Calling the shots
UnLtd HK CEO Kelvin Cheung is helping innovators change society
While many people have great ideas on ways to benefit society, they often lack the funds to turn them into a reality. Kelvin Cheung, the 30-year-old CEO of non-profit organisation UnLtd (pronounced “unlimited”) Hong Kong, helps such people get their projects off the ground by providing them with the funds necessary to support their noble intentions.
Inspired by the original UnLtd set up in the UK in 2000 – which has since provided support for over 11,000 social enterprises – the Hong Kong group’s mandate is to find brilliant innovators with practical ideas to drive social change, be it via environmental, educational, societal or other causes.
Cheung has already achieved a significant amount in his young professional life, but when asked to talk about it, he plays down what he has accomplished. “I am not really sure you can call it a career,” he jokes, though he also points out that he has headed up two of the three organisations he has been involved in since he finished his studies in 2007.
He says that while nowadays he’d rather be the one calling the shots, this wasn’t always so. “I always thought I wanted to work for somebody else. You didn’t start something yourself; you worked for somebody and built a career out of it,” he says.
Cheung, born in Hong Kong but brought up in Toronto, graduated from Queen’s University in Ontario in 2006 with a degree in history and geography. The following year he graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He traces his entrepreneurial journey back to 2008, when he was doing research on Campus Kitchen – a US charity that pioneered the concept of college students donating surplus food and using on-campus kitchen space to cook nutritious meals for those in need. His idea was to take the concept and apply it to communities across Britain, helping the country address two problems at a stroke: hunger and food wastage.
Cheung took his research to the next level by turning the concept into FoodCycle, with the help of a start-up grant of £5,000 (HK$64,000) from UnLtd. FoodCycle went on to be named Britain’s Best New Charity in 2010 and received the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award the year after. “I didn’t want it to be just a research project. There was a part of me that was curious and wanted to make something out of it,” he says.
It helped that his first proper job after graduating – his only one as an employee – was a six-month stint as an education development officer at MyBnk (pronounced “my bank”), also a charitable start-up. “It made me think that starting something up from scratch wasn’t impossible,” he says.
FoodCycle struggled at first, but six years on it is a well-established charitable organisation serving some 30,000 meals annually in 18 community projects across Britain. Cheung admits its success was a major reason he chose to quit last year to embark on the launch of the Hong Kong chapter of UnLtd – an idea that had been kicking around in his head for the previous two years.
“FoodCycle was turning from a start-up into more of an established organisation,” he says. “I like to be a bit more in the Wild West, where you have to fight to survive and have your back against the wall. While I was still having fun, I knew I wanted to come back to Hong Kong because I was born here and call it home. Every time I come back, I get involved in social issues; there’s so much to be done.”
UnLtd launches this month in collaboration with two other social enterprises: the Make a Difference foundation and GoodLab. The 10 individuals in the initial phase will be given HK$10,000 to turn their ideas into reality. If the ideas are successful after a six-month trial period, they can apply for a larger grant.
However, as UnLtd acts as an incubator for social enterprises – providing advice and support at the initial set-up stages – it encourages successful projects to work with larger social venture funds designed to support more established ideas, such as SOW Asia and Social Ventures Hong Kong.
Since returning to Hong Kong earlier this year, Cheung has been involved in social-enterprise-related activities to build up his knowledge and network in this sector. He recently shared his experiences with social entrepreneurs at a capacity-building programme organised by the British Council and Community Business.
He says that being a social entrepreneur has not exactly been an easy path. When FoodCycle was starting up, he often had to make ends meet by holding down two outside jobs, as a spinning-class instructor and personal tutor. But then it’s never been about the money.
“It’s what I love doing,” he says. “For me, work is play, and play is work. I’ve built some really good friendships that are both business and personal. I guess this is partly the reason I decided against a more conventional career. It’s not that they are bad, but there’s no need to limit yourself to a linear path.”
STARTING UP FOR SOCIETY
Kelvin Cheung explains the keys to success in social entrepreneurship.
Have faith in others “Give a person a little money and support and tell them to chase their passion. You may be pleasantly surprised what they accomplish.”
Start out small “Right at the beginning, what we want to see is resourcefulness and creativity. If someone can’t do something with HK$10,000, it probably wouldn’t help much if they had more.”
Know when to move on “You kind of have to experiment. Go away for a week or two and see what happens. At some point it clicks and you just know.”
Free your mind “Many Hongkongers see careers as long, straight, narrow paths that they must follow. It doesn’t necessary have to be like that. There are so many possibilities you can explore.”