This Filipino Startup Explains Why Data Is the Next Language Filipinos Should Learn 

A Filipino ed-tech startup, Eskwelabs provides students with access to future-relevant skills education, with the promise of democratizing access to meaningful careers.
IMAGE COURTESY OF ESKWELABS

For decades, Filipinos were encouraged to master the English language. “English” has become synonymous with “opportunity” in the Philippines, where labor is our biggest export. Nurses, domestic workers, IT professionals—the most common careers to go abroad often hinge on their capabilities in communicating in English. But times have changed as there’s a new language Filipinos should learn to unlock a new level of opportunity—data. 

When the pandemic accelerated the digitalization of companies around the world, it also raised the demand for workers who could read the language that now defines almost every digitalized company. In the strictest sense of the word, data covers information, facts, and statistics pertaining to a particular topic. In the online sphere, data is the set of numbers and patterns that we read to determine our next steps as a business. In short, data is currency in this post-pandemic world, and reading, understanding, and analyzing data is the skill we need. 

This is where Eskwelabs comes in. A Filipino ed-tech startup, Eskwelabs provides students with access to future-relevant skills education, with the promise of democratizing access to meaningful careers. 

“We were looking at designing the learning experience of the future for the skill of the future. And for many of us who grew up 30 or so years ago, the skill of the future was languages like English. People who learn English can unlock a whole new side of the working place. The Philippines is one of the countries where people have picked up that future skill much faster than many other countries,” explained Aurelien Chu, COO of Eskwelabs. 

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Then the team asked themselves, “What is the future skill now?” 

“For us, that's data. Data is the language of the future. That's where we want to build the learning experience for. Will the Philippines again be a champion, a pioneer in learning those future skills? We really believe that that is the case. The Philippines has already shown that it can be a pioneer in that it can do so again.”

Introducing Eskwelabs

Founded in 2019 by CEO Angela Chen, COO Aurelien Chu, and CTO Caleb Tutty, Eskwelabs is backed by investors like Antler, Eduspaze, Citrine Capital, and Novus Paradigm Capital. The startup lets students digest data education in a matter of weeks instead of years, giving them a chance to shift careers and beef up their skillset. Eskwelabs prepares students for the future of work to find better opportunities, to become more competitive, and perhaps even to migrate. 

CEO Angela Chen, CTO Caleb Tutty, and COO Aurelien Chu

Photo by Courtesy of Eskwelabs.
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On the surface, Eskwelabs appears to provide just online courses on data science and analytics, but there’s more than meets the eye with this startup. In its early days, Eskwelabs focused on upskilling stay-at-home moms, out-of-school youths, and youths without a college degree to give them the technical skills to improve their livelihoods. But today, Eskwelabs describes itself as an online data upskilling school that works with communities, companies, organizations, and universities to give students a fighting chance in the competitive global market.

“COVID really accelerated our mission, because the company only existed for a couple of months before COVID started. So when we first started as clubs, we were already testing blended learning models because we wanted to bring the best of online learning and the low cost related to that, together with in-person learning, and the community, classmates, and other things that really motivate you to get the outcomes,” explained Chu.

COVID derailed the in-person learning plans, but Eskwelabs was able to transfer the community element of learning online. YouTube can only teach students so much before you’re left craving for the presence of classmates and teammates who are in the same boat as you. This is where the human element comes in, which is notoriously absent in many online schooling experiences. 

“If you want to learn a skill or hobby, you can find really a YouTube video for that. But really, what people [want] is the human experience of learning. How we see ourselves being able to achieve that mission is a lot more human and a lot more people-centric than it was when we started.”

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As of 2022, over 2,000 students have graduated from Eskwelabs’ free programs and resources while over 1,100 have graduated from its partner programs with other businesses, universities, and government programs. The startup offers three courses: a free Data Analytics Skills Course, a Data Analytics Bootcamp worth P28,000, and a Data Science Fellowship worth P60,000. Students in paid programs can “study now, pay later” with Eskwelabs’ loan partners, and scholarships are also available for exceptional students. The startup also offers Learning Sprints or customized courses with company partners, government institutions, and more.

The Intersection of the Future of Work and Learning 

Photo by Courtesy of Eskwelabs.

As it focuses on the future of work, Eskwelabs is also focusing on the future of learning. “It’s called the learning sprint,” explained Chu. Unlike a one-day traditional workshop or a four-year-long degree, a learning sprint consists of smaller sessions spread out over the course of a few weeks or a few months. And instead of one-way Zoom lectures we find in schools and universities, learning sprints focus on group-based learning and ensure that there’s a level of group work and socialization throughout the run of the course. 

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“It's a lot more fun and engaging. It's a lot more experiential. It's not like boring online lectures. Instead, it's actually working together. And we are pioneering versions of learning sprints for all different types of learners, from the very advanced data science learners to people just getting started with data literacy,” said Chu.

