Interview with Arthur Fukuda Lam, Neil Slighton, Anant Majumdar — co-founders and partners at Vantage Ideation, a pro-bono strategy consulting company. Vantage Ideation helps social enterprises and NGOs make lasting improvements to their organizations from high school students’ perspective.
How did high school students end up starting a consulting group for startups and social enterprises?
Our entrepreneurial roots trace back to three years ago when we founded a business club, Entrepreneurs Exchange, at our school, Hong Kong International School. Noticing growing interest for enterprise within secondary schools outside of HKIS, we soon launched an inter-school entrepreneurship organization called the Asian Youth Social Entrepreneurship Association (AYSEA).
With these organisations we were able to do mock exercises of entrepreneurial activities, listen to the stories and lessons of experienced businesswomen and men and entrepreneurs and even start our own businesses. Through this time, each of us gained varied experiences in the entrepreneurship, social impact, and management settings. One of us worked with early stage social enterprises in Hong Kong in a volunteer capacity, another with rural women in India to help them start small businesses to support their families, and another with tech startups in China in a volunteer capacity on marketing strategy.
Through these experiences, we saw the value in providing an outsider’s perspective to early-stage ventures, and this was the inspiration for Vantage Ideation. We wanted to tap the undiscovered value in youth in order to help new social ventures make lasting impact. Not only was Vantage Ideation a way to gain experience with doing research, writing business plans and devising strategies, but also as a way to learn how startups work and the processes and struggles that come along with running a real world venture.
Social entrepreneurship is an important factor in socio-economic development, and more people, especially youth, should be aware of it
Since becoming involved in the social entrepreneurship space, the three of us have learnt an incredible amount — not only about business, but about society, government, and policy. We’ve learnt that what seems like a great idea on the surface level might turn out to have some potentially negative side-effects that come along with it. An example is that aid to third world countries seems like it can only do good, but not when it leads to corruption, dependence and governmental inefficacy. This concept of the mismatch between intentions and impact is what makes social enterprises so keenly aware and meticulous about the impact they’re making and so committed to directly meeting the needs of their beneficiaries in the long-term.
We don’t believe social enterprise is the solution to all of the world’s problems, but we do believe it is part of the solution to many that have been difficult to solve over the past decades.
But many a time when we’ve mentioned to our peers that we work with social enterprises in Hong Kong, we often field the question — “but what are social enterprises?” This is not surprising, given that curriculum in Hong Kong don’t teach social enterprise and that most schools in Hong Kong don’t have social entrepreneurship clubs in school.
On the contrary, schools are inundated with clubs that raise funds for charitable organizations through traditional activities, such as bake sales. Furthermore, as high school students are exposed more to traditional business or enterprise than to social enterprise, those interested in business adopt almost “Gordon Gekko” like characters in the effort to fit the role they see on TV. So an education, or at least awareness of social enterprise among the youth is crucial to learn means of more effective charity and to support a socially-driven and impact-conscious attitude in business.
Why adopting a beginner’s mindset can help in all spheres of an organization
We’re often asked how we can offer value to any company given that we are high school students. While we do lack experience and knowledge of business, we still believe that our services can have considerable impact on a startup, for a few key reasons.
Firstly, we’re open to learning from other people. We firmly believe there’s always someone who knows something you don’t know, and we apply that principle to all our engagements. Often, when you become an expert in a field, you defend your positions without listening to others. We go into engagements not having a defined way we think the organization should run, but rather develop that vision through observation, interviewing, and research.
Secondly, as there aren’t many high school consulting groups, we offer a new perspective and network. Problems that are hard to solve with the traditional perspective can be easy from ours. We know we can’t solve all problems, but we know we can bring a new perspective to those that have been difficult to solve.
Thirdly, we don’t base our recommendations on intricate and complex business models, so our ideas are not limited to those models. Our ideas aren’t constrained to things taught in business school; rather, they are extrapolated from the most basic levels of understanding and complemented by market research. To make an analogy, if you are given a complex math problem, the first thing you might do is see if the complicated theorems you were taught can solve it. Because of that, your thinking is constrained to those theorems, and you end up only being able to solve the problem with those theorems. If you start from the fundamentals of math and derive a solution yourself, you get a method that fits the problem much better, unconstrained by already known theorems.
We acknowledge the need for other ingredients as well — such as market research and industry knowledge. By being adaptable and eager to learn, we work with the social enterprise we consult with to understand these elements and pursue further research. This combination of a unique perspective and hypothesis drive research has helped us help social enterprises in ways we would not have been able to otherwise.