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Pursuing a life of meaning: An interview with SpeakGuru Foundation founder Kenei Kuotsu

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 10 min read
 Pursuing a life of meaning: An interview with SpeakGuru Foundation founder Kenei Kuotsu
SpeakGuru Foundation Kenei Kuotsu talks about how finance and philanthropy complement each other
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Financial consultant by day, philanthropist by night, founder of SpeakGuru Foundation Kenei Kuotsu talks about how the two worlds collide.

Long before Kenei Kuotsu, 39, was a financial adviser representative at the Finerty Advisory Group for IPP Financial Advisers, he was already an active conservationist and philanthropist supporting beneficiaries in his home state of Nagaland in North East India. He founded SpeakGuru Foundation in 2010 built on three pillars: help needy children living with cancer, improve the education system in remote villages and protect the environment.

At the core of his humanitarian work, Kuotsu’s contributions revolve around giving children a happier life and better world to live in. This is the legacy he hopes to leave behind for his younger son and daughter to enjoy. Today, the non-profit organisation (NGO) has helped over 15 children by supporting their chemotherapy treatment and medical bills.

Kuotsu grew up in Kohima, a quaint town located at the foothills of the Himalayas “where the clouds come down to kiss the mountains” as he so poetically puts it. This is also the same town where the Battle of Kohima (circa 1944) took place between the British Forces and Japanese Army during the Second World War.

As a young man who grew up surrounded by so much flora and fauna, Kuotsu was wit- ness to the mindless hunting of a rare and elusive bird called Blyth’s Tragopan, which also happens to be the state bird of Nagaland. A chance to write for the local newspaper to expose these exploitations was the defining moment or trigger for him to pursue a life of conservation.

Blyth’s Tragopan is found in the mountain ranges straddling Myanmar on one side and India on the other. Tribal hunters living along this belt hunt the fowl for food as it is the size of a kampong chicken. Word has it that the prized pheasants can fetch up to $360 for a couple on the black market. “It’s a beautiful bird and endemic to the region but listed as vulnerable in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list. To push our state bird into extinction would be a tragic story!” laments Kuotsu.

In tandem with his efforts to care for his people back home, Kuotsu is also passionate about protecting the Blyth’s Tragopan from extinction. SpeakGuru Foundation has been working tirelessly to rescue the birds and move them to the Blyth’s Tragopan Conservation and Breeding Centre in Kohima. Children from a rural school receive refurbished computers as part of the foundation’s mission to improve the education system in Kohima. They have also donated an incubator and power inverter to the centre in hopes of multiplying the breeding capacity of the endangered bird.

Kuotsu’s keen interest in wildlife and conservation led him to volunteer as a docent (educational guide) for the African Adventure station at the Singapore Zoo, a title that he has proudly held since 2016. “The zoo attracts a lot of visitors making it the perfect place to talk about conservation. Telling some of the visitors that the rhino horn on display is not for sale and turning that into a teaching moment as they nod in agreement to protect and conserve is truly fun!” he says.

Unlike many C-suites who would give up their corporate lives altogether to pursue their passions, Kuotso believes you cannot have one without the other. “You can’t have a meaningful career if it’s devoid of some good. Everyone can do good and it’s not standalone or separate from having a career. But there’s no denying that doing good things takes real effort, time and money. I’m thankful that the financial planning industry gives me flexible working hours allowing me to make time for the foundation,” he admits.

To him, a successful career in finance and a life of philanthropy are not mutually exclusive. They possess many commonalities. “I enjoy doing both. They both involve helping people and there’s immense satisfaction in doing that and seeing results in the fullness of time. Not only does the meeting of the two give me a sense of balance but a sense of purpose,” he shares.

As a financial consultant, Kuotso remains front-facing providing tailored advice to help high-net-worth individuals achieve their financial goals. To help him at his job, he’s been working on a CRM system called DreamMaker Logic for financial planners and intends to launch it this quarter.

IPP Financial Advisers, founded by Wee Tiong Howe, is a financial advisory firm that specialises in financial and wealth planning, investments and insurance. It is known for developing a proprietary business model known as the 4-Wealth model — Wealth Accumulation, Wealth Management, Wealth Protection and Wealth Distribution — designed to offer holistic financial solutions for its clients. “Our proven methodologies in financial planning have given our clients financial security and independence,” he affirms.

