Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The VIP story

There’s a lot more to Blue Dragon than most people realize. On this blog I try to let people know about all the different things we have going on, but outside of our staff and volunteers, not many people understand the full extent of our operations.

A case in point: few people realize that Blue Dragon has been running a vocational training program as part of a motorbike rental business we set up in 2008.

The whole concept started with a donation from Lars and Julie Jaegar and Lars’ company, Partners Group. At the time, Blue Dragon had a volunteer named Andrew Souto who happened to be a mechanic, and had already been with us for 18 months running small training and job skills programs for street kids. Together we hatched the idea for VIP Bikes, which was to be a genuine business offering the best motorbike rental and repair service in Hanoi, and which also trained disadvantaged youth in mechanics and business skills.

What we didn’t realize, though, was how intense the demand for business would be once we had started. While we were still renovating the building we’d rented, Andrew’s phone started ringing from people who wanted to rent bikes. How could we say no? Once word was out, there was no turning back. And once the Hanoi community heard how good the service was, Andrew’s phone just kept on ringing.

Some other supporters cam on board as well: Jacqui Gregory from Queensland raised money to help VIP Bikes buy equipment, and St Joseph’s International School in Singapore raised funds to pay for training. Some of their students even came over and painted the building!

Fast forward two years, and Andrew is still volunteering at VIP Bikes (through the VIDA program), with the original mechanics working alongside him – plus a couple more! The rental business side has grown from 3 motorbikes to over 50, and there’s a constant stream of short term and long term trainees.

One of those trainees, Bao, now works full time at VIP Bikes: he’s now staff, and wears his uniform with pride.

Bao at work...

Another trainee, Nhan, has moved on to a training program at KOTO, which teaches hospitality skills. Although that seems to be totally unrelated, VIP Bikes taught Nhan a few skills that he needed before he could be accepted by KOTO: like punctuality, listening to the trainer, and following directions. Without those months under Andrew’s guidance, Nhan simply couldn’t have been ready for any other program or job.

This week saw a major milestone in the VIP story. What started out as a program under the auspices of Blue Dragon has now become a fully independent social enterprise. VIP Bikes has taken on a life of its own; it needed to break free from the rest of Blue Dragon so it could keep on growing.

A workshop for disadvantaged youth on bicycle maintenance

I can be pretty cynical about NGOs and the ‘empire mentality’ that I see at work in many of the big charities here in Vietnam. In a situation like this, it was very tempting for Blue Dragon to hold on to VIP Bikes – after all, why wouldn’t we want to hang on to such a huge success story? Why let go of something so good? But the truth is, VIP Bikes has much more freedom to grow and develop if it is not part of another organization. So we decided to separate, and register VIP as an independent social enterprise.

Blue Dragon kids will continue to train there, and I’m looking forward to posting stories soon about some of the teenagers who are about to start learning motorbike repair – including a couple of boys who were previously trafficked to garment factories.

So stay tuned. The VIP Bikes story has a long way to go.

Read more about VIP Bikes here.


Kerstin Brittsjö said...

You guys are doing an amazing job!!!

Mosher said...

I don't know if that's what prompted this post, but Steve (Ourman) recommended VIP on Twitter this week.

Vocational skills are vastly under-rated. There was a boy in one of my classes at the last school I worked at. Never did any work. Handed in tests with his barely-legible name at the top and nothing else. Disruptive. Rude.

But talk to him about bikes.

He was 13/14 and, I gather, could strip a motorcycle down to components and rebuild it running better than it was before.

There's no way he'll be a university student. He doesn't have the academic aptitude. But he'd make a fantastic mechanic.