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“Cultural differences stand for fun!” Innovation 101 with social entrepreneurship pundit Dr Elsie Tsui

“It’s increasingly evident that the social impact created by social-minded corporates can be as powerful as that by the NGOs.” In her neat executive outfit, Dr Elsie Tsui details her days traversing the commercial, social welfare and academic fields at the freshly open-for-business CUHK InnoPort.

She toiled considerable years in the business world – shortly after graduating from CUHK Sociology, she studied MBA at the University of Cambridge, then spearheaded the Public Affairs and Communications function at Greater China division of The Coca-Cola Company for eight years, before working at the Europe and Asia offices of innovation consultancy ?What If! Innovation Partner (now under Accenture). Having joined the academia for half a decade, she’s keen on introducing good business practices to students, while calling for companies to attach greater importance to social values.

Embrace multi-cultures

With copious experiences diagnosing enterprises at her past jobs, she is well-versed with many brand stories, especially those in her beloved fashion industry. Intriguingly, what got her talking today turn out to be two other buzzwords with which she has become fascinated for the past ten years – innovation and social impact.

Elsie even did research on local social enterprises for her doctoral thesis. Currently one of CUHK’s advocates for “business for good”, she has been the Project Director of Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge (HKSEC) for five years, teaches social entrepreneurship at CUHK Business School, and in this September, joined the Office of Research and Knowledge Transfer Services (ORKTS) as Head of Social Innovation, working towards a systematic channelling of university knowledge outputs to the society to create social impact.

A CUHK alumna, Dr Elsie Tsui divulges her single regret – not making the most out of her school life. “Too busy having fun elsewhere and playing in my band.” (Photo: SoCUBE)

Born in Thailand, Elsie spent a few years of her childhood in Taiwan and Singapore before settling in Hong Kong at the age of five. Since finishing her studies, she has worked in Shanghai and London. “I moved from one country to another many times, and had to attune to varying languages and cultures in the process. It could possibly be the reason for my resilience to culture shock!” Her unique upbringing contributed to her poise within a bustling, multinational corporate environment. “Cultural differences mean fun! I’d like to know why others think in certain ways.”

Going in for social enterprises

Her eyes gleam with satisfaction as she shares her days in the private sector. What then piqued her interest towards social enterprises, that she even did a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) on the topic?

She confesses to having been interested in the subject matter back when she took care of corporate social responsibility at Coca-Cola China, though the moment of “enlightenment” dawned on her when she became a Consultant for ?What If! Innovation.

“I was based in London back then, and a few colleagues took up a pro bono project in collaboration with an NGO. They were tasked with – via innovative means – calling for a ban of a malign practice, female circumcision in Africa.” Using design thinking, the team put forward proposals that, on the one hand, win over the tribal chief and preserve their culture, and on the other, fulfil the needs of modern development. One of the ideas involved airing the voices of victims through pop songs, “playing them day and night, prompting public discourse.”

“We had to be cautious though – not to approach it entirely from a western perspective, and neglect their cultural heritage. So, we discussed with the chief (the “empathise” phase in design thinking) to understand the values behind this custom, and the possibility of replacing circumcision with other practices.” Despite her confident demeanour, Elsie highlights the reality of personal blind spots, “don’t get convinced that others are utterly wrong and you are perfectly right.”

In its 13th year, the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge commences as scheduled amid the epidemic. (Photo: HKSEC)

Pioneering education on social innovation

Roaming across the planet for years, she started paving the way home in 2012 for “work and life balance”. Besides doing a DBA at Grenoble School of Management, France, she took the helm of the HKSEC project at CUHK Center for Entrepreneurship (CfE) in 2015. Renowned names as Green Price, WEDO GLOBAL, Kaifong Tour and lensational have all undergone the Challenge and its training.

“Discussion surrounding the concept of social enterprise heated up in around 2000, when the government released funding to NGOs, mainly for the purpose of promoting work integration social enterprises. CfE believes that any genre of entrepreneurship is worth supporting. Entrepreneurial education not only nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit, but also instils a sense of empathy to fathom the society’s wants, especially those with special needs.” Elsie describes the competition as a cradle to new-born social enterprises.

