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Edtech startup Eskwelabs explores the future of work

The Singaporean company’s first bootcamp in Manila was inspiring proof of the versatility of data science.

Businesses today, established and startup alike, are looking to leverage information: Grab’s data involving fares, traffic, and customer demand, for example. Data science, conversely, is becoming an increasingly valuable resource. The people who know how to read and interpret big data in constructive—and profitable—ways are now in high demand, and that need is something that Eskwelabs, a newly minted education platform for 21st century tech skills, wants to investigate.

The startup concluded its first Data Science Fellowship earlier this month with a demonstration day in partnership with Accenture: an opportunity for the 23-person Manila cohort to present their ideas and proposals for data science applications to industry professionals. The fellows talked about a wide range of applications for complex data sets: from improving road safety and evaluating voting habits, to facilitating microloans for farmers and analyzing the factors affecting employability.

That last bit about employability touches on one of the core ideas that drives Eskwelabs.

Bridging the gap

Co-founder and CEO Angela Chen explains that the problem they really wanted to solve was the problematic transition from school to work.

“We saw that there is a lot of players at the end of the funnel, like job boards, for example, that help employers find the people they want,” Chen explains. “But nobody’s really helping people discover what job they want. Why do you even want that job? How does that play to your strength, to your passion?”

That challenge is particularly prevalent in emerging contexts, and that’s part of the reason why Eskwelabs is here. “A lot of times, most young people in Southeast Asia don’t have the luxury to choose,” Chen asserts. “They just get a job that pays. And that, to us, is something we want to change. Once you have more skills, you’re more in demand. You get to call the shots.”

The Eskwelabs founders noted that employers were willing to pay for tech skills in today’s market, and so they considered: could they take on that role and the training that people can use to become more employable?

If the extremely positive response from their industry partners and investors is any indication, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Location is everything

Eskwelabs did its first eight-week data science bootcamp in Manila because it was the most practical and promising choice.

The Eskwelabs fellows with representatives from event partner Accenture.

“The Philippines has the potential to become a hub for data analytics globally,” Chen says. “A lot of the outsourcing jobs that US companies are looking for now are actually in the data space. When we look at Southeast Asia, who can actually capture that market? Is it going to be Vietnam, that has a lot of techno talent but can’t speak English? Is it going to be Indonesia, where there’s a lot of emerging techno talent, but can’t speak good English? Or could it be the Philippines, where we can speak English and we just need to learn how to do the work?”

That pragmatism worked out very well for the startup: more than 250 people applied for the bootcamp, and that was with zero marketing. All they did was post in tech groups and contexts where people were interested in data science. Seventy people were at Manila Cohort 1’s demo day, including Thinking Machines CEO and chief data scientist Stephanie Sy and the chief data scientists of other organizations such as Mynt.

A higher calling

There was also something interesting about the fellows of Manila Cohort 1: during their application process, most said that they wanted to learn data science to improve the Philippines. At first the company thought it was just the expected altruistic line to get selected for the fellowship, but then the fellows’ final presentations took shape.

They were not kidding,” Chen says.

“At least half of them are on the social impact side and on how to improve public services,” she notes. “Even about meeting [the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN]: very non-traditional industry applications for data science. That’s very much aligned with the inclinations of the founders, to be honest. More of us come from a social impact mindset.”

All that ties into a bigger picture that Eskwelabs has in mind: a better future.

“When we were in Indonesia, and we saw what’s happening there, the fact that there are five unicorns, the fact that Gojek is there, pushing the entire ecosystem forward, that is something that’s totally possible here,” Chen underscores. “We are at the very beginning of that. If Manila were to position itself right, it can really support new startups, new companies: people who want to do tech, and bring a whole generation of young people in with that movement.”

The future should be here

“We are at a crossroads in terms of where the world is heading,” Chen reiterates. “In a lot of other places, the future has already arrived.” She points out that in China, for instance, such as in the Alibaba offices, facial recognition is the norm. In contrast, establishments in the Philippines still rely on writing down names and checking IDs.

Eskwelabs is among the young, visionary startups that want to make a real difference. “The future has arrived, but it’s unevenly distributed,” Chen concludes. “It hasn’t reached the Philippines. Now, there’s an opportunity for that to change.”