By Martina Mok, SVPHK

Three months ago, I moved back from New York, quite unexpectedly, to help build Shared Value Project Hong Kong, after one fateful coffee meeting. Coming from six years in public relations, this new role is vastly different and yet makes perfect sense. I was asked to share my story – so here’s a candid account of my wandering path to purpose, and a few things I learned:

“What do you do?” I work at a social innovation startup, I generally say at informal gatherings. Intrigued but unclear, people often ask, “What does that mean?” We get companies to do business in a way that also helps solve social problems, I will offer, without wanting to get into the weeds, because we probably just met.

“Like what social issues?” I’m usually surprised at how long these conversations go on for, whether in Hong Kong or New York, and how many people are open to reconsidering that social and environmental issues can be tackled as business opportunities.

1. Not only millennials care about the world, but here’s why I do.

I think it’s overstated that “millennials and women are more socially conscious,” as if it’s a function of our age or gender. If that will get a brand’s attention, great, but plenty of other people also care and take action – they might just not be as vocal and activist in their approach.

As for why I care: Growing up in Bangkok and especially at a school that made us very aware of our good fortune (and privilege) meant I became acutely aware of social inequalities and environmental damage, first in the community and later in the world. My volunteering started as a community service requirement, but as our clubs got into it, hours faded into years.

Slowly I was instilled with a strong urge – call it idealism – to help those less privileged, right the many wrongs, protect the precious forests and oceans. That was my charity phase at 16, 17 years old.

Then one day I was applying to colleges, soul searching for something profound, and my mother told me about the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Apparently I doubted her business knowledge, but then started digging.

That spirit of service led to a rare chance to be part of the Danforth Scholars community at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was inspired by bright people all motivated to make a difference through various disciplines.

2. The path is always winding, but it really is the journey that counts.

Sure, we all want to achieve that end goal, if we know what it is. But in social innovation especially (and I imagine other unconventional careers), I’ve learned the path is not entirely predictable and rarely a straight line. Try, fail, learn, succeed– that’s what The Intrapreneur Lab teaches, similar to what entrepreneurs would say.

Did I ever see myself doing this exactly? No, not until the opportunity arose.

And yet there was always a personal compass in the back of my mind, behind the “practical” majors, the safe choices and proven paths. Within those, I tried to find small ways to pursue my “impractical” interests – more newsletter subscriptions than I could read on CSR, social development, foundations like Skoll; a tiny late-night social entrepreneurship class; a humble internship or two at places you don’t hear about; a thesis on SRI funds, amidst conforming to a finance major.

Add to that a five month placement with Citi in London, where I worked on sustainable finance and Citi Microfinance. After graduation I joined a global PR agency – in St. Louis, Hong Kong, New York – and over five years, in the midst of mostly B2B clients, gradually specialised in campaigns for CSR and NGOs, such as SAP and The Nature Conservancy.

In the process, I explored CSR consulting, GRI reporting, social enterprise, environmental management, the business case, industry terms, global frameworks and more. While I learned a great deal, I also became sceptical of the narrowness of environmental consulting, the relevance of CSR reporting, the integrity of microfinance, and later the authenticity of corporate PR on social responsibility. Enough to not pursue specialist careers in the first areas, but not enough to stop looking for something more encompassing.

3. We’re as powerful as our networks.

In 2015, Rachel Catanach, now President of FleishmanHillard Greater China and also SVPHK Advisor, introduced me to the concept of Creating Shared Value, as the agency developed a suite of services timed to launch with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Thanks to Rachel and others, I got to explore this field in its nascent stage in Hong Kong, helping to produce a global thought leadership booklet, distributed at SharingValueAsia Summits 2015-2016 and via country offices. We also supported a major hotel group with a regional CSR audit, recommending a refocused, Shared Value strategy in the form of hospitality training for youth, which was most material to their business.

