Hong Kong social entrepreneur who quit her job to help others on fighting inequality and saving the environment
Former investment banker Keilem Ng already ran a beach-cleaning charity before joining a philanthropy network last year. Now she is helping poor Nepalese girls become athletes, tackling tough environmental issues and much more
When Keilem Ng quit her well-paying corporate job to work for a charity last year, friends and colleagues were shocked. “So many people sent me messages to ‘rescue me’. I’ve never had so many job offers in my life!” she laughs.
Stepping away from a lucrative career at a Hong Kong investment firm last June, Ng became a director at Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), a Singapore-based funding network that builds and promotes investment in social projects across Asia. “Basically, [it is] making the world a better place,” Ng says. She currently devotes a great deal of time to environmental projects, such as those that deal with waste issues in Hong Kong.
The 36-year-old Hong Kong-born social entrepreneur would rather see those concerned for her well-being turn their attention to people and projects that are far more in need of help.
“I’m very enthusiastic and tend to make others enthusiastic too. I think the key is being genuine and telling it like it is,” she says. “A lot of people have said, ‘Wow you’re so brave!’ or have offered to write a book about me. But I still earn a reasonable salary and I have a lot.”
Naturally driven and confident, Ng uses her influence to help others see the part they play in some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“We’re all living our lives doing things repeatedly on a daily or weekly basis – for example, going to buy coffee or groceries. The actions – by our own replication or by millions of others doing the same thing – have a huge impact. If we change our habits only a little bit, it can be very easy,” she says.
Ng’s sudden change in direction didn’t come out of the blue – nor was it the result of a sudden epiphany. “I’ve been very ‘save the planet’ since I was young, but I went into business because I wanted to make change from within – such as taking a lead in ESG [environmental, social and governance] issues. I’ve always been involved in philanthropy.”
Her new role is the latest move in a life increasingly dedicated to helping others. In 2011, she began organising large-scale clean-ups on Hong Kong’s more remote beaches that do not have regular government rubbish collections. She formalised the process a year later by founding Eco Marine, a charity that promotes marine education and research programmes.
In January, Ng launched her most ambitious project yet: Exchange and Empower, a charity that supports female athletes in Nepal in partnership with celebrated Nepalese trail runner Mira Rai. Since January, it has raised US$7,000 towards a goal of US$20,000. This will fund six Nepalese girls over the course of a year-long trail-running coaching scheme led by Rai, including housing and food expenses, English lessons, race entry fees and travel costs, and a government-recognised trail guide qualification.
The experience, Ng hopes, will lift the girls out of poverty by either helping them become professional athletes or equipping them with skills that will assist in careers in other areas.
“The money is to relieve the girls from pressures: if they come from a poor family, they might not even go to school because they have to go and collect firewood because they can’t afford gas,” Ng explains.
Instead of selecting girls who have no prior sporting experience, a key criteria of the programme is that participants must already have showed a passion for running. Rai selected the first young women to be enrolled in the programme after they placed high in Nepal races.
“For them, at 16 to 19 to be into sports is already saying something,” Ng says. “They’ve already had to have a different sort of life. It’s not the most straightforward path. They’ll have already demonstrated their passion and desire for it.”
Ng and Rai are also hoping to raise an extra US$5,000 to bring four of the women to Hong Kong to compete in the 100-kilometre Oxfam Trailwalker race in November as the first all-female Nepalese team.
If the first year is a success, Ng hopes to roll out an exchange programme across as many countries as possible that gives paying runners from abroad a chance to train with some of Nepal’s top trail runners.
“Mira is a role model because she has come from nothing and is now a professional trail runner who’s humble and wants to give back. But there are so many Miras – many disadvantaged women. If we can help more women become professionals, it can inspire much bigger change,” she says.
“We hope that by demonstrating that these women have a lot of potential, maybe the government will recognise them as athletes, pay them a stipend and build more sports facilities and make school programmes more prevalent. If women are more successful in different arenas, parents might be more likely to think young women don’t need to be married off at 14.”
Ng also founded Hong Kong Trail Running Women, which organises runs and training sessions to encourage more women to take to the city’s trails. A regular on the trails herself, Ng can often be seen “plogging” (a Swedish term that refers to jogging while picking up litter) and is always on the lookout for grass roots causes to get stuck into.
“One of my friends says I need to schedule pyjama days because I tend to make myself overtired,” she says.
Ng left Hong Kong in 1999 to study architecture at Yale University before gaining a masters in real estate at New York University and staying on in the city to work for a property firm. Years spent in a tough, male-dominated environment was a galvanising experience that set her up for future leadership roles, she says.
“I would be the only woman in the room and the only minority as well at the time. You develop thick skin and also learn to do well under immense pressure. I’m pleased I was able to get out of the corporate life, but it was really helpful.”
Just as she noticed gender disparity in New York meeting rooms, Ng cannot help but notice inequality in many other areas of the world and works to generate as much change as she can. Recognising her own strengths has helped her learn how to better use others’ contributions as she takes on an increasing number of projects.
“A lot of people don’t want to be the starter but are happy to be the helper,” she says. “I’ve had to learn to ask for help with things. I’m an idealist and want things to work out, so try to do a lot of things myself … I work very hard and can’t imagine asking someone to work just as hard, but people actually do want to help. When I invite them to, my vision of what’s perfect changes because someone might have a better idea than me and do it much better than me. Then it becomes a much richer project.”
But even Ng, whose infectious positivity and can-do attitude motivates others, suffers days where problems feel insurmountable. “Talking to people working on the same issues, we get a sort of fatigue working on these never-ending issues. I’ve learned a lot in the past years that some problems can’t be fixed overnight … I can’t do everything.”
Ng says her proudest achievement to date is leaving her well-paying investment job and she is excited for what lies ahead – even if the future is uncertain. “I’m most proud of being able to make that leap and say I don’t need a stable job any more. I don’t have any regrets.
“I don’t know where the future will lead. It’s difficult to say ‘this is my end game, this is where I’m going.’ Right now, I’m in the right place.”