Grace Clapham: Changemaker Extraordinaire

Co-Founder, The Change School
Text by Yong Hui Yow; Photography by Yew Jia Jun
February 26, 2015
Become – Trendsetters

Grace Clapham hands me her card, which reads a quote from Socrates: “To move the world, we must first move ourselves.” So we move ourselves into Flock, a cafe in Tiong Bahru, as the racket from nearby road works interrupts our morning banter. While moving the world isn’t on the menu today, she is taking steps – she is a changemaker. On the menu however, were Fruits and Greek Yogurt – our photographer’s choice as he digs into his breakfast.

“The term has become overused by the public and media,” says the co-founder of The Change School, an institute for people who want to take stock of their lives and make a change, starting with themselves. I wonder if the term is in fact a gentler synonym for the more contentious ‘social activist’. While the term has become overused, and the meaning under-appreciated, it remains one Grace ascribes to herself. She explains the criteria, “You have to help society and other people progress, as an entrepreneur, or within organisations.” She leads by example.

YONG HUI YOW: What do you do?

GRACE CLAPHAM: I organise CreativeMornings Singapore, which is a series of talks now in over a hundred countries. In 2009, I founded a branding and creative agency, Agent Grace, which helps Australian businesses break into South East Asia. I now spend 80 per cent of my time on The Change School. I also mentor start-ups in branding and marketing at Hub Singapore, a co-working space for entrepreneurs. I’ve also just launched The Change Gym.

YONG HUI: Why is the quote on your card?

GRACE: At The Change School, we believe that once an individual has a better understanding of him or herself, they will better understand the world, allowing them to navigate their way better. We look for individuals who want to align personal values with life choices. But first, they must start with their values, personalities, and capabilities.

YONG HUI: Why did you start The Change School?

GRACE: Mostly personal experience. When I had my agency (Agent Grace) full-time, my father passed away, and I felt I needed to do more because I was not feeling completely aligned with my job. But I couldn’t find a space. So I decided to set up The Change School with my business partner. We’re trying to redefine alternative adult education.

YONG HUI: Who are you targeting?

GRACE: It’s for graduates, career breakers, entrepreneurs, or people who are into life-long learning. For our 21-day programme, we get people who have just finished their MBAs and are still lost, ex-corporates who are burnt out and don’t know what to do next, or just people who’re over their jobs, and want to move on—these are our biggest categories.

YONG HUI: Do you find that people lack self-awareness?

GRACE: In a way, but there are big misconceptions around self-awareness. I believe in a balanced approach through understanding ourselves, using personality and behavioural tests. This is effective because it allows us to say ‘this is what I like’, ‘what I don’t like’, ‘this is what I need to work on’, ‘these are things I can do’. It’s about having actionable items, and getting to your potential. ‘Self-awareness’ has been overly focused on the spiritual and self-help stuff. For us, it’s about ‘how do you make something work for you’.

YONG HUI: Are people unhappy in Singapore in general, so they need your programmes?

GRACE: I think statistically, yes. Singapore has been known for having unhappiness, whether in people’s careers or lives.

YONG HUI: Is it because people make the wrong choices?

GRACE: Society’s changing. The younger generation is no longer happy with what has worked previously. They want to develop and change their environments to what they want it to be. This is normal because Singapore is only 50 years old. But the unhappiness factor in careers is global – I would say most people are misaligned with what they do.

YONG HUI: Are people forced into careers they don’t want?

GRACE: It’s societal pressures, in general. You grow up thinking you should get your degree, have a fixed career, then you realise it’s not what you want, or it doesn’t fit you. Growing up with an Asian mother, you know what I mean. [laughs]

YONG HUI: An Asian mother is worse than an Asian dad?

GRACE: Asian dads may be sterner, but they’re not as forceful as Asian mothers.

Now there is this whole celebritism around entrepreneurship. At The Change School, we are realistic about this—not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. We help people figure out their paths.

YONG HUI: Is that what you experienced?

GRACE: My mum is Indonesian; she cares a lot about what society thinks – it’s a very Asian thing. Only in the recent 10 years, that she’s been more open to me not having a traditional career. And now there is this whole celebritism around entrepreneurship. At The Change School, we are realistic about this – not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. We help people figure out their paths.

YONG HUI: Do people come out of your programmes with more clarity?

GRACE: Yes. With that, more mindfulness, better understanding of business skills, more direction, a valued-led community, and new habits. We’ve monitored 187 changes in our participants.

Grace Clapham

I don’t think they are unhappy per se. They’re recognising that they need to take the first step. People who want change, need to first realise they are at that crossroads. Many may need something to trigger that first.

YONG HUI: Are unhappy people applying?

