Most entrepreneurs say “university is a waste of time”
but not if you went to the University of Waterloo.
Waterloo was a battle in Belgium but U of Waterloo was my trenches
Yes, Desmond Choi is a Sociology Major
I remember when I was in grade 12, like any other senior, I was debating which school to attend,I knew I couldn’t major in science or math because I was failing those classes—not Asian fail but actually failing. I loved music and dance but I didn’t see myself becoming a professional dancer. I looked at my options and did some research. I applied to the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. I applied for the Arts and Business Coop program, majoring in Econ because they didn’t have some crazy math requirement. I also heard that Waterloo is great for entrepreneurship. Plus, the coop program helps to find you a job. Econ was the most appealing subject on the list of course offerings compared to English or Sociology. Economists made a lot of money. And I certainly I didn’t want to die poor being a sociologist. (I was proven wrong, sociology is actually cool and you don’t have to be poor.)
First Year, I Fail and switched.
I failed the ELPE (English Language Proficiency Test) the first time I took it in first year. I took it a second time and failed again. Then I even took the English as a second language course and failed that as well. It wasn’t until the third time taking the test that I finally passed. Besides ELPE. I should probably mention, I failed French 101 too. So I ended up taking Chinese, don’t judge!
I didn’t start or run any businesses in my first year at Waterloo, but instead I started the United Social Entrepreneurship Conference. (www.usec.ca)
As a kid growing up in Hong Kong, sometimes I saw homeless people begging on the streets and the elderly going through the garbage trying to collect plastics and paper for change. I asked my dad why this was happening, and he would say it was because they didn’t go to school. And they didn’t study hard. As a kid I believed that because that’s what my teacher had said too.
As time went on I started to develop my own opinions. I realized that I was always getting 0s on my English test, 20s on my math tests. Why wasn’t I begging on the streets or going through the garbage?
The real reason why I chose sociology is because I wanted to understand our society better. To understand the prevailing systematic issues in different societies and how I can improve the society I live in.
So the dream began.
I know income inequality is a complex issue but what I do know is that there must be a solution that can help the elderly who were going through the garbage and homeless people begging in the streets.
I didn’t know what the solution was at the time but I believed it existed.
During the Winter term of 2011 in the University of Waterloo Village 1 cafe , I messaged a bunch of my friends on Facebook whom I met during frosh week and told them that I had this idea to organize a conference. The purpose of the conference was to unite university students around the world together in Hong Kong to share their opinions towards various issues specific to Hong Kong and engage in dialogue to build solutions for local issues.
Many of my close friends laughed at me and said I shouldn’t have wasted my time because no one in Hong Kong cares about social change and people are too busy looking for summer jobs.
It’s true. But I believed that in a seven million population there must be at least 100 people who were crazy enough to believe that there can be change and that I wasn’t the only one.
I spent a couple months going to the University of Toronto, York and many other universities recruiting volunteers to organize this conference. Surprisingly, we gathered a team of 14 volunteers and most of them were new to Hong Kong. They had joined because they saw that something was wrong and they wanted to help and be the solution.
It was the toughest time of my life.
I called up all my kindergarten and primary school friends that I haven’t seen for 9 – 10 yearsat least. I called them because they were the only people I knew from Hong Kong that might be interested to join this project.
Many of them were busy with their lives. But I found three who were willing to help.
Three was enough and we made it happen.
We also needed a venue for the conference. We emailed all the universities and no one replied. I printed out the conference outline and took the bus to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I walked into the student union office but it was closed, so I walked around campus and pitched the conference idea to random people. And the third person I walked into was a member of the student union and he put me in touch with someone from Chinese University and that’s how we got our venue sponsor.
We needed sponsorship, we cold called and emailed. We even went to funeral exhibitions to find sponsors. At the end we were able to raise $5000 HKD.
I remember a sponsoring asking me, why are you doing this, you are from Canada why do you care. What is Social Entrepreneurship? Who are you to talk about social entrepreneurship.
I forgot my response, but I remember how I felt. I felt helpless and hopeless, I didn’t know what social entrepreneurship was. I didn’t know how to solve local issues.
It was the vision that kept me going, I knew that there shouldn’t be the elderly going through the garbage and homeless people begging on the streets. I just wanted to do my part and do my best to make Hong Kong a better place.
I don’t usually cry or remember myself crying but one week before the conference we only had 4 people sign up for the conference. We promised our sponsor and speakers that there would be 300 people attending. That night I cried and suddenly I could hear my friends in my head, laughing at me and saying that I should not have wasted my time, may be they were right. – But I didn’t give-up.
Every night before the conference, my team got off work at 7:00pm or later. Still wearing their suits from work, they went on the streets of Hong Kong to hand out flyers to promote the conference. At that point we tried any and all marketing channels, trust me we tried everything. From spamming the police station, to sneaking into private residences and getting chased out by the security. We did it all.
This year USEC is celebrating its 5th Anniversary . From a day-time talk with 75 people to five-day long conference with over 300+ people in attendance coming from around the world.
Second Year, Met my ex.
It was, Fall 2012. The beginning of my 2A term. I was walking to my econ 201 class in DC. I saw there was a crowd gathered around someone on a stage pitching about indoor navigation. I walked up to Mitchell Butler, one of the co-founders of Mappedin and one of the nicest people I know. It was love at first sight, We chatted for a while and soon I dropped my courses and joined the rocket ship. This was the beginning of my entrepreneurial experience with the University of Waterloo. #Velocity.
I left Mappedin because I didn’t believe that the company’s mission aligned with my personal values. However, I only have good things to say about Mappedin. I loved the founders. In fact, when I wrote the resignation email on greyhound, I cried. I didn’t cry when I broke up with my ex girlfriend, but with Mappedin, it was true love.
After Mappedin I went back to school and thought I would focus on my undergrad degree.
or so I thought…
But I started SparkGig.
It was the reading week of 2013 and I was visiting my cousin from New York City.
I noticed there were many talented musicians and street performers who were working at fast food restaurants and retail stores. They were talented yet their abilities were being wasted. This was messed up.
I remember when I was in High school I used to breakdance yo! Our crew was The Ace Crew and I was named Bboy Laggy. (Don’t know why my friend called me that, but I was in love with footwork.) We l practiced day and night. Everyday after school, we practiced our handstands until we can do flips. Lots of sweat and pain were put into dance. We performed at school and community events.When grade 12 rolled around the corner,, I remember we had this serious talk,were we going to keep this crew or focus on our marks? I chose school and some of my friends chose dance.
I knew that being a performer wasn’t easy. Spending all that time practicing and you are expected to be savvy at business too— to book yourself gigs and brand yourself.
I imagined a world where everyone regardless of their background had access to live entertainment. Not reserved solely for rich people but for everyone, like the average person having their house party, birthday or wedding. Someon who can accesstalented local musicians. We all love music, it has the power to connect with people like nothing else. That’s why we all have iPods and Spotify to listen to the songs we love. Imagine having access to real performance And a community that celebrates arts and entertainment and values independent performers. I believe the arts is powerful and if we use it for good, great things can happen. This is why Spark A Change is at the centre of the business. Every performer on our platform picks a social cause they are passionate about and together we donate 10% of the proceeds towards a project we care about,such as accessibility to clean water, education or health care for all.
To be honest, I don’t know all the details but that’s OK . Because I believe when we intersect compassion and innovation, we can build a better future.