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Global Citizen: Mark Cheng

25 April 2017

“Don’t wait until you are ready, or retired, or wealthier, or whatever reason you are using to put off making a difference. Start now. Social change starts with one small step.” This is the advice of Mark Cheng, Managing Director for Ashoka in Europe.

Ashoka was founded in 1980, based on the idea that the most powerful force for good in the world is a social entrepreneur: a person driven by an innovative idea that can help correct an entrenched global problem. The world’s leading social entrepreneurs pursue system-changing solutions that permanently alter existing patterns of activity.

Throughout the years, Ashoka has identified and supported the world’s leading social entrepreneurs who have ideas for far-reaching social change. It started by first distilling their unique qualities and pioneering a rigorous global system for vetting and electing them to the Ashoka Fellowship. The Fellowship, which counts Mark amongst its ranks as senior advisor on business and finance, comprises a global community of Fellows and has become the world’s first professional association of leading entrepreneurs.

“Social entrepreneurs are innovators using business methods to tackle social and environmental problems,” Mark explains. “We have so many problems today, from climate change to the refugee crisis, that we are not going to solve with traditional charity or government action alone. Social entrepreneurship offers a third route — one that harnesses the power, creativity and drive of business. It’s profit with a purpose — imagine if we had corporations with the influences of Google and Unilever seeking to eradicate poverty and fight malnutrition.”

Mark’s career began in a slightly less philanthropic manner. Having graduated from Exeter College and Oxford University with a BA Honors first-class in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, he started his professional journey as an investment banker. But after the financial crisis of 2008, he realized that he wanted to find a way to use his financial skills to support work that directly improved lives.

Two years later, he came across Ashoka. “I was excited by their vision of supporting social entrepreneurs using business methods to tackle social problems. I realized that such entrepreneurs needed help raising capital, just as with any other business, and I became an advisor to help them to achieve this. Since then, I’ve worked with more than 50 of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs in the Ashoka network, supporting causes ranging from micro–finance to wildlife conservation.”

Mark, who is 42, was born in London to immigrant parents from Hong Kong and now divides his time between the two locations. “As a student, I spent time living in Tokyo and Beijing. But I feel at home in both London and Hong Kong and I have a foot in both cultures.”

He is justifiably proud of the fact that Ashoka (the name was inspired by the Sanskrit word ‘Ashoka’ which means ‘the active absence of sorrow’) has elected more than 3,000 social entrepreneurs and changemakers into its global Fellowship since 1981, providing them with USD 1 billion in stipends and support.

Adopting the motto ‘Everyone is a Changemaker’, the organization has also identified and works with ‘Changemaker Schools’ in more than 50 countries, working with students who have the skills and confidence to change the world for the good of all. Its objectives include ensuring that every child masters the essential skills of empathy, creativity, leadership and teamwork.

“A changemaker is someone who doesn’t wait for permission to start making a difference. They see a problem in their community and they get going at tackling it,” says Mark.

Mark believes that one of the most pertinent social challenges facing the world today is lack of compassion and tolerance. “We need to put empathy and understanding of others at the heart of education. We’re still carrying the tribal mindsets of the Middle Ages into the 21st century. With today’s technology, that’s a recipe for extinction unless we can improve people’s understanding of our interconnected world.

“In my travels and work, I’ve seen that what people have in common around the world is far greater than what divides us. Social problems and their root causes are universal and are often based on the common misbelief that we are all separate tribes with nothing in common. The solution is equally universal — the recognition that we belong to one human family.”

Mark, who despite his busy schedule tries to find time for his personal passions of practicing T’ai Chi and spending time in nature, is also the founder and managing director of Chelwood Capital, an international corporate finance and strategic advisory firm based in London. A significant portion of clients are from the non-profit, social enterprise and development sectors and the company has advised and invested in a wide range of sectors including microfinance, sustainable agriculture, education, and renewable energy.

“Based on my experience working with leading social entrepreneurs, I launched Chelwood Capital to pioneer a new kind of investment bank with the aim of helping social entrepreneurs raise capital in the same way that commercial entrepreneurs can,” Mark explains. “We connect social entrepreneurs with ‘social investors’, i.e. people who wish to invest into companies solving a social problem. We’ve now helped channel more than USD 250 million towards transformative social projects.”

Mark believes that the world is ready for a revolution in how philanthropy is viewed, performed and carried through. “East Asia and other rapidly emerging markets are beginning to rise to the challenge. Similar to the US and Europe, there is a rapidly rising emergence of successful young entrepreneurs who want to do philanthropy with the same rigor and creativity as they create business. They take their cue from visionaries such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. They are impatient for change. They want to back new solutions that can scale much more rapidly and systematically than traditional philanthropy.”

He claims that the new philanthropists see charity as akin to venture capital — a high risk investment for potentially massive (social) return and there are myriad opportunities for this new breed of social entrepreneurs to make their mark on the world.

“The world faces global challenges, amongst them environmental degradation and the need to move from a fossil-fuel economy to one based on clean energy,” says Mark. “The world is improving on almost all fronts including poverty alleviation, reducing armed conflict, increasing lifespans and raising the level of education. But there is one almost insurmountable obstacle that we are not yet addressing — the quality of the environment. That is deteriorating without exception almost everywhere. Fighting climate change and its attendant problems, such as water shortage and displaced populations, is probably the biggest and most pertinent challenge facing the world today.”

Mark’s primary focus in life is to continue to work with Ashoka and Chelwood to address these problems.

“We need to continue to find the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, those men and women who are developing innovative solutions to tackle such issues. In doing so, we will continue to work with companies such as Unilever, Lego, MasterCard and Boehringer to support these individuals.

“Further key drivers include brokering partnerships between government, business and social entrepreneurs to collaboratively solve social problems and to continue to highlight the importance of changemakers, those people who are empowered to make a difference in improving society.”

Mark is the living, breathing embodiment of his personal philosophy: “The meaning of life is not something you discover; it is something you create”. It is his compelling wish that others recognize the collective need for global responsibility and actively become involved and concerned with global causes.

“All over the world, social entrepreneurs are developing groundbreaking new ways of solving social problems. There is a profound need for global citizens who care about these issues to make a difference through supporting them. I urge everyone to consider investing in social entrepreneurship as an effective way to create social change. Don’t wait — now is the best time to become involved.”