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  • Writer's pictureTC Li

Empower Youth to Co-create a Sustainable Future

Caption: The beginning of Soap Cycling.

Having fragrant soap bars stacking up from floor to ceiling wasn’t necessarily what David Bishop had in mind for his office at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). But that became part of the new reality for the principal lecturer at the HKU Business School in the fall of 2011, when he started Soap Cycling with his students.

Impact Lab: Experiential Learning to Empower Youth

At Soap Cycling, Asia’s first and largest youth-led charity for soap recycling, students were given the opportunity to learn hands-on leadership and management skills, while liaising with hotels to collect lightly-used soap bars, coordinating soap recycling sessions with volunteers, and working with NGO partners to distribute the reprocessed soap bars to the people in need in Hong Kong and Asia.

Thanks to a culture that compels young people to prioritise study over hands-on experience gained from part-time jobs and internships, many college graduates in Hong Kong are unprepared for teamwork, decision-making, leadership roles, and strategic planning. And so with the success of Soap Cycling, David went on to start the Impact Lab Course (previously known as the Social Venture Management Internship Course) at the HKU in 2014.

Currently run by social impact incubator Foundation for Shared Impact (FSI), also co-founded by David, the credit-bearing experiential learning course gives students the opportunity to work directly at social ventures, and to learn to manage teams, solve real-life problems, and gain practical business experience under the guidance of a faculty instructor and professional mentors. To date, the multi-award-winning course has taught shared impact - which emphasises the importance of broad collaboration and freely sharing resources, information, and knowledge - to close to 1,000 students from 40+ countries and 100+ universities, contributing over 119,280 hours of work in more than 30 social businesses.

“I knew from other people who pursued the Impact Lab Course last year that there were a lot of resources provided, meaning that we have great instructors, project leaders and professors that are always happy to help and guide. It is an incredible opportunity to get to know social enterprises tackling big issues here in Hong Kong and especially the people behind them,” said Anna-Bryndís Zingsheim, a student intern from the Fall 2019 semester.

Many Impact Lab graduates have taken shared impact with them to pursue an impact-driven career, where they become part of the force to build more sustainable and equitable communities through promoting broad collaboration, and freely sharing resources, information, and knowledge. For example, Justen Li, one of the founding students of Soap Cycling, is now a legal counsel for Swire Hotels and rejoined Soap Cycling as its chairman. Cheryl Kong, previously an event management intern with GREEN Hospitality, is now working at CoCoon Foundation, which enables youth to develop their entrepreneurial mindset and networks, and nurtures leaders who can innovate a sustainable future. Vivian Seo, a former Impact Lab student intern working for Fair Employment Agency, joined FSI earlier this year in search of a more purpose-driven job, after working for a few years at a multinational investment bank.

“My experience at Impact Lab taught me that I could own a project and create social impact as a student, and the course gave me the opportunity to meet people who would later become my mentor or career advisor,” said Vivian Seo. “After leaving Impact Lab, I was able to retain my connection with David Bishop, the instructor of Impact Lab and co-founder of FSI, and eventually, that led me to joining FSI as a project manager.”

Caption: The PowerThru Summer Course

Youth Empowerment More Important Than Ever

Amongst the social ventures and impact organisations that FSI works with via Impact Lab is GREEN Hospitality. With youth empowerment as one of its core values, GREEN Hospitality provides year-round internship (and volunteering) opportunities to university students who are passionate about innovation and sustainability in the hospitality industry. Another Impact Lab partner company with a focus on youth empowerment is EmpowerU, which combines technology, community, and award-winning educators to provide impact-based programmes that empower marginalised youth and migrant workers. Specifically, its PowerThru Summer Course was launched this year to expose ethnically diverse youth to different career opportunities, and equip them with skills and knowledge on law, entrepreneurship, health and wellbeing, coding, and social-emotional learning.

These impact-driven educators and leaders are collaborating and sharing their resources, information, and knowledge on youth empowerment programmes and initiatives today’s youth possess great resilience, agility, and creativity in responding to various challenges.

According to this report by the Youth Co:Lab, young entrepreneurs in Asia-Pacific were able to pivot their business model and financing strategy, innovate new products and services, and as a result, develop solutions to reach vulnerable groups and make contributions on the frontline to mitigate the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Unidesk, a social enterprise that provided career counselling for youth in Pakistan, digitised the modules that they were previously teaching at schools and colleges, and launched an online digital skills training programme. Teach It, an edutech startup with the mission of reducing educational inequality in Bangladesh, supported teachers to provide free, live classes to ensure children continued to receive education. Bhutan Smart Shop, an online platform that connects local producers to consumers to grow the agribusiness and enhance food supply chain efficiency, began delivering produce to customers’ doors when the stay-home order was in place, thereby increasing demand for local produce and food self-sufficiency. Himalayan Innovations, which provides affordable solar energy to remote areas in Nepal, made their solar generators available to healthcare facilities to ensure uninterrupted power supply, and used its manufacturing facility to produce protective equipment. In the Philippines, AI4GOV, a social enterprise that uses automation and machine learning solutions to enable participatory governance and responsive public service delivery, collaborated with the Department of Health and other stakeholders to develop a COVID-19 digital triage, public health information, and contact tracing system.