Learning a new skill can be daunting, but one thing that makes data analytics more appealing to potential students is that it’s a skill you can learn within weeks. Anything technical comes with the assumption it will require a four-year undergraduate course to learn, but data is so embedded in our everyday lives that you can learn the foundations of data analytics within a matter of months. 

"I think for a lot of people, something like software development is almost like starting a totally new career like you're starting from scratch. The thing about data is that you're not starting something totally new. You're adding to what you already know. It's a little bit like good communication. Good communication is a skill that you can add to everything,” explained Chu. “[Data] is used in marketing, it’s used in social media, it's used in software. Every person from an engineer to a project manager can actually pick up data skills and use them. For some people, it makes sense to focus on computer science or social media, but for almost everyone, it makes sense to pick up some data skills.”

A concrete example would be how Eskwelabs worked with a BPO company in the Philippines and assessed the skills of 12,000 call center agents to find which ones had the potential to be upskilled as a data analyst. 

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“Many of them don't get to complete their college degrees because they need to start earning to help their family and oftentimes they're sort of stuck in the call center job. Then when they look for a job outside, they’re asked for a college degree, [which] they were not able to complete,” shared Angela Chen. 

“We were able to upskill the call center agents, who didn't know have a university degree, into data analyst positions, whereby they didn't necessarily need to have like that four-year foundational STEM degree that oftentimes is required to go into something like software engineering.” 

So far, Eskwelabs students have come from all backgrounds, career tracks, and age ranges. From college students to senior managers, students have been attracted to the opportunity of upskilling in this ever-changing digital landscape. Graduates have gone on to work at UnionBank, Accenture, Kumu, and other top-tier tech and startup companies in the Philippines.

The Future of Data Science and Analytics in the Philippines

While Eskwelabs sees data analytics and data science as a necessity, the startup is also insistent on using data for good. It’s hard not to see why—in the last six years, we’ve seen just how badly data can be used to weaponize information and the internet. Just look at the proliferation of trolls and fake news, thanks to algorithms that were placed in the wrong hands. Instead of capitalizing or weaponizing data, Eskwelabs is part of a greater cause that is looking to use data to solve world problems.  

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“Data for Good is a global movement [made up] of people with the skills looking for applications that are in the public sphere. So you could use the same algorithm that you use to predict credit default at a bank and use the same set of skills to solve a problem an environmental problem in your community,” shared Chen. 

“During COVID, for instance, we saw some of our graduates help the Department of Health build a dashboard, the one that everybody was using to track COVID numbers. And that's actually [trickled] down to a lot of other agencies in the government [who wanted] to have dashboards to be able to report on citizen services.”

Eskwelabs doesn’t teach students how to analyze data—it also teaches them how to measure its biases and trustworthiness.

“Data is also a part of how we digest information. And so when we talk about questions of information, of understanding the world around us, understanding and separating truth, from fiction, or facts from propaganda, a lot of that also comes down to data literacy and being able to understand how data is used, how data can be manipulated, and how data can help us to better understand the situation and come up with solutions,” said Chu. 

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“[Data literacy] could also be used as a weapon to exclude people from conversations, to leave decision-making to the realm of technocratic experts. And I guess, we want to change this. It's like using data to ask questions. About society and the world around us. Maybe it's a lens to ask questions of fairness or better explain policy outcomes or dive deep into a particular topic,” shared Tutty. 

Eskwelabs’ tech chief also discussed how each data bootcamp takes the ethics of data seriously. We’ve seen just how much damage it can make, and Eskwelabs makes sure to educate students on ethical data storytelling and the perils of AI.   

“Something that we've definitely included in how we teach data science is thinking a little bit about ethics [and] the way that you communicate data storytelling. We've tried talk about sort of what happens when you put a machine learning model in production and it has a bias,” explained Tutty. “What happens if the back bias then ends up denying credit or loans to people? We want to contribute to a generation of data scientists that communicate those kinds of risks. Think deeply about the implications of what sort of machine learning and AI has on society.”  

As a company, Eskwelabs has joined the larger network of data schools and data experts in the Philippines to safeguard the use of data in the country. A member of the recently established Analytics Association of the Philippines, Eskwelabs is helping AAP build a vibrant analytics ecosystem in the country through planned projects with TESDA and monitoring the demand and supply of data analysts and data scientists in the country. 

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In the Philippines, data roles are most in demand among big conglomerates, startups, and companies that service North American clients. Eskwelabs is also working with the Department of Education and universities to train teachers on how to use data in their teaching; and with corporations to educate workers on how to use data as dashboards and databases are connecting everyone with data.  

With data being the future of work, Eskwelabs has plenty of opportunities to leverage on in the coming years. Scaling on the institutional side is one of Eskwelabs’ goals, as well as growing its learner community to one million students. The startup also hopes to expand further into the ASEAN markets. 

While the ed-tech’s mission is to give Filipinos more work opportunities in this competitive digital economy, it’s also contributing to a greater mission that impacts us all—a more robust talent ecosystem in the Philippines composed of critical thinking workers with the skills to compete internationally. Perhaps in a few years, Filipinos will be as fluent in data as they are in English.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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