THE PHILANTHROPIC ENTREPRENEUR: Abbie Jung of Synergy Social Ventures
In the heart of Yau Tong’s many industrial buildings lies MakerBay, a meeting place for ‘makers’ determined to make an impact on society and the environment. MakerBay is one of the projects that Synergy Social Ventures founder Abbie Jung has invested in, believing that the power of creative innovation can make a true impact on Hong Kong. The space officially launched this February, and the energy is palpable even when it’s not full; hanging plants line the ceilings while the back area is filled with an array of tools, from laser cutters to woodworking machines and 3D printers, and innovators like MakerBay director Cesar Harada (also Jung’s husband), who is working on Protei, a shape-shifting sailing robot that he hopes will protect the oceans.
Founded in 2011, Synergy works with action- and mission-oriented people who want to create social change by solving the world’s problems in a sustainable manner. As evidenced by the name, Jung is a firm believer in bringing people together. “We are a bridge between different groups – funders, social entrepreneurs, people outside of and within the region, entrepreneurs and people who want to support them,” she says. The Synergy Helpdesk facilitates this by offering one-time consultations to anyone working on a social venture in China or Southeast Asia. Synergy also provides long-term ongoing support through its mentorship programme, as well as funding through grants and investments. And Jung works with young philanthropists to educate them about new models of social change and how they can make a difference.
“The Hong Kong government is always looking to see how the city can become a more innovative and creative society through technology. We want to harness the next generation of people who can do this, but there is a lack of encouragement and exposure for creative exploration and risk-taking here,” Jung says with a sigh. “So this is why we invested in MakerBay, as it is a platform where so much can happen, from entrepreneurship and sustainability to classes in Arduino, 3D printing and robotics to hackathons and events.”
Managing a social venture wasn’t initially in the cards for Jung, who hails from San Francisco. She first came to Hong Kong in 1998 to work at a venture capital fund, specialising in healthcare, medical diagnostics and stem-cell research. In 2000, Jung joined Medecins Sans Frontieres before earning a master’s degree in population and family health at Columbia University.
Jung stopped her work travelling around the world doing humanitarian aid to help a friend set up the charitable foundation SOW Asia in 2010. She had never embarked on venture philanthropy before, but the idea of social entrepreneurship appealed to her. “It addresses the gaping holes in aid – sustainability, systemic change and long-term local engagement, and buy-in from communities and government,” she explains. After SOW Asia decided it didn’t want to focus on supporting social businesses in their early stages, Jung established Synergy.
Another venture Synergy has invested in is BB2C (Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia), an initiative that designs and manufactures a low-cost and human-powered irrigation pump that replaces the laborious task of carrying water to fields every day. Farmers often have to carry 60 to 200 buckets a day and many children miss school in order to help. The pumps have provided relief to more than 1,600 farmers, who can now irrigate an acre and a half of crops on their own, and raise two sets of crops to double their income.
“We work with social entrepreneurs from all walks of life,” Jung says. “We want to help them achieve their goals as an intermediary. We know there are lots of people who have goals and issues they want to solve, and we want to facilitate that change and impact.”