Ming Wong is co-founder of Asia Community Ventures, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization that promotes social investing and collaboration in Asia. Ming recently sat down with us so we could pick his brains on all things social sector and impact investing in Asia. In the first part of our conversation, we dove into social impact career advice and how this generation of young people can help realize the dream of a more sustainable Asian future.
Asian Philanthropy Forum: You’re an investment banker turned nonprofit co-founder. That’s not really a conventional career path. Can you fill me in on how you got from Point A to Point B?
Ming Wong: Investment banking is something that I’ve always enjoyed. At its core, investment banking is about connecting people who are looking to invest their money to people with ideas and companies that need the money to grow. That’s it.
If I were younger I might have actually tried to start a social enterprise to address very specific needs. But given my banking skills and what I think I do well, which is being a connector, I wanted to create an entity that allows me to connect people with ideas. The only difference now is that I’m working with people who are looking to improve the world; they’re not just looking to grow a company for the sake of growing a company.
And on the other side, the people with money to invest are not just looking for financial returns. They could be people wanting to give grants to maximize social returns; or they could be impact investors looking for some combination of financial and social returns. They could even be mainstream investors coming to the realization that in the long term, the only financial returns that are sustainable are those that also incorporate ESG [environmental, social, governance] criteria in their investing. The nonprofit that I created is really seeking to connect these two entities.
APF: In Engage HK, a roadmap of the social space in Hong Kong that your organization created, you suggest that Hong Kong is in need of a mindset shift. People should understand that social change and financial incentives can go hand-in-hand. But mindset shifts strikes me as something incredibly difficult to accomplish. How do you feel things are going with that shift?
MW: I’m actually very encouraged. You look at Hong Kong — a major financial center, the IPO capital of Asia — and there are lots of young people moving here. 10 years ago, the people moving to Hong Kong were almost exclusively looking for jobs at investments banks. But in the last couple of years, things have slowed down
I don’t know whether that’s because the money to be made is not as good, or because in their schooling years this generation has managed to absorb the idea that it’s no longer just about money. Many young people don’t feel complete job satisfaction in what they do. Many are looking to volunteer in their free time or even quitting their jobs to start a new business, which may or may not be socially related. Many even ask me if they can get a job in impact investing. My answer is yes, but I also say that in Asia, this field is still too small; I tell them to move to the U.S. if they can.
APF: That’s interesting, about the Asian impact investing field still being too small. What’s the best way for younger people to get involved in the social impact space then?
MW: I always tell them the same thing: At this stage, if your financial circumstances allow and you can get some support from your parents, the best thing to do is start a company. What is the worst that can happen? There’s no shortage of older, more experienced business folks who want to act as mentors and intermediaries. At the end of the day, we need people to go out there and start companies. If everyone young person wants to enter the social impact space as investors, what on earth are we going to invest in? We can’t all be player-managers; we need players. We need people out there to handle the risks.
Of course, I do recognize that in a place like Hong Kong, it is very challenging because there is a lot of peer and parental pressure. The harsh reality is that the cost of living in Hong Kong is very high, just like in San Francisco. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to live with your parents, then you can moderate how much you spend. You may not even get a regular paycheck, but you can still spend a little to develop your ideas. So the time for people to experiment is really when they’re young, when they’re in their 20s. It’s much more difficult to go out and quit your job and do this in your thirties or later, but that’s something we are hoping to change.
APF: How would you go about changing that?
MW: There are a number of ways to address this. Foundations regularly provide scholarships for people, right? How are scholarships awarded? Sometimes it’s based on financial needs, and sometimes it’s based on merit. The prevailing notion is that if you invest your money in a smart, needy person, you should be able to have a positive impact. But there is also no guarantee that person is going to care about doing good. If you had a crystal ball, you probably would have preferred to support someone who would have cured cancer and had a greater impact than someone who graduated and focused only on banking. But we don’t have a crystal ball.
So now we’re asking: can companies be persuaded to have scholarships or fellowships not just to support people when they are in school, but in the first couple of years when they are out of school? Can companies start allowing their stars to take a sabbatical, to go do something positive with the comfort of knowing that if you fail or things don’t work out, your job is there waiting for you? If companies are prepared to offer that, then people will be willing to take a chance. That doesn’t cost the company any money, really, but it allows a kind of branding and building a culture where you encourage risk taking.
Some consulting companies, most notably McKinsey, already do this. They have a policy where if you work there for a period of time, they will continue paying your salary while you volunteer for a nonprofit. After that, you may or may not come back to them, but they still offer this option. If more companies are willing to do that — the more established ones at least — then you will begin to develop a culture where it is acceptable to go start something new.
APF: Let’s go back to the idea of starting new ventures for a moment. For social enterprises, it’s not just about knowing business models, but also about understanding the needs of the community you intend to serve. You’ve written about how in Asia, there’s a perception that individuals focus on their jobs and the government focuses on everything else. In general, do you think social awareness in Asia is at the level where people can go out and start social enterprises?
MW: There are a growing number of socially conscious individuals. In this area, I think schools — starting from high school as well as universities — have a role to play. When I was growing up, the notion of a social entrepreneur never existed. There were people who cared about the environment, but they were perceived as tree huggers, and not necessarily everyone is attracted to that approach. The notion of using business models to address social issues — you can argue it’s not new, but at the same time, it’s never been more widespread than now. I think many schools are catching on to this. Almost every major business school now has some sort of social entrepreneurship program or module.
I would go one step further and say that every humanities or social science department, or every college graduate, should be required to take at least one class that talks about the intersection of all of these different fields. People should recognize that if they want to make money, it’s not just about making money because there are other factors at play. And for people who care about saving the world, it’s not just about saving the world: The role of money and policy is equally important and you need to understand them. Even if you aspire to be a scientist trying to find a cure for a disease, you’re not operating in a vacuum—you need funding and you need people who can help you. I’m not expecting everyone to be totally well rounded, but you should not graduate without haven taken a personal finance class, so you know basic things about interest rates, the difference between assets and liabilities, etc.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where we talk about the state of the social sector in Asia.
Images courtesy of Ming Wong and sherrattsam (Creative Commons).