STW Sundays #8: Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi, on Fair Employment and Recycling

United Nations Climate Negotiations (COP14) Poland - campaigning for world leaders to take action now

United Nations Climate Negotiations (COP14) Poland – campaigning for world leaders to take action now

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who are engaged in environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi, chairperson of Recovr Resources Sdn Bhd, a social enterprise that kills two birds with one stone in providing high quality employment to underprivileged individuals to recycle waste.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a 27-year-old mum of one and the chairperson of Recovr Resources Sdn Bhd. I co-founded the Malaysian Youth Climate Justice Network (MyCJN) in 2009. My areas of interest are corporate sustainability issues, green public policy and building capacity for the mitigation and adaptation of climate change. I’m among one of Malaysia’s first Bayer Young Environmental Envoy, a British Council Climate Champion, winner of the KLue Blue Chili Awards and CLEO’s Young Achiever Awards, one of the CICAK e-book’s 25 Young Malaysians You Need to Know and a recipient of the Astro Scholarship Award. I served as a Special Officer at the Community Affairs Department at a major pay-TV operator in Kuala Lumpur for three years before resigning for a career as a social entrepreneur in the recycling industry.

What is your Save-the-world project?

The Recovr Initiative aims to help communities in sustainable waste management and empower underprivileged individuals through high quality employment in the recycling industry. The opportunity is two-pronged within a single objective: to derive economic value to what is considered of no value. This video best explains our project:

[jwplayer mediaid=”14644″]

The initiative aims to:

  1. Move individuals from the traditional and unsustainable welfare/charity system into an independent status as contributing taxpayers and equals in society
  2. Elevate individuals from the poverty trap perpetuated by discriminatory social, cultural and economic hiring practices
  3. Encourage cross-cultural understanding across different spectrums of society through community and volunteer opportunities at the Centre, to foster empathy and goodwill between people
  4. Help communities understand sustainable waste management and redirect waste from the landfills in a bid to allocate resources more effectively
  5. Extend the life cycle of items that are thrown away by converting them into useful and desirable entities
  6. Encourage job creation particularly for the underprivileged and Special Needs job applicants in an under-addressed market
  7. Addresses unemployment especially among the underprivileged, in line with current efforts and investments in education and community development
Directors and our partners at the launch of the Recovry Centre in Subang Jaya (L-R : Recovr CEO Faiz Arshad/Masai, Founder of Generating Opportunities of the Learning Disabled (GOLD) Juairiah Johari, Recovr Chairman Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi, Recovr Director Chironjit Das, Recovr Director Muhammad Haziq Nasir, Principal of Counterpoint Consulting Steve McCoy

Directors and our partners at the launch of the Recovry Centre in Subang Jaya (L-R : Recovr CEO Faiz Arshad/Masai, Founder of Generating Opportunities of the Learning Disabled (GOLD) Juairiah Johari, Recovr Chairman Khairun Nisa Mohamed Zabidi, Recovr Director Chironjit Das, Recovr Director Muhammad Haziq Nasir, Principal of Counterpoint Consulting Steve McCoy

What inspired you to start the project?

Due to my background in environmental activism and corporate sustainability, I’ve always been interested to invest in a green company. While serving my bond at the pay-TV operator that granted me a scholarship, I worked with their CSR department and had a chance at exploring sustainable waste management through their recycling office programme. The department had previously launched a recycling campaign some years ago and attempted to measure the company’s waste for reporting purposes but poor communication and the lack of awareness within the office coupled with poor backend management had led the programme to fail. For example, the department had placed bins around the office building but didn’t communicate it which meant a low yield. So when collectors came, they cancelled their contract to pick up our recyclables because there was too little to make a profit. For years to come, our colleagues who actually utilized the bins never knew that their recyclables ended up going into a landfill instead of a recycling factory.

I also saw a gap in employment issues. My mother, Juairiah Johari has worked with the Special Needs for over 25 years now as a teacher in a secondary school. Much of her adult life has been dedicated to educating the Special Needs community with so few ending up employed due to stigma. She later found GOLD, a social enterprise to help these young adults find employment through vocational training and job placements. The gap that no one seems to see is that these individuals made extremely efficient and loyal workers due to their condition. People with autism, for example, makes things like repetition and sorting a second nature and are extremely good at it. We saw this as an opportunity to a valuable human resource that are readily available and great fun to work with.

