Calvin Woo shares his two cents on the working to make a difference, misconceptions of entrepreneurship and surviving the industry at a young age.

At the age of 21, most people receive their key to freedom, but at the age of 21, Calvin was receiving the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. From previously being Head of Programmes at SASTRA Education Development, to being National Unity Youth Fellow at IDEAS and even co-founding a social enterprise, NexGen Impact (NGI), Calvin Woo seems to have done it all.

He holds a strong voice for the youth, having shared about the youth of ASEAN and his hopes for the future at the [email protected] Conference in 2017. At the same conference, the FLY Malaysia Journalism Team had a chance to meet and schedule an interview with the man with the golden CV.

In a warm and inspiring session, Calvin shared fresh insights into the world of making a difference, doing it during one’s youth and common misconceptions surrounding entrepreneurship. It is this journalist’s pleasure to put some of that perspective to paper in this article.

Getting to know Calvin

Calvin has had a variety of sources of education over his years, beginning with his secondary school in Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM), Mersing, all the way to completing several modules in world class institutes such as the University of Connecticut and Cambridge. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) with the Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT-Sloan.

Of course, there is more to a person than their educational background. A great lover of reading, Calvin takes the chance to indulge himself in books and tea in his spare time. He can often be found doing so accompanied by jazz and music by the likes of artists such as Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé. A reflective person, he makes it a point to journal daily, asking himself the question: “What have I really done and what can I do better?” He is also a big fan of playing badminton and frequently keeps in shape by hitting the gym.

Being a busy person who has a number of hobbies, the questions beg to be asked: Where and how do the forces of work and life find balance?

That Elusive Work-life Balance

Managing ambitious activities, family, friends, and daily wellbeing in general can be one of life’s toughest juggling acts. To maintain a sensible degree of sanity is nowhere near easy, and having co-founded a social enterprise, Calvin’s beginning days were more work than life.

“When I first started my venture (NGI), I did not have a single day off. Every day, I worked for about 16 hours. As much as I have a lot of enthusiasm, I need to be able to rest. I have trouble taking a day off.”

An early discovery he made was that a break was neither a choice nor a want, but a need. When one gets wrapped up in turning dreams into reality, the idea of taking time off can sometimes seem impossible, especially if the work is of true passion.

Calvin draws some inspiration from his love of nature, saying there is a lot to learn from applying some of its philosophy to life. Out in nature, the same scenery viewed from different locations gives light to a whole new image. There is a bigger picture, and looking at things from different angles allows it to be seen better.

To help process the idea of taking breaks, Calvin does his best to always step back and look at things from the larger perspective: One day of not working will allow him 10 days of good working; his productivity increases.

“I learned to take care of myself first before I can contribute better.”

He also keeps the understanding that he can serve better with that rest and energy, an invaluable reminder that when putting the people first, the self must not be forgotten.

Calvin also sets aside time for an occasional hometown visit back to Johor. He shares how once in a while he takes about a week off and heads home to spend time with his family. Full of nostalgia, he laughs about how his mother makes him put aside all his gadgets so he can fully enjoy his time away from the hustle and bustle.

When it comes to having that rest, Calvin states “I need to be able to slow down, to go fast”, a quintessential display of going back to the basics of balance. As the saying goes, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to live your life”.

M.A.D World

In this day and age, many strive to start their own organisations and enterprises with the goal of Making A Difference (MAD). With his experience in leadership in the field, Calvin shares some words of wisdom.

Starting Up

As with any venture, there are many things to consider and some thought processes to go through when starting up. Having a strong set of experiences in this field, Calvin believes that people tend to spend excessive time thinking about the how. There is a strong fixation on how they are going to do things, how they are going to make a difference.

“It’s the value that should come before the method of delivery.”

