Meet Hong Kong teenagers who set up a business consultancy in high school
Consultants help social enterprises reach customers, including fellow students, and say they offer a perspective multinationals can’t; founders hope skills they’ve learned will help them at university
To its three founders, the strength of business consultancy Vantage Ideation is its ability to offer social enterprises and NGOs a perspective they are unlikely to get from giant multinationals. That’s no idle boast, even though the trio are 17-year-old students.
Anant Majumdar, Arthur Fukuda Lam and Neil Slighton attend Hong Kong International School, where they co-founded a business club two years ago. Vantage Ideation came about later, after they developed an interest in social entrepreneurship.
“I guess part of the reason why the idea came to us was that we all had some kind of experience in the business or social enterprise field,” says Anant. “For me, the real impetus was working with two social enterprises as an intern.”
These were Lensational, which seeks to empower women through photography, and Education for Good, which spearheads programmes for social entrepreneurship.
“I spent time with them and got to see that they really do benefit when someone comes in and they have an outsider’s perspective. That, and what we had seen working with other students, was really the inspiration behind Vantage,” he says.
The consultancy, which works free of charge, has approached a number of NGOs and social enterprises to offer their insights into the secondary school demographic. Members have worked with six groups and have other collaborations are in the pipeline.
“We’re essentially doing market research for them and helping them out with whatever issues they have with trying to sell products to secondary school students or helping those with mental illnesses, for example,” Arthur says.
They have also cooperated with a group that organises ethnic minority tours and another that provides tutoring for underprivileged children.
For Lulio, a start-up app developerthat has designed a game to detect mental illness and suicide risk in youngsters, they provided insights to make the game less intimidating.
“Their goal is to make sure that ... students being screened for things like suicidal tendencies or other forms of mental illness feel comfortable, and the methods to assess them are non-intrusive,” Neil says. “We talked to our friends about the specific language they use in the game, to define language high school students would understand and wouldn’t get offended by.”
Fair Taste, which imports organic products directly from producer countries, is another organisation Vantage Ideation has been involved with. The online shop Fair Taste was operating was not doing well, and the trio found one reason was its sales model: products were offered in small lots while online customers liked to buy in bulk.
“So instead of buying one packet of tea, for example, they would purchase a package of home essentials, such as coffee, tea and sugar. We discovered this from our surveys and talking to people, along with our own insights.”
They also had a solution for the shortage of manpower at Fair Taste: tapping the hundreds of students in social clubs eager to get involved in something worthwhile but who have yet to find the right outlet.
“We suggested they connect to these high school clubs and with the students interested in fair trade and helping the community, Neil says. “We also saw there was a growing number of small high school cafes run by students, so we mentioned it may be possible for them to supply the cafes.”
Besides being able to tap into the secondary school mindset, another reason social enterprises may find Vantage Ideation’s perspective refreshing is that it is not structured around industry norms.
“We just approach it as a problem, and whatever resolutions we come up with are just what we think of, which we then analyse with the research we do independently,” he says. “The companies we have worked with have found us pretty helpful. They are receiving benefits from our work and I think that’s good enough for us. We’re helping social enterprises do better.”
University beckons for the trio, who will graduate from HKIS in 2016.But Vantage Ideation will continue to operate at the school with a new generation of leaders.
“The team isn’t really just us,” Arthur says. “There is a full group of eight or more consultants that work with us. Behind them are 50 or more club members. From those, we plan on selecting the best to put forward.”
When Vantage Ideation’s founders meet prospective clients, Anant says, they take along other team members so they can gain experience with working relationships. Other members may also not yet have the experience in dealing with social enterprises that the trio have accumulated.
In this way, despite their age, they are already mentors to younger students. All three agree that Vantage Ideation has been an invaluable experience.
Traditional consultancies tend to be big companies, so “sometimes they feel like the little people can’t make changes”, Anant says. “We’re working with really small social enterprises thathave a lot of flexibility in their strategy. Because of that I think the recommendations we make do have impact and they do have the potential to change the way the company is doing things. So we get to fully put ourselves into the enterprises, and I think that’s a valuable experience.
“The problem-solving skills and the interaction skills – all these different skills we have to learn in doing them – are definitely helpful for the future.”
Anant wants to study business and public policy at university to explore how companies, and social enterprises in particular, can play a role in areas where government is not very efficient.
Arthur is considering studying environmental science, possibly with a focus on renewable energy and sustainability. He is particularly interested in combining entrepreneurship with green technologies to solve problems such as nuclear waste management, he says.
Neil says one of the benefits of Vantage Ideation has been picking up problem-solving skills, which he will find useful if he studies engineering. It’s a career with a similar mindset to consulting, he says. “In engineering, you identify a problem, you break it down and take other key steps to solve a problem,” he says. “I enjoy that, but I don’t know what I want to do after university.”