Art & Culture, Business & Tech - 02/01/19

Volunteer in Hong Kong to Meet Your Role Model

Written by Melody C

Having dinner with the man behind Hong Kong’s most famous startup 9GAG, Ray Chan, or up-and-coming ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ actor Wesley Wong seems nearly impossible – that is, unless you do 10 hours of volunteer work. 

Time Auction is a non-profit organisation founded by Fion Leung and Suetyi Wong that inspires people to volunteer in Hong Kong and globally for 10 hours in return for hard-to-come-by meetings with mentors – be they Michelin-starred chefs or successful entrepreneurs. It began as a side project in 2014 before it was officially registered as a charity two years ago after finding its footing in Hong Kong. Since then, Time Auction has planted its seeds in five other cities – Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, San Francisco, and Los Angeles – within the past year and the beginning of this year. It has raised over 47,000 volunteer hours to date – certainly a success story worth sharing.

Volunteer Hong Kong Time Auction

Fion studied art before switching to business to pacify her worried parents, finding herself working at investment bank Barclays fresh out of college. She realised along the way that she had suffered from a lack of access to solid mentorship. “I think after you’re done with school, it’s really up to you to find someone who can teach you and sometimes it’s hard,” she says. Fion was inclined to create a platform where people could receive advice and encouragement, modified from the existing Time Auction model where people can volunteer in exchange for a product such as an iPhone. Joining forces with Suetyi, the girls grew Time Auction slowly over two years without spending a dime, working on it during lunch breaks, after work, on the weekends, on the MTR, and even at the gym. To get things off the ground, they made a pact: that there would be no zero days, i.e. days where they did nothing. They simply weren’t allowed. “That was in the beginning, but now we’re obviously a lot more mature in managing our responsibilities and discipline,” laughs Fion. “But in the beginning, it was really us trying to coach each other and work.”

Fion then left her job at Barclays to join a friend’s startup, but found juggling that and Time Auction challenging. “If you’re working at a startup, you have to give it 120 per cent, and it’s just very hard to do that at the same time for two things,” she explains. “So it came to a point where I had to decide on one. I thought the whole thing about being in your 20’s is about learning, and that I would learn more if I could dive into Time Auction.” She did just that the moment they received enough funding from fundraisers and her father was onboard with her decision. “He saw that we had some success, we got some press, we had [guest mentors] that he knew of and he knew I was serious about it, so he just said, ‘Do what you think is right and what you’re happy with.’”

Fion and Suetyi knew they were doing the right thing with Time Auction early on. In the first month, they accrued 900 hours of people volunteering in Hong Kong. And, much to their surprise, about 60 to 80 per cent of potential guest mentors they contacted responded. Within the first two weeks, seven guest mentors had agreed to donate one to two hours of their time to share their experiences with the volunteers. “A lot of people kept coming back to our events and a lot of people kept going out there to volunteer more, so we knew we had found a product/market fit,” Fion recalls.

Volunteer Hong Kong Time Auction

After all, it was a simple process even for children: participants apply to the meetup of their choice, such as a group lunch with celebrity Bob Lam or Hong Kong’s longest-serving Finance Secretary The Hon John Tsang, or even a group dinner with Chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group Dr. Allan Zeman, and volunteer the specified number of hours required to join the meetup. They can volunteer at any registered charity or non-profit organisation (NGO), including but not limited to non-profit HandsOn Hong Kong, which presents various volunteering services, soap recycling NGO Soap Cycling, and NGO for the homeless ImpactHK. Once the completed volunteer hours are logged on TimeAuction’s platform, the hours are verified and participants can get their long list of questions ready for the guest mentor.

Although a fairly easy process, a lot of time and effort is put into arranging these meetups. As a startup charity, Time Auction is mainly run by volunteers in Hong Kong and internationally, and without monetary incentives, those volunteers need to be self-motivated. “We’ve had people who joined us for the wrong reasons,” says Fion. “You always hear at school, ‘People are the most important asset,’ and you don’t know what that means. But now I do.” Now, their team in Hong Kong consists of seven people with two full-time staff, while their chapters in Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco and Los Angeles are run by volunteers. “People are doing this, not because Suetyi and I are nice people, but it’s really about them showing kindness and wanting to learn from the guest mentors,” Fion says. “I think that’s a huge validation when you put yourself out of the equation and it’s still growing.”

When asked how they choose mentors, Fion says they pick people who are very passionate about what they’re doing and have made a name for themselves. This allows them to choose people in all types of industries, from KOLs to comedians, entrepreneurs to chefs. “We try to diversify because we know that everyone has a different passion,” says Fion. “In the beginning, the majority were business people because they’re more used to sharing, whilst in the entertainment field, they’re more used to getting paid to show up. But, I guess now, more people know what we’re trying to do so we have some guests who are donating their time in that field as well.”

Volunteer Hong Kong Time Auction

Fion is adamant that their mentor/volunteer meetings don’t just flow one way. Recently, a 13-year-old boy met guest mentor and now Time Auction advisor James Thompson, the founder of Crown Worldwide Group, an international company providing transportation, relocation services, logistics and storage facilities, to ask him how to go about getting his startup off the ground. “It was so cute seeing a 13-year-old and a 78-year-old talking business,” Fion says chuckling. “Even though our mentors might be very advanced in their journey, sometimes it’s encouraging to know that people are trying to get to where you are. Some of them are also grateful to remind themselves that a lot of young people have their own dreams. I hope that’s what they take away from the meeting as well.”

She adds, “These mentors were at a very similar place I was at, thinking about the risk, thinking about the opportunity cost. And they had the courage to go try it, and you think it’s actually not that bad to fail or to try. It’s alright to quit your job and not have 20 days of annual leave. Personally, I learned that and it’s made an impact on it.”

Alongside focusing on Los Angeles and San Francisco, Time Auction will be launching in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in the future. In addition, they are tapping Chow Yun Fat, Tim Farris, and the Dalai Lama as guest mentors next. “We want to continue getting more people to volunteer because it gives you an emotional, educational experience when you’re at the front line helping out, and we want to continue opening up opportunities for people to learn from different people,” expresses Fion.

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