Three years ago, few people in Hong Kong had heard of Creating Shared Value. I went to a workshop by CSR Asia and made an introduction to FleishmanHillard, in time for the HKSAR Government’s first Shared Value Forum in 2015, organised by the SIE Fund. The FH and CSR Asia partnership grew into joint organisation of the following Forum in fall 2017. Meanwhile, a group led by Gordon Watson and Shared Value Project (Australia) had also been building a community for two years, and Shared Value Project Hong Kong was launched at the Forum.

Shared Value almost always makes use of the combined strengths of different organisations. Cross-sector collaboration is important because: 1) it’s necessary for big problems that can’t be tackled by government, charity or private sector alone; 2) it’s more efficient at producing scalable results, if designed well; 3) it’s more creative and impactful, by pooling knowledge and experience around the end user, underlying issue, business model, technology design, etc.

This is why SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, stands alone from the other SDGs. To achieve “No Poverty”, “Gender Equality”, “Sustainable Cities” and the rest, we have to forge partnerships to scale up effective programs. I truly believe there is no shortage of initiatives out there already addressing every goal, but in order to achieve them in time (if not 2030, then before the problems catch up to us) we must get better at strategically connecting those with common aims, to find synergies, at scale and at speed.

We also need to make the less expected links – between poverty and tech, or perhaps energy and education, etc. Last month, we brought together a developer, health expert, salesman, nutritionist, consultant and social worker to co-create a mental health solution for Hong Kong with benefits to many sectors. One plus one can equal three; that’s the power of partnerships.

4. Learning to ask the right questions.

In the first nine weeks that I joined, we co-organised two Design Thinking workshops for member companies. One speaker quoted Einstein as saying: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Another speaker at a Global Goals Jam Hong Kong teaser panel said, while growing up in Africa, he observed how well-meaning doctors struggled to get “beneficiaries” to accept vaccines, not due to a lack of information, but a lack of agency. The solution was prescribed; it was not human-centered design. The vaccine itself was not the problem; doctors did not make enough of an effort to understand why local people were resistant and how to approach it in a better way. Similarly, treating other “underprivileged” groups as victims does not empower them.

In short, we learned it’s more important to reframe the problem than jump to a solution; to co-create with the user or target group; to break down initial ideas to their essence; and keep refining the solution. It’s in the process of asking questions, challenging whether an idea is Shared Value or not, measurable or not, that we have come up with stronger propositions.

5. Believe it’s possible! (But consider the alternative.)

Sometimes it’s hard to be proud of your passion. Most people talk about idealism like it’s a bad thing, period. I have to be careful not to be too preachy, but also we shouldn’t discourage a healthy level of idealism as a motivating force. In college I joined the anti-nuclear weapons advocacy group, Global Zero, fully engaged but always sceptical that total denuclearisation is feasible. Regardless, I learned about grassroots campaigning, diplomatic clout, and how to make a hard topic accessible.

You can’t expect everyone to care about your cause, but I’ve found that you can persuade people to think differently, if you put it in their terms. A lot of what Shared Value Project Hong Kong does now is changing minds, before we can change behaviour – as with any transformational thinking. We’ve got a long way to go, but every conversation counts.

Don’t be afraid to be the youngest one in the room. Easier said than done. In certain cultures and environments – whether cultural or corporate – hierarchy and ageism do deter younger people from speaking up, myself included. I have felt that I was not qualified to give an opinion, because everyone was more experienced, or didn’t care to hear. That still happens, and whereas I used to speak up more easily to defend a cause, over time I realised that with social innovation especially, we need diversity of thought, business discipline…and a dash of daring.

Impact Investing

My second week working in New York, I pushed to get tickets to the UN’s SDG Business Forum after spotting it in an email. It was unforgettable to be part of the largest gathering of private sector with public sector and civil society in the General Assembly Hall. During Global Goals Week, I carved out time for one #SDGLive panel at UN HQ, again very enlightening. For those wondering how to find purpose within your day job, I found that the best way is to create opportunities for yourself – or better yet, for your company.

So that’s the gist of how I came to spend 100% of my time on social innovation, forging tri-sector partnerships between companies, non-profits and government to address issues starting at our doorstep. It’s my small contribution to the SDGs, and an ongoing journey. If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear your experience, advice and ideas! Never know where a coffee might take us.