Young people are capable of playing a vital role in global post-pandemic recovery efforts, with the mindset and innovations needed to pave the way for a sustainable and equitable future. And youth empowerment initiatives such as the Impact Lab are needed more than ever, as young people today face multiple complex challenges, and they are often disproportionately affected by unemployment, working poverty, unequal access of quality education, mental health issues etc. brought on by changes and crises like the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the climate crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 621 million young people aged between 15 and 24 were not in education, employment, or training, and 75 million trained young people were unemployed. All over the world, one in five youth do not possess the minimum level of basic skills to be gainfully employed.

In its report on the Global Survey of Youth and COVID-19 conducted from April to May 2020, the International Labour Organization found that, during the pandemic-induced school closures, one in eight young people did not have access to courses, teaching, and training. In terms of employment, one in six young people stopped working (primarily due to job losses), and two out of five reported a reduction in income during the pandemic. From the United States to Hong Kong, half of the internships were either cancelled or postponed. With the disruption to learning and working, compounded by health risks, social isolation, lack of access to accurate information, fear of eviction (as a result of reduced income), and uncertainty about future career prospects, the pandemic took a toll on young people’s mental wellbeing: the study found that 17% of young people surveyed were likely to be affected by anxiety and depression, and mental wellbeing was lowest for young women and younger youth between the ages of 18 and 24. Despite the challenges, however, over one in four young people volunteered or donated towards the COVID-19 responses, such as fighting misinformation, providing mental health counselling, and mobilising resources for those in need.

Youth Empowerment and Engagement Benefits All of Us

Today, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16% of the global population. By actively engaging young people, we can make better informed decisions to build a sustainable and equitable future for all. In Hong Kong, as is elsewhere in the world, there is not a dearth of impact-driven young people.

At GREEN Hospitality’s GREEN Talk on “The Role of Youth in the Future of Sustainable Hospitality Industry and Social Impact”, held on 10 August, three young panelists shared their insights on their impact journey. Natalie Chung, co-founder of V’air Hong Kong, who has been passionate about climate change since a young age, credits her exposure to other leadership opportunities to her commitment to the environmental education organisation that promotes low-carbon local tourism. “V’air was initially just a school project in my first year at university, but I didn’t want it to be just that. With the mentors we met from a competition held by the French Consulate right before COP 21, I and my team were able to identify our strategic positioning in between NGOs, targeting a different segment of the audience. We are able to navigate this seemingly overcrowded space and find new pathways forward. As a result of the work I do for V’air and the connections I made, I am currently working on the advisory committee at the Council for Sustainable Development to put forward ideas on framing public consultation, and I get to meet different stakeholders at focus group meetings. I think the government might provide more opportunities for youth engagement in climate-related policy-making, so young people should look out for these opportunities.”

For those who are interested in carving out an impact-driven career or engaging in a strategic side gig, here are some pieces of advice from the young panelists. “Get involved in side projects,” said Dominic Dubois, who started his current role as Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at The Peninsula Hotels after a chance encounter with the CEO of the hotel group while working at a chalet in Niseko, Japan. “Diversion paths will bring value to you in the end, if you can identify what you are passionate about, be open-minded and meet the right people, and work towards that goal. The extra step you take can carry you quite far.”

So agreed Vivian Seo, former Impact Lab student and currently project manager at FSI, who believes everyone wants to create social impact, and every business should be an impact business: “During the three years I was with Goldman Sach, I was constantly thinking about how I could engage in the social impact space. A friend of mine opened an art studio and was looking for someone who could advise her on running this social enterprise. I helped her to build her own team and management structure, and that was my side gig. Think about your career more strategically and how you can utilise your time outside of your full-time job to expand your future opportunities. Just as important, know your strengths and build on that, because that is your personal brand and the skills you want to keep in front of you. We need people with different skills to achieve great goals. Be fearless!”

Meanwhile, businesses have the moral obligation to create an aspirational future that is more just and meaningful for the next generation, and there needs to be a concerted effort to provide young people with meaningful jobs, wrote David Lee, senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Business and Economics. Additionally, governments, companies, and education institutions need to ensure that young people have access to employment and training programmes, quality online learning, mental health support, and social protection.

If you are interested in supporting or funding impact-based youth empowerment initiatives by Foundation for Shared Impact, get in touch on Reach out, too, if you would like to volunteer your time, knowledge, and skills for FSI’s other impact projects.

Are you a youth interested in internship or volunteering opportunities where you can help turn the hospitality industry into a catalyst for sustainability? Check out the available positions at GREEN Hospitality here.


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