GRACE: I don’t think they are unhappy per se. They’re recognising that they need to take the first step. People who want change, need to first realise they are at that crossroads. Many may need something to trigger that first.

YONG HUI: They must first decide they want to take a new direction.

GRACE: Correct—usually at pivotal points in phases such as graduation, mid-career, family, through to retirement. Within each of these, you have different trajectories. We designed our programmes so that anyone can fit. For me, I had my career with my agency but then my father passed away, which made me seek more meaningful work. That’s when I shifted to do The Change School; whereas for my business partner, she was in a corporate job before, and she moved also to find more meaningful work. Everyone goes through these stages, but at each stage, there can be unpredictable events – you never know when you’re going to have a health issue, financial hardship, or lose a loved one. These events are not age-specific. We have different programmes for everyone. Change Ventures, our 21-day programme, is really immersive. Other programmes include GetOutOfYourHead, and CultureHack, which is in India, and is for Jugaad Innovation. We work on emotional intelligence, life skills, culture, creativity, entrepreneurship, and social innovation.

YONG HUI: Do people date at these programmes?

GRACE: [laughs] No, they shouldn’t be doing that. They might be able to, but we’re trying to build an institute, so it has to be taken seriously. The idea is that you find a value-led community. If you find people you connect with, that’s great, but it’s definitely not for dating.

YONG HUI: So it’s not like Dating Naked in Bali.

GRACE: No, definitely not. You can start a school for that.


YONG HUI: If you had a normal job, what would it be?

GRACE: Probably brand management and development in the corporate sector. It’s creative yet still structured, and always changing. With The Change School too, it’s always different – different programmes, toolkits, and research. Without change, I become too stuck in one way of thinking and operating.

YONG HUI: When you were young, what did you want to do?

GRACE: I loved ‘teaching’. My little sister and I – we used to pretend in our house in Pasir Panjang. We had this little blackboard, those pointers and board registers—my mum used to buy them from Indonesia. So I’d make my little sister sit, and I’d teach her stuff, or I’d tell her off. I think it’s in my blood. It was heaps of fun.

YONG HUI: Probably because one of the first people we meet outside the family is the teacher.

GRACE: Totally. But I thought I was going to be a diplomat, I’m really into foreign policy, also because my dad was one.

YONG HUI: But that would put you in a very bureaucratic environment.

GRACE: Yeah. I thought that you could change from the inside out.


YONG HUI: How were your growing up days?

GRACE: I grew up in Singapore, but I was born in Indonesia, lived there till 6, then moved to Singapore, then to South America when I was 11, moved back to Singapore when I was 12, moved to Australia when I was 15, lived there till 2001, moved to the UK, then travelled and worked a bit there, returned to Australia, moved to New York in 2008. Now I’m back here since 2009. For now, I’ll probably stay in Asia, or move to Berlin.

YONG HUI: Do you speak German?

GRACE: No. I’d like to though.

YONG HUI: Do you feel like you can’t find an identity?

GRACE: Totally. But I love Singapore – it’s a perfect melting pot. I grew up here, so this is home. I love Indonesia too – it’s hard to choose. Asia is my home, but I have western tendencies. I eat Asian food, more so than western.

YONG HUI: What do you like to eat?

GRACE: I like Sambal. I’m also a big Nasi Padang fan; Xiao Long Bao and Curry too.

YONG HUI: Do you cook?

GRACE: No, I’m not really domesticated. My husband is better at that. I tend to do the washing.

YONG HUI: Those who can’t cook, wash.

GRACE: [laughs] Yeah, so I do that. He also designs the interiors of the house – he’s quite the handyman.

YONG HUI: Do you see yourself domesticated?

GRACE: I really like my home. I like reading; I like my weekends. I try and have some days to myself. I will probably become more domesticated if I were to have kids, but there’s too much travelling at the moment, so it’s quite hard.

YONG HUI: How was your Talent Unleashed experience in South Africa?

GRACE: I’ve never been so it was my first time. It has opened a lot of doors and made me busier. But I can’t complain – it’s been great. I’m doing what I love.

YONG HUI: Did you get to meet Branson or Wozniak?

GRACE: Unfortunately, no. We went to the Branson’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, and met with a lot of local entrepreneurs who were very passionate. It was great to see what the local scene is like. There’s a lot of innovation going on, partly because of the problems of the past, things to solve. But that’s the best breeding ground for start-ups.

YONG HUI: What do you want to be doing more of?

GRACE: I’d like to be speaking more, at conferences for alternative education, and lifelong learning. I want The Change School to be in 10 different locations, and running at least 2 programmes a month. The next 2 years will be a telling time.

YONG HUI: You want the Change School to be global.

GRACE: Totally. We’d like to stay in Asia – Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, but having global students.