CfE launched the intercollegiate competition back in 2007, receiving funding support from the Home Affairs Bureau starting the following year. It has already evolved into an accelerator for social start-ups. Though starting businesses may not be for everyone, developing an entrepreneurial mindset is of benefit to all.

Elsie recounts running into an HKSEC “alumnus” at an event hosted by a multinational bank, “He didn’t win the Challenge; neither did he reckon he’s suited to the life of an entrepreneur. But going through the whole process, he recognised that even if he’s working for a corporate, he would opt for one that creates social value. Eventually, he joined the CSR department of that bank.” She lists a few more youth leaders invited by the government to join advisory committees, substantiating the “impact” of education on social entrepreneurship.

In the course of the Challenge, participants have access to ample training and networking opportunities, proven instrumental even to those who didn’t end up on the start-up track. (Photo: HKSEC)

As a new term kicks off this September, in addition to HKSEC and teaching, has Elsie set any targets in her new role (as Head of Social Innovation at ORKTS)?

One of her goals is to deepen the impact of the existing schemes, KPF and S-KPF, two funding schemes that support CUHK scholars to transform their academic knowledge into tangible impact in the community. Professors may put their applied research to the test for market potential with the former, whereas the latter entitles them to set up social enterprises that further the impact of academic outputs in a broader setting.

“Knowledge transfer as a way to create social values is a global trend – many universities are deliberating about ways to transform research into tangible impact.” Over the past weeks, she and her team kept meeting up with funded professor teams, practising the first step of design thinking – empathise (deep, understanding of the users).

“I’m also eager to invite internationally eminent social innovators as entrepreneurs-in-residence to inspire CUHK members, while facilitating cross-sector collaboration to co-create social impact. I would like to document the best practices of successful knowledge transfer activities too.”

Elsie maintains that making contact with different cultures sparks innovative thinking. (Photo: HKSEC)

Experiences and findings

Towards the end of our chat, Elsie shares her observations on the local and global social entrepreneurial ecosystems.

“In the past, close to 80% of social enterprises in Hong Kong are operated by NGOs. Recently, we are seeing in the playing field more individuals without prior experience in social welfare, both young and retired persons. Nonetheless, social enterprises here are often focused only on the local market with limited scalability. On the contrary, take the French Groupe SOS as an example, they are huge in scale with a variety of diverse businesses, even got their own social enterprise accelerator, and with branches in other countries.”

She advises Hongkongers to broaden their horizon and get to know social issues elsewhere; this could contribute to both personal growth and starting up. “Hong Kong is relatively monocultural. The less youngsters go beyond the territory, the more they are reluctant to step out of their comfort zones; the less they understand other cultures, the less interested they end up being. That’s potentially a vicious cycle.”

Define innovation!

“While many relate innovation to technology, that’s not always the case. It could be a business model or management model innovation.” How would she suggest putting innovation into practice? She recommends the ?What If! equation, “insight + idea + impact. Insight means knowing the needs of your users inside out and pinning their pain points down. The proposed idea should precisely answer the issue and generate actual impact.”

Boosting our innovative capacities – the dos and don’ts

“Avoid being negative and constantly kill others’ ideas, such as by saying ‘don’t do this and that’… unduly cynical people are hardly innovative. It’s not only about competence, but also perspective and attitude. Perspective takes time to groom though.” She encourages the younger generation to increase their exposure to foreign media and culture, starting from topics that appeal to them. “For example, I’m interested in the fashion industry and watch loads of relevant videos online. Besides discovering more about the subject, you also come to know more about the KOLs’ cultural backgrounds – and learn something unexpected!”

【Scholarly keyword】Creative tension

Elsie put it plainly, “overly cynical people who like killing others’ ideas – ‘don’t do this and that’ – they do no good to innovation.” Still, she points out that an appropriate amount of creative tension could be beneficial.

Mark Batson Baril, “expert” in workplace conflict, defined the term as “constructive” conflict that “brings on the kind of tension that sparks excitement, conversation and creativity”. He also listed several conditions that kill creative tension – fear of failure, eroding trust, lack of safety and groupthink. If a member in the group feels distrusted or fears rejection, the potential for innovation would be stifled.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS

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