Asia, Interviews

Bonnie Chiu – CEO of Lensational & Managing Director of The Social Investment Consultancy

I think empathy is very important – it’s currently lagging in the tech world, which is why we see tensions between technology development and flourishing of the broad base of society.

Hong Kong-born Bonnie Chiu is the Founder and CEO of award-winning social enterprise Lensational, which equips marginalized women with photography training and digital skills. Recognized as a champion for global development and gender equality, she has been invited to speak in 15 countries, featured by major press outlets and is a Forbes Contributor.

She is the Managing Director of The Social Investment Consultancy (TSIC), an international strategy consulting firm that advises clients on social innovation and promotes cross-sector collaboration, headquartered in London with offices in Hong Kong, Italy, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. She is a convener and thought leader in impact investing, serving as the Executive of Diversity Forum in the UK, and the Coordinator of the Women in Social Finance, a network for 100 senior women in impact investing.

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role does technology plays in it?

I wear many hats, but my main job is as the Managing Director of The Social Investment Consultancy (TSIC). We are a global team of 10 spread across West Africa, UK, Italy, the Gulf and Hong Kong, advising a wide range of clients on social impact measurement and impact investing. As a team, we are working to maximize social impact and technology is increasingly an integral part of it. We have actively supported tech for good programmes or initiatives, to help them measure their social impact, scale and attract impact investment. One of the reasons is that technology can help us solve pressing social challenges much quicker, cheaper and at a larger scale. Another is that technology has also resulted in new social challenges that we need to grapple with.

As part of TSIC, we are currently incubating a new tech for good company, called Humanity Data Systems. This is a very early stage, but the idea is to leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the delivery of humanitarian and measurement of social impact. We have received some funding from Humanitarian Grand Challenge to bring it to life, so I’m actively working with a team of data scientists and coders, as well as local responders, to develop our prototype.  

I have also founded Lensational back in 2013, which provides photography and storytelling training to marginalised women and girls in 23 countries. Technology plays a central role – leveraging digital photography and mobile phones to enable women to express themselves and document the life around them; and using social media to share their stories with people across the world. We also have a global team of 100 volunteers whose communications wouldn’t have been possible without social media.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

My professional journey started when I launched Lensational, during the third year of my university studies. I had my first entrepreneurship experience at 16 years old when I became the CEO of a student company through Junior Achievement Hong Kong. That experience made me realize the power of social entrepreneurship, in its swift ability to create social change. Through a lot of hard work and perseverance, Lensational grew to achieve recognition and many doors started opening to me. I started thinking more about technology when Lensational joined F Lane Accelerator in 2017, initiated by Vodafone Institute. It made me realize that I’m actually operating a tech venture and challenged me to think about how technology can help me scale my work.

I had my first entrepreneurship experience at 16 years old when I became the CEO of a student company. That experience made me realize the power of social entrepreneurship, in its swift ability to create social change.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

For me, I think it is the domination by big tech firms – Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon in particular. This is not a good transformation – the Internet started out of a concern for the public good, and the open-source movement was much stronger in the early days. The domination by big tech firms, and increasingly big governments, is a worrying trend.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first? 

Social impact! I think technology, as we know, have been very male-dominated in the past two decades. Every female tech entrepreneur I come across recognizes the gender bias in technology and has an urge to redress that balance as well as to solve other social issues.

We always hear there are not enough women working in tech. What needs to happen to change that?

There are a lot of myths about who can work in Tech. People often think you need an engineering degree to work in Tech, and as women are often discouraged to study STEM subjects from a young age, that career path is often not known or available to women. But as technology development matures, most jobs in tech do not require the actual coding anymore and particular in the age of AI, there’s high demand for people with backgrounds in human sciences. So, to achieve gender equality in tech, I think we first need to break down those myths so more women are encouraged to pursue a career in tech. Then, the culture in the tech industry needs to shift. I wrote about Google Walkouts last year when Google employees staged a walkout in protest of sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a wakeup call for the tech industry that unless they improve the culture, women who enter into the industry will still choose to leave. 

