Sprouts co-founder Mark Shuper puts his own spin on philanthropy
A strong desire to improve the lives of underprivileged children in Asia saw Mark Shuper quit a 20-year career in finance to found the Sprouts Foundation, an educational charity, with his wife in 2011.
“Both my wife and I have very consistent values regarding the importance of supporting education for lower-income families,” he says. “Both of our mothers, as well as my grandmother and aunt, were teachers, helping many immigrants and special-needs students over the years. This probably rubbed off on both of us as well.”
Shuper’s parents both fled Eastern Europe as children with their families after the second world war and came to Canada as refugees. Shuper grew up in a tight-knit Ukrainian-Canadian community, where he forged a strong sense of community and built an understanding of what it meant for families to rebuild their lives from scratch.
“I saw first-hand how hard work and a good education made the difference in helping grass-roots families move forward economically,” he says.
When Shuper left school, he aspired to be an international lawyer working on cross-border conflict resolution. However, following an on-campus interview with Morgan Stanley, he accepted the offer of a two-year corporate finance analyst position – a “lucky accident”, he says, given that his subsequent work with lawyers on business deals made him realise that law was not the profession for him.
He moved to Hong Kong in 1994 and was promoted to head the global telecom research team in 2002. It was at this time that the idea of getting involved in the local community began to grow.
“The Foreign Correspondents Club [FCC] had a university scholarship programme, together with Po Leung Kuk,” he says. “We started to contribute to that scholarship fund and met students who needed more help to get through. It was in the mid-2000s that I began considering social enterprise as a next career, and starting an organisation from the ground up best fit my objectives.”
In 2011, he and his wife Winnie founded Sprouts, which aims to empower underprivileged children by teaching them conversational English and practical IT skills to make them more employable later in life.
“We focus on education. Many [students] have the desire to learn and the capability of learning, but they need the tools, together with good quality teaching in the right way, to make it effective,” Shuper says.
“Our programme is essentially a three-way joint-venture between Sprouts Foundation, the FCC charity committee and Po Leung Kuk. We launched our first Primary One to Six after-school programme with Po Leung Kuk and the FCC in late 2011. The three of us then opened a secondary extension programme – Form One to Four – in 2013.”
Nearly 200 students from Primary One to Form Four, whose family incomes are in the HK$6,000-a-month range, benefit from the free after-school programmes. The classes run twice a week with each lasting two and a half hours, based at Po Leung Kuk schools in Sha Tin. This means Sprouts does not have to pay any rent.
Students, who are mostly from the surrounding area, are referred by the Social Welfare Department. The programme is run by three full-time volunteers, six full-time teaching assistants and support staff, and nine part-time NETs (native-speaking English teachers).
“Smaller NGOs can have a greater opportunity to economise on cost than larger ones, where overheads sometimes becomes a large expense,” Shuper says. “More resources can then be put directly into the programmes. The business model that Sprouts employs in working with its partners means we can be very cost-effective.”
This has proved to be an effective strategy so far. “A number of people in the Hong Kong business community found us to be an effective means for them to give back to society. A growing number of our financial partners represent an ever-larger share of our funding.”
Sprouts also organises trips for students in partnership with companies’ CSR programmes. “[The business community] is happy to be that much closer to the students and to participate in activities with our school programmes, to sponsor outings and to take them to places like The Peak, the beach and Ocean Park.”
Shuper’s years in equity research helped him decide on the best programmes for the students.
“We don’t offer a tutorial class where we are going to work on a stencil so that you can improve your ability to put an apostrophe in a paragraph. [They] will learn that along the way.
“We want to make sure they can have a conversation with native English speakers, look that person in the eye, feel comfortable with what they are talking about and feel comfortable making a mistake, because it’s how you learn a language – by making mistakes.”
Shuper hopes for one thing: “[That they] can have substantial improvement in their self-esteem and self-confidence through the way we teach them … smaller classes, very activity-based, such as cooking classes, arts and craft, outings, songs. It’s extraordinarily interactive.”
And for some of the primary school students who have been with them for over two years, the results are already very encouraging.
“Strikingly, the Deloitte volunteers at the May ‘Impact Day’ event [which saw Sprouts team up with the Big Four firm to hold an English-language “fun day”] said our primary-programme students were much more confident and competent in their English than the secondary students, most of whom were not yet in our programme or had only joined us for seven months or less,” Shuper says.
“The primary group was also more open to approaching the volunteers, many of whom are foreigners, proactively to start conversations, whereas the secondary students were much more reserved."