Everything solid comes from a strong basic foundation. When it comes to structural essences of giving back to society, there are two questions Calvin believes should be asked:

  1. Why should the people care?
  2. Why is it relevant to them?

These basic questions serve as a reminder that even in the spirit of making a difference, it’s not just the importance of giving value, it’s giving the right value. Just as no business wants to sell ice to the Inuit, no organisation with a social mission should be dishing mismatched values.

Democratising Opportunity

A concern Calvin brings up is that very often when aiming to do good, the work done and the opportunities do not reach out to all. When it comes to really making an impact, one needs to consider how to democratize it and how to share the difference made with the many who need it, not just the few who are near. A simple example of how certain groups get left out is through language choice. He shares that many beneficial and informative events cater to those who speak English with higher fluency. Those who are more proficient in other languages are left in the dark.

Delving deeper, Calvin brings to light another challenging part of the same status quo: There are many great opportunities and learning platforms today, but they are all in the biggest cities.

“In KL we are always in our ivory towers. Many great organisations are in KL, but they are not in Johor, Kelantan or Pahang. Instead they are also in Germany, England, Singapore…”

Many excellent organisations are already so heavily centralised in city centres. In order to make the most impact, Calvin suggests that every group or organisation should aim to consider its reach in its early phases. Planning how to extend a hand to the masses that need it early on will help bring about a more evenly-spread change.

The Creed You Need

Everything needs a set of fundamental beliefs and guiding principles. When it comes to starting one’s own venture, more than just considering business models and sustainability, one should also consider more personal aspects. Among these considerations are the building of a wealth of knowledge and the non-monetary costs of the pursuit.

It is a well-established understanding that knowledge and wisdom is going to be a need no matter which walk of life. Calvin, however, addresses an approach that is popularly brushed off: formal and institutional education.

“There is this popular notion that you don’t need a university education. There are many remarkable, successful people who did not get one, such as Richard Branson. However, in his book, he said if given the chance he would have gone back to school. That way, he wouldn’t have to bite so many unnecessary bullets.”

Even after having done a few modules, his degree, as well as starting up a social enterprise, Calvin found himself in the need to learn more, thus pursuing his MBA. He found that aside from experience and learning on the  go, there was more technical knowledge that he needed.

“If you find it adds value to what you’re doing you should consider it. There’s a need for instant gratification, a want to speed up everything, but sometimes it’s just a process.”

He brings the classic analogy to the table: If a butterfly doesn’t squeeze itself out of the cocoon, it won’t be able to fly. Some processes cannot be skipped, and when it comes to the essential process of educating oneself, formal education should not be simply ruled out.

An Error or Entrepreneur?

The startup scene is more active than it has ever been. Be it for profit or not for profit, the thought of building something ground up lingers in the minds of many youths. An important question is: What thought processes should be considered before making the decision to execute?

Drawing back to nature’s philosophy of different views, Calvin calls on an alternative viewpoint to keep in mind. Calvin challenges the common perception that buying a ticket on the entrepreneurship express is the train ride to liberty.  

Having had firsthand experience, he shares:

“Entrepreneurship has been over-glorified. A lot of people idolize it, saying you will be in control of your own time and achieve financial freedom. Truth is when you start your own venture you work 80 hours a week, not 40. For at least the first 2 years you have to bootstrap your way too.”

There is a heavy price that some may suddenly realize they are not willing to pay. Work does not begin at 9 a.m. and close neatly at 5 p.m., the hours may be well longer and have hardly a fixed timing. “Entrepreneurship is not for everyone.”, Calvin emphasizes, gravely saying that failing to realize that could ultimately be a person’s biggest mistake.  

“You need to have your endgame and your foundation. If you have a strong end goal in mind, then this gives you power because your plans can change, so long as they direct you to that one destination.”

At the end of the day, Calvin once again draws it back to the why; it all comes back to your vision and your foundation (beliefs). Only with this can one thrive.  

The Age-Old Problem

“Age is just a number… Yeah, and jail is just a room” – Anonymous

Everywhere many youths are eager to make their mark in society, being given many opportunities to work with many organisations of different backgrounds. However, when it comes to starting young, there is a challenge that has become more apparent: the ageism factor.