People often think you need an engineering degree to work in tech, and as women are often discouraged to study STEM subjects from a young age, that career path is often not known or available. But as technology development matures, there’s high demand for people with backgrounds in human sciences. 

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

I think empathy is very important – it’s currently lagging in the tech world, which is why we see tensions between technology development and flourishing of the broad base of society.

Adaptability to change and the ability to deal with uncertainties is also important. The tech world changes all the time and the rapid pace of change makes it hard to keep up, hence we need to be adaptable to change. During tech developments, there are also many many pivots and so the ability to deal with uncertainties is key. I see these two skills, or rather, mindset, go very much hand in hand.

If you had 1 Million € to invest in women, what would you do? 

1 million € is really not a lot but I would invest in creating and disseminating a series of advertising campaigns that portray women tech leaders from all kinds of culture. I recently got to learn about the Grace Hopper Celebration in the US – every year over 3000 girls in tech come together and they have a fantastic line of speakers, who are mostly women in tech. Readers may know about Ada Lovelace, whose contribution was crucial to the Internet but was overshadowed by her male counterparts – similarly, the movie, “Hidden figures”, which showcase the contribution of African-American women in the early development of technology. These heroines are there but they are not being profiled in the same way that male heroes in tech are. These stories would go a long way to break down myths for women and girls around working and thriving in tech.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

It’s such a difficult question, as I’ve had so many positive influences and I have talked a lot about how important my family is to me in my development. On the subject matter of tech, I guess I belong to the generation which transited from 56k (using a modem to access the internet and my grandparents couldn’t use the telephone when I surfed the Internet), to broadband internet and I’ve seen technology just skyrocketed. It’s pretty amazing to be amid the transition, and it made me a tech enthusiast. 

During tech developments, there are also many pivots and so the ability to deal with uncertainties is key.

A few years ago, I had the honour to work with a non-profit organisation called Tactical Technology Collective, helping them with their impact measurement and strategy development.  I then realised that there’s a dark side to technology, in how Big Tech has eroded on our civil liberties and privacy, and it made me want to work more actively in the tech world to reclaim it for the public benefit and social good. With Tactical Tech, I also went to their Gender and Technology Institute and I learned that in history, women played a very significant role in the early days of the Internet, and as the profit motive came in, men started to take over. It was enlightening for me to know about this as I no longer feel that I don’t belong in the tech world.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

I would tell myself that I can be good at science. I always did better in humanities than science, and because I had unconscious gender bias that science isn’t really for girls, even though I was quite interested in computer science, I stopped pursuing it seriously. Now I am playing a very late catch up, such as learning Python, but I wish I hadn’t stopped.

If you could host a dinner party with 3 influential people in tech, who would you invite and why?

I am awe-inspired by Alan Turing, who broke the enigma machine in the second world war and his technological breakthroughs led to encryption and computer technology as we know today. I would also like to meet Ada Lovelace, who I mentioned earlier in the article. I would also like to invite Dr Charles Koh, who was from Hong Kong and was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contribution to fiber technologies. I’m inspired by those who make use of their talent and hard work to develop technology for a Nobel cause which is for the greater good, rather than profit maximization (as we see in the Big Tech these days).

Hong Kong-born Bonnie Chiu is the Founder and CEO of award-winning social enterprise Lensational, which equips marginalized women with photography training and digital skills. Since launching in 2013, the organization – which has expanded to a team of 120 volunteers – has taught photography to 800 women across 23 countries. Recognized as a champion for global development and gender equality, she has been invited to speak in 15 countries, featured by major press outlets and is a Forbes Contributor.

She is the Managing Director of The Social Investment Consultancy (TSIC), an international strategy consulting firm that advises clients on social innovation and promotes cross-sector collaboration, headquartered in London with offices in Hong Kong, Italy, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Her clients include Save The Children, Oxford University Press and Tactical Technology Collective. She is a convener and thought leader in impact investing, serving as the Executive of Diversity Forum in the UK, and the Coordinator of the Women in Social Finance, a network for 100 senior women in impact investing.

Meet Our Other Gals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *