Changing Children’s Lives Through Books

Randall Chong uses the profits of his secondhand bookstore to fund educational initiatives that help children in rural Nepal.

By Alywin Chew      13 December 2021

Left physically and mentally exhausted by his hectic work schedule at a tech startup, Randall Chong had in 2017 packed his bags and headed for Everest Base Camp as a means of decompressing and recharging his mind and body.

The trek turned out to be a near perilous one as he was hit with a series of altitude sickness symptoms, but it wasn’t a near-death experience that led to a life-changing moment – it was a chance meeting with a 16-year-old porter during his journey to the base camp.

After learning from the teenager that it is not uncommon for Nepalese children living in the mountains to trek for hours just to get to school, Chong’s initial astonishment turned into an insatiable curiosity that compelled him to engineer a visit to a local school.

Shocked by the state of the school and the local education system, he went on to set up Books Beyond Borders, an online secondhand bookstore that channels its profits toward funding for initiatives that improve the level of education in rural Nepal.

Randall shares with NSMan more about his social enterprise and its future goals.

Q: What do you think was the main reason you set up Books Beyond Borders?

Randall: I felt spiritually bankrupt. I hated my life. I felt that I couldn’t bring much value to the world. I guess I was at a stage in life where I wanted to do something that mattered to the world. I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship, too. I had a few startup ideas and was constantly reading books about entrepreneurship when I was in NS.

Q: Why did you decide on selling books?

Randall: I don’t really know how that idea came about! I just woke up one day and decided to do this. At the beginning, I simply sold my own books on Carousell. My good friend later heard about my project and decided to sell her books to support the cause, and that got me thinking, “Hey, this could actually work.”

Q: Were you always a bookworm?

Randall: I only picked up reading when I was in NS. Many of my camp mates read a lot and I guess this rubbed off on me. It was a long journey from home to camp so I’d just read a book to kill the time.

Q: How has your NS experience helped with the running of Books Beyond Borders?

Randall: I was part of the Rapid Runway Repair team from the Air Force during my NS days and in this vocation, you learn that teamwork is really important. After all, nobody can repair a runway alone.

This applies to Books Beyond Borders as well. I know that it’s impossible to manage the business alone, so I rely a lot on my team of five volunteers who believe in the company’s mission and help collect the books that we sell.

Q: What are some of the educational challenges faced in Nepal?

Randall: Many students in public schools don’t complete up to Grade 12. The dropout rate is just so high. There are many reasons for this, such as household poverty, which compels kids to go out and work when they’re young. Another reason is the lack of quality of teachers in rural public schools.

Q: Can you share one example of how Books Beyond Borders has made a positive impact?

Randall: We once funded a training program for a teacher from an organisation called Teach for Nepal, and this teacher eventually went on to lead a team of students to win a national science competition. He even managed to get three of these students university scholarships! This is a really big deal because getting to attend university is a doorway out of poverty for these children.

I saw this as a vindication of our efforts to make an impact by investing in the teachers instead of just students, because it is educators like him who will do much more for the students in the long run. It’s moments like these that keep me motivated in running Books Beyond Borders.

Q: Most touching moment from this journey with Books Beyond Borders?

Randall: A Nepalese girl once wrote me a letter that I have since framed up. She wrote that her dream was to become a doctor, but she didn’t feel it was possible because she didn’t know where to get the books to learn about science. She eventually gained access to such books when we helped build a library.

Q: Would you further scale the business to impact even more people around the world?

Randall: The projects that Books Beyond Borders funds is currently limited to Nepal because I don’t want to spread my resources too thin, else it’s just a tiny sum of money going to different places. When the business grows, I plan to expand the support to other South Asian countries like India where the educational problems are very similar to Nepal’s.

Q: Do you plan to sell more than just secondhand books?

Randall: Yes. I want this social enterprise to become more than just an online bookstore, but a brand that revolves around giving back to society. Just like how Nike doesn’t just sell shoes, Books Beyond Borders might in the future sell other products that fit the brand.

In fact, book sales won’t be the only way we raise funds. Earlier this year, we raised $10,000 in a day to help rebuild a school in Nepal that was affected by a flood.

Q: Do you think what you’re doing now is more meaningful compared to before?

Randall: When I was working in startups, my goal in life was to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. I wanted to grow a successful company that I could sell for lots of money. But a few years in, I felt that I was chasing the wrong thing in life. I initially thought that what I was doing would bring me joy, but it was in fact taking me further away from happiness.

This was when I realised that it was much more meaningful to invest in the wellbeing of others. Till this day, this mantra still keeps me going. I’m earning much less than what I did before. In fact, I could probably make more money flipping burgers. But I’m so much more fulfilled than before.

Books Beyond Borders is an online secondhand bookstore that generates funding for education. 100% of their net profits are invested in organisations helping students in rural schools learn, read, and lead. For more information on how you can help, visit www.booksbeyondborders.org

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Photos: Randall Chong