How did you start the project?

Step 1 : I got a couple of like-minded friends together and we pooled resources into building the foundation of our business
Step 2 : Registered Recovr Resources Sdn Bhd which was officially incorporated in 12.12.12
Step 3 : Rented and renovated a factory space and hired and trained some sorters
Step 4 : Launched our centre and began operations for drop-off

Photos of our launch

Photos of our launch

At what stage of your project are you right now?

We are currently looking for the right partners to work with us on our initiative. Companies that are looking to look at their waste trail and establishing a sustainable waste management programme; schools, offices or buildings that are looking to start a recycling campaign or even communities interested in getting their neighbours together to recycle.

The next stage will be expansion: setting up centres in other parts of the Klang Valley so more people can get involve. We’re looking to also venture into reducing and reusing campaigns as well through analyzing our partners’ procurement process and upcycling the items we receive into more useful things for rent or sale. The future also holds a possibility of collecting perishables such as food for compost or biodiesel to name a few instead of ending up in the landfill.

The recycling industry is a greenfield and we’re truly excited to see where we can take it.

What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

Starting from scratch with no experience – learning the ropes of the existing legal frameworks we needed to work within is on-the-job and we value any advice and mentor-ship the industry has to offer.

The second challenge is the stigma we have received as young entrepreneurs. Up to some extent, all my partners are challenged by this. When a young professional leaves their, along with the cushy pay and benefits, to start something up, many people particularly the ones closest to you will have their doubts. Naturally, they want you to succeed but young people today are raised to earn a degree and work for someone else.

The third challenge is my relocation. My husband has been appointed a diplomatic post at the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta. We left in May and the team had to make difficult management decisions which included appointing a successor with my commitments to be closely involved online. Unfortunately, long-distance management is much like long-distance relationships : intermittent, poorly developed and inadequate. Currently, we’re looking to grow our team to fill the missing gaps that I had left behind in my absence, particularly in the client development and servicing department.

What is rewarding about your project?

The ability to hire and pay a person who otherwise wouldn’t have a job is particularly rewarding. One of our first hires is a high-functioning autistic boy who is politically aware and dreams of owning a hand-held tablet and visiting the US and China. He’s financially motivated and is easily encouraged with promises of lunch treats. The first time we paid him, he checked and rechecked his name on the cheque with his IC so there wouldn’t be any problems banking it in. Later I learned that he gave some money to his teacher as a thank you.

The wins are encouraging. Since our launch, we have been awarded RM50,000 from the Genovasi Challenge and RM30,000 together with a 6-month mentorship with Scope Group from the Guinness Arthur Berhad – British Council Entrepreneurs for Good competition. The confidence that the public and experts alike that was required for our win showed that we had a good idea and the responsibility to take it forward and make it work.

Sorting cages

Sorting cages

What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

There’s a lot of commitment that is required for a project to succeed. Like any business, the right people at the helm and working with like-minded partners and people you can trust is paramount. Seeing difficulties as challenges you need to get around rather than road blocks. Believing in your idea and putting in the hard work needed to build and grow your business to serve the communities you dream of. Understanding that changing behaviours take time and your passion can change a person’s habits for the better. Always surrounding yourself with optimistic believers who are imperative in keeping you motivated and the fire burning. Know when to quit.

Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

Absolutely! Our company practices the open-source philosophy – because we believe that everyone has something to contribute for the betterment of society. We are happy to collaborate towards common goals so if you’ve got a good idea, some time to help or just feel like chatting about social entrepreneurship, recycling or responsible hiring practices, our doors and inboxes are open!

Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

Malaysians, specifically the younger generation, are at a cusp of an identity crisis. Some of the most intelligent and passionate people I know struggle within the confines of the labor markets they serve to justify their expensive college degrees while they dream of the freedom and autonomy that entrepreneurship promises. It’s really time to break free. It is our time now. Time to change the way the world works – take the leap.

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