Kuotsu visits the Dzükou Valley in Nagaland to create awareness for pollution by picking up trash

Known for his indomitable spirit and infectious outlook on life, Kuotsu is a zealous go-getter whose life story is intertwined with the strands of passion, fulfilment and purpose. From shaving his hair to raise funds for children living with cancer to scaling the beautiful Dzükou Valley to create awareness for pollution by picking up trash, Kuotsu believes that the true meaning of life is to contribute in any way we can that can impact and bring about meaningful changes to our society and the environment we live in.

Options catches up with him to uncover how he balances work and his pursuits, dealing with fund-raising challenges, and how being a docent for the zoo is the last piece of the puzzle in his humanitarian work.

What was your motivation to start up SpeakGuru Foundation?
It was during a visit to a hospital to meet a doctor. She was busy doing her rounds in the paediatric oncology ward and that’s when I saw the bald children. Something tugged at my heartstrings that day. When I enquired more about the children and their families, I found out that most of them were struggling with their bills and some would even miss their chemotherapy cycles because of financial constraints. Their plight was my motivation. That poignant evening in the hospital gave birth to SpeakGuru Foundation. I chose SpeakGuru because I used to write satirical pieces for a local newspaper under this nom de plume and felt that the work I do for the foundation should be discreet too.

How did you get it off the ground?
I invited the paediatric oncologist to join the foundation so that she could inform me of the most urgent need and cost of the treatment. She gladly obliged and when she started sending me the details of the children, all the creative ideas to raise funds started taking shape.

I remember when the foundation was still in its very nascent state, my former firm decided to do an endurance walk with me shortly after I founded the organisation. That night, we raised a little over $5,000 from well-wishers and I remember that fondly because the contribution gave it the much-needed impetus to grow. So many people have stepped forward to either participate with me or to help financially and that’s when I realised that there are so many good people who are willing to help a good cause.

Is fund-raising a challenge?
In the initial years, I was using my savings to help fund the foundation but that was not sustainable. Eventually, I started taking part in activities like Let’s Take a Walk and Hair for Hope to raise funds but that gradually segue into more sustainable and periodic events like hair-cutting campaigns and concerts in Kohima.

For the foundation, there’s a constant need to run activities and raise funds but because of the pandemic, everything is on halt. This is expected to continue until the end of this year before we can organise any meaningful event again.

Volunteers from SpeakGuru Foundation help to spruce up the paediatric oncology ward at a local hospital in Kohima

How do you allocate the funds or resources to help your beneficiaries?
The medical doctor who has been a member of the foundation plays a pivotal role in informing the committee on the amount of money required for a certain child’s treatment. It is always invariably approved. She and the treasurer would then help to pay the outstanding hospital bills. In response to their gratitude, we ask them to plant a tree when they can go back home.

Your mission is to help children stricken with cancer, underprivileged families and wildlife conservation. Can you share why you chose these areas in particular?
While registering for the foundation, I asked myself what are the things I’m passionate about and would like to do with the foundation. To help children with cancer, to protect our environment and to help improve the education system in remote villages came to mind. I chose these three because I could see the need around me and knew that these are causes worth trying to help and protect.

How are you helping to improve the education system in Kohima?
There are so many schools in remote villages without computers. One of my previous firms donated three refurbished computers and we sent them to two schools back in 2014. It was probably the first time for some kids to see computers. The idea was to introduce technology to these remote schools so that the experience could spark a plethora of imagination and curiosity.

Children from a rural school receive refurbished computers as part of the foundation’s mission to improve the education system in Kohima

How does your career in financial planning and life as a philanthropist go hand in hand?
They are both designed to help people. Our proven methodologies in financial planning have given our clients financial security and independence. Similarly, the foundation is also very people-centric. We want to provide the best we could to needy children living with cancer, uplift the condition of students in remote villages and by advocating conservation, leave a thriving ecosystem for the next generation.

How did you end up being a docent for the Singapore Zoo?
I love going to Singapore Zoo so one fine day in 2016, I looked up the zoo’s website for volunteering work and that’s how I chanced upon the role of a docent. I registered my interest and was called for an interview. To be a docent, one has to be passionate about wildlife and be willing to share that narrative with hundreds of curious visitors. In the process, we hope to pique their interest in wildlife conservation and to leave an indelible impression on them to continue the work even if they go back to their home countries.

Any interesting things you’ve discovered at the zoo?
I love the fact that some of the animals are sponsored and adopted by individuals or organisations. This is important for the functioning of the zoo because it is a self-funded organisation. So, to see organisations stepping forward to support the vision of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which is ‘to be a world-leading zoological institution that inspires people to value and conserve biodiversity’, truly gives me hope.

A docent for the Singapore Zoo since 2016, Kuotsu hopes to pique people’s interest in wildlife conservation

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