Chasing a dream
A vision to change society for the better led Francis Ngai to quit his job to run a social enterprise
When people talk about social enterprise, the first thing that comes to mind is unprofitable and unsustainable businesses that run on support from government or charity organisations. But Francis Ngai Wa-sing, chief executive and founder of Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVHK), believes that he can make a difference.
Founded in 2007, SVHK is the city’s first venture philanthropy group. Its aim is to help nurture self-sustaining social enterprises, providing some funding as well as business and management advice. After successfully launching a number of profitable projects, Ngai is on his way to changing people’s impression of social enterprise.
Among the successful projects SVHK supports are Dialogue in the Dark, which employs visually impaired people to offer unusual experiences in full darkness; Diamond Cab, which provides transport for wheelchair users; and the latest, the Light Be project that offers single mothers and their children a place to stay. “We want to demonstrate that corporates supporting social enterprise is not giving to charity, it is a winning situation for both parties,” Ngai says.
As chief executive and founder of SVHK, Ngai’s job is to match social projects with the right investors and resources. “We are looking to work with people who share the same value of making our society a better place. We welcome anyone who has an idea for solving social problems to collaborate with us. If you have an idea, we would like to hear about it. It is nothing like pitching a business proposal to get a budget because money should not be a major concern in working with us. We value people who care about chasing their dreams,” he says.
As Ngai says, money is not always the only problem when it comes to running a social enterprise, which is why Ngai takes pride in his talented team of volunteers as the heart and soul of SVHK. They provide business solutions and management advice to help incubate social projects.
“When we start working with a project, we won’t talk about money first. People who have passion for their project will not make the budget their number one priority. We will make use of our network to help our partners improve its operation first. Our talent pool is the major support for social projects, not money. I believe funding will come naturally once the project is on track,” he adds.
Ngai says it is not easy to persist with a goal to help society. “Given the tough situation in Hong Kong, where everyone has bills to pay, it is not easy to get a consistent effort out of people. Sometimes it is a little spark in someone’s life that inspires them to think of a solution to a social problem. My job is to provide the support to keep that spark going,” Ngai says.
Running a social enterprise is an uphill battle, but Ngai is blessed with the support of his family and volunteers at SVHK. A former assistant vice-president at PCCW, Ngai shocked many by deciding to quit his job to serve the community.
“People thought I was crazy to give up my career and a stable income. I have a young family of four to feed and I had to take a 50 per cent pay cut, but my wife was there for me. We both had the same way of thinking: we want a fair society. Money is not the most important thing – having the right values is.”
Ngai reinforces his perseverance through long-distance running. “I had run marathons for 12 years, in places like the North Pole and the Gobi Desert. I think running a social enterprise is like running a marathon – it is a tough challenge,” he says.
Ngai believes that there are plenty of resources in society but their unfair division has created today’s money-driven world. “It is time to rethink our values, the values of capitalism where everything is counted in dollars. People’s greed for the material life is endless. Everyone is looking to buy a big house with a swimming pool and, when they achieve that, they think of buying a bigger house with a bigger swimming pool,” he says.
Saddened by the fact that Hong Kong has become a materialistic society where everyone’s ability seems to be measured in dollar signs, Ngai advises people to care more about society.
“Many Hong Kong people see things the way those working on Wall Street do: that everyone comes with a price tag. Students’ ability is measured by marks scored in examination, a person’s status is measured by the number of zeros he has in his bank account. Nobody cares about following their dreams anymore. All they want to know about is getting paid and enjoying more benefits. Society is crooked,” he says.
In today’s complicated society, Ngai thinks that giving is not the solution to helping those in need. “The HK$6,000 giveaway [the government cash handout in 2011] is a joke. This is not the right way to tackle poverty. The poor need to regain their confidence and stand on their own two feet,” he says.
“In the Light Be project, I saw a single mother who felt hopeless about herself and wouldn’t even bother to find a kindergarten for her young child, blossom into an active, confident woman. We encouraged her to do some volunteer work, and within weeks, she became a confident woman eager to find a job. She didn’t need much financial support, all she needed was a boost to her self-confidence,” he says.
As a father of two young children, Ngai hopes to teach them to follow their dreams. “I don’t push my kids to go to different tutorial classes so that they can speak seven languages and get a highly paid job. I want them to believe in chasing their dream, do what they are passionate about, rather than earning a living,” he says.
FRANCIS NGAI'S ROLE MODELS
MOHAMMED YUNUS "A Bangladeshi banker and Nobel peace prize winner who made use of micro-loans to help millions of people stay out of poverty."
HIS WIFE "She stood by my decision to help the community from the very beginning."
HIS CHILDREN "[They] inspired me to follow my dream because they told me everyone was living in their own story and I should write my own."
DORIS LEUNG "Founder and CEO of Diamond Cab. She was a former reporter who gave up her job to serve the community."
RICKY YU "Light Be founder and CEO. As the former general manager of Amway, he gave up his career in the commercial sector to help the needy."