Spirit of Hong Kong
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Spirit of Hong Kong

Business not just about making money, says Hong Kong social venture group

Francis Ngai created Social Ventures to support community projects that can both turn a profit and offer benefits for society as a whole

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 5:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 3:36pm

Francis Ngai Wah-sing envisages an entire change in the mindset of corporations, where profit will no longer be the deciding factor for business success

Ngai, 43, is founder and chief executive of Social Ventures Hong Kong. He was a senior strategist for PCCW before deciding to set up an organisation that launches projects in various sectors of the community - then helps to turn them into profit-making social ventures.

"I enjoy business as a game", says Ngai. "We have this presumption that government will be superman…but the household income hasn't risen [over the past few years]."

Nor have benefits trickled down from businesses to other parts of the community, or from our city's billionaires.

Established in 2007, Social Ventures Hong Kong is a philanthropic organisation aiming to provide financial and non-financial support to social purpose groups and social enterprises in the city. It's being nominated in the Lion Rock Entrepreneur Award category of this year's Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, organised by the South China Morning Post.

Corporations need to go further than the current corporate social responsibility model, Ngai says, and adopt shared values as part of their business success. "It's about how to create impact in that last quarter," he says. He wants to bring about a change in mindset so that profit is not the only measure of success.

He cites American company Toms Shoes. When Toms sells a pair of shoes, new footwear is given to an impoverished child. This has been a hugely successful strategy, he says.

Ngai has two children, a girl, 10, and a boy, eight. It was their births that got him on the social venture path as he started to think differently about Hong Kong - the environmental damage, opportunities for smaller operations being taken away by mainstream businesses and the general sense of powerlessness of the people.

So the idea of his social ventures is that while each is quite small, the population will see all these experiments and be inspired to create their own.

There are about 20 social start-ups, as he calls them, in Ngai's organisation, with about 10 others in the pipeline. Among the current schemes is an affordable housing initiative called Light Be; there's also Green Monday, a collaboration platform promoting green living and diet.

Ngai has turned vegetarian and explains that Green Monday came up with a meatless Monday campaign - to save on carbon emissions caused by the meat trade, and to increase awareness about animal welfare. This has been adopted by 80 per cent of restaurants at Hong Kong International Airport, he says.

In addition, students are now being offered more vegetarian fare for school lunches, he says, and the number opting for it has increased.

The social venture is also behind Green Common. "It's a plant based food concept store in Wan Chai," Ngai explains, adding that further outlets are likely to follow.

Other social ventures include Diamond Cab, which caters to customers who are in wheelchairs; Dialogue in the Dark is an experiential exhibition allowing visitors who are led by visually impaired guides through a totally darkened sightless tour. RunOurCity empowers young people to get into running and turn their lives around, while Heart-to-Heart supports people suffering from traumatic events.

"We don't' start with the money," says Ngai, "but with the idea", which then has an incubation period.

So, does Ngai get frustrated about the problems in the world and the huge amount that needs to be done?

"No, I don't have time," he says.

If he, as one individual, can have an idea and make a change, he says, think of the potential when hundreds and thousands start thinking in the same way.