Asia's well-off millennials see value in social impact investing

Ms Cai Shiyin had been chief technology officer at GE Infrastructure's Asia Pacific office for eight years when she encountered a life-changing experience at a school for the blind in Tibet in 2009.

"The kids there taught me that our value is not in how much money we make, but how many lives you can change. So I started working as a volunteer," she said.

Eight years ago, she co-founded Dialogue in the Dark, a social enterprise which carries out corporate leadership training.

Yesterday, Ms Cai, 42, whose personal fortune comes from her family's business, the Yucheng Group, shared her experience in starting a social enterprise at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) conference, as did other high net worth individuals with similar experiences.

The conference was attended by 1,000 delegates from 40 countries addressing issues relating to climate action, education and wealth disparity, among other things.

Asian private investors, particularly family offices, typically view investment and philanthropy as separate. But millennials are actively making social change through business. With 35 per cent of Asia's wealth expected to be in the hands of millennials in the next five to seven years, it is expected that ESG, or environmental, social and governance issues will factor more into investing decisions.

With Asia's share of the world's ultra-wealthy population growing nearly 10 per cent in 10 years, there are now more billionaires on this continent than in the United States and it is set to have the world's largest concentration of wealth in four years. But critical issues relating to climate action, education and wealth disparity need to be addressed, with Asia having one of the largest wage gaps globally.

"We need to mobilise a tremendous amount of capital for some of the most pressing environmental and social issues today. As family offices are open to philanthropy and values-based investing, that seemed like a good place to start," said Mr Durrie Hassan, executive director of Visible Mission Ventures. "My family had the choice to start a foundation and be purely philanthropic, or explore impact investing and generate financial returns as well. This is the pilot to see if we will go fully in that direction."

With experience in ESG investing, Mr Durrie, 33, is trying to engage other family offices as well. "I tell them about my investment portfolio, the returns we get, and try to get them to co-invest. They need to learn from other families who have taken the jump," he said.

Getting buy-in is a challenge. "It depends if the generation I'm speaking to has authority to control the capital. We want to do good, but some of us are not in full control of the ability to do so yet."

For Chung Kyungsun, a scion of the Korean chaebol that runs Hyundai, getting his father to understand why he started Root Impact, which supports social entrepreneurs, was challenging.

This since there are two major Hyundai Foundations, one on public health and education, and the other on non-profits and start-ups.

"But they don't do social enterprises. I was trying to find business solutions for social issues. My grandfather once said that when someone has more than 100 million dollars, he or she should act as shepherd of public assets," Mr Chung, 32, said. "My father didn't fully understand my decision, but he was very supportive.

"For the first three years, he provided up to US$2.5 million (S$3.3 million) for Root Impact. The money was used to develop curriculums, give subsidies to social enterprises to hire interns, and develop co-working spaces."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2018, with the headline Asia's well-off millennials see value in social impact investing. Subscribe