will come and go faster than before. You have to reinvent yourself constantly.”
“They need to be adaptable. They need to learn to collaborate more than ever. They need to have the confidence to make change.”
“As we move into this new world, life skills become more important than academic skills.”
One Kind Family
Kindness is one of these values the Sohs actively imbue within the family.
Calvin says: “The kids designed kindness into their projects. It’s built into the business model. Not as an afterthought.”
For example, Ava’s project supports Daughters of Tomorrow’s mission to help underprivileged women reach regular and sustained employment whereas Dylan had planned for his project to support Happy People Helping People, a group that provides aid to the cardboard-collecting elderly. The elderly would get their own One Kind Block set to grow their own food and plants to sell.
“In December last year, together with my dad, we taught the cardboard-collecting elderly to grow their own saplings that we would buy back for $2 to $3. They were quite skeptical at first, but they enjoyed it when we helped them to do it,” Dylan said.
On how these values are taught to their kids, Arlette says: “I don’t really think we need to teach them. The young people already seem to have it. They naturally are more astute when it comes to climate change.”
“For example, when we buy curry puffs at Old Chang Kee, Ava will say, ‘just put them all in one plastic bag’.”
As with all families, the Sohs have their moments of disagreements.
Dylan describes his relationship with his father as “unstoppable force meets immovable object”. He admits they are both equally stubborn and sometimes debate on how they approach the project.
However, the close-knit family often calls for meetings to check in with one another.
“Even though we are focused on our own projects, we keep each other in check and we cheer each other on,” says Dylan.
“When we are stressed we will let it out and talk to each other,” Ava says.
Dylan and Ava are learning from each other’s experiences, especially in terms of responding to customers and building a community on social media.
They say that there were few difficulties working with people during their projects.
Ava says: “We made it a point to respect whoever we worked or partnered with, even if we didn’t get anything out of it. It was still a learning experience. They still gave an insight to the industry.”
Young as they are, the siblings fully embrace the family philosophy to “Be Kind. Be one of a kind.”
“My parents want to raise us with 21st century values. Being resilient, creative and adaptable to change,” Dylan says.
“Rather than (deciding on) what we want to become when we grow up, we are driven by what problem we want to solve. Because the world will run out of jobs, but it will never run out of problems. There’s always something you can fight for.”