Ageism is a type of discrimination that involves holding negative stereotypes about people of different ages. When the term ageism was first used it described the discrimination of older adults in the workforce. Today there is also discrimination towards the youth who are sometimes described as being “too young to think about making a difference.” The long-time belief that one must have eaten mountains of salt before striving to serve others still exists.

Age is one of the things mankind is still unable to change, social media apps aside, and experience can take a very long time to attain. Nevertheless, there are still those who have found a way to not just navigate through it but to thrive despite it. Being one of those people, Calvin shares a solution.

When things get difficult with people, it is known that having a strong support system of friends and family helps ease the pressures. When it comes to getting what you need, it is known that networking and building connections help you get to where you want to be. Calvin’s way of doing things is making the best of both worlds.

When it comes to wooing your way through, a system must be in place. He calls it a support network. Instead of getting to know the head honchos and gaining their favour, Calvin suggests letting them get to know your vision. If people are onboard with the idea and mission, they will be ready not just to support, but to help. It is not about shotgunning the masses, but about getting to know individuals and letting them get to know what you envision.

One by one, as more and more people believe in that vision, you will have a group standing by your side. When the time finally comes for you to share your idea, there are already people ready to provide backup should there be any unfair shoot downs.

It’s about more than just getting people to like you; it’s about connecting with them on a personal level AND about connecting with them in vision.

The Youth of Today

There is an amazingly popular belief that this generation of the global population draws its powers from being born with an Apple product in hand, readily installed with all the latest apps. While it’s undeniable that the youth of today tote smart devices around like an extra limb, there is definitely more to it.

“We (the current youth) are born in a world where there is abundant diversity and inclusiveness.”

Today’s youth enter the world already exposed to the many little diversities of life. Unlike earlier generations, this generation has grown up already getting bits and pieces of other cultures, other types of people and other ways of life.

Upon entering the workforce, culture shock is something almost inevitable and universal for the generations before. The youth of today are more in tune with the differences, be it due to increasing media exposure or increasing globalisation. This means that the time and energy that would have once been used to readjust can now be used for something else.

In Calvin’s eyes, being a people who are more used to these differences allows us to immediately look past them and go to the core of making an impact in the lives of others. It is a head start that exists more so now than ever before and should be fully utilised.

This, he believes, especially benefits Malaysians as the more focused we are on on making a difference, the faster we will progress. Being a true patriot, he concludes with this piece of wisdom, a question for those planning to migrate can reflect on:

“Instead of thinking of reasons to leave, think of what you can stay for.”

To him there is a bigger picture for youth in Malaysia: working with the neighbouring countries with Malaysia as home base.

“If Malaysia is my home then ASEAN is my neighbourhood”

Calvin suggests that in a highly globalised world, the country’s youth should consider driving change in not just their country, but in countries nearby to truly spread goodwill across national borders.

Closing with Calvin

When all is said and done, it is undeniable that the world has become an almost endless ocean of opportunities for the young. Sometimes one may be faced with so many choices that it becomes paralyzing. There may be many opportunities that although may be interesting, are not in line with the endgame you have in mind.

Should that time come, it is essential to remember that the good is the enemy of the great; choosing the one thing that is great for you is better than choosing the many things that are just good.

“When it’s time to say ‘no’ you need to say ‘no’. Many of us like to beat around the bush and dodge saying it. No matter how good something is , if it is not for you; it’s time to put your foot down. Many times we worry leaving a bad impression, but if your purpose is genuine and noble, people will understand.”

In just one session, Calvin Woo has shared with us a little bit about himself, a little more about starting things young and a ton to reflect on navigating towards goals as a youth – a true chef of food for thought. Closing the interview over coffee and contemplation, Calvin’s two cents has left this journalist richer with hope in the world of starting young.