How Taiwan's Shen Hsin-ling helped poor through computers
Aged just 11, Shen Hsin-ling gave struggling farmers a computer lifeline
Shen Hsin-ling changed the lives of poor, struggling Taiwanese farmers by setting up a website to sell their fresh produce - a feat even a computer-savvy adult would find challenging. Shen was 11 when she finished the project.
The following year, she established a website for children unable to afford tutoring that offered free help with their studies. At 17, Shen set up a website to teach women from overseas who have married local Taiwanese men how to adjust to the island's culture and understand dialects.
Shen, now 23, was in Hong Kong last week and told members of Rotary Club Kingspark and students at City University about how the internet was a powerful tool to give disadvantaged communities new ways to help themselves.
Her story is already familiar to students in Taiwan as her accomplishments have been lionised in many textbooks schools across the island used to teach Chinese, English and civic education.
A household name now, Shen, who is a graduate student in journalism at National Taiwan University in Taipei, came from humble beginnings.
Her parents were night market vendors selling knick-knacks such as toys, plastic balls, fruit and soft drinks, and had to travel to make a living at markets scattered across Taiwan. "We travelled a lot and didn't have a home, so we would often have to sleep inside the van," Shen said.
When she started school, her aptitude for computers and information technology became apparent, and her parents, though struggling to make ends meet, did what they could to help develop their daughter's talents.
Her mother sold her wedding dowry of jade bracelets in order to buy Shen a computer, firing up the young girl's determination to make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.
The website enabling farmers to sell produce arose out of her desire to help her grandparents, who worked the land in Yunlin county in western Taiwan.
"When I was 11, I was worried because my grandparents were having trouble selling their pomelos, so I began to write e-mails to companies asking them to buy them," she said. This stoked the interest of some executives, and Shen quickly developed an e-commerce website connecting wholesale buyers with farmers.
In eight years, the website took in around NT$2 million (HK$530,000) in revenue - with all the profits going back to the farmers. Shen still operates the various websites herself, but lives off the fees from her seminars.
Shen said her motivation comes from her parents' belief that one can live a poor life, but never be poor in education.
Her efforts have been recognised by the Taiwan government. Shen received the Presidential Education Award in Taiwan in July 2011 and she was named one of the island's Ten Outstanding Young People last October.
About five years ago, Shen began learning photography to capture portraits of impoverished people toiling away in their daily grind. In the photos, she wanted to express the dignity of these people, and has amassed portraits of 300,000 people. The photographs were displayed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And what's next? Shen wants to establish schools specialising in technology education in rural counties.